The Beatles, “Baby’s In Black” from Beatles for Sale (1964): Deep Beatles

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When the Beatles released Beatles for Sale in the UK on December 4, 1964, fans were startled by the group’s haggard appearance on the album’s somber album cover. Indeed, that year they had been swallowed up in the Beatlemania hurricane, playing innumerable concerts, taping television appearances, recording music, and, of course, shooting their film debut A Hard Day’s Night.

Because of their hectic schedule, the group had little time to develop an album consisting entirely of originals. Thus, their just-in-time-for-the-holidays release Beatles for Sale included eight compositions and six covers, most dating from their Hamburg and Cavern Club days. One of the originals, “Baby’s in Black,” stands as one of the darkest yet most harmonic tracks in the Lennon-McCartney pantheon.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney penned the song together in a hotel room while on tour. In Anthology, McCartney explained that they wanted to experiment with waltz time. In addition, they wanted to explore darker themes and further expand the limits of pop music. “I think also John and I wanted to do something bluesy, a bit darker, more grown-up, rather than just straight pop. It was more ‘baby’s in black’ as in mourning. Our favourite color was black, as well,” McCartney said.

While the lyrics tell the story of a man wooing a woman who is still mourning the loss of her past love, speculation abounds that the words refer to a real-life figure. While in Hamburg, the Beatles befriended a circle of German intellectuals and artists, one of which was artist and photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She fell in love with the group’s then-bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, who soon left the band to remain with her in Hamburg. Their love story would be cut tragically short when aspiring painter Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962.

Regardless of the song’s actual subject, “Baby’s in Black” results from a full collaboration between Lennon and McCartney. The former stated in his 1980 Playboy interview that they were “together, in the same room” while penning the words and music.

McCartney would add to this statement years later in Many Years from Now, when he told author Barry Miles “It was very much co-written and we both sang it. Sometimes the harmony that I was writing in sympathy to John’s melody would take over and become a stronger melody. … When people wrote out the music score they would ask, ‘Which one is the melody?’ because it was so co-written that you could actually take either. We rather liked this one. It was not so much a work job, there was a bit more cred about this one. It’s got a good middle.”

Recording commenced on August 11, 1964, also the first day of the Beatles for Sale sessions. According to Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, they recorded 14 takes, only five of which were complete. The major difficulty occurred with the opening guitar note — George Harrison experimented with several variations, bending it with his tremolo arm to emphasize and extend the sound. (None of these attempts were used.) Lennon and McCartney sang into the same microphone to perfectly synchronize their harmonies.

Interestingly, Lewisohn notes that the session signified a change in the Beatles’ working relationship with producer George Martin: During takes, Martin can be heard asking how the boys wanted the beginning to sound, an indication that Martin was no longer fully dictating the sessions. Clearly, the group had demonstrated their confidence in songwriting and musicianship in just a short time.

After the marathon recording session, the Beatles, Martin, and engineer Norman Smith regrouped at Abbey Road Studios on August 14 to record several other tracks and complete rough mono mixes of “Baby’s in Black.” The mixes were finally completed on October 26, also the last day of the Beatles for Sale sessions.

A waltz with a country twang, “Baby’s in Black” succeeds due to Lennon and McCartney’s Everly Brothers-style vocals and Harrison’s piercing guitar. Ringo Starr’s pulsating drums, particularly toward the end as other instruments drop out of the track, propel the song’s unusual tempo.

“Baby’s in Black” works well thematically with other Beatles for Sale tracks such as the pessimistic “I’m A Loser” or the angry “No Reply.” “What can I do?” the narrator reiterates throughout the song. His love interest will not let go of her former boyfriend; constantly draping herself in black, she mourns either their failed romance or his death.

The lead character’s frustration increases as the track progresses. “I think of her, but she thinks only of him,” Lennon and McCartney sing, their voices blending seamlessly. Curiously, they label her sadness “only a whim,” although her attire and emotion suggest otherwise.

“Baby’s in Black” reaches a crescendo in the bridge, when the two singers’ pitch and volume rise. “Oh how long will it take, till she sees the mistake she has made,” they enunciate. Cleverly, the lyrics alternate between the colors black and blue, an indication that the narrator has been emotionally wounded as well as his love interest. Harrison’s country leanings shine through in his solo, with idols Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins looming large in every note.

While never released as a single, “Baby’s in Black” played a big part in the Beatles’ concerts, making its final appearance at their farewell Candlestick Park show on August 29, 1966. Thematically, it seemed a curious choice for the setlist, as its dour mood contrasted with the more upbeat numbers.

Hearing their Hollywood Bowl and Shea Stadium renditions of “Baby’s in Black” can be a jarring experience. As Lennon and McCartney crooned very serious and introspective words, teenage girls screamed throughout the entire song, seemingly oblivious to the song’s bleak meaning. (This was most likely due to not being able to hear the group.) As their tours continued, however, they did begin adding more thematically complex songs like “Yesterday” to their repertoire.

Along with other Beatles for Sale tracks, “Baby’s in Black” signaled the Beatles’ rapidly growing interest in musical experimentation. The song’s tempo and grim subject matter further expanded the boundaries of typical beat group fare, preparing audiences for even more complex works such as the aforementioned “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” It also provides a lesson in both interpretative singing as well as skilled harmonization, courtesy of Lennon and McCartney’s patented vocal blend.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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