From time to time, Paul McCartney teaches a songwriting masterclass up at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts.
And if there’s any songwriting master, surely it’s him. He and John Lennon wrote some 300 songs together – completely different stuff from “Love Me Do” to “I’ll Follow the Sun” to “Yellow Submarine.” Not to mention the mountain of songs Mr. McCartney wrote after the Beatles.
But the first thing Mr. McCartney tells the students is, “I don’t know how to do this.” And he means it. According to Mr. McCartney, when it comes to songs, nobody ought to know how to do it. “You don’t want a formula,” he’s said again and again.
For him, songwriting began in the dressing rooms of Liverpool clubs back in the Beatles’ early days. They’d show up with a short setlist of covers, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and the like. And in the dressing room, while they were waiting to go on, they’d hear the other bands doing songs off their setlist.
If we have a couple songs nobody else knows, the Beatles’ thinking went, other bands can’t nick’em. So the writing developed from there. But it didn’t develop into a formula. And it never would.
“We didn’t want to bore ourselves…we didn’t want to make the same song twice,” Mr. McCartney tells the students.
Which leaves you with “Love Me Do” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “Yellow Submarine” and all these other songs – hundreds of’em – that sound nothing like each other. And after Mr. McCartney wrote something, his thinking usually went, “Okay, now I wrote that. Let’s see what we can do that’s completely different.”
It keeps it fresh, he says. There’s no one sound he’s known for. No one box he’s trapped in. There’s only this:
“Every time I approach a song, there’s no rules.”