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Council workers take advantage of the empty streets to spruce up the crossing featured on the cover of the Beatles 1969 album

The iconic Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the 1969 Beatles album of the same name has been repainted while the streets of London are empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A highways maintenance crew quietly repainted the normally busy zebra crossing on 24 March, the day after the prime minister ordered Britain to go on lockdown in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.

A spokesperson for Westminster City Council said: This is a very busy zebra crossing and we repainted the line markings to ensure visibility and increased safety for drivers and pedestrians. Our contractors follow government advice on limiting the spread of covid-19, including social distancing and hand washing.

A site of national importance … the album cover for Abbey Road. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo

The brightened markings can be seen in action on the Abbey Road webcam.

The government designated the crossing a site of national importance in 2010 and it can be altered only with the approval of local authorities. This London zebra crossing is no castle or cathedral but, thanks to the Beatles and a 10-minute photoshoot one August morning in 1969, it has just as strong a claim as any to be seen as part of our heritage, John Penrose, minister for tourism and heritage said at the time.

The remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Abbey Road album with a deluxe reissue last September. In January, it was announced as the biggest selling vinyl record of the 2010s in the US. It came eighth in the UK, with British Beatles fans apparently preferring Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The cover for Abbey Road was shot at 11.35am on 8 August 1969, as John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took a break from completing I Want You (Shes So Heavy) and The End, and Paul McCartney paused work on Oh! Darling. Standing on a step ladder in the middle of the road, photographer Iain Macmillan only had time to shoot six photographs on his Hasselblad camera given the oncoming traffic. McCartney selected the fourth image as the cover shot.

Repainting the famous crossing. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

On the albums release, fans became convinced that McCartneys barefoot appearance related to the conspiracy theory that he had died two years earlier and been replaced by a ringer. He had in fact kicked off his sandals because it was hot.

On Abbey Road we were wearing our ordinary clothes. I was walking barefoot because it was a hot day, McCartney told Life magazine later that year. Can you spread it around that I am just an ordinary person and want to live in peace?

He parodied the theory on the cover of his 1993 live album, Paul Is Live, posing with a dog on the crossing. Pop cultural figures from the Simpsons to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Doctor Who have also re-enacted the image.

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Mark Lewisohn knows the Fab Four better than they knew themselves. The experts tapes of their tense final meetings shed new light on Abbey Road and inspired a new stage show

The Beatles werent a group much given to squabbling, says Mark Lewisohn, who probably knows more about them than they knew about themselves. But then he plays me the tape of a meeting held 50 years ago this month on 8 September 1969 containing a disagreement that sheds new light on their breakup.

Theyve wrapped up the recording of Abbey Road, which would turn out to be their last studio album, and are awaiting its release in two weeks time. Ringo Starr is in hospital, undergoing tests for an intestinal complaint. In his absence, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison convene at Apples HQ in Savile Row. John has brought a portable tape recorder. He puts it on the table, switches it on and says: Ringo you cant be here, but this is so you can hear what were discussing.

Challenging conventional wisdom Fab Four writer-historian Mark Lewisohn

What they talk about is the plan to make another album and perhaps a single for release in time for Christmas, a commercial strategy going back to the earliest days of Beatlemania. Its a revelation, Lewisohn says. The books have always told us that they knew Abbey Road was their last album and they wanted to go out on an artistic high. But no theyre discussing the next album. And you think that John is the one who wanted to break them up but, when you hear this, he isnt. Doesnt that rewrite pretty much everything we thought we knew?

Lewisohn turns the tape back on, and we hear John suggesting that each of them should bring in songs as candidates for the single. He also proposes a new formula for assembling their next album: four songs apiece from Paul, George and himself, and two from Ringo If he wants them. John refers to the Lennon-and-McCartney myth, clearly indicating that the authorship of their songs, hitherto presented to the public as a sacrosanct partnership, should at last be individually credited.

Then Paul sounding, shall we say, relaxed responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. I thought until this album that Georges songs werent that good, he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions hes implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Theres a nettled rejoinder from George: Thats a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs.

The Beatles Abbey Road album Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

John reacts by telling Paul that nobody else in the group dug his Maxwells Silver Hammer, a song theyve just recorded for Abbey Road, and that it might be a good idea if he gave songs of that kind which, John suggests, he probably didnt even dig himself to outside artists in whom he had an interest, such as Mary Hopkin, the Welsh folk singer. I recorded it, a drowsy Paul says, because I liked it.

A mapping of the tensions that would lead to the dissolution of the most famous and influential pop group in history is part of Hornsey Road, a teasingly titled stage show in which Lewisohn uses tape, film, photographs, new audio mixes of the music and his own matchless fund of anecdotes and memorabilia to tell the story of Abbey Road, that final burst of collective invention.

The album is now so mythologised that the humdrum zebra crossing featured on its celebrated cover picture is now officially listed as site of special historic interest; a webcam is trained on it 24 hours a day, observing the comings and goings of fans from every corner of the world, infuriating passing motorists as these visitors pause to take selfies, often in groups of four, some going barefoot in imitation of Pauls enigmatic gesture that August morning in 1969.

George Harrison and John Lennon recording Let It Be. Photograph: Daily Sketch/Rex/Shutterstock

Its a story of the people, the art, the people around them, the lives they were leading, and the break-up, Lewisohn says. The show comes midway through his writing of The Beatles: All These Years, a magnum opus aiming to tell the whole story in its definitive version. The first volume, Tune In, was published six years ago, its mammoth 390,000-word narrative ending just before their first hit. (All the heft of the Old Testament, the Observers Kitty Empire wrote, with greater forensic rigour.)

