“She’s Leaving Home,” on the Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, comes in at number 82 on Rolling Stones’ list of the 100 Greatest Beatles Songs. The link notes that it’s based on a true story:
“She’s Leaving Home” was inspired by a newspaper story about a well-to-do 17-year-old girl named Melanie Coe who disappeared from her parents’ home in London. While McCartney took the perspective of the teen runaway, Lennon sang counterpoint (the “Greek chorus,” as McCartney called it) in the voice of the heartbroken parents.
The real-life Melanie Coe ended up going back home to her mom and dad after three weeks; she was pregnant and had an abortion. But the girl in the song represented all the teenagers who were running away from their conventional lives in the Sixties. In April 1967, McCartney visited Brian Wilson in L.A. to preview Sgt. Pepper, playing “She’s Leaving Home” on the piano for him and his wife. “We both just cried,” Wilson said. “It was beautiful.
This came out in 1967, and again, there was nobody writing anything like this at the time. Indeed, if you listened to it and didn’t know who did it, you’d be hard pressed to say that this is rock and roll. It’s just a beautiful ballad.
The antagonistic parent/offspring counterpoint reminds me strongly of Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son,” also a great song.
Wikipedia notes that it’s one of the few Beatles songs in which none of them play an instrument; it was accompanied by a string orchestra arranged not by George Martin, but Mike Leander, who arranged for many rock artists. They also give a quote from McCartney in his biography, Many Years from Now (I haven’t read it; has anyone?):
John and I wrote ‘She’s Leaving Home’ together. It was my inspiration. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found, there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up … It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the long sustained notes, and one of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly. Before that period in our song-writing we would have changed chords but it stays on the C chord. It really holds you. It’s a really nice little trick and I think it worked very well. While I was showing that to John, he was doing the Greek chorus, the parents’ view: ‘We gave her most of our lives, we gave her everything money could buy.’ I think that may have been in the runaway story, it might have been a quote from the parents. Then there’s the famous little line about a man from the motor trade; people have since said that was Terry Doran, who was a friend who worked in a car showroom, but it was just fiction, like the sea captain in “Yellow Submarine”, they weren’t real people.
The synergy between Lennon and McCartney amazes me. The moment the group disbanded, neither of them wrote much on their own that even came close to what they wrote together. Yes, there were a few exceptions, like “Imagine”, and I still think McCartney’s “Jet” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” would have been worthy of the Beatles, but the magic was gone. Harrison was the only one who produced a string of excellent songs after the Beatles disbanded.
Wikipedia adds two more tidbits:
When discussing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, composer Ned Rorem described “She’s Leaving Home” as “equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote.”
In a bizarre coincidence, Coe had actually met McCartney three years earlier, in 1963 when he chose her as the prize winner in a dancing contest on ITV’s Ready Steady Go!. An update on Coe appeared in the Daily Mail in May 2008, and she was interviewed about the song on the BBC programme The One Show on 24 November 2010.
Here’s the video of Macca meeting Melanie Coe on television. Little did he know that she’d later feature in one of his best songs!