Craig Brown

One, Two, Three, Four

‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’
_____– Bryan Magee, philosopher and politician, article in The Listener, February 1967

Fame came with advantages. One quiet Sunday, the singer songwriter Donovan was sitting in his flat in Maida Vale when the doorbell rang. Paul McCartney had arrived, with his acoustic guitar.

They smoked a joint or two. Paul played Donovan two songs he was working on. One of them was about a yellow submarine, and the other went:

Ola Na Tungee,
Blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay –
No one can say …

In time, Ola Na Tungee would transmute into Eleanor Rigby, and his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay would turn to rice in the church where the wedding had been. But for the moment, Paul was just fiddling around.

Before long, the doorbell rang again. Donovan went to answer it. A young policeman told him that there was a car outside; it was parked illegally, at an odd angle, the doors open, with its radio still on.

Paul joined them at the door.

The policeman’s eyes lit up. ‘Oh, it’s you, Mr McCartney. Is it your car, sir? A sports car?’

Anyone else would have been faced with a reprimand and a parking fine. Instead, the policeman offered to park Paul’s car in a more suitable spot. Paul thanked him, and handed over the keys. A few minutes later the policeman returned, to tell him that everything was now in order.

As he handed over the keys he saluted, allowing Paul to return to his guitar, and Ola Na Tungee.

Paul changed ‘Ola Na Tungee’ to ‘Daisy Hawkins’, but it didn’t scan properly, so he changed it again, this time to ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Half a century on, Colin Campbell, Professor of Sociology at York University, was to devote an entire book to an analysis of the lyrics of ‘Eleanor Rigby’:

As we have seen, Paul seemed to envisage Eleanor Rigby as picking up rice after the wedding was over, having ‘missed the wedding’. In other words she turned up for the wedding but was too late to take part in the celebrations. This suggests that the reason she picked up the rice was in order to have something to connect her not just with weddings in general, but this wedding in particular, one in which she had intended to participate. So should we really think of her as a wedding guest? In which case presumably this picking up rice is not something that she does on a regular basis. It is simply that she wishes to have something to remind her of this wedding. But then if she is a guest but has missed the service would she not now be on her way to the reception? Or has she missed that as well?

… And so on. But, as with many Beatles songs, the lyrics have been misheard as well as misinterpreted. Some hear ‘all the homely people’. Later in the song, the words after ‘Father Mackenzie’ are sometimes taken to be ‘Darling it sucks in the night when there’s nobody there’. At the same time, Eleanor Rigby ‘picks up her eyes from the church where the wedding has been’.

And what’s this song? ‘Take the back right turn!’ ‘Pay per bag right turn!’ When the songwriter Bobby Hart first heard it in 1966, he imagined the Beatles were singing ‘Take the last train!’ By the time he realised it was ‘Paperback Writer’, it was too late: the wrong words had lodged in his brain. Three months later, he was trying to write a debut single for the the Monkees. Asked by their management for something that sounded like the Beatles, he composed a song from the misheard line. ‘Take the last train to Clarksville’, it began, and it took the Monkees to number 1 in the US charts.

Everyone has a different Beatles songbook nestling in their heads, because everyone hears different words to different songs. Deep down,     I still think that John is singing ‘Kangaroo days, ah!’ in ‘Across the Universe’. Maybe it’s because I first heard the track on the World Wildlife Fund charity album, No One’s Gonna Change Our World, which had a photograph of a panda on the cover, and liner notes by, of all people, the Duke of Edinburgh. In fact John was singing the no less obscure ‘Jai Guru Deva’.

When ‘Penny Lane’ was released, many American fans, ignorant of Britain’s charity Poppy Day, were left wondering why a pretty nurse would be selling puppies from a tray. The other side of the single was also subject to misinterpretation. Elvis Costello’s manager, Jake Rivera, long thought that on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ John sang ‘Living is easy with nice clothes’. Additionally, he thought Paul liked the girl in ‘And I Love Her’ because ‘She gives me everything, and tender veal’. Others heard it as ‘And I love fur’ because ‘She gives me everything, internally’. And what of the orthodontist? ‘And in my orthodontist, she is standing right in front me’.

