Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
|"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"|
The 1966 Australian single release of the song, backed with "Nowhere Man"
|Song by The Beatles from the album Rubber Soul|
|Released||3 December 1965|
|Recorded||12 and 21 October 1965,
EMI Studios, London
"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles. It was written by the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and was first released on the album Rubber Soul on 3 December 1965. Musically influenced by the introspective lyrics of Bob Dylan, "Norwegian Wood" is a milestone in the Beatles' progression as complex songwriters. In addition, the recordings of studio musicians during the Help! filming sessions, and Ravi Shankar inspired lead guitarist George Harrison to incorporate the sitar into the song.
Although "Norwegian Wood" was not the first song to feature an Eastern-inspired sound in a rock composition, or even the first Beatles track, it is credited as influential in the development in raga rock and psychedelic rock. Not long afterwards, Indian classical music became popularised in mainstream Western society, and several Western musical artists such as the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and Donovan integrated elements of the genre into their musical approach. Accordingly, "Norwegian Wood" is recognised as a bona fide raga-rock song, as well as fundamental in the early evolution of the genre later regarded as world music.
The song's lyrics are about an extramarital affair that John Lennon was involved in, as hinted in the opening couplet: "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me". Though Lennon never revealed whom he had an affair with, writer Philip Norman speculates that it was either close friend and journalist Maureen Cleave, or Sonny Freeman. Paul McCartney explained that the term "Norwegian Wood" was a sarcastic reference to the cheap pine wall panelling then in vogue (e.g. in guitarist Peter Asher's bedroom). McCartney commented on the final verse of the song: "In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn't the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn't, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental."
According to Lennon, the lyrics were primarily his creation, with the middle eight being credited to McCartney. In 1980, Lennon changed his claim, saying it was "my song completely". Since Lennon's death, however, McCartney has contended that Lennon brought the opening couplet to one of their joint songwriting sessions, and that they finished the song together, with the middle eight and the title (and the "fire") being among McCartney's contributions. Regardless, it was Lennon who began writing the song in February 1965, while on vacation at St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps with his wife, Cynthia Lennon, and record producer, George Martin. Over the following days, Lennon expanded on an acoustic arrangement of the song, and showed it to Martin while he recovered from a skiing injury. In his book The Songs of Lennon: The Beatle Years, the author John Stevens describes "Norwegian Wood" as a turning point in folk-style ballads, writing "Lennon moves quickly from one lyrical image to another, leaving it up to the listener's imagination to complete the picture". Furthermore, it marks a pivotal moment in his effort to utilize surrealistic imagery, the seeds of which were sown in the earlier songs "Ask Me Why" and "There's a Place".
Between 5 April and 6 April 1965, while filming the second Beatles movie, Help!, at Twickenham Film Studios, George Harrison first encountered the sitar, a prominent feature in the song. A group of Indian session musicians sparked Harrison's interest when they performed the instrumental "Another Hard Day's Night", a medley of three Beatles compositions – "A Hard Day's Night", "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Should Have Known Better" – arranged to feature the sitar, among other instruments. It was not the first instance in which Indian influence was evident in a Western composition: the raga-like drone was found in the Kinks' rare foray into psychedelic rock with the song "See My Friends". The Yardbirds also created a similar sound with a distorted electric guitar on their recording of "Heart Full of Soul". On 25 August 1965, during the Beatles' American tour, Harrison's friend David Crosby of the Byrds discussed in detail his thoughts about Indian classical music, and the work of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Once back in London, Harrison began listening to Shankar's recordings and purchased his first sitar.
Harrison shared his enthusiasm with the other Beatles, and felt that, overall, his bandmates "were growing very quickly and there were a lot of influences". While McCartney later admitted that he found Indian music "boring", Lennon was intrigued by the genre's mystical qualities, although he possessed a disdain for any formal method or training. Lennon was simply intrigued with the sound of the sitar and was open to the possibilities that the instrument had to offer. Harrison introduced drummer Ringo Starr to the tabla, an Indian hand drum. Starr was completely mystified and refused to learn how to play it; Harrison recalled it was "so far out to him".
The Beatles recorded an early version of "Norwegian Wood" during the first day of sessions for their album Rubber Soul, on 12 October 1965. The session took place at EMI Studios in London, with George Martin producing. Titled "This Bird Has Flown", the song was extensively rehearsed by the group, who then taped the rhythm track in a single take, featuring two 12-string acoustic guitars, bass, and a faint sound of cymbals. Harrison added his sitar part, with the take emphasising the drone quality of the instrument more so than the album version of the song. The sound of the sitar proved difficult to capture, according to sound engineer Norman Smith, who recalls: "It is very hard to record because it has a lot of nasty peaks and a very complex wave form. My meter would be going right over into the red, into distortion, without us getting audible value for money. I could have used a limiter but that would have meant losing the sonorous quality."