Constant demands to know when Turn On (covering 1963-66) and Drop Out (1967-69) might appear are met with a sigh: Im 61, and Ive got 14 or 15 years left on these books. Ill be in my mid-70s when I finish. Time is of the essence, he adds, perhaps thinking of the late John Richardsons uncompleted multi-volume Picasso biography. This two-hour show is a way of buying the time for him to dive back into the project.

For 30 years, Lewisohn has been the man to call when you needed to know what any of the Fab Four was doing on almost any day of their lives, and with whom they were doing it. His books include a history of their sessions at what were then known as the EMI Recording Studios in Abbey Road, and he worked on the vast Anthology project in the 90s.

The idea for a stage show was inspired by an invitation from a university in New Jersey to be the keynote speaker at a three-day symposium on the Beatles White Album, then celebrating its golden jubilee. His presentation, called Double Lives, juxtaposed the making of the album and the lives they were leading as individuals outside the studio. It took several weeks to put together, and I thought, This is mad I should be doing this more than once to get more people to see it.

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in the studio. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

The next anniversary to present itself was that of Abbey Road, which took place during a crowded year in which Paul married Linda Eastman, John and Yoko went off on their bed-ins for peace, Georges marriage to Pattie Boyd was breaking up, and they were all involved in side projects. John had released Give Peace a Chance as the Plastic Ono Band and George had been spending time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan.

John also took Yoko and their two children, Kyoko and Julian, on a sentimental road trip to childhood haunts in Liverpool, Wales and the north of Scotland, ending when he drove their Austin Maxi into a ditch while trying to avoid another car. Brian Epstein, their manager, had died the previous year and the idealism that had fuelled the founding of their Apple company Its like a top, John said. We set it going and hope for the best was starting to fray badly. Other business concerns such as their song-publishing copyrights, which had been sold without their knowledge led to a war between Allen Klein, the hard-boiled New York record industry veteran invited by John to sort it out, and John Eastman, Lindas father, a top lawyer brought in by Paul to safeguard his interests.

Lewisohn has the minutes of another business meeting, this time at Olympic Studios, where the decision to ratify Kleins appointment was approved by three votes to one (Paul), the first time the Beatles had not spoken with unanimity. It was the crack in the Liberty Bell, Paul said. It never came back together after that one. Ringo and George just said, whatever John does, were going with. I was actually trying, in my mind, to save our future.

And yet Lewisohn challenges the conventional wisdom that 1969 was the year in which they were at each others throats, storming out of the recording sessions filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the verit-style movie Let It Be, and barely on speaking terms. During the making of Abbey Road, says Lewisohn, they were in an almost entirely positive frame of mind. They had this uncanny ability to leave their problems at the studio door not entirely, but almost.

In fact, Abbey Road was not the only recording location for the album: earlier sessions were held at Olympic in Barnes and Trident in Soho. And Lewisohns creation is called Hornsey Road because that, in other circumstances, is what the album might have been titled, had EMI not abandoned its plans to turn a converted cinema in that rather grittier part of north London into its venue for pop recording.

The show, Lewisohn believes, is the first time an album has been treated to this format. People will be able to listen with more layers and levels of understanding, he says. When you go to an art gallery, you hope that someone, an expert, will tell you what was happening when the artist painted a particular picture. With these songs, Im going to show the stories behind them and the people who made them, and what they were going through at the time. Certainly, no one who sees this show will ever hear Abbey Road in the same way again.

Hornsey Road is at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, on 18 September and touring until 4 December.

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Polish company agrees to change its name to On Lemon after legal letters saying drink infringed copyright

Yoko Ono Lennon has stepped in to rescue the name of her husband from fizzy pop reinvention, taking legal action to halt the sale of a lemonade called John Lemon.

The Polish company which sells the beverage, set up five years ago, has agreed to change its name to On Lemon after legal letters were sent by Ono Lennons lawyers to the parent company and its distributors across Europe.

It must sell up its stocks of its John Lemon drinks by the end of October.

The family business, which distributes to bars and restaurants in the UK and 13 other European countries, says it did not try to use the image of Lennon to boost its business.

Karol Chamera, founder of Mr Lemonade Alternative Drinks, the UK distributor of John Lemon which is based in Bow, London, told the East London Advertiser: All of us involved with this product are startups and we couldnt take on someone who is worth many, many millions.

Ono Lennons lawyers said the lemonade infringed the trademark of her late husbands name and his personal rights. They claimed damages in the range of 5,000 (4,400) a day and 500 for every bottle sold and asked the court in The Hague, the Netherlands, to determine damages.

Joris Van Manen, of Dutch law firm Hoyng Rokh Monegier, which acted for Ono Lennon, told the East London Advertiser: They were abusing and misusing the legacy of John Lennon to sell their soda.

John Lemon pear and cola lemonade. Photograph: John Lemon

The legal action referenced a Facebook post by John Lemon Ireland showing a large wall mural of Lennon holding lemons with the brands logo underneath. Other advertising depicted a pair of round glasses, closely linked with the famous Beatle, next to the words Let It Be.

Hugo Baaziski of law firm KSP, which acted for John Lemon, said the company had registered its trademark in 2014 and that the John Lennon brand was not registered until last year. He said his client had concluded a settlementto avoid the risk of banning production of its lemonade.

He said: The settlement allowed our client to continue his business and passion in one, however it was agreed that since November 2017 the products offered by our client should rebrand.

