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. It was recorded in 1967 during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but was omitted from that album. Instead, the song featured in the Beatles' 1968 animated film 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]

Background and composition[edit]

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."[2] 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.[3] 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."[2]

Reflecting the inequality of this arrangement, musicologist Ian MacDonald writes, the song employs "mild dissonance" and "nasally sarcastic" key-changes that complement the "suppressed bitterness" of Harrison's words.[4] The lyrics feature 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."

Harrison also commented that, in addition to his dissatisfaction with Northern Songs, particularly the company's major shareholder, Dick James: "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."[2] In 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 at Candlestick Park on 29 August 1966.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]


The song's basic track was recorded on 13 February 1967, during the sessions for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.[4] Overdubs were added on 20 April, necessitating the use of two 4-track tape machines – allowing seven tracks for the song, and one for a pulse to synchronise the machines – a method not common at the time in recording at EMI's Abbey Road Studios.

Problems arose with getting the 4-track machines to begin playback at exactly the same time, causing difficulties mixing in stereo. Therefore, a "fake stereo" (duophonic) mix was created from the mono mix to appear on the original stereo release of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.[9] A true stereo mix became available in 1999, when "Only a Northern Song" was remixed for inclusion on the album Yellow Submarine Songtrack.

The song features an unconventional musical form and unusual instrumentation, including Harrison's heavily reverbed organ part, distorted trumpet overdubbed by Paul McCartney, and a glockenspiel played by John Lennon.[4]

Alternative versions[edit]

An edited and slightly sped-up version of the song's basic track (without the overdubs added in April 1967) was released on the Anthology 2 compilation in 1996, with a different vocal take containing some lyrical variations. The song is heard at its original speed in the film Yellow Submarine.

"Only a Northern Song" was one of eight mono tracks included in the remastered Stereo Box Set (as the only mono track on the 2009 release of Yellow Submarine).[9] With this reissue, four different released versions of the song are noteworthy: the "fake stereo" mix from the original Yellow Submarine album (1969); the alternative stereo mix on Anthology 2; the remixed "true stereo" version from Yellow Submarine Songtrack; and the original 1967 "true mono" mix available both on the reissued Yellow Submarine album and on the two-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 per Ian MacDonald[11]

MacDonald was unsure about the trumpet and glockenspiel parts for McCartney and Lennon, respectively.[11]


  1. ^ Southall 2007, p. 216.
  2. ^ a b c Southall 2007, p. 46.
  3. ^ Southall 2007, p. 38.
  4. ^ a b c MacDonald 2005, pp. 236–37.
  5. ^ MacDonald 2005, pp. 213, 236–37.
  6. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p. 458.
  7. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p. 591.
  8. ^ Dominic Pedler. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles. Music Sales Limited. Omnibus Press. NY. 2003. p. 592.
  9. ^ a b Apple Records 2009.
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b MacDonald 2005, pp. 236–237.


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