The Beatles, “For No One” from Revolver (1966): Deep Beatles

Share this:

“Why Did It Die?” The Beatles did not write and record a song with that title — right? In truth, they did, except it was under a revised title: “For No One.”

Paul McCartney told biographer Barry Miles that he composed the track while on a 1966 skiing holiday in Switzerland. “I suspect it was about another argument,” he says in Many Years from Now. “I don’t have easy relationships with women; I never have. I talk too much truth.” In Anthology, McCartney also explained what he liked most about the song. “I remember the descending bass-line trick that it’s based on, and I remember the character in the song — the girl putting on her makeup.”

The working title of the composition was “Why Did It Die?” and featured even darker lyrics, as printed in Things We Said Today: The Complete Lyrics and a Concordance to the Beatles’ Songs, 1962-1970 by Colin Campbell and Allan Murphy:

Why did it die?
You’d like to know.
Cry and blame her.

You wait
You’re too late
As you’re deciding why the wrong one wins, the end begins
And you will lose her.

Why did it die?
I’d like to know.
Try to save it.

You want her
You need (love) her
To [So?] make her see that you believe it may work out some day
You need each other

Recording began at Abbey Road Studios on May 9, 1966; McCartney played bass, piano, and clavichord (borrowed from Martin), while Ringo Starr played drums and tambourine. The Beatles recorded 10 takes of the rhythm track. The last of these was deemed best, so they added more percussion and harpsichord to the take. On May 16, McCartney completed overdubbing his lead vocal. According to the Beatles Bible, the tape was slowed to 47.5 cycles from the typical 50, which sped up the vocals and made them sound a bit higher. Martin and Geoff Emerick then made tape reductions to free up space on the four-track tape. They were numbered takes 13 and 14, with No. 14 ultimately chosen for the eventual French horn overdub.

Martin and McCartney decided the song needed an even more distinctive element; they subsequently selected the French horn. Originally Dennis Brain, then the premier horn player in Britain, was booked to perform the solo. Tragically Brain was killed in a car crash before the May 19 session, so Alan Civil, another respected musician, replaced him. According to Miles, McCartney hummed the melody he wanted and Martin wrote the score.

When finished, Martin realized that the high note went just beyond the horn’s range; he and McCarney figured that a seasoned player such as Civil could still accomplish the feat. As McCartney told Miles, Civil read the score on the day of recording and said, “George, you’ve written a D [in Anthology, McCartney said it was a high F].” “George and I just looked at him and held our nerve and said ‘Yes?’” McCartney recalled. “And he gave us a crafty look and went, ‘Okay’.” Years later, Civil told Mark Lewisohn in Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that “I played it several times, each take wiping out the previous attempt. … For me it was jut another day’s work, the third session that day in fact, but it was very interesting.”

While Civil played the solo as requested, Paul McCartney was not initially impressed with the performance. “Paul didn’t realize how brilliantly Alan Civil was doing,” George Martin said in the Anthology companion book. “We got the definitive performance, and Paul said, ‘Well, OK, I think you can do it do it better than that, can’t you, Alan?’ Alan nearly exploded. Of course, he didn’t do it better than that, and the way we’d already heard it was the way you’d hear it now.”

“For No One” begins abruptly, McCartney’s voice sounding atypically dour while crooning the opening lines: “your day breaks, your mind aches.” The narrator may be describing his own experience with dying romance, but deflects it by shifting the perspective to the second person. This method makes the story slightly less personal and confessional, although McCartney previously suggested it was at least partially autobiographical. The narrator paints a picture of an aloof woman who no longer needs his love. In fact, one can argue that like “Eleanor Rigby,” this song addresses isolation, both self-imposed and unintentional. As she wakes up and “makes up” for the day, she apparently ignores the narrator, for “she no longer needs you.”

He tries to reconnect, to engage her, but he sings “in her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears.” These tears are cried “for no one,” certainly not the narrator. He refuses to believe that his lover really no longer wants him, particularly when she leaves him at home, signaling her willingness to move on. Toward the end of the song, he finally realizes that their “love is dead” and feels the pain, knowing that there will be times when “all the things she said will fill your head, you won’t forget her.” The song concludes by repeating the chorus; the line “a love that should have lasted years” ends on an unresolved chord, suggesting that the narrator still cannot accept that their love is over – or perhaps that his pain is never-ending.

In his book Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ’N’ Roll, Robert Rodriguez points out that among other McCartney compositions on Revolver, “For No One” represents a turning point for the songwriter. “These are not typical Paul McCartney songs. They’re social commentary,” he told Esquire’s Jeff Slate. “They’re very stark, non-sentimental breakdown-of-a-romantic-relationship songs. That’s a well that he would never draw from much again. Even John had praise for them. It’s Paul at the top of his game.”

The classical arrangement adds drama and sorrow to the melancholy lyrics, while McCartney’s voice sounds closely miked, as if relating his story directly in the ear. The technique lends an air of intimacy permeating the song. The harpsichord suggests chamber music, with Ringo Starr contributing minimal but effective percussion. Civil’s solo gives “For No One” a feel of “high art” — an unusual move, since blending classical elements with rock remained a relatively new concept in 1966, and McCartney would continue experimenting with the form in not only “Eleanor Rigby” but also Sgt. Pepper’s “She’s Leaving Home.”

Almost two decades later, McCartney decided to revisit “For No One” as part of the soundtrack to his 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street. In interviews promoting the project, he stated that he wanted to re-record the track to keep it fresh. “‘For No One’ I’d never done anywhere, ever,” he says in William J. Dowlding’s Beatlesongs. “I’d written the song, took it to the studio, one day recorded it, end of story. It’s just a record, a museum piece. And I hated the idea of them staying as museum pieces.”

Indeed, the Beatles’ “For No One” has escaped the fate of a “museum piece” by its timeless quality, deeply moving words, Paul McCartney’s compelling vocals, and its daring blend of classical with contemporary sounds.


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
Share this:
  • Curt B

    This song has a classical sound giving it a timeless freshness every time i hear it.
    The melody could have been a song from any century. Paul has such amazing range in songs, singing voice and range. The beatles were lucky to have him!

    • Kit O’Toole

      No argument there, Curt! Thanks for commenting!

  • Phil O.

    I’m really enjoying this series. Thank you!

Close