The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home” from Sgt. Pepper’s (1967): Deep Beatles

Deep Beatles salutes the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by closely examining select tracks from the masterpiece. This three-part series begins with the John Lennon and Paul McCartney-penned “She’s Leaving Home,” a dramatic tale of a woman leaving her parents’ home to find her way. It’s a complicated song featuring multiple points of view and a delicate classical arrangement, and has an even more intriguing backstory.

Similar to Lennon’s method in writing “A Day in the Life,” McCartney drew from newspaper headlines as inspiration. On February 27, 1967, he came upon a Daily Mail article detailing a missing teenage girl. The headline read A-Level Girl Dumps Car and Vanishes, and described her father’s anguish over her disappearance. Melanie Coe, a 17-year-old, had run away from home with only the clothes on her back, taking no money or other possessions. Phrases from the article should sound quite familiar to Beatles fans: the reporter writes of “the schoolgirl who seemed to have everything,” and quotes her distraught father. “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here,” he said. While McCartney later said this tale formed the plot line to “She’s Leaving Home,” the story takes an even stranger turn. McCartney had met Coe a few years before, but did not remember the encounter.

October 4, 1963 marked the Beatles’ first appearance on Ready Steady Go, but Paul McCartney was also asked to judge a lip-synching contest during the program. Four teenage contestants mimed to Brenda Lee’s single “Let’s Jump the Broomstick,” and he proclaimed one the winner: Melanie Coe. McCartney presented her with an award, thus concluding their meeting. “We had spent a long day in the studio filming,” Coe told the Daily Mail in 2008. “John Lennon was aloof and unapproachable, Paul shook our hands but Ringo and George were sweethearts, chatting to us all day.”

The Daily Mail article may have provided inspiration, but Lennon later claimed the lyrics drew from his own experience, as well. “Paul had the basic theme. But all those lines like ‘We sacrificed most of our lives / We gave her everything money could buy / Never a thought for ourselves …,’ those were the things (Aunt) Mimi used to say. It was easy to write,” he said in a 1972 interview. In addition, McCartney told biographer Barry Miles that stories of runaways had become very common at the time, thus inspiring a familiar plot line.

Paul McCartney expanded on their writing process in Miles’ Many Years from Now. “I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up and then …it was rather poignant. When I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus, long sustained notes, and one of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly,” he said. Many have speculated about the line “met a man from the motor trade”: Was it a car salesman? A doctor who performs abortions? McCartney told Miles that Lennon contributed the line for a bit of sleaze. “The man … was just a typical sleazy character, the kind of guy that could pull a young bird by saying, ‘Would you like a ride in my car, darlin’?””

The recording caused some friction between McCartney and George Martin in that the producer did not arrange the strings — a first for a Beatles track. According to McCartney, he was eager to record “She’s Leaving Home” as soon as possible, but Martin was not available because he had committed to a Cilla Black session. Angry, McCartney contacted freelance arranger Mike Leander, who subsequently wrote the arrangement with little input from the Beatles star. “It was one of the first times I actually let anyone arrange something and then reviewed it later, which I don’t like as a practice. It’s much easier if I just stay with them,” McCartney told Miles. He said he was pleased with Leander’s arrangement, although he did not like the echo on the harp – which he admits may have been Martin’s idea or his own.

“She’s Leaving Home” was recorded over two days, March 17 and 20, 1967. The Beatles played no instruments; instead, the accompaniment featured harp, violins, violas, cello, and a double bass. Day one involved just the string recording, with Martin and McCartney directing the musicians. Harpist Sheila Bromberg later admitted dealing with Paul during the session was somewhat frustrating. “In actual fact, he was quite difficult to work with because he wasn’t too sure what he actually wanted. He said, ‘No, I don’t want that, I want something …,’ but he couldn’t describe what he wanted and I tried it all every which way,” she said in a 2013 interview. After six takes, take one was deemed best. Lennon and McCartney next laid down their vocals on March 20; they double tracked their voices to create the appearance of a larger chorus.