Even the simplest Beatles lyric is open to mishearing. ‘And when I get home to you, I find a broken canoe’. ‘I don’t care to march for money’. ‘Friday night arrives without a fruitcake’. ‘Michelle, ma belle, Sunday monk, he wants to ban odd socks, to ban odd socks’. ‘There beneath the goose and bourbon skies’. ‘But if you go carrying picture of German cows’. From sense to nonsense; from nonsense to sense. For years, I thought I was mishearing the words of ‘Come Together’. They seemed like nonsense, from the first line – ‘You come all at up’ – to the last. When I finally got round to reading the lyrics, it turned out that the first line was ‘Here come old at top’, which really makes no more sense than ‘You come all at up’, and perhaps rather less. Two lines on, I was relieved to find that what I had always taken to be ‘Jew Jew eyeballs’ – John was no stranger to anti- Semitism – was written as ‘joo joo eyeballs’, though heaven knows what they are. Other lyrics that I had always imagined I had misheard – ‘Joe jam football’, ‘walking finger’, ‘he back production’, ‘oh, no sideboard’ – weren’t all that off-track: they’re actually ‘toe jam football’, ‘monkey finger’, ‘he bad production’ and ‘Ono sideboard’.

Like searching for human faces in a cloud, those who look hard enough for a particular meaning will eventually find it. Some were convinced that each verse of ‘Come Together’ contained a description of a different Beatle – George, the holy roller; Ringo, the shooter of Coca-Cola; Paul, the good-looking one who’s so hard to see. But, as was so often the case, this interpretation never occurred to the song’s composer.

John’s love of nonsense can be traced back to the time he learned to read and write. Aunt Mimi remembered that from an early age his spelling had been notably offbeat: ‘Chicken pox was always chicken pots. He went on holiday to my sister’s in Edinburgh once and wrote me a card saying Funs are getting low.’ As a child he was captivated by the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, reciting ‘Jabberwocky’ over and over again to   his friends: ‘’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe …’ For the rest of his life John responded gleefully to puns and wordplay, relishing the way that, through the simple act of altering a letter, sense could so easily be nudged into nonsense.

‘You should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘Why, you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what   I see”!’ …
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.

Paul reckons that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘I am the Walrus’ both sprang from John’s obsession with ‘Jabberwocky’: ‘“I am he as you are he …” It’s thanks to “Jabberwocky” that he could do that …’ His childhood friend Pete Shotton remembered that ‘From a very early age, John’s ultimate ambition was to one day “write an Alice” himself.’

Every evening the twelve-year-old John would work furiously at pastiches of Carroll and Lear, scribbling them into an exercise book before transferring them to a hand-written newspaper he called ‘The Daily Howl’. Items included a weather report – ‘Tomorrow will be Muggy, followed by Tuggy, Wuggy and Thuggy’ – and a parody of Davy Crockett, ‘The Story of Davy Crutch-Head’. He was also clearly influenced by 1066 and All That, the popular mock-history book by two schoolmasters, W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, in which half- remembered facts are tossed and turned, replicating the internal muddle of a schoolboy’s mind, so that past and present, fact and fiction, the silly and the solemn are transformed into a jumbled version of the truth: ‘The gun powder plot was an awful thing it is still done on the 5th Nov. Guy Fawkes chose the 5th Nov because it was Fireworks Day. Guy Mitchell, the singer, claims direct descent from Guy Fawkes.’ Reading this, Sellar and Yeatman would have recognised John as one of their own.

John loved to listen to the relentless, unstoppable punning of the Goons on the wireless, imitating them in class the next day. He spent the money he had been given for his sixteenth birthday on two 78rpm records. One was Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’; the other ‘The Ying-Tong Song’ by the Goons, with its B-side of ‘Bloodnok’s Rock’n’Roll Call’, ‘featuring Major Denis Bloodnok, Roland Rockcake and His Wholly Rollers’.

The Goon scripts were all written at a frenzied pace by Spike Milligan, a manic depressive who lived his life at the mercy of puns, the willing victim of the twisted logic they both reflected and fanned. At the height of his success, Milligan was writing the third series of the Goons when   he experienced a complete mental breakdown: ‘The madness built up gradually. I found I was disliking more and more people. Then I got to hating them. Even my wife and baby.’ Soon, he began to believe that only by killing his fellow Goon Peter Sellers would his mind correct itself. Accordingly, he went round to Sellers’ house and walked straight through a glass door, cutting himself all over and ending up in the isolation ward of a mental hospital, bound in a straitjacket.

