The Paul McCartney Project

Only A Northern Song

Written by George Harrison

Album This song officially appears on the Yellow Submarine (Mono) Official album.
Timeline This song has been officially released in 1969
Sessions This song has been recorded during the following sessions

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Song facts

From Wikipedia:

Only a Northern Song” is a song by English rock band the Beatles from their 1969 album Yellow Submarine. Written by George Harrison, it was recorded mainly in February 1967 during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but the Beatles chose not to include it on that album. Instead, it was one of the four new songs that the band provided for the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, to meet their contractual obligations to United Artists.

Harrison wrote “Only a Northern Song” out of dissatisfaction with his status as a junior songwriter with the Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs. The lyrics and music convey his disenchantment at how the company retained the copyright for the songs it published, and at how, following its public listing in 1965, the major shareholders profited more from his compositions than he did. The recording features Hammond organ, played by Harrison, and an overdubbed montage of assorted sounds including trumpet blasts and spoken voices, anticipating John Lennon’s 1968 sound collage “Revolution 9“. Due to the difficulty in assembling the completed track from two tape sources, “Only a Northern Song” remained a rare song from the Beatles’ post-1963 catalogue that was unavailable in true stereo until 1999. That year, it was remixed for inclusion on the album Yellow Submarine Songtrack.

The song has received a varied response from reviewers; while Ian MacDonald dismisses the track as a “self-indulgent dirge“, the website Ultimate Classic Rock identifies it as one of the Beatles’ best works in the psychedelic rock genre. A version of the song with a different vocal part, and omitting the sound collage overdubs, was issued on the Beatles’ 1996 outtakes compilation Anthology 2. […]

Background and inspiration

[“Only a Northern Song”] was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England. In addition, the song was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd., which I don’t own, so: It doesn’t really matter what chords I play … as it’s only a Northern Song. – George Harrison, 1979

George Harrison said that the subject matter for “Only a Northern Song” related to both his city of birth, Liverpool, in Merseyside, and the fact that the copyright for the composition belonged to the Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs. The company was floated on the London Stock Exchange in February 1965, as a means of saving John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ principal songwriters, the tax liability generated through the international success of their catalogue. Harrison had formed his own publishing company, Harrisongs, in late 1964; despite the financial advantages offered by his 80 per cent stake in that company, he agreed to remain with Northern Songs, to aid the flotation scheme. Among the four Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were major shareholders in Northern Songs, each owning 15 per cent of the public company’s shares, and the pair earned considerable wealth over the first year of the flotation. Harrison and Ringo Starr, as contracted songwriters, owned 0.8 per cent each. This arrangement ensured that, in addition to the company retaining the copyright of all its published songs, Lennon and McCartney profited more from Harrison’s compositions than he did.

Author Brian Southall describes “Only a Northern Song” as Harrison’s “personal denunciation of the Beatles’ music publishing business“. When discussing the song in two late 1990s interviews with Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White, Harrison commented that the main target of his complaints was Dick James, the managing director of Northern Songs. Having been signed by James in 1963, at the age of twenty, Harrison said that the publisher had failed to explain that by signing the contract, he was also signing away the ownership of his compositions. Harrison added that he only understood the consequences after the 1965 flotation, when the major shareholders were “making all this money out of this catalog“. With reference to the Rutles’ 1978 parody of the Beatles’ history, All You Need Is Cash, he also told White: “I think [the message behind ‘Only a Northern Song’] was put better in the make-believe TV documentary … where it said, ‘Dick Jaws, an out-of-work music publisher of no fixed ability’ signed them up for the rest of their lives.

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 concert tour, in August 1966. Before the band regrouped in November that year to begin recording their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Harrison spent six weeks in India with his sitar teacher, Ravi Shankar, a visit that heightened his disinterest in the Beatles’ project. MacDonald considers that Harrison’s link with northern England in “Only a Northern Song” was influenced by the Beatles working on songs about growing up in Liverpool, which was the concept under consideration at the start of the Sgt. Pepper sessions.

