To begin with, “Only A Northern Song” is a George Harrison composition. He wrote it while the Beatles were recording the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It is a tongue-in-cheek dig at life while being part of The Beatles at the time. Be that as it may, we had to wait until the Yellow Submarine album and film release to hear it. There are also two takes (3 & 12) from the sessions on their Anthology 2 album.
Release Date: 17th January, 1969 (UK), 13th January, 1969 (US)
Recorded: 13th & 14th February and 20th April, 1967
Studio: EMI Studios, London
Track Duration: 3:27
Record Label: Apple
Songwriter: George Harrison
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
George Harrison: vocals, Hammond organ, additional organ, dialogue, noises
John Lennon: glockenspiel, piano, dialogue, noises
Paul McCartney: bass guitar, trumpet, noises
Ringo Starr: drums, noises
Uncredited (played by the Beatles): timpani, Mellotron, additional percussion
Only A Northern Song
While John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the most prolific songwriters, George Harrison did write quite a few classic Beatles’ songs too. However, his status as a junior songwriter obviously played on his mind. So, he decided to put his thought about the situation in a song.
“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'”.
** Northern Songs Ltd was a company that came into existence in 1963. Founded by music publisher Dick James, manager Brian Epstein, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the aim was to publish Lennon and McCartney songs.
George Harrison was unhappy at his position in The Beatles, but he was still under contract so there was little he could do about the situation. One particular gripe was that the publishing company, Northern Songs, retained the copyright for the songs it published. Moreover, the shareholders were benefiting more from his songs than he was. Although this didn’t come to light until after the company floated on the stock exchange.
“I realized Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I thought, ‘Great, somebody’s gonna publish my songs!’ But he never said, ‘And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you’re assigning me the ownership of the songs,’ which is what it is. It was just a blatant theft.
By the time I realized what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalogue, I wrote Only A Northern Song as what we call a ‘piss-take,’ just to have a joke about it”.
George Harrison (1999)
Billboard Magazine (Interview by Timothy White)
The Beatles began recording “Only A Northern Song” on the 13th February, 1967, in Studio Two of the EMI Studios, London during the 7.00pm-3.30am sessions. The band recorded nine takes of the basic rhythm track on that day under the working title, “Not Known”. Take three was the one most suitable for overdubbing Harrison’s vocals on the next day.
George Martin and the rest of the band didn’t think this song was good enough for the Sgt Pepper album which they were working on. Instead, they used another Harrison song “Within You Without You“. However, it was the first offering for the band’s new project, Yellow Submarine.
On the 20th April, less than 45 minutes after finishing the final mix for Sgt Pepper, they began working on “Only A Northern Song” again.
They kept the original organ and drum tracks form the 13th February then they overdubbed a new bass guitar part. On a separate track, they recorded the trumpet, glockenspiel and other vocalised sounds.
By using two 4-track tape recorders they were able to use the full 8 channels in order to mix a final mono version. On the second tape recorder they kept the Hammond organ part from the 14th February and recorded Harrison’s new vocals and more of McCartney’s trumpeting. On another track they recorded timpani, Mellotron, piano and more organ. By now they had enough material for a more substantial sound.
Many other overdubs loosely occurred haphazardly reflecting the psychedelic sound of that period in time. The track includes a mass of loose instrumentation together with trumpet outbursts. Then there is the other random sounds and spoken voices. The outro is particularly prominent and goes along nicely with the theme of discordance.
The effect of this sound collage possibly gave John Lennon some further ideas for his avant-garde track “Revolution 9” from 1968.
It was difficult to create a stereo version of the song when using the two separate 4-track tape recorders. However, they were able to create a mock-stereo version (duophonic) at the time.
The Yellow Submarine Soundtrack album from 1969 contains both the mono mix and the mock stereo mix depending on which album version you have. Meanwhile, the Yellow Submarine Songtrack Album from 1999 has a much cleaner version of the mock-stereo mix.
The 1996 out-takes compilation album, Anthology 2, has the basic track without most of the April overdubs. This is also a slightly faster version with some changes to the lyrics. But it is a true stereo mix.