Here’s a couple of rather handsomely put together collections of the words and musings of two great British songwriters.
It would be a bit cruel but certainly not too inaccurate to say that The John Lennon Letters, edited and annotated by long-time Beatle associate and chronicler Hunter Davies, represents what might be one of the final scrapings of the Beatle memorabilia barrel. Davies himself admits in his introduction that this is a pretty scattergun collection, featuring only that fraction of Lennon’s letters that were available and affordable from the canny collectors that have ended up with them, and that furthermore a large proportion of them don’t really qualify as letters at all: to pad the book out, we get postcards, scribbled notes, shopping lists even. Davies has done an awful lot of work to set what he had to work with in context and to provide linking narration so as to minimise the joltiness of the book for the reader, but even so this has the feel of a collection of footnotes to a much more interesting story that’s happening elsewhere, and the profusion of in-jokes, puns, wordplay and impenetrable personal references in the material doesn’t really encourage close examination. Most of this stuff is charming, but barely relevant: cheery replies to fans, Christmas letters to relatives containing family news, mock-imperious instructions to underlings and so on.
Despite all that the book isn’t a complete waste of the dedicated Beatle obsessive’s time, and Lord knows there are plenty of them still around, myself included. The various letters and scraps have been scanned and lovingly reproduced, so you get to see Lennon’s effervescent Milligan-inspired doodles in proper context, there are hundreds of hitherto unseen (by me, at least) photographs, including many of John as a child or in early incarnations of the band and there’s a certain insight to be had here as to how Lennon was spending his time in New York in the last five years of his life, when he’d retreated from public view in order to bring up his son. And every now and then you get something that stands out as having genuine public interest: the letter to the Queen by which Lennon returns his MBE, or a raw broadside against Paul McCartney, in which he attempts to explain his frustrations about the messy legal battle the greatest pop group in the history of the world eventually descended into.
In contrast, ‘Hallo Sausages’ The Lyrics Of Ian Dury, compiled by his daughter Jemima, is well-nigh essential to any fan of Dury, a near-contemporary of Lennon with an equally sharp talent for the resonant lyric who didn’t achieve wide recognition until ten years after the Beatles split up. Dury only had a handful of hits but he added to the language like few rockstars have ever done (‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ is one of his) and as this book makes startlingly clear he wrote a whole lot of songs and took a lot of time and trouble to make sure his words were as good as he could get them, even when it was by no means certain that they’d ever be recorded, or even get tunes added to them. There are over 160 lyrics here, and that’s just the complete ones – Jemima deliberately hasn’t included any half-finished work. As in the Lennon book, we get to see the original manuscripts alongside the transcriptions, though Dury seems to have been a lot tidier in his working methods as in the main they’re neatly typed out, or handwritten with an eye to legibility. Corrections are rare, but the draft of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick presented here still shows some interesting rejected ideas behind the crossings-out. None of these songs were of course ever intended to be read in this way as opposed to listened to, and all of them are going to lose something without Dury’s authoritative vocal phrasing, but it’s fascinating nonetheless to get a handle on how much work went into music that seemed so effortlessly natural and witty and life-enhancing. Jemima compiles the songs chronologically and divides them into sections representing stages in their author’s career, and in between she sketches in details of her father’s life, family, living and working arrangements and friends in clear and accessible prose. There are (again like the Lennon book) copious photographs and reproductions of publicity material and there’s even a CD containing two revealing and characterful interviews. Dury didn’t live long enough to write his autobiography (the only words he managed on the subject before he died at the age of 58 were ‘Hallo sausages’) but this is a more than adequate substitute, and gives much more of the sense of the man than the well-meaning but unnecessarily contrived bio-pic of a few years ago (Andy Serkis’s superb impersonation notwithstanding). I remember seeing Rhythm Stick on Top Of The Pops as a child and being fascinated by the short, funny-looking, not noticeably young, singer – you can’t imagine the powers-that-be letting a one-off like Dury loose on the nation these days, more’s the pity.