‘Before becoming the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, who had never recorded rock-n-roll, had previously recorded with Milligan and Sellers, which made him all the more acceptable,’ John reminisced in the New York Times in 1973, while reviewing The Goon Show Scripts. ‘Our studio sessions were full of the cries of Neddie Seagoon, etc., etc., as were most places in Britain.’ In the same piece he argued, accurately, that The Goon Show was more original and revolutionary than John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Looking back on his schoolboy newspaper ‘The Daily Howl’, he acknowledged that ‘it seems strangely similar to The Goon Show’.

Were the jokes Milligan cracked – those manic, relentless, unstoppable jokes – an escape from the trap of depression? Or were they part of that trap – the little lumps of cheese beneath the coiled spring? Whenever he sensed the world was not mad enough, his brain found ways to make it madder. And there was a degree of megalomania to his comedy: he wanted the world, and everyone in it, to bow before his jokes. If they refused, he gave them hell. Performing onstage with the Goons in Coventry in 1954, he grew increasingly furious at the lacklustre response of the audience. Finally he snapped, screamed ‘I hope you all get bombed again!’, left the stage and locked himself in his dressing room. When his fellow Goons finally managed to prise the door open they found Milligan standing on a chair with a noose around his head, trying to hook the other end of the rope around a pipe overhead.

The pun is a kind of verbal schizophrenia, in which a word points in two ways at once, meaning two entirely different things at the same time. Shakespearian characters tumble into a world of puns when they begin their descents into madness. In his New York Times review John described the Goon Show scripts as ‘a conspiracy against reality. A coup d’état of the mind.’ The same might be said of his own incessant punning.

A psychological phenomenon known as Forster’s Syndrome is named after the German surgeon who first described it. Dr Forster had been removing a brain tumour when he observed a singular phenomenon. As he manipulated certain areas of the brain, his patient would burst into a manic flight of puns, the sound of one word echoing but also distorting that of its predecessor, turning it into something more savage and brutal. All the words the patient uttered had something to do with knives and butchery – and this black humour came, as Arthur Koestler put it, ‘from a man tied face down on the operating table with his skull open’.

The pun can also arise from aggression, a revenge for being mocked or patronised. It is a covert way of establishing superiority in a hostile environment, of ordering the world according to one’s own whim. The pun slips madness into language: what is the Freudian slip, if not a pun?

Lennon had a facility, bordering on a compulsion, for puns. Perhaps being asked to choose between your mother and your father splits your mind and your emotions in a pun-like way. The pun allows you to say two things at once. Like the Freudian slip, of which it is a more conscious variant, it might be defined as saying one thing when you mean a mother.

When he first became friends with Paul, John would show him the pun- based jokes he had typed out the night before, many of which he was later to include in his pun-titled book In His Own Write. ‘We would sit around giggling, just saying puns really, that’s basically what it was. In the early owls of the Morecambe. I remember “a cup-o-teeth” was one section that was in the typewriter when I was around there.’

The name of the Beatles now passes unquestioned. Even though beetles established themselves on this planet roughly 300 million years before their Liverpudlian counterparts, it is beetles, not Beatles, whose spelling we instinctively query. The group’s name is itself a pun, ‘the worst and most glorious band name in all of rock’n’roll history’, as Bruce Springsteen once put it. John and Stuart Sutcliffe had been trying to think of an animal name, along the lines of Phil Spector’s Teddy Bears or Buddy Holly’s Crickets. They came up with ‘the Lions’ or ‘the Tigers’, before hitting upon ‘the Beetles’. With characteristic perversity, John liked the idea of naming his band after such a low life-form, and then he converted it into a pun, to incorporate ‘beat’.

From the early days of the Beatles, his long letters to fans are riddled with puns, many impenetrable. One, written in 1961 or 1962 to a Norwegian girl called Lindy Ness, begins, ‘I am typing this one fingered lettuce to you,’ and goes on to warn her of ‘the evil temptations which confront a jung girl in a forrid country’. Other puns in the same letter include ‘condiment’ for continent, ‘debb and du ’ for deaf and dumb, ‘thy kingdom come thy Wilbur Dunn’, and ‘suffer little chilblains to come over me’. What can Lindy Ness – who he calls Sad Ness – have thought?