Alex Brodie, a partner at the law firm Gowling WLG, said: UK law doesnt provide for image rights as such but passing off and claims for false endorsement do succeed as can cases based on registered trade marks.

For example, earlier this year BrewDog used the brand Elvis Juice IPA for one of their products only to fail in a case brought by the Elvis estate for trademark infringement.

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The relationship between the Beatles star and Ono will be turned into a film from the writer of The Theory of Everything

The relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono will be the basis of a new film from the writer of The Theory of Everything.

According to Deadline, the untitled film will focus on the romance between the Beatles star and Ono, who will also produce the project. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who gained acclaim for his take on the relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking, will pen the script. His upcoming work includes the Winston Churchill drama Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman.

The story will focus on ripe and relevant themes of love, courage and activism in the US with the intention of inspiring todays youth to stand up for and have a clear vision for the world they want, said producer Michael De Luca, whose previous credits include The Social Network, Captain Phillips and Moneyball.

The script is likely to cover the pairs status as a celebrity couple throughout the 70s, Lennons move away from the Beatles, the couples music together and Lennons murder in 1980.

In 2009, Lennons life as a youth was brought to the screen by Sam Taylor-Johnson in Nowhere Boy, where he was played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Ono was supportive of the finished product and was flabbergasted at how good it was. The murder of Lennon was also covered in the 2007 drama Chapter 27, which starred Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman.

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Dylans Nobel prize win sparked a debate about lyrics as literature. Here, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, Johnny Marr, Naomi Alderman and others nominate songwriters whose verse has the power of poetry

Bob Dylan by Andrew Motion

Dylans Nobel laureateship has proved controversial which was presumably a part of the reason for awarding it to him in the first place. To shake things up a bit. But as a counterweight to those who think he shouldnt have got the prize under any circumstances, and those who think the lyrics to the songs depend on their melody and delivery, which disqualify them from such an award, there are plenty of admirers, and plenty of ways to argue, that his words alone are certain good. The great protestations (Blowin in the Wind), the great love-murmurs (Love Minus Zero) and love-twists (Tangled Up in Blue), the great surrealist masterpieces of the Blonde on Blonde era (Visions of Johanna): all these contain the qualities we look for in poetry that matters. Concentration of language, formal expertise of one kind or another, and a clever balancing of articulacy and mystery. The same goes for his great ballads, which I love as much as any of these songs just named, and none more than his Baltimorean tragedy, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Here Dylan gives his account of the murder committed by William Zanzinger, of the criminally light sentence he received, and of high office relations in the politics of Maryland, in four headlong and largely unpunctuated verses. Everything about them is alert to the literary tradition in which they work, but everything stretches and extends that tradition, walking a fine line between lyric and narrative to catch the essence of both, and tumbling through rage into sorrow at its conclusion, without diminishing either: Oh but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears / Bury the rag deep in your face / For nows the time for your tears.

Andrew Motions latest collection is Peace Talks (Faber).

Cole Porter by Carol Ann Duffy

Sublime Cole Porter. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The earliest poems, as the Swedish Academy is trying to remind Bob, were sung, and this lyric DNA from Sappho, Robert Burns and Christina Rossetti to Linton Kwesi Johnson persists, both off and on the page. Kate Tempests work is at its electrifying best when she performs it. Other poets (Simon Armitage, Paul Muldoon) enjoy concealing the rock stars leather jacket beneath the Oxbridge full-drag of the academic gown. (Of Armitage, the late Simon Powell, founder of Poetry Live, once affectionately remarked he is a poet who knows his RS from his Elbow.) One of the loveliest things I know is Christie Moores setting of Yeats The Song of Wandering Aengus.

I remember first hearing (in November 1967, aged nearly 12) the Beatles I Am The Walrus; how John Lennons lyrics, splicing Alice in Wonderland with a sexy surrealism, seemed to lead me, Pied Piper like, out of childhood. Thereafter, the albums I first bought as an adolescent were as much for the lyrics as for the music (teenage bedroom favourites committed fervently to memory: Leonard Cohens Suzanne; Joni Mitchells Both Sides, Now; David Bowies Oh! You Pretty Things; Simon and Garfunkels Kathys Song; Lou Reeds Perfect Day). I think our most cherished song lyrics come from our youth, when they seem to be written especially for us, and in this sense poetry has the upper hand. Lacking a backing band, it necessarily has to do more with language. It also has a less fixed relationship with time. Cole Porters songs have delighted me my whole life, so I will choose his sublime Evry Time We Say Goodbye:

Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.
Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little.
Why the gods above me, who must be in the know,
think so little of me they allow you to go.
And when youre near, theres such an air of spring about it.
I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it.
Theres no love song finer but how strange the change
from major to minor,
every time we say goodbye.

But Im also envious of and thrilled by just one line from Little Richard in 1955 A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom as, I am sure, Shakespeare would have been. Anyone who disagrees should leave the gig.

Carol Ann Duffy is poet laureate. Her latest books is The Map and the Clock(Faber).

Connie Converse by Emmy the Great

Fiercely intelligent Connie Converse. Photograph: PR

Connie Converse lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, where she wrote self-reflective, poetic songs that broke free of the folk tradition far ahead of their time. In 2004 some of her recordings were played on a radio programme, and her music was rediscovered, poignantly late. Shed been a missing person for 30 years.

