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19th May, 2020

#PaperbackWriter - From monkeys to Martha: The influence of animals on The Beatles

This feature of our #PaperbackWriter series is one for the animal lovers! Anna Francis talks us through the influence wildlife and the animal kingdom had on the songs and lives of the Fab Four from Liverpool.

Of the many things that come to mind when thinking of The Beatles - iconic lyrics, groundbreaking albums, ‘peace and love’ - animals probably wouldn’t register as something they are associated with. Yet on closer inspection it is interesting to note how our furry friends featured in and influenced the band in their music and ideas, particularly as they journeyed into psychedelic and experimental territory.

All of the group were animal owners at some point, and they appeared to have an early influence on John Lennon in particular, who grew up with three cats and a dog in the house he shared with his Aunt Mimi. In the 1997 book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, Paul recalled: “It was a very catty household; John liked cats. They had pedigree Siamese cats, which again is slightly middle-class, if you think about it, rather than a puppy.” Paul himself longed for a dog but was told by his parents it wasn’t possible due to both of them going out to work - cue much heartbreak for Paul and his brother Mike.

Perhaps this fondness for creatures great and small explains why so many animal-based references appear in The Beatles’ lyrics, and in a variety of fascinating ways. As the band left behind the days of straightforward boy-girl love songs, the subject matters of their work became more creative and unusual; the 1966 album Revolver, for example, was their most progressive yet and covered ideas including taxes, sleep, doctors and submarines.

This is also where one of the first animal references appeared. And Your Bird Can Sing, written by John, features cryptic lyrics which are difficult to decipher, though various explanations have been suggested. One constant of the many interpretations is that the bird is unlikely to be an actual bird; instead it may represent something else, or actually represent nothing at all. Poignantly birds also became their last animal-based lyric when the band released Free As A Bird as part of the 1995 Anthology project.

The Beatles were fond of using animals as metaphors, particularly in songs featured on The White Album. Birds appeared again in Blackbird, in which Paul uses lines including: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly”, seemingly reflecting on how people can break free from struggle. Paul has since claimed that he was thinking of the civil rights movement when writing the song.

George Harrison also seemed to be getting political when he composed Piggies, which - rather than being about our porcine friends - is a rant about consumerism and greedy people. “Piggies is a social comment,” George himself explained in his 1980 book I Me Mine. He also revealed that his mother contributed one of the angrier lines: “[She] came up with the lyric ‘What they need is a damn good whacking’ which is a nice simple way of saying they need a good hiding.”

Meanwhile John used an animal metaphor to show affection, of sorts, in the track Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey. The monkey refers to Yoko Ono, with John explaining: “Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love.”

Away from the deeper metaphorical lyrics, actual monkeys provided inspiration for another song on The White Album. Paul penned Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? after seeing two of the creatures mating in the street during the group’s time in Rishikesh, India. An unusual topic to strike up a tune, perhaps, but animals often signified the surreal for The Beatles.

Never was this more evident than in I Am The Walrus, John’s 1967 track which has been the subject of endless analysis since. This is despite it widely being claimed that John deliberately used nonsense phrases in the tune - which, as well as a walrus, features pigs and dogs - to confuse those who always tried to find meaning in the group’s lyrics. Other surreal uses of animals by John include Hey Bulldog and Dig A Pony.

There were occasions, though, where animals appeared in Beatles’ songs in a literal sense and without deeper meanings. Perhaps the most famous example is Octopus’s Garden, featured on the final album made by the group, Abbey Road. Ringo Starr penned this - only the second Beatles tune he wrote - whilst holidaying on comedian Peter Sellers’ boat in Sardinia in 1968. He was inspired by the boat’s captain telling him of octopuses’ habits, which include collecting stones to make a garden on the seabed. The simple words - “I’d like to be under the sea/ In an octopus’s garden in the shade” - tell an equally simple story, though George believed the song was “cosmic” and could get “deep into your consciousness”.

John similarly told a straightforward and true - albeit bizarre - tale of animals in The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill. When the band were in Rishikesh, an American college boy visited his mother at the ashram where The Beatles and other famous faces were staying with the Maharishi. The boy and his mother went out on a shoot and killed a tiger, before returning to the ashram to resume meditating. John clearly wasn’t impressed by this behaviour and later expressed sympathy for the “poor tigers”.

Meanwhile, years after not being allowed a dog as a child, Paul became the proud owner of an Old English Sheepdog in 1965. He named her Martha, and she found fame when name-checked in Martha My Dear. Whilst it wasn’t exactly written about her, it was enough to make Martha a favourite with Beatles fans, and she went on to regularly feature in fanzine The Beatles Monthly, alongside the cats owned by each member of the band.

Paul’s inclusion of Martha in his work - as well as the general usage of various creatures in The Beatles’ tunes - reflects the love that many of us feel for our pets. After all, all you need is love… and a dog/cat/animal of your choice.

By Anna Francis

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