The Beatles, according to many, were the greatest songwriters of all time. I’m not here to argue that. The point is, great as they were, it did not always come easy to them.
The melody for “Yesterday” famously came to Paul McCartney in a dream. So he didn’t forget it, he shoved in the first words he thought of, which happened to be “Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs,” and so on.
When McCartney and John Lennon first wrote “Drive My Car” it included the chorus “I can give you golden rings/I can give you anything/baby I love you.”
It’s trite, and it’s a massive cliche, and the Beatles knew it. But they liked the tune, so they went back to the drawing board. In the end, what they came away with was an anthem for women’s empowerment. The “girl” in the song was the VIP and the guy was her driver.
I think we can all agree that the final drafts of both songs were far superior.
Later, in “Paperback Writer” McCartney sang “I can make it longer if you like the style/I can change it ’round but I wanna be a paperback writer.” Clearly he understood that you aren’t always finished when you think you are, and it isn’t always brilliant when you think it is. Sometimes you just need to run a comb through it and tweak a few lines here and there. Sometimes you need to run your manuscript or lyric sheet or whatever through a shredder and start over. Either way a second draft can bring a freshness, a vitality to the piece.
And that’s just the writing process. When they got into the studio, they, like most recording artists, would do multiple takes of a song. The demo was the rough draft and each ensuing take was another “draft.”
In 1968, George Harrison brought a song to the sessions for the White album called “Not Guilty.” It is well documented that the Beatles recorded about 100 takes of the song. Literally. Many of them were partial or just false starts. But still they kept at it until they got it right. To top it off, after all that work they didn’t put it on the album!
It disappeared until 1979 when Harrison put it on his own album.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” began as a very different song than the one they eventually released. They tried countless variations, but it was missing something, particularly in the intro. Then one day Lennon walked into the studio, went straight to the piano and banged out what would become the song’s famous opening.
It took a lot of work, but in a moment of frustrations/inspiration, it morphed into one of their most beloved tunes.
In 1969, according to Lennon in typical hyperbolic form, the Beatles recorded “a hundred million” takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” yet another McCartney number that was not held in high esteem by Lennon or Harrison. McCartney was convinced it was strong enough to be a Beatles single.
In fact, not only did Lennon and Harrison not appreciate it, it is often cited by fans as one of their least favorite Beatles tracks.
That’s three very different outcomes for songs given multiple takes (drafts). But in every case, the result was appreciated by someone.
I’ll be honest. When I am writing on this blog, I don’t very often write a second draft. Especially with long posts like this, I edit and improve it as I go along. But I’m not letting it sit for a day or two and coming back to it with fresh eyes. I absolutely do that when I am writing for a client. Because they expect my best, for one thing, but also because I know that you can always improve a piece you’ve written. There is always going to be a more colorful, more insightful way of saying something.
But when it’s finished, you just know. And at some point you’ve got to release the album.