When I listen to Connie Converse, I hear the internal world of a fiercely intelligent woman. With a knack for rhyming that foreshadowed Paul Simon, she used sparkling wordplay to throw light on roving women and misfits, and find beauty in the ordinary. On my favourite song, Playboy of the Western World, she sings, When he walked through a room, it looked as handsome as Napoleons tomb / and the Ford he rode could have been Mercedes-Benz a la mode

Her story, marked by doomed ambition and the mystery of her disappearance, creates a satisfyingly tragic myth of an outsider artist, but her recordings, which were made by a friend at his kitchen table, are warm and alive. As her voice tumbles playfully over her melodies, pausing for funny, self-deprecating remarks, there is no room for the troubles of the future, only the fragile charm of Connie and her compositions.

To me, shes a patron saint of singer-songwriters, a reminder to leave something of yourself in that moment, no matter who ends up listening.

Emmy the Great is touring the UK in November and December. Her album Second Loveis out now.

Leonard Cohen by Polly Samson

His lyrics cut to the core of human existence Leonard Cohen. Photograph: Edmond/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

I dont feel militant about Bob Dylans Nobel prize. I can argue it from either side: on behalf of pop music, which is an art form that doesnt need to be validated with a prize for something it isnt, or conversely as someone who writes lyrics and knows it sometimes doesnt feel very different from writing words that are not intended to be sung.

That said, most great lyrics work because they are wedded to the right piece of music and the union of their parts is more potent as a song. Leonard Cohen rewards reading on the page and this is why to my mind, it is Cohen who lives alone above them all, Dylan included, on the uppermost floor of the Tower of Song.

Maybe this is because Cohen started out as a poet and words have always been his primary form of expression. He had published several collections, two novels, and garnered praise as well as at least one literary prize before he ever set his words to music. His lyrics exist like poems or short stories that cut to the core of human existence, and many of them have the same impact and interest when read divorced from their music. He can be brilliantly funny too: On ageing: I ache in the places where I used to play. On sexual jealousy: And then I confess that I tortured the dress that you wore for the world to look through. On the competition: And all the lousy little poets coming round trying to sound like Charlie Manson.

There isnt another singer-songwriter whose lyrics Id read before listening.

The Kindness by Polly Samsonis published by Bloomsbury.

Nicki Minaj by Naomi Alderman

Cultural references and tricksy wordplay Nicki Minaj. Photograph: Chris McKay/WireImage

I taught a class on the lyrics of Nicki Minaj during a week of thinking about experimental literature at the Arvon creative writing centre in Devon. Were going to have to work on this, I told them, like youd work on a page of Chaucer, going over it again and again until we understand it. And the lyrics repay the work.

Its easy to think that bar a few notable exceptions such as Eimear McBrides wonderful writing the dense, allusive stream-of-consciousness style of Woolf and Joyce is these days just an experimental backwater of mainstream literature, loved by a few aficionados, ignored by the majority. But difficult writing, filled with cultural references and tricksy wordplay hasnt vanished at all: its taken up residence in rap lyrics.

When I taught Nicki Minaj, we spent a long time looking at the lyrics of her verse in Kanye Wests song Monster. As the title suggests, its a piece about monstrosity, about knowing oneself to be an ego-monster but also realising that monstrosity is demanded by ones audience. It features not only West but also Bon Iver, Rick Ross and Jay-Z. But Minajs verse blows them all out of the water.

Minaj namechecks familiar brands and characters: Willy Wonka, Tonka trucks, Bride of Chucky. Theyre childrens toys, or childlike but monstrous. Minaj is comparing herself to them: she might look like a toy, but shes as sinister as Wonka, as deadly as a murderous doll, as powerful as a monster truck. And theres a beautiful piece of wordplay in the line: You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer. Just swap the words King and Queen and say it out loud. I may be a woman, says Nicki Minaj in this verse, I may dress in pink, but underestimate me at your peril. Im a motherfucking monster.

The Power byNaomi Alderman is published by Viking.

Lou Reed by Johnny Marr

Documenting the more subversive side of human nature Lou Reed Photograph: Adam Ritchie/Redferns

Ill Be Your Mirror by Velvet Underground is just one example of Lou Reeds genius:

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside youre twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
cause I see you.

His reputation for documenting the more subversive side of human nature is well known, but it doesnt tell the whole story of a writer who had real insight into human frailty and vulnerability cruelty too; Caroline says, as she gets up off the floor, Why is it that you beat me?, it isnt any fun. He turned slang into poetry, very deliberately using modern language to tell his stories of the city, and he made street talk into literature. His titles alone make him as good as anybody; Satellite of Love, Venus in Furs, White Light / White Heat almost define the rock era, and that the young man who first became known for writing a song called Im Waiting for the Man at the age of 23 could turn his talent to write Perfect Day, a song which would surely be a contender for song most universally loved, says it all.

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr is published on 3 November by Century.

John Lennon by Amit Chaudhuri

Musical and conceptual intelligence John Lennon with Yoko Ono in 1968. Photograph: Jane Bown

Unlike Paul McCartney, after the breakup of the Beatles, Lennon never returned to the remarkable and noticeably unusual songs hed written when he was in the band. McCartney sang Yesterday, Hey Jude, and other Beatles numbers in his concerts, putting his seal of ownership on them; Lennon only occasionally emerged from semi-retirement, and its no longer clear what he thought of Norwegian Wood, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, In My Life, Revolution No 9, or Across the Universe. Like Rimbaud, it was as if hed sloughed off his former self like a skin while crossing a border.

