Book Excerpts: The “Least Memorable” Lennon/McCartney Song

This excerpt comes from “Chapter Three: The Shout! Narrative,” and in particular the section in which I compared/contrasted the varying editions (1981, 2002, 2005) of Shout! to determine what alterations Norman made from edition to edition. On the whole, as I’ve mentioned before, the changes were minimal; most new evidence, no matter how credible or essential, was ignored, and Norman’s biased interpretation of Beatles history overall and his anti-George and anti-Paul stances in particular remained. Norman’s thoughts on “Can’t Buy Me Love,” however, which were included in the 1981 edition, were cut from the 2002 edition.


These minor revisions also include removing some of (Norman’s) more baseless musical opinions, which tended to support his pre-determined thesis that Lennon was 75% of the Beatles by deriding McCartney’s songwriting contributions. Most notably, this includes Norman’s 1981 dismissal of McCartney’s song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song, which had entered the charts at number one in both Britain and the United States and was deliberately chosen by “A Hard Day’s Night’s” director as the song for the movie’s pivotal “escape” scene, was scornfully dismissed by Norman as “perhaps the least memorable of all Lennon/McCartney songs.”[i] Unsurprisingly, this statement is absent from the revised editions.

[i] Norman, Shout!, 1981, 237.

For the record, when I first began discussions with my department head on a book focusing on Beatles historiography and was explaining how blatantly biased some Beatles authors were, I relayed Norman’s comments on “Can’t Buy Me Love” to her. She simply blinked and replied “Forgettable? I can hear the entire song in my head right now.”

Comments? Questions?


12 thoughts on “Book Excerpts: The “Least Memorable” Lennon/McCartney Song

  1. linda a. says:

    This is what really irritates me about authors like Norman, Sounes etc.. The arrogance of anyone who, unapologetically, injects personal opinion into a book and states that opinion as fact, is outrageous. Personally I don’t like the song either. I sometimes even skip over it if I’m listening to a Beatles playlist, but I’m fully aware that this is only my opinion….one person among millions. I’m sure many people love it and that’s their right, just as it’s Norman’s and my right to dislike it. It’s absolutely meaningless to everyone who has ever liked the Beatles, that Phillip Norman thinks Can’t Buy Me Love is forgettable, or that I don’t like it. Putting something like this into your book is pretty narcissistic. If he doesn’t like the song wonderful but he shouldn’t have commented. On the other hand as a scholar of historical accuracy do you think it’s ok for an author to use a positive adjective to briefly describe something he/she happens to like, to keep the text from getting too dry?


    • Erin says:

      “Can’t Buy Me Love” isn’t one of my favorites, either. It’s a great, energetic song, but I like some of their other earlier stuff more, like “Seventeen.”

      It’s not even really the issue of personal opinion that bothers me in this particular instance, but rather how flagrantly incorrect Norman’s statement is. “Can’t Buy Me Love” might not be yours or my favorite Beatles song, but to dismiss it as “perhaps the most forgettable song in the entire Lennon/McCartney catalog” has no basis behind it. As I mentioned in the post, it was a smash number one, which entered the charts at number one on both sides of the Atlantic: it was deliberately chosen by Lester for the pivotal AHDN scene (which is still spoofed to this day); even John praised it in the Playboy Interview. There are at least a dozen Lennon/McCartney songs I can think of that would qualify for the “least memorable” title: “Misery?” “That Means a Lot?”

      But Norman’s virulent anti-Paul bias in Shout! extended into his musical analysis of the band to the extent that he had to take one of Paul’s runaway hits on the AHDN album — which everyone
      acknowledges is dominated by John — and dismiss it in gratuitously unfair fashion. Thats the problem I have with this sort of assessment.


    • Erin says:

      I don’t have a problem with personal opinion — just, as you say, when they state it as fact. That’s why I really hammered on the issue of documentation, because that’s the crucial element to distinguishing between evidence and opinion.

