- Album Songs recorded during this session officially appear on the The Beatles (Mono) LP.
- EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road
More from year 1968
Some songs from this session appear on:
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On this day, The Beatles wrote, recorded, and completed “Birthday“. As George Martin was on holiday for most of September 1968, Chris Thomas produced this session.
I had mentioned to Paul a couple of days earlier about ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ being on television during this evening. The idea was to start the session ealier than usual, about five o’clock in the afternoon, and then all nip around the corner to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue, watch the film and go back to work.Chris Thomas – From “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn
“The Girl Can’t Help It” is a 1956 American musical comedy film. The production was originally intended as a vehicle for the American sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, with a satirical subplot involving teenagers and rock ‘n’ roll music. The unintended result has been called the “most potent” celebration of rock music ever captured on film. From Wikipedia:
The film’s influence on rock music is significant. The film reached Liverpool, England, in the early summer of 1957. The cameo performances of early rock ‘n’ roll stars such as Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent and His Bluecaps fascinated a 16-year-old John Lennon by showing him, for the first time, his “worshipped” American rock ‘n’ roll stars as living humans and thus further inspiring him to pursue his own rock ‘n’ roll dream. On July 6, 1957, 15-year-old Paul McCartney was introduced to Lennon after the latter had performed at a village church garden party with his skiffle group The Quarrymen. McCartney demonstrated his musical prowess to Lennon by performing “Twenty Flight Rock” in a manner similar to how he had seen it played by Eddie Cochran in The Girl Can’t Help It. This led to Lennon inviting McCartney to join the group.
We’d loved “The Girl Can’t Help It” and we knew that you could make a rock’n’roll film. We’d seen those little American productions and, although they were low budget and not very good, they did have music and we always went to see them.Paul McCartney, mentioning the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” – From The Beatles Anthology book
On this day, this was the British TV premiere of the film. No wonder why The Beatles didn’t want to miss that!
Paul McCartney was the first one in the studio and improvised the guitar riff for “Birthday“, as remembered by Chris Thomas:
So on the day, Paul was the first one in, and he was playing the “Birthday” riff. Eventually the others arrived, by which time Paul had literally written the song, right there in the studio. We had the backing track down by about 8:30, popped around to watch the film as arranged and then came back and actually finished the whole song. It was all done in a day!Chris Thomas – From “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn
Paul disagrees with the idea he wrote the song by himself and considers this song was written at 50-50 with John Lennon.
We thought, ‘Why not make something up?’ So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. We said, ‘We’ll go to there for a few bars, then we’ll do this for a few bars.’ We added some lyrics, then we got the friends who were there to join in on the chorus. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all on the same evening.Paul McCartney – from “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles, 1997
There’s a story about that. What happened was ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ was on television. That’s an old rock film with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran and a few others… Gene Vincent. And we wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock. And we said, ‘We’ll do something, just do a backing track. We’ll make up a backing track.’ So we kept it very simple– twelve-bar blues kind of thing. And we stuck in a few bits here and there in it, with no idea what the song was or what was gonna go on top of it. We just said, ‘Okay. Twelve bars in A, and we’ll change to D, and I’m gonna do a few beats in C.’ And we really just did it like that… random thing. We didn’t have time for anything else, and so we just recorded this backing. And we came back here to my house and watched ‘The Girl Can’t Help It.’ Then we went back to the studio again and made up some words to go with it all. So this song was just made up in an evening. Umm, you know. We hadn’t ever thought of it before then. And it’s one of my favorites because of that. I think it works, you know, ‘cuz it’s just… It’s a good one to dance to. Like the big long drum break, just ‘cuz, instead of… well, normally we might have four bars of drums, but with this we just keep it going, you know. We all like to hear drums plodding on.Paul McCartney – from interview with Radio Luxembourg, 1968
A real rock-a-boogie thing, a gay party piece which will be requested for many a birthday on Radio 1! This was written in the recording studio with all four fellows working on it as a joint effort even if Paul seemed to contribute the most ideas. That night’s session started a couple of hours early so that everyone – about 20 including the studio engineers and so forth – could nip round the corner and down the road to Paul’s place at nine to watch The Hollywood Musical in colour on his telly. The movie was “The Girl Can’t Help It”. Back at the studio the new song began to happen after the fellows had done a bit of musical limbering up on old rock and skiffle numbers. This is 12-bar blues stuff with Paul and John sharing the vocal, George playing tambourine with a gloved hand to avoid getting more blisters and me joining in with Ringo on the handclapping. When you listen to the word “Birthday” repeated at the end of the chorus lines you will hear (amongst other famous voices!) the singing of Yoko Ono and Pattie Harrison. Curious sound which someone suggested was like an electric harpsichord is, in fact, a carefully prepared upright piano played by Paul – “prepared” to give it a very special sound with reverberation, wow-wow and technical thinks like that.Mal Evans – From the Beatles Monthly Book, N°64, November 1968
“Birthday” was written in the studio. Just made up on the spot. I think Paul wanted to write a song like “Happy Birthday Baby”, the old fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage.John Lennon – Playboy interview, 1980 – From “All We Are Saying”, by David Sheff (2000).
