Rock and roll is supposed to be about loud guitars and drums, not harps and violins. Rock and roll is supposed to be about kids rebelling against their parents, not each generation getting to voice their own point of view.
Luckily, The Beatles were always about stretching the boundaries of the genre until those boundaries ceased to exist. Their special brand of musical adventurism is the reason we have glorious songs like “She’s Leaving Home,” which blows up those preconceived notions of what rock and roll is supposed to be.
“She’s Leaving Home” is a gorgeously sad ballad found on the sublime Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album where The Beatles took seemingly mundane stories of everyday life and exploded them into something grand and transcendent via the stunning innovation and indomitable spirit of the accompanying music.
In the case of “She’s Leaving Home,” Paul McCartney created an affecting melody that was fit for the harps and strings beautifully arranged by Mike Leander. (George Martin wasn’t available to do it, but he did fill his usual role as producer.) For the lyrics, he looked to the local paper; the song’s story of a runaway teenage girl came from an article in London’s Daily Mail.
“We’d seen that story and it was my inspiration,” McCartney said in the book 1,000 UK #1 Hits. “There was a lot of these at the time and that was enough to give us the storyline. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and the parents wake up, it was rather poignant.” Macca also made the counterintuitive move of casting John Lennon in the role of the aggrieved parents, and Lennon played it to the hilt by borrowing some lines his beloved Aunt Mimi used on him when he was a boy.
Note the way that the girl is simply shown preparing to go and then ultimately leaving; we only know her motivations through the reaction of her parents. The parents seem to go through all the stages of grief in the course of this relatively short song. Their complaints seem valid, made even more so by the genuine love they have for their daughter.
In the final verse, everything becomes clear. The girl has moved on with her life and meets a man. Meanwhile the parents are still frozen in time on top of the stairs as it dawns on them that their efforts to provide her with wealth and material goods were wrong-headed: “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” At that point, their righteous indignation melts into unbearable heartbreak. All that’s there’s time for is one final “Bye-bye” before the harps wind down.
“She’s Leaving Home” looks much deeper than the clichéd rancor between the generations in which so many rock songs trade. With “She’s Leaving Home,” The Beatles manage to honor a child’s need for freedom while humanizing the parents, an approach to the generation gap so sensible that, in 1967, it was downright radical.