Lennon overdubbed a lead vocal, which he double tracked at the end of each line in the verses. Designed as a comedic number, this version exhibited a less folk-orientated sound, relative to the recording issued on Rubber Soul, instead highlighting laboured vocals, along with an unusual sitar conclusion. The band were unsatisfied with the song, however, and decided to return to it nine days later. Long unavailable, this original version of "Norwegian Wood" was first released on the 1996 compilation album Anthology 2.
The Beatles reconvened at EMI Studios on 21 October to conduct three additional takes, including the master. The group experimented with the arrangements, with the second take introducing a double-tracked sitar opening that complemented Lennon's acoustic melody. Though the group completely reshaped "Norwegian Wood", it was far from the album version. Harrison's sitar playing is still brought to the forefront, alongside heavy drumbeats. The take was not considered suitable for overdubbing, so the band scrapped it, and reevaluated the arrangement. By the third take, the song went under the title "Norwegian Wood", and the group lifted the key, originally in D major, to E major. Afterwards, the Beatles skipped the rhythm section, and decided to jump to the master take. In all, the rhythm section accommodates the acoustics, with the band concluding a folk style was an improvement over more exotic early run-throughs. Therefore, the sitar is an accompaniment, consequently affecting the droning sound evident in past takes. Looking back on the recording sessions in the 1990s, Harrison explained his inclusion of the sitar to be "quite spontaneous from what I remember", adding, "We miked it up and put it on and it just seemed to hit the spot".
Reception and legacy
"Norwegian Wood" was released on Rubber Soul on 3 December 1965. Although the Kinks and the Yardbirds had incorporated droning guitars to mimic the qualities of the sitar, "Norwegian Wood" is generally credited as sparking a musical craze for the sound of the novel instrument in the mid-1960s – a trend that would later be associated with the growth of raga rock, Indian rock, and the essence of psychedelic rock. The song is now acknowledged as an important piece of what is now typically called "world music" and it was a major step towards incorporating non-Western musical influences into Western popular music. The composition, coupled with advice given by Harrison, is noted as sparking the interest of Rolling Stones multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, who eventually integrated the sitar into "Paint It Black", another landmark piece in the development of raga and Indian rock. Other pieces exemplifying the rapid interest of Indian music by Western musicians include Donovan's "Sunshine Superman", the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things", and the Byrds' "Eight Miles High", among others.
Harrison furthered his admiration for Indian culture and mysticism, introducing it to the other Beatles. In June 1966, Harrison met Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar in London, and became a student under the master sitarist. Having added the sitar accompaniment to "Norwegian Wood", Harrison expanded upon his initial effort by penning "Love You To", which showcased his immersion in Indian music, and presented an authentic representation of a non-Western music form in a rock song. Prior to the recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Harrison made a pilgrimage to Bombay, India with his wife Patti, where he continued his teachings and was introduced to several gurus. For the remainder of his tenure with the Beatles and into his solo career, Harrison evolved his understanding of Indian musicianship, culminating in what is considered to be one of his most artistically accomplished compositions, "Within You Without You".
Writing for the AllMusic website, music historian Richie Unterberger described "Norwegian Wood" as possessing "more than enough ambiguity and ingenious innuendo to satisfy even a Dylan fan". He also noted, with reference to the Beatles progression as songwriters: "For listeners who were more Beatles fans than Dylan ones, the group had sure come a long way since 'She Loves You' just two years back. Unterberger concludes his review by commenting "The power of the track is greatly enhanced by McCartney's sympathetic high harmonies on the bridge, and its exoticism confirmed by George Harrison's twanging sitar riffs". A reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine noted "Norwegian Wood" and "Think for Yourself" as documents of The Beatles' increasing awareness and creativity in the studio. Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork Media considers the song one of the most self-evident Lennon pieces on Rubber Soul to exemplify his maturity as a songwriter, and praises the composition as "an economical and ambiguous story-song highlighted by Harrison's first dabbling with the Indian sitar".
In his book on the Rubber Soul-era, subtitled The Enduring Beauty of Rubber Soul, John Kruth refers to "Norwegian Wood" as a "striking from the first listen" kind of tune that "transported Beatles fans north to the pristine forests of Scandinavia". Kennack Womack praises how the song "reinterprets a familiar theme, in this case the loss of 'love' (well represented in earlier songs such as 'Don't Bother Me' and 'Misery'), providing listeners with security yet challenging those inclined to acknowledge the standard treatment". Stephen J. Spignesi rates "Norwegian Wood" at number 42 in his book 100 Best Beatles Songs: A Passionate Fan's Guide, reasoning it was "the most clear-cut evidence that the Beatles as artists had grown restless, and were no longer content with what had been considered up until then to be traditional rock". Among other Beatles examiners, Ted Montgomery comments: "Perhaps no other song in rock and roll history captures a feel and nuance more succinctly and powerfully on 2:05 than 'Norwegian Wood'".
The song has been covered by numerous artists, including David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7, Waylon Jennings, Tangerine Dream, Cornershop, Rahul Dev Burman, P.M. Dawn, and the Indo Jazz Fusion Group.
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- Ringo Starr – tambourine, maracas, bass drum, finger cymbals
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