Picking Paul McCartney’s Brain: The Stories Behind His Best Tunes

With 60 years of experience and hundreds of songs to his name, Paul McCartney is one of the best songwriters out there. I bet that even his biggest fans probably don’t know everything about every single one. Heck, McCartney himself has said that he’s even forgotten some of the tracks he’s written.

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The former Beatle’s famous collaboration with John Lennon was also one for the books. Not only could the duo write a full song (chords, melody, and lyrics) in under three hours, they never had a dry session. So how exactly did McCartney do it? And from where did he pull his inspiration?

From before The Beatles, to writing with Lennon and his solo career, here are our favorite anecdotes about Paul McCartney’s most famous songs. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started!

I Lost My Little Girl (1956)

This was the first song that he ever wrote. The year was 1956, and Paul was only 14 years old. The singer-songwriter was just learning how to play guitar on his Framus Zenith acoustic guitar, which he still owns today.

Paul McCartney scratching his head during an interview.

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According to an interview with GQ magazine, McCartney says that he only knew four chords at the time: G, G7, C, and an F. He used those four chords to make up what we now know today as “I Lost My Little Girl.” People often ask McCartney if the song is about losing his mother, but, according to the article, he says that he doesn’t know: “I certainly didn’t think it was at the time, but it could have been.”

Love Me Do (1962)

While The Beatles’ debut single, Love Me Do, doesn’t exactly have the emotional complexity of their later works, it still falls under the category of “fan songs.” While the track is loved by fans until today, the Beatles’ didn’t care for the track during recording sessions. The band’s producer, George Martin, didn’t care for drummer Ringo Starr, so he replaced him with veteran drummer Andy White and put Starr on tambourine duty.

Andy White at the age of 70 years old holding a Beatles record for the song Love Me Do and pointing to his photograph

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“George wasn’t dealing, ever, with guys like us, who hadn’t been taught music, and he thought Ringo wasn’t professional enough, much to Ringo’s eternal sorrow,” McCartney told Billboard magazine. “So Ringo was relegated to the tambourine. We hated it. We didn’t think Andy White was anywhere near as good as Ringo. But we had to listen to the grown-up.”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

When McCartney and Lennon would get together, they would always show each other samples of what they had written. This song, in particular, was one that McCartney brought to the table, but he just needed help working it out. “Having a collaborator, one thing that’s great is if you get stuck with something, you can just say ‘What do you think of this?’ and you can kick it around together,” McCartney told GQ in 2018.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon standing together on the set of The Music of Lennon and McCartney 1965

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The singer-songwriter says that his original lyric was “She was just seventeen, she had never been a beauty queen,” but he didn’t feel that it quite fit the song. So the duo decided to change it to “She’s just seventeen, you know what I mean,” which McCartney says makes more sense.

I Want to Hold Your Hand (1963)

By the end of 1962, The Beatles took over British soundwaves with their energetic songs, but it took America a bit longer to hop on the bandwagon. McCartney didn’t want to start performing in America until the band had a number one single. “A lot of British artists went there and came back with the audience having been slightly underwhelmed by them,” McCartney told Billboard magazine in 2015.

The Beatles with Brian Epstein standing behind them

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He didn’t want that for the Beatles. The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, encouraged Lennon and McCartney to write a song that appealed to audiences in the US. Unsurprisingly, the song made it to number one in December 1963, opening the gates for the band to tour stateside.

And I Love Her (1964)

According to McCartney, he wrote the song and brought it in for the guys at the studio. “Nobody ever knew what song we were about to record. I mean me and John would know because we had written it the previous week, but George and Ringo and the producer wouldn’t know,” McCartney told GQ. “So we should show them and within the space of about twenty minutes, they’d go ‘okay’ and then we’d just record it.”

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison sitting together in an office

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After he started playing the song for everyone, their producer George Martin suggested that the song have an intro, something to lead the song in. So the entire band sat around thinking about what would work. And, all of a sudden, George Harrison said that he had an idea.

