Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rewriting "All You Need is Love"

Last week, Michael Deacon of the Telegraph put together a blog post entitled "10 awful things about the Beatles." It was obviously intended as a counterpoint to the recent deluge of celebratory Beatles coverage; pieces of its kind were almost inevitable. Deacon writes, "... this week we find ourselves wading through an oil slick of Fabs hagiography, so let's remember the things they did that were less than perfect, and indeed, in some cases, knuckle-chewingly bad." He goes on to cite The Beatles' films, their allegedly spotty late-period work, their absence from iTunes, and more as evidence of their fallibility. To which I would respond: Of course The Beatles' career wasn't without flaws and missteps. No fan I'm acquainted with would assert otherwise. What rankles about the list is that it poses as iconoclastic when, at different points, it's really just petty, obvious, and overstated.

However, Deacon opens by bringing up some of The Beatles' lesser lyrics, and I can't say I disagree with his inclusion of this line: "There's nothing you can do that can't be done." It's, of course, from "All You Need is Love," a terrific song that contains a handful of lines which don't make sense when interpreted literally. Or, at least, their literal definitions don't comport with what John had in mind. Consider the example mentioned above: "There's nothing you can do that can't be done." John's encouraging tone and the overall sunny spirit of the song help the listener to understand these words as meaning: "There's nothing you can't do" (if you're armed with love, everything comes easily!). But what do they mean when received literally? "Everything you can do is doable." There's considerably less uplift in that. On one level, it's tautological gibberish; on another, it almost conveys a note of disparagement: "Nothing you can do is beyond the realm of mere possibility. All your deeds and acts are very ordinary, the stuff of quotidian banality" (that little flourish was probably excessive). Same with "Nothing you can sing that can't be sung," "Nothing you can make that can't be made," and "No one you can save that can't be saved." From this perspective, punctuating such lines with "All you need is love" suddenly seems less fitting.

A slight reworking of the lyric could have cleaned up the song without diminishing its emotive power or disrupting the flow of John's vocal. How about this instead?

There's nothing for you to do that can't be done.
Nothing for you to sing that can't be sung.
Nothing for you to say but you can learn how to play the game.

Just replace "you can" with "for you to." Thoughts?

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