      It’s okay to like or dislike something; it’s okay to interject that into your writing, even if it is on something as subjective as the merits of a song. I personally kept my hands well-away from musical opinion in “The Beatles and the Historians,” partly because that’s been done, partly because that wasn’t the point of the book, and partly because all I could offer would be that: my opinion. (The only song I semi-inserted my own feelings on was “While My Guitar Gently Weeps; I cannot fathom MacDonald’s dismissal of it in RITH, and that’s why I included that line about how almost no other critics agree with MacDonald’s view of the song. That song gives me chills every time I hear it. But my statement — that almost no other critics agree with MacDonald’s view of the song — is backed up by evidence. So even then, it wasn’t just my personal opinion.)


      • linda a. says:

        I don’t understand a lot of MacDonald’s opinions on the songs. If I remember correctly he didn’t think Let it Be was all that great either. I think Let it Be is brilliant. But he seemed to have a problem with almost all of George’s songs. Another stand out was Here Comes the Sun. I don’t understand how anyone can have a negative view of While My Guitar Gently Weeps unless it’s to say that perhaps the heavy arrangement of the White Album version didn’t do it justice. But the song itself? I’m scratching my head too Erin. I’m glad you brought up MacDonald because he’s a good contrast to authors like Sounes and Norman, but even MacDonald’s views were really nothing more than opinions…well informed opinions but still only opinions.


        • Erin says:

          Well, MacDonald states at the beginning that part of his intention is to replace “gushing hero worship” with more impartial analysis, so he may have leaned more towards the negative than the positive when given the opportunity.

          You’re right; MacDonald found “Let it Be” lacking; it fell short of what MacDonald thought it should be, in terms of emotional heft: he preferred “Long and Winding Road.” (For the record, Brian Wilson disagrees with MacDonald: in his new bio, Wilson says that “Let it Be” is a song that comforts him every time he hears it). But that’s personal opinion. He also dismisses all of John’s post-Walrus Beatles output and dismisses virtually everything George did.

          All this discussion makes me wonder what John would have made of Beatles historiography. We know he was impulsive, and prone to acting first and considering the consequences later: I can see him sending out letters to the editor. I wonder what sort of reaction he would have had to some of MacDonald’s comments in RITH. Especially the ones about him and Yoko “Bringing out the worst in each other” artistically. Paul’s on record as disagreeing with some of MacDonald’s conclusions and statements, but you could see John getting in a twitter war with various Beatles authors. What a shame he never got to see any of this.


          • linda a. says:

            “Well, MacDonald states at the beginning that part of his intention is to replace “gushing hero worship”

            Oh believe me I get it and I appreciate it. It’s just that there are quite a few songs that can easily be critiqued negatively and I wouldn’t have a problem. I just don’t get why he would pick Let it Be and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I don’t think it’s hero worship to love those songs. But I agree that he did seem to be trying to stay away from too much favorable bias.

            “MacDonald found “Let it Be” lacking; it fell short of what MacDonald thought it should be, in terms of emotional heft:”

            I don’t know what he means by that. One of things that strikes me about the song is the strong emotion that I hear. Maybe it’s so subtle that not everyone will hear it. I agree with Brian Wilson.

            “All this discussion makes me wonder what John would have made of Beatles historiography.”

            I think Beatles historiography would have been completely different and more even handed if he had lived. Regarding his reaction to Revolution in the Head I think John might have agreed with MacDonald’s negative assessments of his songs because John himself seemed to be very critical of his own work. As for the John and Yoko comments, there is where he probably would have sent nasty letters and gotten into wars. It is a shame that he didn’t live to see any of it. His reactions would have been interesting.


    • Erin says:

      I know we’ve speculated about it before, Karen, and it’s all hypothetical, but it certainly would have been interesting to know what John’s reaction to Shout! would have been, and what Paul’s and George’s would have been had John’ murder not made their responses to the work seem petty.

