When determining the track order on an album, an artist must make an important decision: Which song best sets the tone for the entire work? Should the listener be gently led into the LP’s sonic atmosphere, or should he/she be instantly swept up in the creative energy?
Few could argue that the Beatles accomplished the latter with “It Won’t Be Long,” the enthusiastic rocker that kicks off With the Beatles. The call-and-response format, raspy John Lennon lead vocal, and Ringo Starr’s thumping rhythm further announced the arrival of a youthful force to rock and roll.
Principal writer Lennon later described the song as “my attempt at writing another single. It never quite made it.” Paul McCartney, however, remains proud of the song. As he told Barry Miles in Many Years from Now, McCartney assisted Lennon in incorporating wordplay into the lyrics, similar to “Please Please Me.” “‘It won’t be long till I belong to you,’” he explains. “We both liked to try and get a bit of double meaning in, so that was the high spot of writing that particular song.”
“It Won’t Be Long” was recorded over two sessions on July 30, 1963, and featured the usual lineup: George Harrison on backing vocals and lead guitar; John Lennon on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; Paul McCartney on backing vocals and bass; and Starr on drums. With George Martin producing and Norman Smith serving as engineer, the session marked the first time the Beatles worked on an original composition for the album. Until this point, they had recorded only covers. They completed 10 takes, including two overdubs of the ending.
After leaving EMI Studios to tape two BBC radio and television appearances, the Beatles returned to work on the track that same evening. Deciding that the first 10 takes were unsatisfactory, they attempted seven more takes (labeled 11-17) and six edit pieces (18-23). Finally, take 17 and 21 were edited together to create the final version.
Structurally, “It Won’t Be Long” can be seen as an extension of “She Loves You.” One obvious comparison is the “yeahs” prominently featured in both tracks, but also note the dramatic pauses toward the end as the music briefly drops out. In “She Loves You,” Lennon and McCartney harmonize on the line “you know you should,” while in “Long” only Lennon’s double-tracked voice can be heard singing “till I belong to” with the final “you” accompanied by arpeggio guitar chords.
As was typical of early Beatles tracks, “It Won’t Be Long” contains lyrics that directly address the listener, although the story is told in the first person. John Lennon’s voice screaming the title phrase introduces the song, demanding the listener’s immediate attention. “Every night, when everybody has fun,” Lennon sings, punctuated by Harrison’s descending guitar notes. “Here am I, sitting all on my own.”
He later stresses that he has done nothing but cry, but knows that after his lover returns that they will live happily ever after. One noticeable difference from a song such as “I’ll Get You,” however, is that the chorus specifies that the narrator cannot be happy “till I belong to you.” Here the pop-song cliche is reversed: The woman seems to hold the power in the relationship. As the lyrics make clear, the man depends on his lover for happiness and fulfillment. He belongs to her, Lennon sings — not the other way around.
Instrumentation and harmonies also stand out in the track. George Harrison plays twangy lead guitar throughout, revealing his rockabilly roots and functioning as a period (or exclamation point) after each line in the verses. The two bridges also feature sophisticated backing harmonies from McCartney and Harrison, adding to the narrator’s melancholy. “Since you left me, I’m so alone / Now you’re coming, you’re coming on home,” Lennon croons. His excitement is barely contained when he shouts “you’re coming home!” before the next verse. In addition, Ringo Starr proves himself a master at emphasizing emotion through the drums: Note the thundering fills right after “you’re coming home,” once again underscoring the narrator’s passion.
Despite the track’s vivaciousness and catchy chorus, it was never released as a single – nor did the Beatles ever perform it in concert. The closest they came to playing “It Won’t Be Long” live was lip-synching to the song for a March 1964 Ready, Steady, Go! episode. Rolling Stone noted the song’s underrated qualities, ranking it at No. 53 in their Beatles 100 Greatest Songs list. In its description, the magazine cited the song’s “unusual chord changes” and “muscular aggression,” with the call-and-response shouts injecting the song with power.
Indeed, “It Won’t Be Long” could have easily been released as a single, as it further demonstrates the Beatles’ youthful vitality and willingness to stretch the boundaries of conventional pop song structures. What defines a pop song? “It Won’t Be Long,” along with future Beatles tracks, challenges listeners to reconsider seemingly unbreakable musical rules.
Not surprisingly, “It Won’t Be Long” has inspired several covers by bands such as the Smithereens and Franz Ferdinand, and even the above jazz remake by the appropriately named group Beatlejazz.
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