Quick on Their Feet

Harrison took his guitar and started strumming a rift. According to McCartney, this song would be nothing without Harrison’s intro, and we completely agree. It also just shows the level and pace that The Beatles worked at. They were always brainstorming and coming up with melodies, lyrics, or, in this case, rifts on the spot.

George Harrison fooling around on his guitar

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The band loved Harrison’s idea and quickly started recording, And I Love Her at the world-famous Abbey Road Studio Two in London. The recording lasted for three days, as it took the band more than 20 takes to get the sound just right. Like many Beatles’ songs, And I Love Her has been covered by various artists, most notably Esther Phillips.

Eight Days a Week (1964)

There are two different stories about the inspiration behind the song’s title. The first is from an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1984, where McCartney credited the title to a phrase that Starr would utter from time to time. But then, in a 2015 interview with Billboard Magazine, he said the real inspiration comes from a time when McCartney was banned from driving.

Paul McCartney signing autographs from inside of his car

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The singer-songwriter received a speeding ticket and had to be taken around by a chauffeur. On one of his rides to Lennon’s house, McCartney started making small talk with the driver. “Just as we reached John’s, I said, ‘You been busy?’” McCartney told reporters in 2015. “And he said, ‘Busy? I’ve been working eight days a week.’ I ran into the house and said, ‘Got a title!’ And we wrote it in the next hour.”

Yesterday (1965)

Paul woke up one morning and had the melody already in his head. However, he didn’t have any lyrics, so he called the song “Scrambled Eggs.” McCartney says that the difference between him and other people is that they often dream about music, but then don’t remember it when they wake up.

George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney photographed on a set of steps in front of a house

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But, for some reason, the melody for this song kept going around in his head from the moment he woke up that day. So, he sat down at a piano and hummed out some chords. It wasn’t until a few months later that McCartney wrote some lyrics and changed the title, of course. Fun fact: With more than 2,200 covers, Yesterday is one of the most covered songs in music history.

Help! (1965)

After recording and touring for almost two years straight, Lennon was not only unhappy with his marriage to Cynthia, he was also stuffed with narcotics. When he and McCartney were given the task to write a song for the band’s second film, the duo pulled from their own lives. While the song had a chirpy tempo, the lyrics echoed what Lennon was going through at the time.

John Lennon and Cynthia Lennon posing together at an event

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“He didn’t say, ‘I’m now fat, and I’m feeling miserable.’ He said, ‘When I was younger, so much younger than today.’ In other words, he blustered his way through,” McCartney said. He also added that this song was John’s cry for help. The type of life Lennon was leading, mixed with his paranoia that people seemed to die when he was around, began seeping into the band’s music.

We Can Work It Out (1965)

Like Help!, the lyrics in We Can Work It Out acknowledged that not everything in the band’s life was perfect. The legend goes that McCartney wrote the song about a fight he had with Jane Asher, but McCartney says he doesn’t remember what inspired the lyrics. “I don’t remember the circumstances, but I’m clearly saying, ‘Try and see it my way because I’m obviously right,’” McCartney said in 2015.

Jane Asher and Paul McCartney looking upset

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“It may be arrogant, but it’s what every man wants to say to every girl.” Author Ian Macdonald also pointed out that We Can Work It Out highlighted the moment when Lennon’s dominance over the band ended, and McCartney stepped into the spotlight as the de facto director of The Beatles.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

When McCartney was little, he lived in what the Brits call a housing estate, which is similar to the projects. There were a lot of older ladies, and McCartney enjoyed spending time with them. According to him, they were always swapping great stories, especially about World War II. But there was one old lady in particular that young McCartney grew very close to.

Paul McCartney carrying his daughter around a grocery store

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He would always visit her at home or offer to do her grocery shopping because she had a hard time walking. As he grew older, McCartney always had this lonely, old lady in his mind. Over the years, he met a couple others like her, and something about the loneliness made the songwriter empathize with them.