      I suppose what I can’t get past is how absurd Norman’s dismissal of “Can’t Buy Me Love” is. I read statements like that and I wonder, again, how Shout! could have maintained any sort of decent reputation for as long as it did.

      Again, I don’t even like the song very much; for some reason, it’s never resonated with me. But I can acknowledge that it is a good song; that is vividly memorable — if for no other reason than its pivotal inclusion in the “AHDN” scene — and that to contemptuously dismiss it with such extremity was ridiculous. Even an opinion should be a defensible one, particularly an opinion that is presented as fact to the hundreds of thousands of people that are going to read it in a major biography. If Norman had referred to it as “The least memorable Lennon/McCartney song to go to number one” — that might be a defensible position. I’d disagree with that, personally — I could happily slot “Drive My Car” into that position — but you could still make the case. But dismissing it as “the least memorable Lennon/McCartney song” is simply an indefensible statement to make. What about “Every Little Thing?” “What You’re Doing?” “Misery?” “That Means a Lot?” “When I Get Home?” “Little Child.” “Hold Me Tight.” Can anyone make the case, with any real conviction, that “Can’t Buy Me Love” is less memorable than every single one of those songs? Authorial statements such as these are where we see how corrosive authorial bias can be. No wonder he cut such an absurd statement from the later editions of the book.


    • Erin says:

      Primarily because Norman realized how absurd of a statement it was, and cut it from the 2002 edition.

      For all the praise it received, there were two major criticisms of Shout!, both immediately following its publication and in the decades after. The first was his anti-Paul bias. (Although, strangely enough, almost nothing was said about his anti-George bias. For all that Norman’s anti-Paul bias is acknowledged, more overt and well documented, in some ways, his anti-George bias is more damaging: George receives far less attention/condemnation than Paul does, but he’s both peripheral and negatively caricatured. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost every description of George in Shout!, either as a person or a musician, is a negative one. How damaging that was to George’s reputation overall, I don’t know).

      The second was his weak analysis of and attention to the music. “The Beatles Bibliography” has a great line in its evaluation of Shout!, where it mentions how the book spends so little time on what made the Beatles great — their music — that it might as well have been about four plumbers who became famous. 🙂 Now I think that’s a deliberate choice by Norman — both the John bio and the Paul bio are also scarce on the music — but in a biography of world famous pop musicians, it makes sense that there would be some coherent analysis.

      Lines such as Norman’s 1981 dismissal about “Can’t Buy Me Love” are prime examples of the two main criticisms that he got hammered over. It’s anti-Paul, (it’s not a coincidence that Norman says this about a Paul song, even though there are multiple other Paul songs that might legitimately contend for most forgettable Lennon/McCartney song) and its indefensible musical analysis. I think he cut this line to appease the criticism he received on both those issues, but the overall anti-Paul/anti-George bias is still prevalent throughout every edition of Shout!


  2. Anne says:

    I realize this is a very old post, but this is interesting because I swear I recently read (can’t remember who said it, but it was a “Beatles writer” or someone otherwise anointed, self- or otherwise, and not Norman) that “Can’t Buy Me Love” was their worst song prior to [some other song the guy didn’t like]. They didn’t mean in terms of sales or popularity, so I was surprised to come across the viewpoint that CBML was viewed as a bad song. I guess that explains it. Chalk it up to another example of a biased viewpoint with an agenda leaking into the Official Narrative.


    • Erin says:

      Interesting; one of the things I look at when analyzing other people’s musical observations/opinions in the books )because I don’t have a musical bone in my own body) is whether the author offers an opinion that seems anomalous with everyone else’s. If every single other author/musician/musicologist praises the song, and that one person loathes it, I always take note of that. (like, for example, Ian MacDonald and “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.” Until you mentioned this other brush-off, I’d never heard another Beatles author be so sweepingly negative on “Can’t buy me Love.’


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