Only a Northern Song

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"Only a Northern Song"
Song by the Beatles from the album Yellow Submarine
Released 13 January 1969 (US)
17 January 1969 (UK)
Recorded 13–14 February, 20 April 1967
EMI Studios, London
Genre Psychedelic rock, experimental rock
Length 3:27
Label Apple Records
Writer George Harrison
Producer George Martin
Yellow Submarine track listing

"Only a Northern Song" is a song written by George Harrison and performed by the Beatles. The song was recorded in 1967 during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but was omitted from that album. It was first featured in the Beatles' 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine and appeared on its soundtrack album, released early the following year.

"Only a Northern Song" has been described as Harrison's "personal denunciation of the Beatles' music publishing business".[1]

Musical structure[edit]

The Song starts ("If you're listening") with an A melody note in the key of A. This moves in what appears to be a simple diatonic (I-ii) progression (on "chords are going wrong") to a Bm7 except this becomes a "slash" polychord owing to the dissonant bass note E (11th) that is not in the normal root.[2] With the verse beginning "It doesn't really matter" a B melody note anchors a kaleidoscope of shifting and borrowed chords as follows: on "doesn't really" (harmonising as a 5th with a V (E) chord); on "matter" (harmonising as the root of a (ii7) Bm7 chord); on "chords" (harmonising as a 3rd in a ♭VII (G) chord); on "play" (harmonising as a ♭7th in a III7 (C#7) chord) and on "words I say" (harmonising as a 4th on a VI7 (F#7) chord.[3] The result is a nonchalant, seemingly uninspired melody expressing Harrison's dissatisfaction with contractual requirements while the real action happens "under the table" where seemingly haphazard harmony cleverly pulls the strings.[4]

Recording[edit]

The song's basic track was recorded on 13 February 1967, with overdubs added during the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions.[5] It was recorded using two 4-track tape machines, allowing seven tracks for the complex arrangement of the song (and one for a pulse to synchronise the two machines), a method not common at the time in recording at Abbey Road.

However, problems arose with getting both 4-track machines to begin playback at exactly the same time, causing difficulties mixing in stereo. Therefore only a "fake stereo" (Duophonic) mix was created from the mono mix to appear on the original stereo release of Yellow Submarine. Because such "fake stereo" versions are no longer in favour, the song was one of eight mono tracks released in the 2009 remastered Stereo Box Set (the only mono track released on the 2009 release of Yellow Submarine).[6]

This complex arrangement involves an unconventional musical form and unusual instrumentation, including distorted trumpet played by Paul McCartney, Harrison's reverbed organ, and a glockenspiel played by John Lennon.[5]

Composition[edit]

Harrison himself described the song as "a joke relating to Liverpool, Holy City in the North of England. In addition the song was copyrighted to Northern Songs Ltd. which I didn't own."[7]

Northern Songs was a music publishing company formed in 1963 primarily to exploit Lennon–McCartney compositions. The company had subsequently been floated in 1965, but while Lennon and McCartney each owned 15% of the public company's shares, Harrison owned only 0.8%.[8] Harrison was contracted by Northern Songs as a songwriter only, and because Northern Songs retained the copyright of its published songs, this meant "Lennon and McCartney, as major shareholders, would earn more from his [Harrison's] songs than him."[7]

Hence the song's "mild dissonance" and "nasally sarcastic" key-changes have been said to complement the "suppressed bitterness" of Harrison's lyric,[5] which features such self-referential lines as: "It doesn't really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/As it's only a Northern Song."

As well as reflecting Harrison's dissatisfaction with Northern Songs, and its major shareholder Dick James in particular – "I was starting to get a bit of an idea that ... you'd only written half a song and he [James] would be trying to assign it"[7] – the song also suggests that, at this time, Harrison "had yet to recover his enthusiasm for being a Beatle",[5] having threatened to leave the group six months earlier, following their final live concert at Candlestick Park.[9]

Alternative versions[edit]

An edited and slightly sped-up version of the song's basic track, without the overdubs added 20 April, was released on volume two of the Anthology set in 1996, with a different vocal take containing some lyrical variations. The original speed is heard in the film Yellow Submarine.

Because of the difficulties in synchronising the two tape machines used in the original recording, no stereo mix of the song was created for the Yellow Submarine album, and until 1999 the original mix of the song was available only in duophonic "fake stereo" (or in a mono version created from this "fake stereo" version). In that year, a remixed stereo version of the track was released on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album.

As of the 2009 reissue of the Yellow Submarine album on remastered CD, four different released versions of this song are noteworthy: the duophonic "fake stereo" mix from the original Yellow Submarine album (1969), the alternative stereo mix from Anthology 2 (1996), the remixed "true stereo" version from the Yellow Submarine Songtrack (1999) and the original 1967 "true mono" mix available both on the reissued Yellow Submarine album (2009) and on the 2-disc set Mono Masters, found in the box set, The Beatles In Mono (2009).

Cover versions[edit]

When Mojo released the CD Yellow Submarine Resurfaces in 2012, the track was covered by Gravenhurst.[10]

Yonder Mountain String Band regularly includes this song in their live concerts.

Personnel[edit]

Personnel per Ian MacDonald[5]

MacDonald was unsure about the trumpet and glockenspiel parts for McCartney and Lennon, respectively.[5]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Southall 2007, p. 216.
  2. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p458
  3. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p591
  4. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p592
  5. ^ a b c d e f MacDonald 2005, pp. 236–237.
  6. ^ Apple Records 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Southall 2007, p. 46.
  8. ^ Southall 2007, p. 38.
  9. ^ MacDonald 2005, p. 213.
  10. ^ http://www.mojocovercds.com/cd/1945

References[edit]