Only a Northern Song
|"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|
"Only a Northern Song" is a song by the English rock group the Beatles from their 1969 album Yellow Submarine. Written by George Harrison, it was recorded in 1967 during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but omitted from that album. Instead, it was one of four new songs that the band submitted for inclusion in the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, to meet their contractual obligations to United Artists.
Harrison wrote the song out of dissatisfaction at the financial arrangement within the Beatles' Northern Songs publishing company, whereby John Lennon and Paul McCartney profited more from his compositions than he did. Author Brian Southall describes "Only a Northern Song" as Harrison's "personal denunciation of the Beatles' music publishing business".
Background and composition
George Harrison described "Only a Northern 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." 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 John Lennon and Paul McCartney each owned 15 per cent of the public company's shares, Harrison owned only 0.8 per cent. Harrison was contracted by Northern Songs as a songwriter only, and because the company retained the copyright of its published songs, according to author Brian Southall, "Lennon and McCartney, as major shareholders, would earn more from [Harrison's] songs than him."
Discussing the song in a 1996 interview with Billboard magazine, Harrison commented that the main target of his complaints was the company's chief shareholder, Dick James, who had signed the then twenty-year-old in 1963 without explaining the consequences. Harrison added: "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." In author Ian MacDonald's estimation, "Only a Northern Song" suggests that Harrison "had yet to recover his enthusiasm for being a Beatle", after he had threatened to leave the group following their final live concert in August 1966.
Harrison wrote "Only a Northern Song" on a Hammond organ, which had become his preferred instrument for songwriting by 1967. Reflecting the inequality of the business arrangement with Northern Songs, according to MacDonald, the melody employs "mild dissonance" and "nasally sarcastic" key-changes that complement the "suppressed bitterness" of Harrison's words.
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. 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.
The result is a nonchalant, seemingly uninspired melody expressing Harrison's dissatisfaction with contractual requirements. According to musicologist Dominic Pedler, the real action happens "under the table", where seemingly haphazard harmony cleverly pulls the strings.
The Beatles taped the basic track for "Only a Northern Song" at EMI's Abbey Road Studios on 13 February 1967, during the sessions for their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Typically for a Harrison composition, the song had yet to be titled and was instead referred to as "Not Known". With a line-up comprising Harrison on organ, Lennon on tambourine, McCartney on bass and Ringo Starr on drums, the band recorded nine takes before selecting take 3 for further work. The following day, after the studio engineers had carried out a reduction mix, Harrison added two tracks of lead vocals.
"Only a Northern Song" was rejected for inclusion on the album and became the first of the four songs the Beatles provided for United Artists' animated film Yellow Submarine. The group returned to the song on 20 April, immediately after completing final mixing on Sgt. Pepper. Overdubs carried out that day included the addition of trumpet and piano, played by McCartney and Lennon, respectively, together with glockenspiel and percussion. In his description of the song, Tom Maginnis of AllMusic writes that the recording is "heavily steeped in the psychedelic sounds of the period, using liberal amounts of loose instrumentation", particularly the "chaotic bursts of trumpet". Acknowledging his lack of ability on the instrument, McCartney later recalled: "The film producers were wandering around the studio and they had to sort of go along with this – I saw some very sad faces while I'm playing the trumpet."
The combined overdubbing and reduction process was completed on 21 April and required the use of two 4-track tape machines – allowing seven tracks for the song, and one for a pulse to synchronise the machines. Problems arose with getting the 4-track machines to begin playback at exactly the same time, causing difficulties mixing in stereo.
In October 1968, while preparing the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album for release, EMI's engineers created a "fake stereo" (duophonic) mix from the April 1967 mono mix, instead of returning to the master tapes. A true stereo version became available in 1999, when "Only a Northern Song" was remixed for inclusion on the album Yellow Submarine Songtrack.
In the Yellow Submarine film, the song appears during a sequence when the submarine carrying the Beatles travels through the Sea of Science. Referring to the psychedelic imagery in the animation, author Stephen Glynn considers that this segment "only 'makes sense' when read as attempting an audio-visual recreation of the hallucinogenic state". In January 1969, six months after the film's world premiere in London, "Only a Northern Song" was issued as the second track on side one of the Yellow Submarine LP, with George Martin's orchestral score for the film occupying the whole of side two.
In a contemporary review of the album, Beat Instrumental lamented that it offered little new material by the band, but described "Only a Northern Song" and the Harrison-written "It's All Too Much" as "superb pieces" that "redeem" side one. Recalling the release in his 1977 book The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Schaffner dismissed the song as one of the "trifling baubles" the Beatles provided for a film project they had little interest in originally.
Among more recent assessments, David Gassman of PopMatters admires the song for its "mordant humor" and interprets the lyrics as a possible "dig" at Lennon and McCartney. Gassman adds, with reference to the superior "It's All Too Much": "as long as songs like this were being relegated to throwaway projects, George could be excused for sniping at John and Paul in 'Only a Northern Song'." Discussing the same two Harrison compositions, Pitchfork Media's Mark Richardson writes that both tracks offer little of interest aside from their "swirling" psychedelic effects, although he considers that "Only a Northern Song" "at least has a good joke going for it, simultaneously alluding to the North of England and the Beatles' Lennon-McCartney-dominated publishing company". More impressed, Alex Young of Consequence of Sound identifies the song as "lyrically the quintessential track, as it perfectly defines Yellow Submarine in two verses alone, while coming out sonically like a Pink Floyd b-side from the Obscured By Clouds sessions". Writing for Ultimate Classic Rock in 2013, Dave Swanson ranked the track at number 3 on his list of the "Top 10 Beatles Psychedelic Songs", following "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "I Am the Walrus", and concluded: "Would 'Sgt. Pepper' have been even greater had this mind-melter been included in favor of, say, 'When I'm Sixty Four?' All signs point to a positive affirmation."