Father McCartney?

So with this character in his mind, McCartney started writing a song about a lonely, old lady who picks up rice in a church, who never really gets the dreams in her life. And then he added in the priest, Father Makenzie. “It was nice, it was like writing a short story, but it was based basically on these old ladies I had known as a kid,” McCartney said.

Paul McCartney in front of a microphone

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He also explained that Father McKenzie was originally Father McCartney, but when he met with Lennon to finish the song, he realized he didn’t like the name because it reminded him of his father. So they grabbed a phone book and looked for a “Mc-something” last name. The next name after McCartney was McKenzie, and they said, “That’s the one, Father McKenzie!”

Coincidence? I Think Not

Sometimes when Lennon and McCartney were writing a song, it would take them a while to come up with the lyrics that worked well with the melody. Eleanor Rigby was one of those songs. The Beatles had been working with an actress named Eleanor Bron from the band’s film Help, and McCartney fell in love with her name. He knew he wanted to use the name Eleanor in the lyrics, but it was the last name he had trouble with.

Eleanor Bron and John Lennon in a scene from the film Help!

Eleanor Bron and John Lennon. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

Then, one day, McCartney was down in Bristol and happened to see a shop called Rigby. It all clicked. Years later, someone called McCartney and said, “You know in that village where John used to live? There’s a graveyard in the church, and there is a gravestone there to an Eleanor Rigby. So did I subconsciously know that name?”

Paperback Writer (1966)

While the song was credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership, Lennon later said that the inspiration behind the track was entirely McCartney’s idea. “Years ago, my Auntie Lil said to me, ‘Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?’” McCartney said in 1972.

The Beatles holding up signs in multiple languages which say love is all you need

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The singer-songwriter listened to his aunt and began looking for inspiration elsewhere. McCartney later told reporters that the track was inspired by a Daily Mail article about an aspiring novelist. He decided to write the song in the form of a letter that occasionally rhymed. Lennon loved the idea, and the song structure stuck.

Penny Lane (1967)

As the distance between The Beatles and Liverpool grew, the more, they thought about the city. Penny Lane is an ode to the band’s birthplace, with McCartney even dusting off his Liverpool accent when he sings the word “customer.” According to the singer-songwriter, Penny Lane was a terminal where he and Lennon would get on the bus to travel to each other’s houses.

The Beatles on the balcony with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Liverpool 1964

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The terminal was a great place to people-watch. While the duo never saw a banker in a coat, everything else in the song was true. “Once there was a nurse selling poppies, a lot of people thought the lyric was ‘selling puppies,’” McCartney said in 2015. “But we’re saying ‘poppies,’ which is a Remembrance Day thing for the British Legion.”

A Day in the Life (1967)

John actually started writing this song but only had the first verse down. This often happened, but instead of sitting down and sweating it, they would brainstorm and finish the song together. So they sat in McCartney’s music room in London and just started playing around with it. After writing the second verse, McCartney says they looked at each other, knowing that what they were writing was a bit edgy.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon on the way home from Greece

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Well, the edginess worked. After putting another section that McCartney wrote, the duo finished the song and had an epic recording of it with a full orchestra. The crescendo was actually McCartney’s idea. He had been into avant-garde music and wanted to experiment with the orchestra.

The Creation of the Chaotic Swirl

So McCartney told the orchestra that he had a crazy idea. He instructed them to start on the lowest note their instrument could play and then work their way up to the highest but at their own pace. “That was too puzzling for them,” he told GQ. “They were all looking at me. Orchestras don’t like that sort of thing. They like it written down, and they like to know exactly what they are supposed to do.”