Yet Lennons musical and conceptual intelligence, and his approach to the pop record, were fundamental to the Beatles evolution: there is no challenge presented, post-Beatles, by the recordings of its other members. Only Lennon continued to shock, delight, move and surprise. Theres the first album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which was made as if it were meant to have no listener but Lennon, counsellor to his own pain, assessor of his own worldview: God is a concept by which we measure our pain / Ill say it again / I dont believe in magic / I dont believe in I-Ching / I dont believe in Bible / I dont believe in Gita / I dont believe in Elvis / I dont believe in Zimmerman / I dont believe in Beatles / I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and thats reality. In this album, Lennon turned the flu-afflicted scream hed unleashed long ago in Twist and Shout into a hurt, spiritual roar, a hurt he also expressed in the most tender melodies, in Love and Hold On, and in the tranquil, scathing detachment of Working Class Hero. Lennons greatest achievement in the artistic domain was his ability to say no; this, rather than ideology, was what made him political, as well as philosophically unique. This unforgiving but liberating quality of refusal is there in the second album, Imagine, and though the title song became a bestseller, its message, if you ignore the comforting hook, sweetly advocates the same radical loneliness that God had earlier: Imagine theres no heaven / Its easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky. Very different from Zimmerman.

Odysseus Abroadby Amit Chaudhuri is published by Oneworld.

Joni Mitchell by Kathryn Williams

Conversational, poetic, philosophical, barbed Joni Mitchell. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

What do Joni Mitchells songs mean to me? Well, she says it best on the title track of Blue they are permanently under my skin: Songs are like tattoos, you know Ive been to sea before crown and anchor me, or let me sail away.

The first Joni Mitchell record I bought was her first album, on vinyl. I grew into her way of speaking in song, started to learn her phrasing and began to collect more of her albums. It was like collecting glass marbles. The spherical shape was the same, but with a different coloured flame inside, twisted in a different spiral.

Joni can be conversational, poetic, philosophical, barbed and make all that happen in one line: Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as a northern star / and I said, Constantly in the darkness, wheres that at? / If you want me, Ill be in the bar The shapes of the words and how they move alongside each other are perfectly formed, perfect to sing. The Last Time I Saw Richard is the prophetic song for all of us romantics to fear. It unfolds like a Raymond Carver poem. Showing not telling, and utterly heartbreaking.

As a songwriter, a female one at that, people comment on my singing voice far more than my lyrics. Its as though they think we are not responsible for the words, just our voice. And I think that Joni Mitchell is often overlooked as the amazing lyricist she is. But she is a painter and her lyrics are a full sensory event. Pictures form in my head, I feel her pain, and I am taken to the places she sings about. I see her as a patron saint. She makes writing lyrics seem effortless but there is only one Joni Mitchell.

Resonator by Kathryn Williams is released on 11 November.

Paul McCartney by Blake Morrison

He can do sad as well as happy Paul McCartney. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Not many songwriters appear in poetry anthologies. Cole Porter, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are among those who have, or who deserve to, but the odds are always against it, both for good reasons (without voice, melody, orchestration and arrangement, few lyrics work on the page) and for bad (literary snobbery on the one hand, and the exorbitant cost of permission fees on the other). Karl Miller was sticking his neck out when he included Eleanor Rigby (and Pink Floyds Arnold Layne) in his Penguin anthology Writing in England Today (1968), along with Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Thom Gunn. But he was right to recognise its poetic resonance from the surreal image of Eleanor Rigby wearing the face that she keeps in the jar by the door to the detail of Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, its a plangent evocation of modern day loneliness.

McCartney is sometimes dismissed as sentimental (the schmaltzy foil to the bad-boy cool of Lennon) but Eleanor Rigby is as bleak as anything by Samuel Beckett: no one listens to Father McKenzies sermon, no one comes to Eleanor Rigbys funeral, no one was saved. Its a reminder of the range of tones McCartney is or was capable of: in this case melancholy (all the lonely people) but elsewhere parody (Back in the USSR), comedy (Lovely Rita), satire (Paperback Writer), nostalgia (Penny Lane) and raucous boogie-woogie (Lady Madonna). He can do sad as well as happy, moody monologue as well as sing-along. And at best the words escape whatever it was that set him off, leaving room for us to inhabit them: Ive been listening to Fixing a Hole since its release and Im still working out what it means.

Shingle Street by Blake Morrison is published by Chatto & Windus.

Mary Margaret OHara by Lavinia Greenlaw

An impression of distillation and deep thought Mary Margaret OHara Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

When I was 19 and newly in the grip of writing, I joined a band. Asked to produce lyrics, I intensified my poems. Perhaps I thought that they could be freeze-dried and then rehydrated with a tune. The results were ungainly. Good singer-songwriters must have an extra layer of judgment that enables them to see what most of us need to be shown. Mary Margaret OHara is best known for Miss America (1988), and has released just one album since.

She builds songs out of spare phrases that light each other as the parts of a poem should. She sings this way too, as if making a series of gestures which have taken their time to become clear. You get the impression of distillation and deep thought in the making of songs that resist their own weight: You just want to push somebody / And a body wont let you. Just want to move somebody / And a body wont let you. OHara resists stabilisation, something I understood when I saw her perform live. She has a decisive but off-kilter way of moving a lurch, a flick of the hand, a foot stamp that are impossible to relate to what youre hearing. Its as if she has a sense of detail so latent that no one else can detect it. Her lyrics are published in brief lines full of quiet swerves: So sorry if I cant stop pretending / So sorry if I dont let you go / Like this but not like this is ending / I think you know. / I think you know. / Help me lift you up. They can be heartbreaking in their generosity.

A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseydeby Lavinia Greenlaw is published by Faber.

