Unlike many bands, the Beatles’ B-sides were often just as good, if not better, than the A-side single. Case in point: “For You Blue,” the B-side to the hit single “The Long and Winding Road.”
While “Long and Winding” certainly contained great emotion, “For You Blue” represents pure George Harrison, a man who enjoyed blues and country just as much as rock. In I Me Mine, Harrison described this fun tune as “a simple 12-bar song following all the normal 12-bar principles, except that it’s happy-go-lucky!” Indeed, Harrison’s many asides and chuckles during the track demonstrate how much fun he was experiencing while recording it. This optimism is remarkable considering the origins of “For You Blue”: the infamous Get Back sessions.
Reportedly then-wife Patti Boyd once again served as Harrison’s muse, with him penning lyrics such as “Because you’re sweet and lovely girl, I love you” in her honor. After writing the song in late 1968, Harrison presented it to the Beatles in January 1969, when they were deep into the Get Back sessions (later compiled into the Let It Be album). The Beatles rehearsed the track 15 times at Twickenham Studios, according to Beatles researcher Robert Fontenot; much of this footage can be found on bootlegs such as Thirty Days.
Unlike other tracks, “For You Blue” did not vary greatly from take to take, except for Harrison later substituting “it’s true” to avoid repeating “I love you” and “I do” too many times. The Beatles Bible reports the band recording the song in six takes on January 25, 1969, the last being deemed the best version.
“For You Blue” contains what would become a trademark of Harrison’s songs: slide guitar. Therefore, many listeners assume that Harrison plays lead throughout the track. Surprisingly, it was John Lennon who performed the solos on lap steel guitar, using a shotgun shell as a slide. The long out-of-print Let It Be film shows Lennon executing the solos, leaning over the guitar while laboriously executing the notes. Harrison can be heard encouraging Lennon in the endeavor, yelling “Go, Johnny, go!” and “Elmore James’ got nothing on this baby,” a reference to another slide guitar master. While a blues track, Harrison sings in falsetto, his voice floating over the guitar, piano, and shuffling drum beat. One gets the sense of the four sitting in a living room, just jamming for fun. Harrison’s ad-libbed lines of “same ol’ twelve bar blues” and the final line, “I’m living the blues,” add to the song’s charm and upbeat spirit.
As is well-known, the Beatles would soon abandon the sessions, later regrouping for the Abbey Road album. At Lennon’s urging, the band turned over the Get Back session tapes to producer Phil Spector, who would salvage the best tracks, add more production (or overproduction, depending on one’s opinion), and release the album as Let It Be. To further refine “For You Blue,” Spector called in Harrison to contribute a new lead vocal, which he did over January 4 and 8, 1970. In true eccentric Spector fashion, he experimented with the track by creating a 16-second loop of the instrumental break, inserting snippets of dialogue from the Let It Be movie. Wisely he later abandoned the idea, retaining only Lennon saying “Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members,” which strangely introduces “For You Blue” on the original Let It Be soundtrack.
Subsequently on May 11, 1970, the Beatles released “The Long and Winding Road” as a U.S. single, with “For You Blue” gracing the B-side. The McCartney-composed track reached No. 1, and Billboard listed “For You Blue” on its charts as well, per its then-policy of listing the A and B sides of a 45. But “For You Blue” was never considered a “true” No. 1 — as Fontenot correctly points out, the song was excluded from the 2000 1 compilation. However, the bluesy track should not be overlooked, as it features some exquisite guitar playing, and demonstrates how Lennon is often underrated as a guitarist.
True to many Beatles tracks, “For You Blue” is available in several versions. One of the six takes from January 25, 1969 is included on the Anthology 3 compilation, and the take included in the film graces the Let It Be: Naked album. As a solo artist, Harrison revisited the track, performing it during his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour. During the 2002 Concert for George, McCartney performed a spirited version as a tribute to his friend.
Which version of “For You Blue” is superior — the original, Anthology, or Naked version? That question remains open for many fans, as all these takes possess great qualities. What remains constant, however, is Harrison’s lovely, light vocals and Lennon’s twangy guitar, and both drive this unjustly overlooked song.