Composition and musical structure

Harrison wrote “Only a Northern Song” on a Hammond organ, which became his preferred instrument for songwriting during 1967, replacing the guitar. The song is in the key of A major, although MacDonald gives B minor as a secondary key. The opening organ part ends with a preview of the melody over which the song title appears in the song proper. After this short introduction, the composition is structured into two portions consisting of two verses and a chorus each, which are followed by a single verse, a final chorus and an outro, with some of these sections rendered as instrumental passages.

The composition is a meta-song, in that its subject is the work itself. While commenting on the pointlessness of writing for Northern Songs, Harrison employs musical dissonance to express his dissatisfaction with the company, through the use of what musicologist Walter Everett terms “ill-behaved tones” and “wrong-mode” chords.

From the verse’s opening A major chord, the melody moves to a ii minor voicing, rendered as B minor 7/11 through the inclusion of a low-register E note. In his lyrics, Harrison acknowledges the apparent awkwardness of such a change, singing “You may think the chords are going wrong” and, in the final verse, that the harmony might be “a little dark and out of key“. Musicologist Alan Pollack considers the song’s music and lyrical message to be “uncannily in tune” with one another, a combination that is accentuated by surprising and irregular phrase-lengths in the verses.

Contrasting with the drawn-out melody over the verses, the choruses present a fast progression of chords – specifically, E major, B minor 7, G major, C♯7 and F♯7. In the first chorus, Harrison comments that, given the inadequacy of his publishing arrangement, “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play“. Author Ian Inglis interprets this line as mirroring the singer’s complaint to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies in the late 1960s, regarding the futility of the band’s live performances when their screaming fans never listened to the music the Beatles were playing. Harrison biographer Simon Leng describes “Only a Northern Song” as the first example of its composer “pushing back at the Beatles as an organization he found wanting“, a theme Harrison returned to in 1968 with “Not Guilty“, with his comments on the group’s internal discord.

Production

Recording

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 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As was typical with his new compositions, Harrison had yet to give the song a title, so it was instead referred to as “Not Known“. The line-up on the track comprised Harrison on organ, Lennon on tambourine, McCartney on bass and Starr on drums. The band recorded nine takes of the song 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.

The song was disliked by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, and the band elected to omit it from the album. As his sole writing contribution to Sgt. Pepper, Harrison instead offered the Indian-styled “Within You Without You“, which, in Martin’s recollection, was welcomed with “a bit of a relief all round“. “Only a Northern Song” then became the first track the group provided for the soundtrack to the Yellow Submarine animated film (1968), in line with their contractual obligation to United Artists to supply four new songs. Described by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn as a “myth“, a story later circulated that Harrison had rush-written the composition for United Artists in early 1968, after Al Brodax, the film’s producer, approached the band for a final song.

Overdubbing

[W]e recorded “Only a Northern Song” in Abbey Road. I remember playing a silly trumpet. My dad used to play. I can’t, but I can mess around a lot – and that song gave me the perfect framework. It was very tongue in cheek. – Paul McCartney, 2000

The group returned to “Only a Northern Song” on 20 April 1967, within an hour of completing the final mixing on Sgt. Pepper. In addition to replacing the original bass guitar and vocal parts, the overdubs carried out that day included trumpet and piano, played by McCartney and Lennon, respectively, together with glockenspiel and percussion. A second 4-track tape recorder was used for the song, so allowing the various instrumental parts and studio effects to be spread across eight available channels.

The Beatles performed much of the overdubs in a seemingly haphazard manner; MacDonald describes the result as “a consciously sloven piece of work“. Tom Maginnis of AllMusic finds the recording “heavily steeped in the psychedelic sounds of the period, using liberal amounts of loose instrumentation“, particularly “chaotic bursts of trumpet“. In Pollack’s description, these later additions constitute a “noise track“, which further heightens the theme of discordance and is used to fill the song’s instrumental sections, becoming especially prominent during the outro. With its inclusion of reversed tape loops and spoken voices, Inglis has cited the sound collage effect as a precedent for Lennon’s 1968 avant-garde track “Revolution 9” and an early example of the electronic music genre.