Nick Cave by Ian Rankin

Darkly compelling Nick Cave. Photograph: Kerry Brown

Hands up who wants to die?!! Those were the first frantic words I heard Nick Cave sing. Theyre from the opening track of a 1983 four-track EP by the Birthday Party, a thing of Grand Guignol excess culminating in a four-minute horror film (Deep in the Woods). From the beginning, Cave was an artist who immersed the listener in revelatory imagery and creeping doom. The Old Testament, delta blues, and Sergio Leone westerns infused his song writing. He could be urgent and kinetic, or mellow and thoughtful. The Ship Song could have been penned by Leonard Cohen, but its hard to imagine anyone other than Cave creating darkly compelling narratives such as Red Right Hand and Jubilee Street, while his album Murder Ballads has a body count that would shame Tarantino. Caves new album, Skeleton Tree, is a starkly intense listen, foregrounded by personal tragedy. That he makes art from his loss is testament to his sense of duty to the songwriters craft, and the title track (which closes the album) is full of quiet yearning, along with acceptance and resolution. The album as a whole reminds me a little of Dylans masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. Cave himself may not be getting the Nobel any time soon, but right now he is one of our very best lyricists and storytellers. It will be fascinating to see what he does next.

Rather Be the Devilby Ian Rankin is published by Orion.

Jake Thackray by Roger McGough

A craftsman of form, language and melody Jake Thackray. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

I have always had a soft spot for the artists who came out of the northern music hall, folk club tradition, singer-songwriters like Stan Kelly, Mike Harding and Victoria Wood, and above all, Jake Thackray. Born in the West Riding in 1938 and educated by Jesuits in Leeds, he graduated from Durham University before leaving the country to teach in France for a number of years. And so, while we were dancing down at the Cavern, he was falling under the influence of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel. He left as a gruff Yorkshire lad and came back a smooth, silver-tongued chansonnier.

His deep, rich baritone voice, intricate jazz-flavoured guitar playing and saucy yet timeless and sentimental lyrics made him enormously popular on the folk club circuit, and although he found nationwide fame following regular appearances on TV programmes such as The David Frost Show and Esther Rantzens Thats Life, he found little pleasure in performing in large theatres. Staunchly Catholic and leftwing, he could never understand why people would spend their hard-earned wages listening to him.

A craftsman of form, language and melody, he wrote of jilted lovers turning to drink, of grotesque relatives, lusty blacksmiths and gabby ladies, but with more compassion than venom. His was a gentle humane satire. At the jumble sale, Where ladies of the village fight like visigoths for pillage he found love and assonance among the bric-a-brac: Romance perchance prevails at humdrum jumble sales. Sadly, and puzzlingly to his many fans, he disappeared from public view, and died in Monmouth aged 63. Had he been born in France where the poet/singer tradition is long-established and where there is little distinction between serious and popular music, Thackray would surely be recognised as the major artist many believe him to be.

The Likes of Us, featuring Roger McGough and LiTTLe MACHiNe, is out now.

Tamara Lindeman by Richard Williams

A quiet refusal of emotional simplicities Tamara Lindeman.

Bob Dylan aside, the singer-songwriter Ive listened to most over the past year, and to whom I expect to be paying attention for many more to come, is Tamara Lindeman, a 31-year-old former actor from Toronto who, under the name the Weather Station, performs songs notable for a conversational fluency, a diarists powers of observation and a quiet refusal of emotional simplicities. I see everything from multiple perspectives, she has said. Thats sort of been a weakness in life but also a strength. Im really interested to write a song where I can encompass all the different truths about a situation or all the different ways in which I see something, because it feels like thats the way things really are. The Weather Stations third album, Loyalty, significantly expanded her audience last year through songs that captured moments in life with a subtle acuity, set to flowing melodies. One of them begins: You looked so small in your coat, one hand up on the window, so long now youd been lost in thought. Another: I dont expect your love to be like mine. I trust you to know your own mind. As I know mine. Reading her verses, with their finely wrought understatement, punctuated like prose but weighted like poetry, its hard to imagine them being turned into songs; hearing them sung, its impossible to imagine them being anything else. Comparisons with any other folk-rooted Canadian singer-songwriters, female or male, are facile and misleading: this one, too, has her own voice.

The Blue Moment: Miles Daviss Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music by Richard Williams is published by Faber.

Steve Kilbey by Michel Faber

Paul McCartneys biographer picks out the best work in a field that has often been marked by leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts

Writing about the Beatles has saddled me with two heavy burdens. The first is that almost everyone considers themselves an expert on what the bands publicist Derek Taylor called the 20th centurys greatest romance. Ive noticed that many of these self-appointed sages hate to hear something about the subject that they dont already know. My new biography of Paul McCartney was full of revelations about his life, in and after the Beatles, yet from many quarters still brought that resentful chorus of nothing new here.

The second, long-term burden is becoming classified as a rock biographer. In Britain, writing about rock music still isnt really taken seriously and, by and large, doesnt deserve to be. In the US, by contrast, its taken far too seriously, with the earnest, plodding pair Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick vying for supremacy in the field. To me, their combined surnames suggests a new verb, to greilnick ie churn out leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts, yet be unable to create a compelling narrative or convey character or atmosphere.

In listing my top 10 Beatles books, Ive omitted most of the best-known full biographies. One reason is that theyre often by American authors who combine greilnicking with laughable ignorance of British culture. (In Bob Spitzs the Beatles, for example, teenage John Lennon learns of his mother Julias tragic death from police arriving by squadcar, whereas in late-50s Liverpool it would just have been a lone copper on a bike.) Most of my choices are peripheral works, illuminating a specific era or personality.