After a show at the Rialto cinema in York in November 1963, the American journalist Michael Braun recorded the banter between the four Beatles. ‘One more ciggy and I’m gonna hit the sack, “hit the sack” being an American thing we got off Gary Coople as he struggled along with a clock in Hi, Goons,’ says John, adding, ‘But I never really liked “sack”, it’s, uh, something you put potatoes in over here.’

‘The whole thought of hitting the sack,’ says Paul. ‘It’s so – so dirty, and it can mean a lot of things.’

‘You can sack Rome,’ says John, ‘or you can sack cloth – or you can sacrilege, or saxophone, if you like, or saccharine.’

Five years later, Victor Spinetti worked with John on the stage adaptation of In His Own Write. He was amazed by John’s facility with puns:

‘During work on the play at the Mamounia, I noticed that something was missing. Over my shoulder I said, “I need a Queen’s speech here, John.” Without hesitating, he grabbed a sheet of cardboard from a shirt Cynthia had just bought and wrote:

My housebound and eyeball take great pressure in denouncing this loyal ship in the blue corner, two stone three ounches, and he was sitting on the lav at the time.

‘“Will that do?” he said, shoving it over to me. He hadn’t paused. He hadn’t crossed anything out.’

The Beatles albums Revolver and Rubber Soul had punning titles, and so did John’s first two books, In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works. In some passages, the puns are so ubiquitous as to be claustrophobic:

Azue orl gnome, Harrassed Wilsod won the General Erection, with a very small marjorie over the Torchies. Thus pudding the Laboring Partly back into powell after a large abscess.

Authority figures of the time have their names fed into the pun machine, only to emerge eviscerated: Selwyn Lloyd, Harold Macmillan, Ted Heath, LBJ, Emmanuel Shinwell and Princess Margaret are transformed into ‘Seldom Loyal’, ‘Harrassed Macmillion’, ‘Head Teeth’, ‘LBW’, ‘Emmanuel Shitwell’ and ‘Priceless Margarine’.

Once the Beatles had finished recording Sgt. Pepper, they gathered   in Studio Two of Abbey Road to listen to the end result, right up to the final thunderous piano chord of ‘A Day in the Life’. All four of them were delighted, but then John and Paul had the idea of squeezing in something extra, on the inner part of the disc where the needle ends up going round and round.

The engineer, Geo Emerick, remembered John saying, ‘Let’s just put on some gobbledegook, then bifurcate it, splange it, and loop it.’ They then nipped back into the studio, and spoke whatever nonsense came into their heads. Emerick played the tape back to them, and they chose a snippet of Paul saying, ‘Never needed any other way.’ This meant that listeners with primitive record-players would hear ‘never-needed-any-other-way-never- needed-any-other-way-never-needed-any-other-way’ ad nauseam, until they were driven to reach out and turn it off.

In those days of few distractions, some Beatles fans liked to place the stylus at the end of side two, then turn the record anti-clockwise by hand, in order to hear the same words in reverse. To many people, ‘never-needed-any-other-way’ backwards sounded just like ‘Will-Paul-be-back-as-Superman,’ a phrase that offered further encouragement to those who were already convinced that Paul was dead. But other people heard other things. Some heard ‘the corned beef there is super, man,’ or ‘We’re parking our Kings Super van,’ while others were convinced that the original message was not ‘Never needed any other way’ but the saucier ‘Never could see Annie’s u’. These issues continue to engage Beatles fans with time on their hands. On YouTube, a film of the Sgt. Pepper LP going round and round on a turntable, first clockwise, then anti-clockwise, has attracted more than 200,000 views, and seven hundred comments, most of them arguing, with varying degrees of passion, for their own interpretation of the words, forwards and backwards, backwards and forwards, sense into noise, noise into sense.

ONE TWO THREE FOUR: THE BEATLES IN TIME by Craig Brown is published by Fourth Estate, £20.00. For more information and to buy the book, click here


Craig Brown is the author of 18 books, and a prolific journalist. He has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989. He is the only person ever to have won three different Press Awards – for best humorist, columnist and critic – in the same year. He has been a columnist for, among others, The Guardian, The Times, The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. His last book, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret won an international bestseller and won the James Tait Black Memorial Award, the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Award.

Buy a single issue of our June/July edition of The London Magazine, complete with free limited-edition supplement.

Subscribe to The London Magazine and receive a copy bi-monthly.

For exclusives from our archive and more, visit our online shop.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.