As the Beatles’ career progressed, George Harrison gradually developed into a first-class songwriter on a par with the formidable John Lennon/Paul McCartney partnership.
One of Harrison’s more unusual compositions, “I Want to Tell You,” fits in perfectly with Revolver’s experimental vibe. The pounding piano, pervasive dissonance, and a subtle reference to Harrison’s increasing interest in Indian music and culture add up to a classic and offbeat track.
In 1980, Harrison described the lyrics as addressing “the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit.” Indeed, the verses paint a picture of someone constantly struggling with language. “My head is filled with things to say,” Harrison sings, but “all those words they seem to slip away.” He fears offending the person he’s having the conversation with, explaining that “if I seem to act unkind, it’s only me, it’s not my mind that is confusing things.” His mind is clear and pure, but the body cannot move as quickly as the mind.
For me, the best lines in the song remain “I feel hung up and I don’t know why; I don’t mind, I could wait forever — I’ve got time.” That sentiment fits in well with other songs on the album, as Lennon also advocates a laid-back lifestyles without worries in tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” and “Surrender to the void”) and “I’m Only Sleeping” (“Keeping an eye on the world going by my window … taking my time”).
While Harrison’s lyrics are clever, the instrumentation further distinguishes “I Want to Tell You” from other rock songs of the time. The galloping piano accents the rhythm through dissonant harmonies, and Ringo Starr’s drumming easily navigates through some offbeat tempos. According to Allan K. Pollack, author of the “Notes On” series, Starr re-energizes the track with his driving percussion. “If you feel the momentum beginning to sag toward the end of this section, dig how that sudden burst of rapid triplets at the very end of the bridge helps to re-jump-start your momentum for the verse that follows,” writes Pollack. Other percussion can be heard, including tambourine and handclaps.
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As usual, the Lennon/McCartney/Harrison vocal harmonies sound tight, often singing entire lines instead of emphasizing certain words. As with many Beatles songs, the group experiments with beginnings and endings. Similar to “Eight Days A Week,” the track gradually fades in, this time over the distinctive guitar riff. Even more interesting, the ending fades out over the repeated phrase “I’ve got time,” and McCartney adds an unusual touch. As the sound fades, McCartney breaks into, as Pollack states, “free Indian-flavored melisma.” In other words, he sang the word “time” while oscillating among various notes. The move adds a touch of sophistication and world-music influence to the rock track.
Harrison often found it difficult to title his songs; according to Mark Lewisohn’s seminal work The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, the cut’s working titles included “Granny Smith,” “Laxton’s Superb” (another type of apple, foreshadowing later years) and “I Don’t Know.” On June 2, 1966, the Beatles entered the studio to lay down virtually all the track’s elements; they put the finishing touches on “I Want to Tell You” the following day. Mixing was completed on June 6.
“I Want to Tell You” was never released as a single, and lingered in relative album track obscurity until years later. While touring in Japan with Eric Clapton in 1992, Harrison resurrected the song — to the delight of audiences. That version, which features extended guitar solos, appeared on the Live in Japan album chronicling the brief tour. Appropriately, ELO founder and frequent Harrison collaborator Jeff Lynne performed the track at the Concert for George ten years later. It may have taken over four decades, but “I Want to Tell You” is finally receiving deserved recognition for its sophisticated arrangement and Harrison’s creativity in manipulating language.