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The Beatles Songs: Only a Northern Song

The history of this classic Beatles song

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The Beatles Songs: Only a Northern Song

Swedish sheet music for "Only a Northern Song"

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Only a Northern Song

Working title: Not Known
Written by: George Harrison (100%)

Recorded: February 13-14 and April 20-21, 1967 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: February 14 and March 21, 1967; October 29, 1968
Length: 3:24
Takes: 12

Musicians:

John Lennon: piano (1905 Steinway Vertegrand "Mrs. Mills"), glockenspiel
Paul McCartney: bass guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 4001S), trumpet
George Harrison: lead vocals, organ (Hammond RT-3)
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig)

Available on: (CDs in bold)

Yellow Submarine (UK: Apple PMC 7070, PCS 7070; US: Apple SW 153; Parlophone CDP 46445 2, "Songtrack": Capitol/Apple CDP 7243 5 21481 2 7)

History:

    Although it seems at first like a dig on the lads' home of Liverpool, one of the main cities in what is commonly referred to as "Northern" England, "Only a Northern Song" actually refers to the Lennon-McCartney music publishing firm of the same name, and Harrison's growing dissatisfaction with it. Northern Songs had of course been set up by Dick James, the band's publisher, to license songs written by John and/or Paul under the "Lennon-McCartney" credit, but once George began writing original music, he soon discovered that he was also contractually obligated to the form, essentially acting as a composer for hire and having most of his song's profits -- 98 to 99 percent! -- taken by others. This song is his response, sort of the "Taxman" of the Sgt. Pepper sessions.
  • That is, it would have been, but since Harrison made it such a meta joke, filled with "wrong" chord changes, dissonant notes, and a lazy melody, it wasn't much of a piece of music. It was almost as George specifically set out to make a song that wouldn't bring his bosses, including John and Paul, very much money, and so it never made the cut for Sgt. Pepper; producer George Martin, who "groaned inside when (I) heard it," gave the song a chance anyway, allowing rhythm tracks and a guide vocal to be recorded on February 13 and 14, 1968, three days after the completion of "A Day in the Life." No one cared for the tune very much after that, however, and Harrison was dispatched to "come up with something better." He eventually returned with the superior "Within You Without You," which became his spotlight on Pepper.
  • After completion of the album, the group gamely returned to "Northern Song," fleshing it out on the 20th and 21st of April with several effects typical of the era, including random instrumentation, added tape effects like echo and delay, and a process which involved mixing two different takes into each other at the same time for a meta-flanging effect. The completed song was eventually used for the Yellow Submarine film project in 1968; by the time that film wads released, George's "Harrisongs" publishing company had escaped Northern Songs once and for all.
Trivia:
  • Because of the unique attempt at mixing two takes together live to create the woozy, dreamlike atmosphere of "Only a Northern Song," it was judged too difficult to try and replicate for stereo. Thus, this is the only later-period Beatles song not originally released in stereo, although fake "mock stereo" separations were used. The song was not fully remixed in "true stereo" until the 1999 "songtrack" re-configuration of Yellow Submarine on CD.
  • In the animated film itself, "Only a Northern Song" is played as the group, in the titular submarine, travels through the "Sea of Science."
  • While recording, Harrison changed the original lyrics from "If you think the harmony / Is a little dark and out of key / Then you're right / 'Cause I sing it myself" to "...You're correct / There's nobody there."
Covered by: The Empty Set, Jamie Hoover, Michael Drucker, James Kavoussi, pHoaming Edison
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