Let's turn to one of the most despised songs in the Beatles catalogue. I can't say I hate it, but I certainly wouldn't take a bullet for it. For that matter, I wouldn't even take a gentle swat with a rolled up newspaper in it's defence. What makes this the Jar Jar Binks of the Fabs setlist. Bad taste? A chipper tune about a serial killer? As the writer of The Eglon Song I may not be the best qualified to judge on matters of taste. But as someone said “No life is wasted, it may serve as a horrible example to others” let's not let Maxwell die in vain. I want to unpack, nay tease out, just what makes this such an unpalatable song in order to spare YOU dear songwriter the shame of creating another such monster.
Here's my suggestions
First, the lyrics are bad, no doubt about it. HOW, I'll leave for another time. WHY? Well, McCartney paints himself into a corner by a demanding form and rhyme scheme. This leads him to make words up, leave words out, ignore the internal narrative and logic. The scheme AABBCD/EEFFGB (give or take a few failures) is massively ambitious, and to make matters worse Macca is drunk on 3 syllable rhymes – Valerie in the gallery, & Edison with his medicine are all very clever but Ira Gershwin he ain't.
Secondly, the big vocabulary rather than rendering the song cute makes it sound smarmy & smart arse. There are a million things wrong with using the word 'pataphysical' but the biggest is that it screams “Hi! I'm Paul McCartney and I know big words that you don't understand.”
Third there is no warmth or involvement. Lots of people like When I'm Sixty Four. It's 'our' song. I (the singer) am singing to you (the listener). I'm singing about our relationship. It's also very cleverly a young person's song about being old (now there's a brilliant way to draw everyone in). Maxwell is a song about a person we care nothing about sung by a narrator we know nothing about.
But the fourth and fatal nail in the coffin (would you like your metaphors shaken or stirred?) is it's a joke song that's not funny. It's a cheeky 20's style comedy song. But it has no jokes. At least When I'm Sixty Four raises a few wry smiles “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” and the ridiculously named grandchildren. Where's the laughs here?
I'm finding out quite a few Beatles songs have lousy lyrics carried on the wings of beautiful melodies. Why doesn't Maxwell flutter heavenwards? No surprise. The tune is a turkey.
Try it yourself. Write a new set of lyrics. It's possible you'll come up with a better song. But unlikely you'll come up with a great one.
Put simply the solid repetition and shuffle rhythm make the tune predictable, while at the same time the combination of wide jumps and chromatic passages make the tune ugly.
So to sum up - structure and rhymes overrule logic and sense, and we have smarmy, patronising, cold, unfunny lyrics set to a predictable and ugly tune.
What's not to like?
There's a C natural in the melody on “PataphysiCAL” that's neither in the key OR the chord. Clever. There's no intro (Ticket 2) and a single D chord to end (on the third beat) (Ticket 18). Both examples of economy. But I gotta confess I'm scratching around here.
There are two more posts to come. I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't banish Maxwell to the Lyrical Hall of Shame. And I want to look at why Macca thrashed this turkey to death and how you too can know when you're flogging a dead...erm...turkey.
Excuse me now, there's a strangely metallic knock at the door...