The Paul McCartney Project

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Written by Lennon - McCartney

Album This song officially appears on the Rubber Soul (UK Mono) Official album.
Timeline This song has been officially released in 1965
Sessions This song has been recorded during the following sessions

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Song facts

From Wikipedia:

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.

Composition

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, it is speculated by writer Philip Norman that it was either close friend and journalist Maureen Cleave, or Sonny Freeman. Paul McCartney explained the term “Norwegian Wood” was sarcastic commentary on the cheap pine walls 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 he conceived the initial idea for “Norwegian Wood“, and contributed lyrics to Lennon’s unfinished draft. 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“.

Recording

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 milked it up and put it on and it just seemed to hit the spot“.

Norwegian Wood” opens with I (E) chord and a vocal melody B-natural (on the word “I“) which is the 5th scale degree in E Mixolydian. This shifts to a D natural harmony (supported by scale degree 7 in E Mixolydian) with a (Dadd9) chord on “she” and “once“, to return, via a passing C# on “had“, to the tonic (E maj.), supported in the vocal line by a double entendre 5th (B) melody note on “me” (an octave below the opening B-natural on “I”). Meanwhile, the bass emphasizes the E tonic in a static harmony. In the bridge (in Em key) the root chord begins at “She asked me“, transforms to an IV chord (A) at “where“, goes back to i (Em) at “looked” before the bridge runs back to the major verse with a ii7 (F#m7)- V (B) progression that resolves on the appropriate E chord of “I sat on a rug.

Reception

[…] 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 the most self-evident Lennon piece on Rubber Soul to exemplify his maturity as a songwriter, and praises the composition’s “calm and peaceful attitude toward not only one’s past and present, but their future and the inevitability of death“.

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’“.

Paul McCartney, in Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles:

I came in and he had this first stanza, which was brilliant: ‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.’ That was all he had, no title, no nothing. I said, ‘Oh yes, well, ha, we’re there.’ And it wrote itself. Once you’ve got the great idea, they do tend to write themselves, providing you know how to write songs. So I picked it up at the second verse, it’s a story. It’s him trying to pull a bird, it was about an affair. John told Playboy that he hadn’t the faintest idea where the title came from but I do. Peter Asher had his room done out in wood, a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, Cheap Pine, baby…

So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath’. 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.

From The Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations:

  • [a] mono 25 Oct 1965.
    UK: Parlophone PMC 1267 Rubber Soul 1965.
    US: Capitol T 2442 Rubber Soul 1965.
  • [b] stereo 26 Oct 1965.
    UK: Parlophone PCS 3075 Rubber Soul 1965, Apple PCSP 717 The Beatles 1962-1966 1973.
    US: Capitol ST 2442 Rubber Soul 1965, Apple SKBO-3403 The Beatles 1962-1966 1973.
  • [c] stereo or mock stereo, date unknown.
    UK: Parlophone PCSP 721 Love Songs 1977, Parlophone PCS 7214 Ballads 1980.
    US: Capitol SKBL 11711 Love Songs 1977.
  • [d] stereo 1987.
    CD: EMI CDP 7 46440 2 Rubber Soul 1987, EMI CDP 7 97036 2 The Beatles 1962-1966 1993.

[a] has a pair of cough sounds after “to sit anywhere”, mixed out on the others. A stereo mix on bootleg shows this to be George, since it is on the isolated sitar track. Also on that track is a spoken “sounds good” (second word indistinct) just as the vocal begins “she told me she works…”, and that is also barely audible in mono [a] only.

[c] has the vocal track in the center of the mix, while it is far right in [b] [d]. EMI staff say [c] was not newly made in 1977. Is it just a nicely processed mono mix?

Last updated on March 26, 2016

Lyrics

I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn't it good Norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn't a chair

I sat on the rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
"It's time for bed"

She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't
And crawled off to sleep in the bath

Officially appears on


Rubber Soul (UK Mono)

Official album • Released in 1965

2:01 • Studio versionA • Mono

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Harmony vocals
Ringo Starr:
Bass drum, Tambourine
John Lennon:
Acoustic rhythm guitar, Vocals
George Harrison:
12-string acoustic guitar, Sitar
George Martin:
Producer
Norman Smith:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Oct 12, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Recording:
Oct 21, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Oct 25, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road


Rubber Soul (US Mono)

Official album • Released in 1965

2:06 • Studio versionA • Mono

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Harmony vocals
Ringo Starr:
Bass drum, Tambourine
John Lennon:
Acoustic rhythm guitar, Vocals
George Harrison:
12-string acoustic guitar, Sitar
George Martin:
Producer
Norman Smith:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Oct 12, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Recording:
Oct 21, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Oct 25, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road


Rubber Soul (US Stereo)

Official album • Released in 1965

2:06 • Studio versionB • Stereo

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Harmony vocals
Ringo Starr:
Bass drum, Tambourine
John Lennon:
Acoustic rhythm guitar, Vocals
George Harrison:
12-string acoustic guitar, Sitar
George Martin:
Producer
Norman Smith:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Oct 12, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Recording:
Oct 21, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Oct 26, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road


Rubber Soul (UK Stereo)

Official album • Released in 1965

2:01 • Studio versionB • Stereo

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Harmony vocals
Ringo Starr:
Bass drum, Tambourine
John Lennon:
Acoustic rhythm guitar, Vocals
George Harrison:
12-string acoustic guitar, Sitar
George Martin:
Producer
Norman Smith:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Oct 12, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Recording:
Oct 21, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Oct 26, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road


Anthology 2

Official album • Released in 1996

1:59 • OuttakeE • Take 1, an earlier model issued here for the first time, was recorded during the first day of sessions for the new album. Like the eventual master, it includes a sitar contribution by George Harrison (the first time this Indian instrument was heard in a "pop" song) and also a lead and occasionally double-tracked vocal by John, harmonies from Paul and John, acoustic guitar, finger cymbals, maracas and bass guitar. The recording was marked "best" on the tape box and studio log-sheet so, clearly, the Beatles thought that they had made a master, and indeed it remained the preferred take for nine days, until they cut a remake

George Martin:
Producer
Norman Smith:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Oct 12, 1965
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Bootlegs


Complete Controlroom Monitor Mixes - Volume 1

Unofficial album

1:58 • Studio version


Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 2 (1964-1965)

Unofficial album • Released in 1989

1:58 • Outtake • Take 1


Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 7 (1962-1969)

Unofficial album • Released in 1991

2:32 • Alternate take • Norwegian Wood (tk 4, right channel mono)


Michael Parkinson Show - complete live performance & rehearsals

Unofficial live • Released in 2003

1:08 • Soundcheck


Rubber Soul - Studio Sessions - Back To Basics

Unofficial album • Released in 2012

2:12 • Alternate take • Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown) (Take 1) (stereo)


Live performances

Paul McCartney has never played this song in concert.


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