Mixing

The Beatles completed a final mix of the song on 21 April 1967. Due to the difficulty in getting the two 4-track machines to play at exactly the same time, only a mono mix was attempted. In October 1968, while preparing the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album for release, EMI’s engineers created a mock-stereo (duophonic) mix from this mono mix, instead of returning to the master tapes. For the monaural version of the album, originally available only in the UK, the engineers combined the two channels from the duophonic mix, rather than using the April 1967 mono mix.

Appearance in Yellow Submarine film

In the Yellow Submarine film, the song appears during a scene when the submarine carrying the Beatles travels through the Sea of Science, one of the seven seas around Pepperland. 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“. Jeremiah Massengale, an academic in the field of visual communication, highlights the sequence as one of many technical innovations introduced by the 1968 film, saying: “accompanying multi-colored, square portrait paintings of the Beatles during ‘Only a Northern Song’, there’s a creative use of an oscillator picking out the sound waves of the track.” Glynn cites the drug-inspired imagery of this and two other song sequences as the true reason that Rank pulled Yellow Submarine from its UK cinema run, rather than the company’s official reasoning that the film had performed poorly at the box office.

The “Only a Northern Song” segment was the only clip shown in a feature about Yellow Submarine on the television show How It Is. Produced by Tony Palmer and including portions of the stage play based on Lennon’s book In His Own Write, the show was broadcast on BBC1 two days after the film’s world premiere in London, on 19 July 1968.

Release

In January 1969, “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. The soundtrack was viewed as a secondary release by the Beatles, who delayed its release to allow for their 1968 self-titled double album, also known as “the White Album“. Although Harrison’s contract with James had expired in March 1968, the copyright for “Only a Northern Song” and his second contribution to the film, “It’s All Too Much“, remained with Northern Songs rather than being assigned to Harrisongs as his four White Album compositions had been. The song’s release coincided with a period of acrimony between James and the Beatles, particularly Lennon and McCartney, about whom Lewisohn writes: “If John and Paul still thought they owned their songs [following the flotation of Northern Songs] they were deluding themselves.” In March 1969, wary of the disharmony within the band and the problems affecting their Apple Corps business empire, James sold his majority shareholding in Northern Songs to Lew Grade’s ATV Music, thereby selling on the ownership of the Beatles catalogue.

In a contemporary review of Yellow Submarine, Beat Instrumental lamented that it offered little new material by the band, but described “Only a Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much” as “superb pieces” that “redeem” side one. Recalling the release in his 1977 book The Beatles Forever, however, Nicholas Schaffner dismissed the track as one of the “trifling baubles” the Beatles provided for a film project they had little interest in originally. While adhering to Brodax’s account of the song’s creation, NME critic Bob Woffinden found “considerable merit” in “Only a Northern Song“, and suggested that Harrison’s divergence from his usual, methodical approach to songwriting was one he should pursue more often.

In January 1996, the song was issued as the B-side to “It’s All Too Much” on a blue-vinyl jukebox single, as part of a series of Beatles releases by Capitol Records’ CEMA Special Markets division. By 1999, “Only a Northern Song” remained one of only two post-1963 Beatles songs not to have been made available in true stereo (the other being “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)“). That year, a stereo version became available when the track was remixed for inclusion on the album Yellow Submarine Songtrack. […]

Other versions

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.

From The Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations:

  • [a] mono 21 Apr 1967.
  • [a1] mock stereo made from [a] 29 Oct 1968.
    UK: Apple PCS 7070 Yellow Submarine 1969.
    US: Apple SW 153 Yellow Submarine 1969.
    CD: EMI CDP 7 46445 2 Yellow Submarine 1987.
  • [a2] mono made from [a1] 1968.
    UK: Apple PMC 7070 Yellow Submarine 1969.
  • [b] stereo 1995.
    CD: Apple CDP 8 34448 2 Anthology 2 1996.

