At the beginning of this two-volume book, Paul McCartney says that while he has no intention of writing his autobiography and has never kept a diary, it has been his habit throughout his adult life to turn his life experiences into the words of songs, and so here are 154 of them. With that kind of introduction you’d be forgiven for expecting them in chronological order. Had they been so, most of the hits would be in the first book and a lot of people would hardly open the second. Chronological was obviously a non-starter.

Alphabetical it is, then, with each initial letter a fresh lottery. F is particularly solid, featuring Fixing a Hole, The Fool on the Hill, For No One and From Me to You. Unsurprisingly, almost everything under I dates from the Beatles’ personal-pronoun period – I Saw Her Standing There, I Wanna Be Your Man, I Want to Hold Your Hand, I’m Down, I’ll Follow the Sun and others – while the average reader may be a bit lost in the O section once they get past Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. As much space in this book is devoted to Magneto and Titanium Man as Michelle. This last turns out to have been half-written by a schoolteacher friend, which would guarantee it winding up in court if it were to happen today.

The lyrics you actually read are for the records you don’t know. The majority have lived inside us since we first heard them, in my case for almost 60 years, as a consequence of which I am incapable of reading “and the fireman rushes in” without hearing the precise intonation of the way he sang it for the ages on 30 December 1966. Paul McCartney’s medium is certainly not manuscript paper. It’s what we used to call wax. It’s thanks to this genius for record-making that his music is imprinted on us all.

Whereas the other Beatles wrote fitfully after the group broke up, Paul kept getting out his pencil, taking his guitar into a quiet corner and writing yet another song, less on the basis of inspiration than the feeling that it was a muscle he must use or lose. It’s this more than 10,000 hours spent setting himself the eternal puzzle of getting from the beginning of a song to its end that enabled him to dazzle Dustin Hoffman by writing Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me) in front of him. “Can you write a song about anything?” Hoffman asked. Yes, Dustin, he clearly can.

McCartney with the Quarrymen (George Harrison, John Lennon) and friend Dennis Littler in Liverpool, 1958. Photograph: Mike McCartney

Each song has a commentary drawn from chats with McCartney’s editor, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who was presumably the one introducing words such as “epistolary” and “intertextual” into the conversation. Macca rarely resists an upmarket comparison. If one Paul is keen to point out that the intermediary of She Loves You is like the hero of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, the other Paul is quite happy to agree he may have been influenced by it. In the same commentary, he’s forever reaching back to the England of his boyhood: taking phone calls in the cupboard beneath the stairs, being dispatched into the street to collect horse shit for Dad’s roses, watching Bootsie and Snudge on TV, lifting an idea for Mrs Vandebilt from The Vamp of Baghdad by Charlie Chester.

The index is a reminder of the fact that, having been actively famous for 60 years, Paul McCartney has met everyone he’s had a mind to meet. Having learned from Craig Brown’s recent book that Malcolm Muggeridge came to see the Beatles play in Hamburg, I no longer bat an eyelid at the revelation that in 1964 Paul rocked up unannounced at the door of Bertrand Russell. Even at this early stage his face was no doubt what gained him entrance. “I’ve got a very recognisable face,” he says, rather missing the point that he also happens to have Paul McCartney’s face.

McCartney photographed at home by his daughter Mary, England, 2020
McCartney photographed at home by his daughter Mary, England, 2020. Photograph: Mary McCartney

In teasing us with a lovely story about the last time he saw Jane Asher, but not revealing which decade it was, the book falls short of the “unparalleled candour” promised in its publicity. His second wife is not mentioned at all. He returns regularly to family, which is clearly the most important thing in his life. This is probably why the breakup of the Beatles hit him so hard. A well-read fan will know much of this already – though given the recent headlines about John having instigated the breakup, a lot of people clearly don’t really know the story. Neither lyrics nor commentary will be studied quite as closely as the pictures of Paul looking fabulous for more than 50 years, posing for pre-digital selfies with everyone from the Maharishi to Auntie Jin. In the end, we would as soon look at rock stars as listen to them, and this is as much a picture book as anything.

The problem, which only strikes you on lifting the second weighty volume, is how are you supposed to actually read a thing like this? By this point you’re into N, where Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five will be followed by No More Lonely Nights, The Note You Never Wrote and Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight, and there’s no narrative arc to carry you along.

You might think the price tag means it’s aimed at the Christmas stockings of lifers like me. In fact it’s more likely to be picked up and pored over by that army of forty- and fiftysomethings who these days are Paul’s children. They don’t actually remember the Beatles but they can’t imagine a world without Paul McCartney. For them, the book’s absence of chronology will not be an impediment. For them, those thumbs remain aloft for a higher purpose. It’s why he’s here. From his first song, I Lost My Little Girl, which he wrote at the age of 14 after the death of his mother, to whatever he happens to be chipping away at just as you’re reading this, he’ll still be trying to take a sad song and make it better. It’s an honourable calling.

David Hepworth’s latest book is Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There: How a Few Skinny Brits With Bad Teeth Rocked America

The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney is published by Allen Lane (£75). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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