What is the link between a 1957 hit and the Beatles’ 1964 track “No Reply”? The answer lends insight into the group’s changing sound and growing lyrical sophistication.
In his 1980 Playboy interview, chief composer John Lennon explained that he modeled the “No Reply” lyrics after the 1957 single “Silhouettes” by the Rays. “It was my version of ‘Silhouettes’: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life,” said Lennon. Indeed, the lyrics bear some similarity, which will be explained shortly. As a side note, another British Invasion band would have their own hit with “Silhouettes” in 1965: Herman’s Hermits.
Lennon told writer David Sheff that he alone composed “No Reply,” but in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney claimed he cowrote the track. “We wrote ‘No Reply’ together but from a strong original idea of his,” McCartney said. “I think he pretty much had that one, but as usual, if he didn’t have the third verse and the middle eight, then he’d play it to me pretty much formed, then we would shove a bit in the middle or I’d throw in an idea.”
No matter who was responsible for the song, one fact is not in dispute: Lennon intended on giving the track to Tommy Quickly, a Liverpudlian rock singer who had previously covered the Lennon/McCartney composition “Tip of My Tongue” in 1963. For unknown reasons, Quickly never recorded “No Reply,” but he did score the biggest hit of his career in fall 1964 with “Wild Side of Life.”
On June 3, 1964, the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios to lay down a demo for Quickly. This version was soon discarded, only to resurface in 1993. Featuring Lennon and McCartney humorously flubbing the lyrics, the demo can now be found on the Anthology 1 compilation. One mystery remains: who played percussion on the track? At this time, Ringo Starr was suffering from tonsillitis. One theory has Jimmy Nicol stepping in; he was at Abbey Road rehearsing with George Harrison, Lennon and McCartney for their tour. While plausible, the theory has never been confirmed by any of the Beatles.
Since they were under great pressure to complete Beatles for Sale in time for Christmas, the Beatles frantically dug for leftover material and covers. One such “leftover” was “No Reply,” the song they had not revisited since the Quickly demo session. After Starr rejoined the Beatles, the group reentered the recording studio on September 30, 1964 for another attempt at the song Featuring George Martin on piano, the group laid down eight takes, with the final chosen as best. Interestingly the group tried lengthening the middle section during take five, but ultimately abandoned the idea. Take two was eventually released as part of Anthology 1, and once again features Lennon and McCartney laughing as they intentionally flub the lyrics.
After completing all overdubs, the Beatles left it to Martin to finish mixes. He created two mono mixes on October 16, with one chosen for the final Beatles for Sale tracklist.
Like many of the Beatles for Sale songs, “No Reply” indicates the group’s artistic evolution. The acoustic guitar-dominated sound (powered by Harrison and Lennon) predates the folk-feel of Rubber Soul, while Lennon’s darker examination of love signals the deepening maturity and complexity of his lyrics. Lennon later told Sheff that music publisher Dick James praised Lennon for “No Reply,” stating that it demonstrated his rapidly developing songwriting talent. “‘James, the publisher, said ‘That’s the first complete song you’ve written where it resolves itself.’ You know, with a complete story,” Lennon said.
Ringo Starr deftly uses percussion as a “highlighter” to emphasize key phrases. Note how the cymbals crash on lines such as “I saw the light” or “I nearly died.” He changes to a different rhythm pattern for the bridge, the strident sound imitating the urgency of the narrator. “If I were you / I’d realize that I / Love you more,” Lennon and McCartney harmonize. “And I’ll forgive / The lies that I / Heard before,” they proclaim, although the rapid, stronger beat suggests a layer of anger beneath those words.
Thematically, “No Reply” somewhat reflects the subject matter of “Silhouettes.” Note the beginning lines of “Silhouettes”:
Took a walk and passed your house
Late last night
All the shades were pulled and drawn
Way down tight
From within, a dim light cast
Two silhouettes on the shade
The Rays tell how the narrator “lost control” and “rang your bell,” even threatening violence against his girlfriend’s supposed lover.
John Lennon also sings of betrayal and confrontation as in the following lyrics:
This happened once before,
When I came to your door,
They said it wasn’t you,
But I saw you peep through
I saw the light
Unlike in “Silhouettes,” Lennon does not suffer from mistaken identity. Little doubt remains that his girlfriend is cheating, as he claims that he and his lover made eye contact through the window. He tries calling her, but is told she is not home. “That’s a lie,” he sings emphatically, implying that he has proof of her deceitfulness. How does he know? He saw her walk “hand in hand / With another man / In my place,” and even witnessed her arriving home.
“Silhouettes” includes a happy ending, as the narrator realizes that he has been spying on a different couple. Once he discovers that he was at the wrong place, he “rushed down to your house with wings” so that he and his girlfriend could transform into the silhouettes on the shade. While James claimed that “No Reply” contains a complete story, the lyrics suggest otherwise. Unlike “Silhouettes,” no tidy ending exists in Lennon’s song.
The narrator confronts his cheating girlfriend, tells her he loves her more than anyone else, and that he can forgive her lies. But does the lover immediately apologize and return to her boyfriend? Instead, the next lyrics simply repeat the “I tried to telephone” section, once again proclaiming that he “nearly died” seeing her with another man. John Lennon and Paul McCartney then emphatically chant “no reply,” with Starr’s cymbals defiantly concluding the track. The narrator may have “seen the light” and discovered his lover’s deception, but can their relationship be repaired? Lennon never answers this question.
Lennon’s voice effectively tells the story, alternating between a Bob Dylan-esque nasal sound (a precursor to his style on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and a continuation of the Beatles for Sale track “I’m A Loser”) and a raspy, pleading sound on the “I saw the light” and “I nearly died” lines. McCartney’s higher voice contrasts with Lennon’s in the bridge, dramatizing the tension between this troubled couple. Through lyrics and voice, “No Reply” tells a darker story of betrayal and questionable redemption. On subsequent albums, Lennon would continue writing about complex themes like soured love affairs and the search for meaning.
Beatles for Sale looks back and looks forward, indicating how the group was gradually moving away from the Beatlemania years and heading toward “Beatles 2.0.” Amazingly, it took a 1957 single to enable Lennon to further broaden his composing skills.
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