The Beatles recording with the orchestra in front of them

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Luckily, the producer George Martin realized that. Keeping the random aspect, he took charge by telling each musician what note to play at what time. What resulted is the avant-garde, chaotic swirl that we know today.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (1968)

Most of The Beatles’ White Album came from their stay in Rishikesh, India. Paul Saltzman, a Canadian director who also spent time at the same ashram, vividly remembers Lennon, McCartney, and Starr sitting on the steps to their room singing “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on” over and over again.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mike McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd, Maureen Cox Starkey, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sitting around a room in 1967

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The film director distinctly remembers the band speeding up and then slowing down the melody, trying to get it just right. There was a small piece of yellow paper under McCartney’s shoe with the same words on it. “It was new. They hadn’t memorized the words yet,” Saltzman told The Telegraph in 2018. “Paul looked at me and said: ‘That’s all there is so far. We don’t have any lyrics yet.’”

Back in the U.S.S.R. (1968)

The Beatles’ time in India was one of their most productive times for writing music. Not only were they practicing transcendental meditation every day, but they were finally far removed from the swarms of excited fans and desperate paparazzi. Their trip to India allowed the band to just hang out, think, and write.

John Lennon, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and George Harrison sitting around in India talking

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And while most fans know that Back in the U.S.S.R. was based on Chuck Berry’s Back in the U.S.A. and the Beach Boy’s California Girls, many people don’t know that McCartney actually had Mike Love’s input while writing the song. Love, who was also at the ashram in India at the same time as the Beatles, was sleeping in the room next to McCartney.

Funny Little Ditty

Back in the U.S.S.R. was a “little ditty” that McCartney would often play on his guitar while walking around the ashram. One morning during breakfast, Love walked up to McCartney to give his input on the developing tune. “You know what you ought to do. In the bridge part, talk about the girls around Russia,” Mike wrote in 2016.

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison eating a meal together

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“The Moscow chicks, the Ukraine girls, and all that. If it worked for California Girls, why not for the U.S.S.R.?” While the track was a parody, it was unlike any other satirical works at the time. Rolling Stone journalist Jann Wenner wrote that it was a “perfect example” of the band’s ability to “expand the idiom, but [also] to penetrate it and take it further.”

Hey Jude (1968)

While there might not be a better-known origin tale than Hey Jude, which McCartney wrote while thinking about Lennon’s son Julian, that’s only part of the story. Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia, had just divorced, and McCartney felt sorry for Julian, who was now a child of divorce. So on his drive over to visit Cynthia and Julian, he started with the idea “Hey Jules.”

Photo by Mike Hollist, Daily Mail, Shutterstock / Julien’s, Bournemouth News, Shutterstock

He wanted to write a reassuring song, letting him know that everything was going to be okay. When he came back from the visit, McCartney sat down and finished the song. “I’d heard the name in a musical, Carousel, I think, ‘Jude is dead’ or something like that. I hadn’t realized ‘Jude’ means ‘Jew’ [in German]. That caused some confusion, and a man got quite angry with me over that,” McCartney told reporter Rob Tannenbaum in 2015.

The Rest Remains a Mystery

After hearing the lyric, “You have found her, now go and get her,” Lennon suspected that the song was about him and his budding romance with Yoko Ono. However, McCartney refuses to confirm or deny Lennon’s suspicions. “The only thing about Julian in the song is the first lines,” he says, declining to elaborate on whom else he is addressing in the song.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon posing together outside of their house

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Even to this day, this song is a permanent addition to McCartney’s setlist because of how fun it is to perform. “You know what the greatest thing is? You feel this sense of community,” he said. “And in these times where it’s a little dark, and people are sort of separated by politics and stuff, it’s so fantastic to see them all come together singing the end of Hey Jude.”

Helter Skelter (1968)

One day John was reading the paper when he came across an article quoting Pete Townshend from The Who bragging about recently recording a heavy track. McCartney says that he didn’t know what song Townshend was talking about (and still doesn’t know), but the idea inspired him. So he walked into the studio and told the guys that they have to do a dirtier, louder song than The Who.

Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney posing together with awards at the British Record Industry Awards in 1983

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The great thing about The Beatles’ tracks is that there are no two songs that are alike. According to McCartney, there are a lot of record artists who will find a great formula, and then the next three singles are kind of the same. “We were young guys and would have gotten bored doing that.”

Blisters on His Fingers!

It took the band a lot of takes to get the raw sound they were looking for. While this was demanding for everyone in the band, it was especially hard on Starr. Towards the end of one of the takes, you can hear him yelling, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers! Because he had been drumming so hard and so loud,” McCartney told GQ reporters in 2018.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison posing together

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The loud and “dirty” track is often referred to as a key influence in the early development of heavy metal. The song was also famously interpreted by cult leader Charles Manson. He reportedly told his followers that many White Album songs, especially Helter Skelter, were code for an apocalyptic war.

Blackbird (1968)

McCartney was sitting around with his guitar when he first heard of the Civil Rights movement in the US. According to the songwriter, he was moved by their stories and wanted to write something that might give protesters a little bit of hope.

Martin Luther King Jr leading the march from Selma in 1965

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“In England, a bird is a girl. So Black girl, now’s your time to arise, you know, set yourself free and take these broken wings,” McCartney told GQ. “One of the nice things about music is that you know a lot of people listening to you are going to take seriously what you are saying in the song. I’m very proud of the fact that The Beatles’ output is always really pretty positive.”

Let It Be (1970)

Let It Be was another song that came to him in a dream. According to McCartney, he had been overdoing it with mind-altering substances, and he wasn’t feeling too great with himself when he went to bed. But when he closed his eyes, his late mother came to him in a dream. “When someone who you’ve lost comes back to you in a dream, it’s a miraculous moment because you’re with them,” McCartney said.

Paul McCartney as a young boy sitting with his brother Mike and his mother, Mary

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“Your mind doesn’t say, ‘Wait a minute, you shouldn’t be here.’ You’re just with them.” In his dream, his mother seemed to realize that McCartney was struggling with life. She turned to him and said, “It’s going to be okay, just let it be.” As soon as she said that, the singer could breathe. He woke up and immediately started writing music.

Jet (1974)

While McCartney has changed his story about the inspiration behind Jet a few times, the official inspiration for the name of the song was his little pony named Jet. At the time, McCartney just wanted to get away so he could write some music. So he traveled to his farm in Scotland and got to work.

Paul McCartney sitting on the gates with his thumbs up at his Sussex farm

Paul McCartney at his Sussex farm. Photo by Chris Barham / Daily Mail / Shutterstock

He grabbed his guitar and hiked up a large hill until he found a place to sit down and start playing. “It’s not one of those songs that, even when I sing it now, I don’t where all the words came from,” McCartney told GQ. “I know where Jet came from, and I like the name, but the words are probably about my father-in-law and me.”

A Trip to Africa

McCartney says that Jet is mostly about the early days of his marriage to his wife Linda and having to deal with her father. When it came time to record the track, the singer desperately wanted a break from England. So he asked his record label for a list of studios around the world.

Paul McCartney in Lagos with Linda surrounded by local children

Source: Twitter

McCartney likes African music, so when he saw that his label had a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria, he knew that he had to record there. However, McCartney says that the studio was so basic that his team had to build them a vocal booth. Although the studio was not what he was used to, it was just the type of experience McCartney needed.

Here Today (1982)

After Lennon’s murder, there was a lot of talk in the media about whether the Beatles argued, and who liked who. According to McCartney, he almost started buying into the idea that he and Lennon were fighting all the time. However, it was important for him to set the record straight. “It was really, for me, thinking about John and thinking, you know that we had a great relationship, and just like any family, there’s always arguments,” McCartney said in 2018.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney recording together

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“There’s always disputes, but in the end, we loved each other. And I wanted to make a song where I actually said I love you to John.” The singer-songwriter is known to get choked up whenever he talks about or performs this emotional tribute in front of audiences.