The first generation, take 3, was mixed down to take 12 and overdubs added; then tracks of take 3 were wiped and overdubs added. The mono mix is made from both synchronized, mainly from 12. No attempt was made to make stereo. [a] was used in mono in the original film print of Yellow Submarine.

The Anthology mix [b] is also synchronized from tracks on different original tapes, but deliberately has different tracks mixed in, including a different lead vocal; and it is speeded up just over 2 per cent for no stated reason.

Last updated on May 17, 2017

Lyrics

If you're listening to this song
You may think the chords are going wrong
But they're not
We just wrote them like that

If you're listening late at night
You may think the band are not quite right
But they are
The just play it like that

And 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

It doesn't really matter what clothes I wear
What words I pair
Or if my hair is brown
'Cause it's only a Northern song

If you think the harmony
Is a little dull and out of key
You're correct
'Cause there's nobody there

And it's only there's no one there

Officially appears on


Yellow Submarine (Mono)

Official album • Released in 1969

3:25 • Studio versionA • Mono

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Effects, Trumpet
Ringo Starr:
Drums
John Lennon:
Effects, Glockenspiel, Piano
George Harrison:
Effects, Organ, Vocals
George Martin:
Producer
Geoff Emerick:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Feb 13, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Feb 14, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Apr 20, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Apr 21, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road


Yellow Submarine (Stereo)

Official album • Released in 1969

3:25 • Studio versionA1 • Stereo • Mock stereo from [A]

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Effects, Trumpet
Ringo Starr:
Drums
John Lennon:
Effects, Glockenspiel, Piano
George Harrison:
Effects, Organ, Vocals
George Martin:
Producer
Geoff Emerick:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Feb 13, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Feb 14, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Apr 20, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Abbey Road

Session Mixing:
Oct 29, 1968
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Three, Abbey Road


Anthology 2

Official album • Released in 1996

2:44 • OuttakeC • The mix presented here, in stereo and slightly speeded up, is Take 3 - the basic track from 13 February, with bass and guitar added on 20 April - with unused vocal tracks (yielding a number of lyric variations from the master) overdubbed on to a separate "reduction", Take 12, flown in.

George Martin:
Producer
Geoff Emerick:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Feb 13, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Feb 14, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Apr 20, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Abbey Road


Yellow Submarine Songtrack

Official album • Released in 1999

3:27 • Studio versionR1999

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Effects, Trumpet
Ringo Starr:
Drums
John Lennon:
Effects, Glockenspiel, Piano
George Harrison:
Effects, Organ, Vocals
George Martin:
Producer
Geoff Emerick:
Engineer
Paul Hicks:
Remix engineer assistant
Mirek Stiles:
Remix engineer assistant
Peter Cobbin:
Remix engineer

Session Recording:
Feb 13, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Feb 14, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

Session Overdubs:
Apr 20, 1967
Studio:
EMI Studios, Abbey Road

Session Remixing:
Circa 1999
Studio:
EMI Studios, Abbey Road

Bootlegs


Yellow Submarine Sessions

Unofficial album

2:47 • Outtake • Takes 3 & 12 Stereo


Yellow Submarine Sessions

Unofficial album

2:37 • Outtake • RS From Takes 3 &11 V1 Stereo


Yellow Submarine Sessions

Unofficial album

3:30 • Outtake • RM6 From Takes 3 & 11 Mono


Yellow Submarine Sessions

Unofficial album

2:44 • Outtake • RS From Takes 3 & 11 V2 Stereo


Yellow Submarine Sessions

Unofficial album

3:26 • Outtake • RS From Takes 3 & 11 V3 Stereo

Live performances

Paul McCartney has never played this song in concert.


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