Paul was the first to arrive in the studio. He began playing the riff on the piano and he’d basically composed the song by the time the other guys arrived, at which point he taught it to them while I worked on the sound. This was during the time when George Martin was on holiday, so Chris Thomas was producing and, thanks to him mentioning that the classic rock & roll movie The Girl Can’t Help It was going to be on TV that night, it was decided that we’d all take a break and go around the corner to watch it at Paul’s house. That’s what we did once they’d already laid down the backing track to ‘Birthday’, and when we returned to the studio — perhaps because the movie inspired everyone — the pace really picked up and we overdubbed the piano, hand claps, tambourine and lead vocals, as well as the backing vocals by Yoko and [George’s wife] Pattie.Ken Scott – From The Beatles ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (soundonsound.com)
Twenty takes of the basic track were recorded on a four-track tape, with Paul on bass, John on electric guitar, George Harrison on electric guitar, and Ringo Starr on drums. Those include false starts and breakdowns. Take 2 was released on the White Album’s 50th anniversary re-release in 2018.
At around 8:30, once the backing track was recorded, everyone went to Paul’s house to watch the film. They went back to the studio just after the broadcast.
Take 19 was chosen as the best version and the four-track tape was transferred to an eight-track tape, to allow for overdubs. Two attempts were made – named take 21 and take 22. Then The Beatles started adding overdubs onto take 22.
Paul and John added their lead vocals while Ringo and Mal Evans contributed handclaps. George played tambourine. Yoko Ono and Pattie Harrison provided backing vocals. Paul then added a piano part with a special sound.
Curious sound which someone suggested was like an electric harpsichord is, in fact, a carefully prepared upright piano played by Paul – “prepared” to give it a very special sound with reverberation, wow-wow and technical thinks like that.Mal Evans – From the Beatles Monthly Book, N°64, November 1968
The unusual effect on the piano was made by putting its sound through a Vox Conqueror guitar amplifier and speaker cabinet. The amp has a mid-range boost (MRB) function, which jumps between the frequencies. Having suggested switching between the settings to warp the piano’s sound, Ken Scott found himself operating the MRB: “I plugged it up to show them what I meant. When John heard it, he immediately said, ‘Yeah, that’s great – You do it,’ and made me stay there turning the knob in time with the beat. I was terrified looking up at the window and seeing them all staring down at me while hoping that my time [keeping] was on [the beat]“.From “The Beatles” Super Deluxe edition book (2018)
The work on overdubs ended at around 4:30, and the mono mix released on the White Album was made between 4:30 and 5 am in only one attempt. The stereo mix of “Birthday” would be made on October 14.
Last updated on September 18, 2021
The definitive guide for every Beatles recording sessions from 1962 to 1970.
We owe a lot to Mark Lewisohn for the creation of those session pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details - the number of takes for each song, who contributed what, a description of the context and how each session went, various photographies... And an introductory interview with Paul McCartney!
If we like to think, in all modesty, that the Paul McCartney Project is the best online ressource for everything Paul McCartney, The Beatles Bible is for sure the definitive online site focused on the Beatles. There are obviously some overlap in terms of content between the two sites, but also some major differences in terms of approach.