The early Beatles songs were mostly innocent love tunes composed of mostly monosyllabic words. But during their studio years (1967-1969) they wrote far more complex material with far more controversial lyrics. Spanning their 1962-1970 run of excellence, which of their songs contained lyrics that would stir up the most debate?
Run For Your Life. The lyrics to this final track on the Rubber Soul album bring about images of a stalker. “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, Than to be with another man. You’d better keep your head, little girl, Or you won’t know where I am. You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl, Hide your head in the sand, little girl, Catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” John Lennon’s lyrics continue by saying he is “a wicked guy” who was “born with a jealous mind.” Later in the song, Lennon threatens,”Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I said, Baby, I’m determined, That I’d rather see you dead.” Even though this song may have been a tongue-in-cheek exercise to fill out the album, if it were released today it would undoubtedly lead to strong protests from women’s groups.
Getting Better. From the seminal 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, Getting Better has the lyrics, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” Even though Paul McCartney sang the song, Lennon wrote that part of the lyrics. This is actually an optimistic song about a man who is improving his behavior and outlook on life. In the song Lennon confesses to being a rebellious schoolboy, an angry young man and a wife beater. He says, “Man I was mean but I’m changing my scene. And I’m doing the best that I can.” But those hearing such words today would immediately condemn the track as tolerating spousal abuse.
A Day In The Life is the final cut on the Pepper album. The song contains lyrics such as, “I’d love to turn you on” and “Found my way upstairs and had a smoke.” Coming as it did during the “Summer of Love,” the song can clearly be interpreted as containing drug references. In addition, many thought Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, also from the same album, was code for LSD, although the band denied it.
I Saw Her Standing There. “Well, she was just seventeen, You know what I mean.” These are the opening lines to the opening song on the Beatles debut album Please Please Me. “You know what I mean” can be viewed as a throwaway line designed to rhyme with seventeen, or it can viewed as sexual innuendo. The lyrics to the entire song seem innocent enough. However, in today’s climate, we hear of grade-school teachers taking up with their students and Internet predators in chat rooms arranging meetings with minors. So anyone over the age of 18 today would have to have some wariness and trepidation about singing those seemingly innocuous lyrics when 18 is often arbitrarily cited as the age of consent. A safer way to go today would be, “Well, she had just turned eighteen, You know what I mean.”
The Beatles (better known as The White Album) contained several of their most controversial lyrics. The Beatles producer, George Martin, once remarked that The White Album should have had the standard 14 tracks instead of the 30-track double album it became. Many of the songs Martin probably wished weren’t included on the album were the ones with the most controversial lyrics.
Back In The USSR. This leadoff song from The White Album has the words, “I’m back in the USSR. You don’t know how lucky you are boy.” The song was condemned by many conservative Americans because it seemed to be praising the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and the U.S. battle against communism in Vietnam. But in fact, the song was a takeoff on Back In The USA, a jingoistic song by Chuck Berry in 1959. Stylistically the song paid tribute to the Beach Boys and was one of the best cuts on the album.
Happiness Is A Warm Gun. This title was taken from a gun magazine that George Martin left in the studio. As one of John Lennon’s contributions to The White Album, the song was interpreted as having sexual connotations about ejaculation. Given how John died at the hands of senseless gun violence, the song has taken on an eerie quality.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? “Why don’t we do it in the road? No one will be watching us. Why don’t we do it in the road?” Those are the total words to this raunchy song from The White Album .
Piggies. This song from The White Album, with lines such as “What they need’s a damn good whacking,” was interpreted by the disturbed and notorious Manson gang as commanding them to kill.
Revolution. Those on the left who were hoping Lennon would join up to man the barricades for a social upheaval were in for a rude awakening. His lyrics in Revolution condemn any use of violence as a means of promoting social change. To disassociate himself from those endorsing communism, he sang, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer from Abbey Road had Maxwell’s Silver Hammer coming down swiftly and fatally on many heads, as Maxwell Edison mercilessly executes anyone who crosses his path or yanks his chain.
The Beatles went from writing “She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah” to writing some of the most literate and provocative lyrics in music. In expressing their art, they sometimes took liberty and license in creating words and images that were sexually charged or about violence. Lennon once said that everything is the opposite of what it seems, so that this man, who could write about peace and love in such songs as Imagine and All You Need Is Love, was also a man who had to battle his own inner demons and violent urges throughout his life.
The Complete Beatles Lyrics, Hal Leonard Corporation, Omnibus Press, 1982
A Hard Day’s Write, the stories behind every Beatles’ song, Steve Turner, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1994
The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition, Fred Bronson, Billboard Books