In retrospect, “You Can’t Do That” could have been titled “Shoulda Been.” It should have been in the Hard Day’s Night film; it should have been a lead single. Instead, due to various circumstances, “You Can’t Do That” is a non-movie track that remains one of the Beatles’ “shoulda been” hits.
Featuring lyrics concerning anger and insecurity, “You Can’t Do That” is a prime example of the Beatles’ ability to record accessible yet sophisticated pop. It remains a deep track that should have been considered in the same league as “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
According to past interviews, Lennon wrote “You Can’t Do That” partially to break away from his usual rhythm guitar parts. In 1964, he told Melody Maker that “I’d find it a drag to play rhythm all the time, so I always work myself out something interesting to play.” With “You Can’t Do That,” Lennon explained, “there really isn’t a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist on that, because I feel the rhythm guitarist role sounds too thin for records. Anyway, it drove me potty to play chunk-chunk rhythm all the time.” He acknowledged that George Harrison contributed stellar lead guitar, but that sometimes Lennon liked to take the reins.
Sixteen years later, Lennon claimed the track was his attempt at emulating Wilson Pickett: “You know, a cowbell going four-in-the-bar, and the chord going ‘chatoong!” he said.
After penning the track, Lennon and the band assembled on February 25, 1964 at EMI/Abbey Road Studios to record it, along with “And I Love Her” and “I Should Have Known Better.” Only “You Can’t Do That” was completed during this session, with the Beatles laying down nine takes of the song. (Only four takes were complete.) As the Beatles Bible notes, the song marks the first time Harrison used his soon-to-be-trademark Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. As previously mentioned, “You Can’t Do That” also features Lennon’s lead guitar debut on a Beatles single.
While it does not appear in the released version of A Hard Day’s Night, “You Can’t Do That” was originally intended for inclusion during the final concert sequence. In addition, the track was slated to be the sixth UK single until Paul McCartney composed “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Thus, Lennon’s song was not only left on the cutting room floor, it was also relegated to the B-side of the “Can’t Buy Me Love” single in the U.S. and UK, showing up only as an extra tune on the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. Interestingly, after the “Can’t Buy Me Love/You Can’t Do That” single was released on March 20, producer George Martin overdubbed a piano part onto take nine on May 22, according to Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. This version, now take ten, was never used.
Despite these setbacks, “You Can’t Do That” received acclaim via the Beatles’ 1964 concerts and BBC radio appearances. According to the Beatles Bible, the omitted Hard Day’s Night footage was aired on the Ed Sullivan Show on May 24, 1964 to promote the film. In 1995, take six of the song appeared on the Anthology 1 collection, a version notable for including Lennon’s original guide vocal.
“You Can’t Do That” begins and ends with Harrison’s distinctive guitar picking, the sound slightly predating the Byrds’ folk-rock sound, as well as reflecting the group’s interest in spanning musical genres. The heavy rhythm, punctuated by Starr’s drums and McCartney’s accompanying cowbell, reveals the group’s well-known R&B roots.
Lennon then enters the scene with a raspy rock vocal, perfect for communicating the narrator’s message: “I’ve got something to say that might cause you pain,” he snarls, asserting that if he catches his girlfriend talking to a certain man again “I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat.” He plays the tough guy, sounding possessive as he confronts her: “Well, it’s the second time I’ve caught you talking to him; do I have to tell you one more time I think it’s a sin?” He repeats the title phrase, clarifying his feelings concerning her even speaking to another man.
Obvious thematic comparisons can be made to other Lennon compositions such as “Run for Your Life,” “No Reply,” “Not A Second Time,” or the resentment expressed in “I’ll Cry Instead.” On “You Can’t Do That,” however, Lennon admits his insecurity, suggesting that the problem may lie with him: “Everybody’s green, ‘Cause I’m the one who won your love,” he sings at the bridge. If friends saw the woman with another man, he moans, “they’d laugh in my face.”
So, while he commands the girlfriend to listen to him if she wants to be his lover, he admits “I can’t help my feelings, I’ll go out of my mind.” Thus, he argues that he has little control over his emotions, which would lead to the relationship’s demise. Lennon would later atone for his overly possessive feelings and mistrust in songs like “Jealous Guy” and “Woman.”
Another essential ingredient of “You Can’t Do That” is Harrison and McCartney’s backing vocals. The call-and-response motif, particularly when Lennon sings the line “I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat,” lets the other two function as a Greek chorus — underscoring important aspects of the tune. Listen to their harmonies on the words “green” and “seen,” as well as the phrase “laugh in my face.” Their voices are found high in the mix, serving as exclamation points, dramatizing the rage and anguish of the narrator. Harrison and McCartney repeat the title words during Lennon’s guitar solo, the repetition adding to the overall aggressive tone of the lyrics and sound.
While the catchy beat and jangly rhythm guitar may energize the song, the lyrics reveal its darker nature. The Beatles consistently proved they could tackle difficult subjects but not sacrifice accessibility. They would continually test the boundaries of pop with each subsequent album, but “You Can’t Do That” stands as an early illustration of this experimentation. It may not have appeared in the film or been released as the A-side of a single, but “You Can’t Do That” contains one of Lennon’s finest vocal performances and should be ranked among the Beatles’ best early rockers.