The Beatles were some of the most potent songwriters the world had ever seen when they touched down in Paris in 1964. It was during this period that the Fab Four were quickly becoming the most sought after band on the planet. The world was buzzing with Beatlemania and, as the group began to enact their plan for pop stardom, the clamour for more and more content grew ever stronger. It meant that while on tour, the band would have to be writing their albums and subsequent film soundtracks.
On January 14th, 1964, The Beatles, minus Ringo Starr, grounded in a foggy Liverpool, made their way to Paris to play their first shows in France, having already performed for numerous German audiences. While performing, the band resided at the prestigious George V Hotel, and, in a move to promote productivity, a piano was installed in their suite. The band’s songwriting powerhouse partnership, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were expected to match their previously impressive efforts and pen some new pop masterpieces. In the belly of a Parisian hotel, they would write three of them.
In a gruelling set of performances that no artist would complete today, The Beatles performed 18 days of concerts at Paris’ Olympia Theatre, playing up to three sets each day on a nine-act bill. The band’s star was rising fast, and although France never really took the Fab Four to their hearts, they were still met by a crowd when the group touched down. To expect the band to perform such an intense set of dates was one thing, but they were also meant to be writing more material.
The group were readying A Hard Day’s Night and expected to deliver the songs for the album and film in three intensive writing sessions, the first of which took place at the George V Hotel. ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘If I Fell’ and ‘I Should Have Known Better’ were three of the album’s most cherished songs, and they arrived as Lennon and McCartney stared at one another, hammering the piano keys and trying to find another foot-tapping, pot-boiling hit.
The band’s debut film was always likely to pressure the two principal songwriters of the group. The need to produce moments of pop perfection on screen and make sure the album outsold their previous effort. The upright piano wheeled into the group’s hotel suite was likely a looming demon in the corner, demanding they contribute their blood, sweat and tears for their craft. The duo duly obliged.
Faced with writing their new album, the group looked to several facets of songwriting to provide buoyancy. New pop songs needed a direction, and Paul McCartney, especially, had always looked to the past for his inspiration: “‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is my attempt to write a bluesy mode. The idea behind it was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want. It was a very hooky song. Ella Fitzgerald later did a version of it which I was very honoured by.”
Though the song is reported to have been written in the George V Hotel, Lennon usually distanced himself from the track: “That’s Paul’s completely. Maybe I had something to do with the chorus, but I don’t know. I always considered it his song.” It went on to signal many firsts for the band, including the first song to be sung by only one member of the group as Macca took on the mic.
After a Paul McCartney number, it seems only right that Lennon should bring out a ballad and another song alleged to have been written in the hotel was the gorgeous ‘If I Fell’. The track sees Lennon in a confessional mood: “That’s my first attempt to write a ballad proper. That was the precursor to ‘In My Life’. It has the same chord sequence as ‘In My Life’: D and B minor and E minor, those kinds of things. And it’s semi-autobiographical, but not consciously. It shows that I wrote sentimental love ballads, silly love songs, way back when.”
McCartney has always noted that the song showed a different side to the usually polarising figure of John Lennon. “People tend to forget that John wrote some pretty nice ballads. People tend to think of him as an acerbic wit and aggressive and abrasive, but he did have a very warm side to him really which he didn’t like to show too much in case he got rejected. We wrote ‘If I Fell’ together but with the emphasis on John because he sang it. It was a nice harmony number, very much a ballad.”
Another song apparently complete on the upright piano was ‘I Should Have Known Better’. This one may well have dissatisfied the songwriter — Lennon said it was “just a song; it doesn’t mean a damn thing.” But the track is still an accurate reflection of a pop group finding their power as they took influences from the folkies of New York, namely Bob Dylan and his harmonica. It also provides one of the purest scenes in the film as it sees the band playing cards on a train while George Harrison’s future wife Pattie Boyd looks on.
The Paris sessions are a genuinely potent distillation of what made The Beatles into such colossal of pop culture. Faced with the delirium of playing a host of shows in Paris, with a hysterical audience, the group still managed to find time to write some of the most joyous and popular songs of their early canon. Given a piano and a few minutes a day to share their thoughts and sketches, Paul McCartney and John Lennon could write a pop song as anthemic as ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ in the most extraordinary of circumstances.