While noting Yellow Submarine's status as the Beatles' only "inessential" album, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic describes "Only a Northern Song" as "an odd piece of psychedelic ersatz, mixing trippiness and some personal comments". Referring to the revelations offered in the song, Unterberger adds: "they present Harrison's vision of how music and recording sounded, from the inside-out and the outside-in, during the psychedelic era – the song thus provided a rare glimpse inside the doors of perception of being a Beatle (or, at least, one aspect of being this particular Beatle) circa 1967." Writing for Billboard in 2001, Bill Holland recognised "Only a Northern Song", along with the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and early-1970s releases by the Kinks and Joni Mitchell, as constituting the first wave of musical statements in which artists "accuse or indict their industry's business policies".
An alternative edit of the song appeared on the Beatles' Anthology 2 out-takes compilation in 1996. Slightly sped up, and mixed in stereo, this version comprises the song's basic track without most of the April 1967 overdubs, and with a vocal take that contains some changes to the lyrics.
When Mojo released the CD Yellow Submarine Resurfaces in July 2012, "Only a Northern Song" was covered by Gravenhurst. Yonder Mountain String Band have regularly included this song in their live concerts. Walker's Run released a version on their Silver EP in 2015.
According to Ian MacDonald:
- George Harrison – vocal, organ, tape effects, noises
- John Lennon – piano, glockenspiel, tape effects, noises
- Paul McCartney – bass guitar, trumpet, tape effects, noises
- Ringo Starr – drums
MacDonald was unsure about the trumpet and glockenspiel parts for McCartney and Lennon, respectively.
- Southall 2007, p. 216.
- Harrison 2002, p. 100.
- Southall 2007, p. 38.
- Southall 2007, p. 46.
- White, Timothy (9 March 1996). "Magical History Tour: Harrison Previews 'Anthology 2'". Billboard. p. 89. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
- MacDonald 2005, pp. 213, 236–37.
- Leng 2006, p. 32.
- MacDonald 2005, pp. 236–37.
- Pedler 2003, p. 458.
- Pedler 2003, p. 591.
- Pedler 2003, p. 592.
- Miles 2001, p. 256.
- Lewisohn 2005, p. 97.
- Everett 1999, p. 127.
- Hertsgaard 1996, p. 228.
- Everett 1999, p. 160.
- Lewisohn 2005, p. 109.
- Maginnis, Tom. "The Beatles 'Only a Northern Song'". AllMusic. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
- Collis, Clark (October 1999). "Fantastic Voyage". Mojo. p. 55.
- Lewisohn 2005, p. 163.
- Fontenot, Robert. "The Beatles Songs: 'Only a Northern Song' – The history of this classic Beatles song". oldies.about.com. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
- Glynn 2013, pp. 136–37.
- Schaffner 1978, p. 99.
- Lewisohn 2005, pp. 164, 200.
- Everett 1999, pp. 160–61.
- Doggett, Peter (2003). "Underwater Treasure". Mojo: The Beatles' Final Years Special Edition. London: Emap. p. 78.
- Gassman, David (11 November 2009). "The Records, Day Four: 1968–1969". PopMatters. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Richardson, Mark (10 September 2009). "The Beatles: Yellow Submarine". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Young, Alex (25 September 2009). "The Beatles – Yellow Submarine [Remastered]". Consequence of Sound. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Swanson, Dave (30 March 2013). "Top 10 Beatles Psychedelic Songs". Ultimate Classic Rock. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Unterberger, Richie. "The Beatles Yellow Submarine". AllMusic. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Holland, Bill (29 September 2001). "Protest Songs Fill The Raspberry Chart". Billboard. p. 71. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Lewisohn, Mark (1996). Anthology 2 (CD booklet liner notes). The Beatles. Apple Records. pp. 34–35.
- "MOJO Issue 224 / July 2012". mojo4music.com. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Everett, Walter (1999). The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512941-5.
- Glynn, Stephen (2013). The British Pop Music Film: The Beatles and Beyond. Basingstoke, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-39222-9.
- Harrison, George (2002). I, Me, Mine. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. ISBN 978-0-8118-5900-4.
- Hertsgaard, Mark (1996). A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-330-33891-9.
- Leng, Simon (2006). While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard. ISBN 978-1-4234-0609-9.
- Lewisohn, Mark (2005). The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962–1970. London: Bounty Books. ISBN 978-0-7537-2545-0.
- MacDonald, Ian (2005). Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Second Revised ed.). London: Pimlico (Rand). ISBN 1-84413-828-3.
- Miles, Barry (2001). The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-8308-9.
- Pedler, Dominic (2003). The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-0-7119-8167-6.
- Southall, Brian (2007). Northern Songs. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-1-84609-996-0.
- Schaffner, Nicholas (1978). The Beatles Forever. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-055087-5.
- Turner, Steve (1999). A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song (2nd edn). New York, NY: Carlton/HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-273698-1.
- Full lyrics for the song at the Beatles' official website
- Alan W. Pollack's Notes on "Only a Northern Song"
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