In early 20th-century popular music, composing teams almost invariably wrote for performers. Only a handful of performers ever wrote their own material before The Beatles and Bob Dylan appeared, neither of whom set out on their careers with the explicit intention of supplying themselves with their own songs. Dylan had little idea when he started writing songs that this would become his life; similarly,
The Beatles started writing songs chiefly as a means of preventing other groups from stealing their own purloined material. They discovered that they had a powerful musical gift when Lennon and McCartney began to work ‘one on one, eyeball to eyeball’ in 1963. Steered by their instant harmonising, the duo’s way of composing produced unusual moves that released a flood of catchy melody to which they sang dummy words or pure nonsense.
Only later, generally speaking, did they fill in their lyrics – and then mainly phrasally, only bothering about overall concepts in formula terms (e.g., using the second or third person, aiming towards a sort of punch-line, and so on). Rather than tell a story in traditional Tin Pan Alley style, Lennon and McCartney wrote their lyrics to create a mood or a tone, so as not to get in the way of the effect created by the music and the sound. This bred a casual attitude to normal sense which later turned explicitly free-associational.
There was always just enough sense in a Beatles lyric for the listener to get the general idea. The rest came from the sum of the parts of the record as a whole. The Beatles rarely thought long about their lyrics. The Beatles’ casual lyrics look slipshod beside the careful verses and refrains of the great composers of popular song before them. Those raised on more traditional standards will listen to late-period Beatle songs and quite legitimately ask ‘but what do they mean?’ To reply that they mean something more general than traditional lyrics, that they were conceived as records not songs, may or may not explain much.
To those who grew up with The Beatles (and those who came after them, whose popular music is fundamentally cast in The Beatles’ image), it makes sense to say that the group’s lyrics work as general signifiers, the message blending into a newly charged medium rather than composing itself into a coherent whole, detachable as verse. As verse, little of The Beatles word-output coheres, except by way of mood and style. Is this a serious criticism of their work? Yes. Nevertheless, it continues to be enormously popular – and, in the general terms proposed, quite rightly so. All that can ultimately be said about this aspect of The Beatles’ output is that it need not have been so; that they could have written lyrics in a more traditional style but that this would have made their songs and records very different from the way they are and, perhaps, far less alive with overall spontaneity. After all, no traditional lyricist could compose music like The Beatles. The comparative vagueness of their lyrics is the price we pay for their main inspiration: their musical originality.