The Beatles, “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Deep Beatles

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A playful Beatles track from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Lovely Rita” was originally intended as political satire. Instead, it transformed into a track pulsing with sexuality, and featuring a grungy sound that sets it apart from the rest of the album.

Why would the Beatles choose such an “artfully sloppy” sound? Its playful lyrics and rollicking piano suggest a different tone than the serious “A Day in the Life” or the dramatic “She’s Leaving Home.” Thematically and sonically, “Lovely Rita” recalls the Beatles’ early days in Liverpool and Hamburg playing crowded clubs and trying to attract girls.

Three stories exist as to the origins of “Lovely Rita”: In Anthology, Paul McCartney explained a newspaper story detailing a traffic warden’s — known in America by the term “meter maid” — retirement inspired the lyrics. “The phrase ‘meter maid’ was so American that it appealed,” McCartney said, “and to me a ‘maid’ was always a little sexy thing: ‘Meter maid. Hey, come and check my meter, baby.’ I saw a bit of that, and then I saw that she looked like a ‘military man.’”

A few years later, however, McCartney made no mention of a specific meter maid in his biography Many Years from Now. Instead, he said he saw the term “meter maid” in print and was amused by the uniquely American term.

Yet another version surfaced when a meter maid named Meta Davies claimed that she inspired the words. According to A Hard Day’s Write, Davies once issued McCartney a parking ticket in St. John’s Wood, London. As she placed the citation on his windshield, McCartney walked up to his car. The two chatted for a few minutes, and before parting McCartney supposedly said “That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?” In Many Years from Now, McCartney denies the story.

In another twist, Paul McCartney recalled that he originally intended “Lovely Rita” to satirize authority figures like traffic wardens. McCartney told biographer Barry Miles “this was about the time that parking meters were coming in; before that we’d been able to park freely, so people had quite an antagonistic feeling towards these people. I’d been nicked a lot for parking, so the fun was to imagine one of them was a bit of an easy lay. … It somehow made them a figure of fun instead of a figure of terror, and it was a way of getting me own back.”

No matter its true origins, “Lovely Rita” was written while McCartney walked near his brother Michael’s home in Gayton, in the Wirral near Liverpool. John Lennon disliked the song; in his final 1980 Playboy interview, he said “That’s Paul writing a pop song. He makes ‘em up like a novelist. You hear lots of McCartney-influenced songs on the radio now. These stories about boring people doing boring things — being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I’m not interested in writing third-party songs. I like to write about me, ‘cuz I know me.”

Recording commenced on February 23, 1967 in Abbey Road Studio Two. The Beatles completed the rhythm track in eight takes, the last deemed best. George Harrison and John Lennon played acoustic guitars, Ringo Starr played drums, and Paul McCartney played piano. Producer George Martin contributed the raucous veri-speed-enchanced piano solo. When they finished the final take, McCartney overdubbed his bass part. On February 24, McCartney laid down his lead vocals, but with a twist. Mark Lewisohn notes in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that McCartney’s vocals were recorded with the tape machine running at 46 1/2 cycles per second, thus accelerating the sound. Take nine (the overdubbed bass version) matched this rate, explaining the song’s rapid tempo and the higher-pitched voices.

Returning to “Lovely Rita” on March 7, the Beatles added the backing vocals and sound effects; the groaning and screaming accompanied a most unusual form of percussion: comb and toilet paper, which Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison hastily assembled in the Abbey Road Studios bathroom. Engineer Geoff Emerick told Lewisohn that John Lennon always requested repeat echo in his headphones, which inspired the strange noises at the end of the track. “They’d finished doing the vocal … and he just started fooling around, using the echo as his inspiration,” he recalled. The reverberating sounds became one of the song’s defining characteristics.

Beginning with the strumming of acoustic guitars, Paul McCartney’s ethereal voice floats into the foreground. The chugging rhythm suggests the sloppy and bawdy nature of the track, with Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney repeating the phrase “lovely Rita, meter maid” (listen for Lennon’s moaning in the background). McCartney’s bass can be heard strongly here, pulsating throughout the track.

Clearly, McCartney had great fun penning the double entendre-filled lyrics, even sneaking in puns: “When it gets dark I tow your heart away,” he sings. The original anti-authority angle soon surfaces, as he describes Rita looking like a “military man” due to her cap and a bag strapped across her shoulder. The kazoo-like sounds of the paper and comb undermine her authority, almost sounding like catcalls. One can imagine the narrator winking as he croons, “May I inquire discreetly — when are you free to take some tea with me?”

The scene advances to the date; interestingly, McCartney specifies that Rita pays the bill. They return to her flat and “nearly made it,” but the rest of the song suggests otherwise. In the final lines, McCartney hints that they may have progressed further: “Give us a wink and make me think of you,” he sings. Shortly thereafter, strange noises, panting, and moaning fill the speakers, further underscoring the sexual content. “Lovely Rita” builds up to the final descending chord, then ends abruptly, lending an almost orgasmic quality to the track.

Highlights include George Martin’s saloon piano, highlighting the song’s bawdiness; Paul McCartney, who occasionally exaggerates his Liverpudlian accent to comic effect (as in “little white book”); John Lennon’s moans; and Lennon and George Harrison’s rhythm guitars driving the track. Ringo Starr’s drumming may not be flashy on “Lovely Rita,” but its slightly muted sound lends a welcome air of imperfection to the track. One can imagine a bar band playing “Lovely Rita” for a group of drunken revelers.

The track provides a much needed moment of levity to Sgt. Pepper, distinguishing itself from other tracks through its raunchy subject matter and clunkier sound. While not as avant-garde as “A Day in the Life” or psychedelic as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” it succeeds as a fond look back at the Beatles’ youth. It conjures images as the Beatles as randy Liverpool lads, making jokes and trying to attract girls. Its imperfect sound also recalls their early days playing in Liverpool and Hamburg clubs, a marked contrast from the experimentation and sophistication pervading the rest of Sgt. Pepper.

“Lovely Rita” may also comment on the changing sexual mores of the 1960s, expressing newfound openness on the subject. Finally, this winking song exemplifies not only McCartney’s penchant for telling stories, but the Beatles’ wit and playfulness.

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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