Interestingly, George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick created six mono mixes, using Vari-speed to raise the pitch. Weirdly, this was forgotten when they created the stereo mixes on April 17; the Beatles’ new Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reissue restores the speed of the mono edition to create a remixed stereo version.

One of the most fascinating tracks off Sgt. Pepper’s, “She’s Leaving Home” presents not one but multiple perspectives. McCartney’s narrator describes the scene: early Wednesday morning, the unnamed protagonist quietly closes her door and leaves a note “that she hoped would say more” or adequately explains her reasons for running away. Listeners get the sense that the narrator may not be a neutral one. As she walks outside, McCartney announces “she is free,” his voice slightly lingering on the final word and suggesting excitement.

Next comes the parental perspective. Here, the phrase “she’s leaving home” is countered by the lower-key response. “We gave her most of our lives / Sacrificed most of our lives / We gave her everything money could buy,” the parent (Lennon’s voice most prominent) cries out in frustration. The narrator returns, delivering a seeming oxymoron: “She’s leaving home after living alone for many years.” She resided with her parents, so technically she did not live alone; presumably the “alone” here means emotionally removed.

The narrator now focuses to the parents waking up and discovering the note. This time he also takes on the mother’s voice: “Daddy, our baby’s gone!” Paul McCartney sings. “Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly / How could she do this to me?” As the chorus returns, the John Lennon-dominated response again presents the parental perspective. “We never thought of ourselves / Never a thought for ourselves / We’ve struggled hard all our lives to get by.” This represents the older generation, perhaps harkening back to the stuffy man from the Hard Day’s Night train scene (“We won the war for your sort!” he yells at Ringo). Yet, there is a tinge of sympathy here, acknowledging that parents struggled financially more than their offspring will.

As the song heads towards its close, the spotlight shifts back to the young woman. The mysterious lines “Waiting to keep the appointment she made / Meeting a man from the motor trade” occur, the narrator purposely leaving the words to the listener’s interpretation. Is the woman in danger? Is she meeting a secret lover? The question remains unanswered as the chorus returns, but the perspective slightly changes. While the parents are still represented in the lines “What did we do that was wrong? / We didn’t know it was wrong,” the young woman’s voice surfaces. Lennon and McCartney croon the words “she is having fun” rather than “she is leaving home,” with another voice addressing the parents’ confounding questions: “Fun is the one thing money can’t buy.” The narrator returns a final time, commenting that the woman will now embark on a personal journey. “Something inside that was always denied for so many years,” McCartney croons as Lennon responds with “bye bye.” A last repetition of the words “bye bye” finishes the song as the string arrangement concludes with a resolved chord. This finality implies that the woman has successfully broken away from her parents, and will presumably thrive.

Why did Paul McCartney choose a Baroque arrangement as the backing track? While he was continually fascinated with classical music and had previously incorporated it into Beatles compositions such as “Yesterday” and “For No One,” here he uses it as a dramatic device. The strings set a melancholy mood, with the brightness of the harp representing the young woman’s youth and optimism. The strings suggest a kitchen-sink drama, enrapturing the listener as he or she follows this familiar scene.

Years after Sgt. Pepper’s release, Coe marveled at how accurately “She’s Leaving Home” described her life. “As a 17-year-old I had everything money could buy — diamonds, furs, a car —
but my father and mother never once told me they loved me,” she told the Daily Mail. While this Beatles song may have described Coe’s life, it represented the desire for freedom numerous teenagers felt in 1967. Today, it tells of intergenerational conflict, moving away from parents, and forming one’s own views. “She’s Leaving Home” recounts a rite of passage young adults still experience 50 years later.

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
  • B J Conlee

    She’s Leaving Home is yet another example of just how diverse the Beatles’ music was. I think it is one of the best songs on the Sgt. Pepper album and proves that they were the best Band over the last 50-60 years. It was also probably the last album where Paul an John worked so well together. Besides “She’s Leaving Home”, they worked magically on Day in the Life, Lucy in the Sky, Getting Better and Mr. Kite.

    • Kit O’Toole

      Indeed they did! And “She’s Leaving Home” is one of my favorite Pepper tracks, so it was a pleasure to write about it. Thanks for commenting!