When I embarked on Shout! my Beatles biography in the late 70s, friends and journalistic colleagues told me I was mad; there was nothing more to know. Indeed, at the beginning I was almost embarrassed to mention the B-word, saying instead I was writing about popular culture in the 60s. How different from today, when the appetite for Fab Four trivia seems inexhaustible. If I proposed a book of Ringos collected laundry lists, publishers would form a queue.

1. Love Me Do: The Beatles Progress by Michael Braun
Braun was a 27-year-old New Yorker working in London, who presciently joined the Beatles 1963-64 British tour and so was on hand for their first breakthrough in the US with I Want to Hold Your Hand. Though American, he was no greilnicker but a gifted reporter whose fly-on-the-wall account prefigured many later scenes in A Hard Days Night. Braun paid a high price for this amazing access: John later admitted the Beatles had been bastards to him and photographer Dezo Hoffman remembered them throwing him a lamb chop from a room-service trolley as if he was a dog.

2. Paul McCartney:
Many Years From Now by Barry Miles
An authorised biography. Formerly known simply as Miles, the author was a co-founder of Indica, the art gallery and bookshop that became the epicentre of Londons underground scene in the mid-60s (and where John famously met Yoko Ono). Initially, Paul intended the book to deal solely with his London years, proving how he, not John, was the first to explore the avant garde, but Miles convinced him to include his childhood as well. The result is part-biography, part-autobiography, with long, fascinating first-person reminiscences by its subject. But theres little about his marriage to Linda and nothing about their much-criticised career in Wings.

3. Daddy Come Home by Pauline Lennon
John grew up believing that his father, Freddy, a ships steward, had deserted his wife and child when John was a toddler. That feeling of abandonment continued to haunt him even as a Beatle, finally erupting in an anguished shriek of Daddy, come home! on the first Plastic Ono Band album. Having reappeared in Johns life in the mid-60s, 54-year-old Freddy astonished everyone by marrying 19-year-old university student Pauline Jones, with whom he had two further children. Joness memoir casts him in a more sympathetic and believable light.

4. The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello
One of many American flower children who washed up in London in the late 60s, DiLello became Apples house hippy. His sharp-eyed account runs from the early days, when the Beatles business was plundered by con artists and freeloaders, to the arrival of Allen Klein and the reign of terror that followed. Along the way, he assists in ticklish PR projects like promoting John and Yokos film Self-Portrait. When this extended study of the Lennon penis is boycotted by conventional reviewers, Yoko comments that the critics wouldnt touch it.

5. Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles by Tony Bramwell
Bramwell was one of the many babies delivered by Pauls midwife mother, Mary; his house was on Georges round as a butchers delivery boy. As the Beatles grew more famous on Merseyside, long before they had roadies, hed carry their guitars into gigs, becoming so ubiquitous that John nicknamed him Measles. His rollicking autobiography describes how he worked for Brian Epsteins NEMS company, became an indispensable aide to Paul in particular witness to the very moment that he fell in love with Linda and later successively head of Apple Films and Apple Records.

6. Lennon Remembers by Jann S Wenner
The full text of a marathon interview John gave to Rolling Stones co-founder in 1970, just as the bands breakup was moving into its final chaotic phase. Like an extension of the therapy he was undergoing, it pours out Johns frustration during years straitjacketed by the Beatles image and his bitterness at media attacks on Yoko. It swipes at George and Paul even downgrades the Beatles incomparable producer George Martin to a mere translator. What was all that shit about, John, Martin finally got the chance to ask just a few months before Lennons murder in 1980. The reply?: Out of me head, wasnt I?

7. The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away by Allan Williams
In later years, Williams competed with Pete Best as the worst case of what I call Liverpool eyes the tragic gaze of those left behind when the Beatles conquered the world. His coffee bar, the Jacaranda, was the favourite hangout for a band he initially termed a right load of layabouts. He nonetheless got them their first work in Hamburg, driving them there in his own beaten-up van. But after theyd avoided paying his commission, he let Brian Epstein take over. This book, ghosted by Daily Mirror journalist William Marshall, has the authentic reek of Liverpool back alleys circa 1961.

8. All You Need Is Ears by George Martin
The first of the much-mourned Sir Georges two autobiographies, describing the career path studying oboe at the Guildhall School of Music, producing classical music and comedy records by the Goons and Peter Sellers that seemed least likely to lead to the greatest pop act of all time. And how that left him uniquely qualified him to help Lennon and McCartney to their undreamed heights.

9. As Time Goes By by Derek Taylor
Though Taylor started as a journalist, his unique wit was too subtle to work in cold print. This is mainly a collection of music-press articles written between his two stints as the Beatles press officer when, as he recalled, I was a Hollywood character, which is easy if youre a murderer or a twat or know a line of Keats. One piece of reportage captures the authentic Derek tone in a classic instance of Pauls readiness to perform anywhere. Driving down from the north on a golden summers evening in 1968, they followed a signpost to a village called Harrold simply because they liked the name. Thrilled by this whimsical visit, the villagers laid on a sumptuous cold supper, then they all adjourned to the pub where Paul sat down at the piano for a first sneak preview of Hey Jude.

10. The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman
Included as a masterclass in how not to write a biography of a pop star or anyone else. Firstly, for its blitz of untruths (John is portrayed as a schizophrenic, epileptic, autistic, bisexual killer and wife-beater) which often contradict one another. Secondly, for its ludicrous ignorance (to take just one random instance, the British police are said to wear balaclava helmets). Thirdly, for the sheer futility of writing an 800-plus book about a musician and a music its author despises. Even if the subject is a monster (which John wasnt) your first duty as a biographer is to love your monster.

Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback priced 25, and is available from the Guardian bookshop for 21.25. It is also available as an ebook, priced 12.99.

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Norman was one of the commentators who made popular the idea that John Lennon was the key member of the Beatles. In this flawed but powerful new book he admits he was wrong

Philip Normans biography of the Beatles, Shout!, has sold more than a million copies. Published in 1981 soon after John Lennons murder, it was buoyed bythe wave of nostalgia that ensued the first stirrings of the over-the-top Beatles worship that is now an immovable part of popular culture allover the world. Norman delivered arguably the first literary look at Beatledom: the book divided their career into four parts Wishing, Getting, Having and Wasting and told the story in gleaming prose. But Shout! has one big drawback: a glaring bias against Paul McCartney, who was portrayed as a kind of simpering egomaniac, and a correspondingly overgenerous view of Lennon, who, Norman later claimed, represented three quarters of The Beatles.

Norman went on to write John Lennon: A Life. Now, eight years later, comes this new book, introduced with a blunt mea culpa. Normans damning of McCartney, he now says, was a reaction to how much he had once not just admired him, but wanted to somehow be up there, in his place. If Im honest, he now writes, all those years Id spent wishing to be him had left me feeling in some obscure way that I needed to get my own back. Now, he has a more generous view and so, with McCartneys tacit approval (assistance with sources and information, but no direct involvement) he has written the Lennon books companion piece.

Norman is an enviably skilled pen-portraitist, with a consummate ability to conjure the presence of the left-handed bass guitarist whose delicate face and doe-like eyes were saved from girliness by the five oclock shadow dusting his jawline. He rightly observes that McCartney served as the groups courteous PR man, and had an air of refinement, partially traceable to his mother Marys insistence on good manners. The fact she was a midwife, Norman points out, meant the McCartneys were viewed as being a few notches above their neighbours, though Paul was still looked down on by Lennons stand-in mum, the comparatively bourgeois Aunt Mimi: the early Beatles story is not only an account of the evolution of rocknroll, but of the tiny gradations of the old English class system.

A powerful sense of McCartney the man comes across in this books evocative high points: the school years he spent, after passing his 11-plus, at the Liverpool Institute; the pre-marriage life of artsy urbanity he built for himself in St Johns Wood, London; and the 10days he spent in a Japanese jail in 1980, having been busted for carrying marijuana, during which time he apparently chose to avail himself of the communal showers and regularly led a sing-song of old standards his father had loved, such as When the Red RedRobin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin Along. There are also sketches of McCartney and his late wife Lindas aptitude for maintaining family life in the midst ofwhat other people might consider impossible circumstances: according to one long-estranged associate, Id never seen such great parents before, and I never have since.

This is, then, a capably executed biography, brimming with detail. But there are also three big problems. First, when the story gets to the Beatles rise and fall, the idea of telling the tale from McCartneys perspective tends to fall away; in its place we have a very familiar saga. Second, though Norman is good at placing his subject in the midst of various histories of the Irish diaspora, Liverpool and the socio-cultural passage of the 1960s he has a tendency to write about music in a register rather redolent of the op-ed pages of the Daily Mail. The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen is definitely not a shrieking parody of the national anthem, any more than Kate Bushs unearthly wail, Wuthering Heights, ever made Yoko Onos ear-shredding shrieks seem positively normal. These odd touches are also applied to his subjects career and work: anyone who knows what the term glam rock denotes, for example, would know McCartneys post-Beatles vehicle Wings were anything but.

This feeds into probably the books biggest flaw of all: its neglect of McCartneys talent. Perhaps the most baffling omission is any appreciation of its subjects astounding, trailblazing playing of the bass guitar. Similarly, there is not nearly enough attention paid to the compositional gifts that began to flower around 1964, and arguably reached their peak in 1969, with McCartneys underappreciated work on Abbey Road and Let It Be. There is an associated failure to get to grips with the underachievement that largely defined McCartneys later 1970s and 80s. Norman once lamented the gap between McCartneys output and what he could do if only he would try; here, perhaps thanks to the shadow cast by the tacit approval ofhis subject, he simply describes one post-Beatles release after another, and tends to damn them with faint praise.

However and despite the 80 grinding pages devoted to McCartneys doomed marriage to Heather Mills Norman still delivers an affecting study of a man too often misunderstood. Theidea that emerges most strongly is that for someone who has lived such asurreal life, McCartney has long had a remarkable sense of everyday morals. He ensured his first four children went to state schools, and was careful not to spoil them. His reported outbreaks of stinginess were probably traceable to the spend-happy chaos he witnessed atthe tail-end of the Beatles career, andare more than counterbalanced by Normans reports of his generosity: the campaigning to save the local hospital in his adopted Sussex hometown, and the 1m that paid for anew care centre; his footing of the $200,000 (137,000) bill fortreatment for the 11-month-old daughter of one of the Beatles old comrades from their spell in Hamburg.

To compare two lives that turned out to be so different probably isnt fair, but is telling: Lennon, by contrast, spent most of his last years cloistered in an opulent New York apartment building that had an air-conditioned room reserved for a collection of fur coats, and often did as he was told by astrologers and numerologists. In that sense, and others, for all its imperfections, this is a book that redresses a lingering imbalance with the piquant twist that one of the people who so skewed things in the first place was the author himself.

To order Paul McCartney for 20 (RRP 25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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