The stereotype stands to this day: John Lennon wrote the rockers, Paul McCartney the love songs. But the Abbey Road track “Oh! Darling” challenged this notion by having McCartney write and sing the blues. Lennon said later that he wished he had sung lead, as it represented one of his “typical” songs. McCartney’s performance, however, convincingly conveys longing and heartbreak.
While it ultimately appeared on Abbey Road, “Oh! Darling” dates back to the Get Back sessions, the ill-fated project that exacerbated already simmering tensions in the group. The McCartney-penned song first surfaced on January 27, 1969, when he ran through the song with Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, along with guest pianist Billy Preston. This early Apple Studios session became a somewhat sloppy but enjoyable jam session, with McCartney’s voice lacking the gravely quality of the final version. Lennon even improvises a lyric toward the end of this take, addressing how Yoko Ono had finally obtained her divorce from husband Tony Cox. He says “I’ve just heard that Yoko’s divorce has just gone through. Free at last!” He sings “I’m free this morning, baby told the lawyer it’s OK” before rejoining McCartney in the refrain “believe me when I tell you, I’ll never do you no harm.” The group informally played the track several times, their last attempt on January 31.
The most complete tracks from these sessions, under the controversial helm of Phil Spector, were eventually released as the Let It Be album. But numerous songs that appeared on Abbey Road originated from the Get Back rehearsals, most of which are chronicled on the ten-volume 30 Days bootleg.
Flash forward three months, when the Beatles revisited the track on April 20. Seemingly more focused, the group took another stab at “Oh! Darling.” In fact, they took several stabs — they recorded a staggering 26 takes of the rhythm track with McCartney providing bass and guide vocals. Instead of Preston, Lennon took over on piano, while Harrison and Starr laid down their guitar and drum tracks, respectively. According to the Beatles Bible site, they also overdubbed a Hammond organ part, but later deleted it.
As is well known, John Lennon never minced words in an interview. In 1980, he described the track as follows: “‘Oh! Darling’ was a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well. I always thought that I could’ve done it better — it was more my style than his. He wrote it, so what the hell, he’s going to sing it. If he’d had any sense he should have let me sing it.” Lennon’s sentiment faintly echoes the tired “John Lennon is the hard rocker, Paul McCartney is the sensitive balladeer” stereotype, a “truth” that the pair debunked many times in their careers. One of McCartney’s great rockers, “Oh! Darling” demonstrates how he could sing the blues convincingly, just as Lennon wrote and performed beautiful ballads throughout his career.
Knowing that he was countering the public’s perspective of him, McCartney wished to deliver a convincing vocal. According to Barry Miles’ McCartney biography Many Years from Now, McCartney routinely arrived at the studio long before the other Beatles to rehearse his vocals. “I mainly remember wanting to get the vocal right, wanting to get it good, and I ended up trying each morning as I came into the recording session,” he told Miles. “I tried it with a hand mike, and I tried it with a standing mike, I tried it every which way, and finally got the vocal I was reasonably happy with.” McCartney noted that he usually recorded all his vocal parts in one day; here he worked on his lead vocal July 17 and 23. In Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, engineer Alan Parsons recalled how McCartney wanted his vocals to be perfect: “He’d come in, sing it and say, ‘No, that’s not it, I’ll try it again tomorrow.’ He only tried it once per day, I suppose he wanted to capture a certain rawness which could only be done once before the voice changed,” Parsons stated. “I remember him saying, ‘Five years ago I could have done this in a flash,’ referring, I suppose, to the days of ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Kansas City.’”
Once McCartney finished his part, he recorded his background vocals with Harrison and Lennon on August 11. Their doo-wop-esque harmonies emphasized the overall retro feel of the track, with The Beatles explicitly acknowledging their early R&B influences.
While the public did not realize it, Abbey Road would be the band’s final hurrah — even though the previously recorded Let It Be would be released in 1970. Therefore, many of its songs represent fragments of songs and genres that permeated the group’s songwriting and musicianship. “Oh! Darling” is a mix of New Orleans boogie woogie ala Fats Domino, ’50s rock and roll, and the early blues which influenced so many of the British Invasion groups. Lennon’s piano imitates the pounding style of Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, while Harrison’s slightly distorted guitar adds a distinctly rock edge.
McCartney brings out his most robust singing style, paying homage to Domino and Howlin’ Wolf with just a touch of Elvis Presley. Instead of his usual smooth style, McCartney allows some hoarseness to make the blues-soaked track sound more authentic. Listen to his voice on the lines “When you told me, you didn’t need me anymore — well, you know I nearly broke down and cried.” Clearly the Beatles had listened to a great deal of early blues, as these words reflect common sentiments expressed in the genre. Pain and heartbreak reach a peak when he almost screams the lines “When you told me, you didn’t need me anymore, well you know I nearly fell down and died.” The echo effect on the word “died” is a nice touch, as it mimics dramatic methods used in early recordings by Presley.
“Oh! Darling” may not stand as one of the Beatles’ most complicated songs both technically and thematically, but it shows how the band could absorb several influences and transform them into their own sound. The song may contain typical blues chord progressions, but when Starr’s drums roll in with his distinct hard-hitting style, the listener immediately knows that this is a distinctly Beatles track.