If you stopped a hundred people on the street, and asked them which Beatle wrote the best lyrics, I reckon John Lennon would score around the 97% mark. Other songwriters will occasionally remind the world’s rock press that McCartney wrote Blackbird, but the world’s rock press will mention When I’m Sixty-Four or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, and the game will be called off on account of bad light.
Of the Beatles, it was McCartney who flirted most outrageously with inner rhymes. It was McCartney who suggested, in 1965, that he and Lennon were starting to write “comedy numbers”. Back then, one could write a comedy number, and – thanks to Lionel Bart and Ray Davies – still retain one’s manly working-class roots. Not so easy now.
In Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald thought that If You’ve Got Trouble (“the one unmitigated disaster in the Lennon-McCartney catalogue”) might be one of these comedy numbers. It was never released – indeed, it was never finished – but as it stands, it’s a petrie dish for inner rhymes. The inner rhymes are begging to happen, but instead the words mostly identify with themselves:
If you’ve got troubles
Then you’ve got less troubles than me.
You say you’re worried,
You can’t be as worried as me.
You’re quite content to be bad,
With all the advantages you’ve had over me.
Just ’cause you’re troubled,
Then don’t bring your troubles to me.
I’ve Just Seen a Face is busy with inner rhymes, but they’re all just one syllable long, and the up-tempo folkish nature of the song keeps them, and the off-rhymes, from drawing attention to themselves. It’s not bad for a twenty-three year-old.
I’ve just seen a face,
I can’t forget the time or place
Where we just met, she’s just the girl for me
And I want all the world to see we’ve met
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm mmm mmm
Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her tonight
La, di, di, da di di
(In fact, if your Scouse is thick enough, you can make “aware” rhyme with “her”)
I have never known
The like of this, I’ve been alone
And I have missed things and kept out of sight
But other girls were never quite like this
La, di, di, da di di
By 1966, when McCartney contributed Got to Get You Into My Life to the Revolver album, he’d come up with a subtle sheme in which the off-rhymes out-number the end rhymes and inner rhymes , and they’re scrupulously repeated verse after verse:
I was alone,
I took a ride,
I didn’t know what I would find there
where maybe I
could see another kind of mind there
Ooh, then I suddenly see you,
Ooh, did I tell you I need you
Every single day of my life
You didn’t run,
you didn’t lie
You knew I wanted just to hold you
Had you gone,
you knew in time,
we’d meet again for I had told you
Ooh, you were meant to be near me
Ooh, and I want you hear me
Say we’ll be together every day
Critics don’t hate this song. Partly because everyone knows it’s a drug song disguised as a love song but also, I think, because the rhyme scheme is more rhythm and blues than prissy Broadway. The rhymes aren’t fussily true.
By 1969, they were, and worse, they were two and three-syllable rhymes. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (MacDonald: “If any single recording shows why the Beatles broke up, it is Maxwell’s Silver Hammer … This ghastly miscalculation …”) goes like this:
Joan was quizzical; Studied pataphysical
Science in the home.
Late nights all alone with a test tube.
Oh, oh, oh, oh.
Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine,
Calls her on the phone.
“Can I take you out to the pictures,
Joa, oa, oa, oan?”
P. C. Thirty-one said, “We’ve caught a dirty one.”
Maxwell stands alone
Painting testimonial pictures.
Oh, oh, oh, oh.
Rose and Valerie, screaming from the gallery
Say he must go free
The judge does not agree and he tells them
So, o, o, o.
The rhymes don’t fall in the same place each time, but the off-rhymes are all but gone, and the result would not have been out of place in a trippy Off-Broadway revue. That glib, smug tone enrages critics who otherwise adore the album Abbey Road. They want the whole album to be deep and significant, and then this … this thing … turns up. Is it ironic? Can we salvage Side One by suggesting the boys were pulling our leg?
It’s unfair to judge any songwriter by his worst song. If we did it to Berlin, Gershwin or Rodgers, their reputations would all suffer. But McCartney tends to be fair game, while Lennon fans pretend that Woman is the Nigger of the World never happened.
In 1968, before the ghastly miscalculation, there was Hey Jude. Consider:
Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better
Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better
(Thanks to the missing “h” sound, “let her” rhymes with better, but not with “get her”, in which the “h” is sounded)
And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you? Hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
But wait a minute, what was that? That’s the part where McCartney, playing the song to Lennon for the first time, winced and said, “I’ll fix that bit.”
“You won’t, you know,” Lennon remarked. “That’s the best line in the song.”
The story is told (usually by McCartney) with the two writers in their traditional roles: McCartney as perfectionist, not leaving well enough alone; Lennon as unfiltered mojo, exhorting all artists to break the rules.
I’ve never heard anyone make this point, but I think I know what Lennon was dreading. He was dreading a rhyme, an inner rhyme, or even an identity or an off-rhyme, with “perform with”.
Storm with, conform with, play the shawm with.
There isn’t a single, natural-sounding word that does it, as there is with “colder” and “shoulder”. And in a ballad of consolation and encouragement, dedicated to another person, a showy rhyme isn’t just clunky: it’s a moment of writerly egotism counter to the spirit of the entire song.
Share my dorm with, get lukewarm with – it’s that bloody “with”, it ruins everything it touches.
McCartney’s solo hits aren’t full of inner rhymes. If anything, they go back to naive repetition, phrases rhyming with themselves. The inner-rhyme tendency resurfaces once in a while (1993’s Biker Like An Icon), but the affair is over. As a young man, he loved those inner rhymes, but he never really understood them, and they refused to love him back.
Meanwhile, three (four?) generations of songwriters, profoundly influenced by McCartney – whether they like it or not – don’t understand inner rhymes either. Even the modern Broadway writers can’t figure out when it’s right to use them, and inner rhymes have been obliged to ply their wares in the world of rap, where they are flaunted and degraded like a bikini-clad hot-tub girl.