The Beatles, “What You’re Doing” from Beatles for Sale (1964): Deep Beatles

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Like “Baby’s in Black,” “What You’re Doing” exemplifies the somber mood pervading some tracks on 1964’s Beatles for Sale. Describing a turbulent relationship, “What You’re Doing” is primarily a Paul McCartney composition featuring jangly guitar, an unusual drum beat, intricate chord changes, and creative lyrics. Astoundingly, McCartney would later dismiss it as “filler,” but the track merits more than that label. Instead, it further anticipates the 1960s folk rock movement and introspective songwriting that would characterize much of the Beatles’ later work.

Thought to be inspired by his shaky romance with actress Jane Asher, McCartney penned the words and music on a whim. As he told biographer Barry Miles, “I think it was a little more mine than John’s, but I don’t have a very clear recollection so to be on the safe side I’d put it as 50-50. It doesn’t sound like an idea that I remember John offering, so it sounds like a way to get a song started, some of them are just that. ‘Hey, what’cha doing?’” McCartney claimed that he first wrote the verses, hoping they would inspire a memorable chorus. Apparently he believed he had not achieved his goal: “Maybe it’s a better recording than it is a song, some of them are. Sometimes a good recording would enhance the song,” he told Miles.

The Beatles Bible notes how “What You’re Doing” departed from then-traditional Beatles songs and set the tone for future recordings. The four-bar solo drum pattern introduces the song and returns in the fadeout; the distortion of the lead and rhythm guitars create a fuzzy sound; and the piano and bass break right before the song’s conclusion signal the Beatles’ willingness to experiment with song structure.

Recording began at Abbey Road on September 29, 1964; during this session they completed seven versions of the rhythm track. The next day they attempted the track five more times; according to the Beatles Bible, at this point the instrumental section was an octave higher. In the video below, note how Lennon and McCartney initially tried harmonizing on virtually all the lyrics rather than double tracking McCartney’s voice. Listen for a brief pause before the instrumental fadeout. The clip begins with take five, an incomplete attempt that breaks down quickly but features amusing studio chatter.

They did not return to the track until October 26, the final day of the Beatles for Sale sessions. After recording seven more takes, they finally decided on their final attempt, take 19, as the final version. With that, the Beatles completed not only the song but the entire album.

“What You’re Doing” immediately seizes the listener’s attention with Ringo Starr’s thumping drums, the bass drum underscoring the plodding beat. The four-bar section ushers in McCartney’s bass, John Lennon’s acoustic rhythm guitar, and George Harrison’s lead guitar. The resounding notes clearly anticipate the Byrds’ brand of folk rock as well as the sound dominating their 1965 release Rubber Soul. McCartney’s double-tracked voice then enters the picture, with key words such as “look” and “I’m” emphasized through Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocals (shouted more than sung).

While the song addresses a serious subject — loss of love — McCartney’s creative rhymes introduce an element of playfulness. “Look what you’re doin’; I’m feeling blue an’ lonely,” he sings, the italicized words perfect examples of near rhymes. He repeats the technique in the second verse: “You got me runnin,’ and there’s no fun in it.” Harrison and Lennon harmonize in the background as McCartney delivers the title phrase, dramatizing the frustration the narrator feels.

The bridge — which usually, is repeated twice — employs some unusual chord changes and dissonance that musicologist Alan W. Pollack cites as “jazzy.” He points out that the final section of the bridge, particularly the way McCartney’s voice modulates on the word “me,” adds an element of conflict to the track.

“The sustaining of the A-Major chord for two measures coupled with the descending melodic melisma on the word ‘me’ is an essentially relaxing or winding-down kind of gesture,” Pollack writes. “In sharp contrast to this, the rhythm backing takes the opportunity to use the last beat of the last measure as an energetic springboard into the next verse, and the overlap of the two gestures makes an uncanny effect; kind of like you’re being pulled in two directions at once.” In other words, the bridge adds an element of tension that is resolved as McCartney’s voice descends on “me.” Thus, the emotional climax is tempered, the song returning to the dominant storyline.

As the song concludes, George Martin’s piano creates a shaky, uncertain mood. Can this romance be repaired? As the narrator repeats the lines “Why should it be so much to ask of you; what you’re doing to me?,” the listener is left to reach one’s own conclusions.

While not as well known as other Beatles tracks, “What You’re Doing” should be considered an important creative step for the group. In its structure and lyrics, the song illustrates how the Beatles were experimenting thematically and musically.

Unlike “Love Me Do,” “What You’re Doing” concerns the complexities of love, the narrator gazing inward to determine just why his romance is so unstable. The intricate and unexpected chord changes move beyond typical pop songs of the time, incorporating jazz elements. Structurally, the song defies traditional rock/pop single construction by repeating the bridge twice.

Finally, the instrumentation foreshadows how the Beatles would test the limits of rock, using distinctive guitar sounds that would become quite pervasive in mid-to-late ’60s music. Starr also demonstrates his ability to adopt different drumming styles, and McCartney shows a propensity for stretching his voice to fit the mood of a song. For these reasons, “What You’re Doing” is worth a deeper listen and represents a significant phase of their artistic development.

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 [email protected]
Kit O'Toole
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