One of John Lennon’s more underrated compositions, “Polythene Pam” fits perfectly with the preceding Abbey Road fragment “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Like “Mr. Mustard,” Lennon created a composite character, a combination of several women who enjoyed kinky sex. Its hand-clapping rhythm and hard-driving guitars rock as Lennon sings in a deliberate scouse accent, stressing the seediness of the song’s topic.
As a side note, unlike past columns, this edition of “Deep Beatles” may need a PG-13 rating, due to the song’s backstory!
The genesis of “Polythene Pam’s” lyrics merit their own novel. In a 1980 interview, Lennon explained that the words derive from a 1963 incident with English beat poet Roston Ellis. After crossing paths in 1960, the Beatles and Ellis remained friends. During the Beatles’ tour, Ellis invited Lennon to his apartment to meet his new girlfriend. Lennon arrived with his own girl, and the couple soon learned that Ellis’ latest interest enjoyed dressing in all polythene. “She didn’t wear jackboots or kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag. Just looking for something to write about.”
Ellis recalled the incident differently — if more graphically — in Steve Turner’s seminal book A Hard Day’s Write. He stated that he and his friend Stephanie invited Lennon back to their apartment, and the three decided to experiment with having sex while wearing polythene. “We all dressed up in them and wore them in bed. John stayed the night with us in the same bed. I don’t think anything very exciting happened and we all wondered what the fun was in being ‘kinky,’” he said.
Yet another explanation is offered in A Hard Day’s Write through Pat Dawson, a Liverpool fan who courted infamy through her, um, interesting love of polythene. Dawson first befriended the group in 1961, and they would often offer her a ride home after certain concerts. “It was about the same time that I started getting called Polythene Pat. It’s embarrassing really. I just used to eat polythene all the time. I’d tie it in knots and then eat it. Sometimes I even used to burn it and then eat it when it got cold,” she said. “I had a friend who got a job in a polythene bag factory, which was wonderful because it meant I had a constant supply.” It would not be surprising that Lennon would draw inspiration from such a figure, as he enjoyed writing about quirky characters.
After composing the song in 1968, Lennon and the Beatles recorded a demo at George Harrison’s Kinfauns home in Esher. This early version eventually appeared on the Anthology 3 collection, sporting several different lyrics (most notably “well it’s a little absurd but she’s a nice class of bird” instead of “she’s the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World”) and chord variations. Originally considered for the White Album, “Polythene Pam” was then left on the shelf until the 1969 Get Back sessions. After abadoning the project, they revisited the tune for inclusion on Abbey Road, deciding to combine it with Paul McCartney’s “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” According to the Beatles Bible website, it marked the only time that two separate songs by Lennon and Paul McCartney were recorded as one track.
Sessions began for both tunes on July 25, 1969. In a 12-hour marathon, the group recorded an astounding 39 takes of the instrumental track, featuring Lennon on acoustic guitar, McCartney on bass, Harrison on lead guitar, and, of course, Ringo Starr on drums. On this day, Lennon and McCartney initially laid down guide vocals, soon replacing them with permanent lead vocals.
They also rerecorded drum and bass parts; three days later, they returned to the studio to overdub more lead vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, tambourine, cowbell, electric piano, and acoustic piano. Overdubs were completed on July 30, the same day when the Beatles finalized the medley running order and finished mixing, editing, and crossfading.
“Polythene Pam” features Lennon at his most playful, gleefully telling the raunchy story of a possible transvestite. Like “Get Back,” the song describes the heroine as “good looking but she looks like a man. Well, you should see her in drag, dressed in her polythene bag.” Apparently referring to Ellis’ girlfriend, he paints a lurid picture of her “in jackboots and kilt,” stressing her promiscuity by calling her “the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World — yes, you could say she was attractively built.”
Essentially labeling her a centerfold in a British tabloid, Lennon emphasizes the sleaziness of the topic by singing in a deliberate scouse accent. The “yeah yeah yeah” refrain faintly echoes “She Loves You,” perhaps a gentle parody of their earlier, more innocent love songs.
The instrumentation also stands out, particularly Harrison’s piercing lead guitar, Lennon’s relentless rhythm guitar, and Starr’s intricate percussion (proving that you indeed cannot have too much cowbell in a song). The group’s harmonies on the “yeah yeah yeah” refrain are tight, and Lennon’s gleeful vocal adds a humorous dimension to an otherwise seedy subject. Right before “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” Lennon laughs as he yells “look out,” expressing joy in writing and singing a naughty track.
When establishing the medley’s final running order, the Beatles proved ingenious in combining “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” Both describe adventurous women, but with a wink and a healthy dose of Liverpudlian humor. Lyrics aside, “Polythene Pam” illustrates why the the Beatles rank among the best rock and roll bands due to their tightness and musicianship.