The Beatles, “You Know My Name” from Past Masters (1970): Deep Beatles

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Since I began writing “Deep Beatles,” readers have challenged me to write about “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” one of the strangest tracks in the Beatles catalog. Never one to back down from a dare, I gladly accept the challenge! While the song can be dismissed as a throwaway or novelty, its roots can be traced back to music hall as well as the flourishing 1960s British comedy landscape. In addition, it was almost released not as a Beatles single, but as a Plastic Ono Band track.

The majority of “You Know My Name” was recorded just after the Sgt. Pepper sessions. The Beatles were in a highly experimental mood musically and technically, with the recording studio becoming their artistic playground. According to Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now, John Lennon arrived at the recording studio chanting a kind of mantra: “You know my name, look up the number.” Paul McCartney told Miles that he thought the statement may have been aimed at Yoko Ono, but Lennon never verified that. “He brought it in originally as a 15-minute chant when he was in space-cadet mode,” McCartney remembered, “and we said, ‘Well, what are we going to do with this then?’ and he said, ‘It’s just like a mantra.’ So we said, ‘Okay, let’s just do it.'”

In his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon agreed that the song was meant to be humorous, but did not suggest an Ono connection. “That was a piece of unfinished music that I turned into a comedy record with Paul. I was waiting for him in his house, and I saw the phone book was on the piano with the words, ‘You know the name, look up the number.’ It was like a logo, and I just changed it. It was going to be a Four Tops kind of song – the chord changes are like that – but it never developed and we made a joke out of it.”

Recording began at Abbey Road Studios on May 17, 1967; the backing track was completed after 14 takes. The Beatles selected take 10 as best, which featured guitars, bass, drums, handclaps, and bongos. Returning to the track on June 7, they added overdubs and recorded five more takes (including flute, electric guitar, drums, organ, and tambourine). The next day they completed part two in 12 takes, then attempted part three (four attempts), part four (six), and a single take of part five. Since there were few lyrics to remember, it was fairly simple to record various versions of the track. “So, we did the other versions: We did the nightclub singer ‘Dennis O’Bell’ parodying Apple film executive Denis O’Dell – which was me singing, which is a pretty funny piss-take of that kind of thing,” McCartney said in Many Years From Now (437). During the June 8 session, the Beatles welcomed a special guest musician: the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones.

McCartney later explained that the Beatles had wanted to record with Jones for some time, and when he arrived at the studio he had a surprise for the group. “I naturally thought he’d bring a guitar along to a Beatles session and maybe chung along and do some nice rhythm guitar or a little bit of electric twelve-string or something, but to our surprise he brought his saxophone,” McCartney told Miles. “He opened up his sax case and started putting a reed in and warming up, playing a little bit. He was a really ropey sax player, so I thought, ‘Ah-hah. We’ve got just the tune.'” His lack of virtuosity fit the song perfectly, according to McCartney. “It’s not amazingly well played but it happened to be exactly what we wanted. Brian was very good like that.” McCartney said.

The main personnel consisted of John Lennon on vocals, maracas, sound effects; George Harrison on xylophone and backing vocals; Paul McCartney on vocals, piano, double bass, and sound effects; and Ringo Starr on vocals, drums, and bongos.

After completing the 15-minute version of the track, “You Know My Name” was set aside until June 9, when George Martin and Geoff Emerick created rough mono mixes. Probably due to their involvement in projects such as the “All You Need Is Love” TV broadcast, the launch of Sgt. Pepper, and the filming of Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles shelved the track. For almost two years, it was basically an inside joke. “Then it became a … running gag that whenever we’d go to try another song, if we were feeling a silly mood, we’d say ‘Well, let’s do another version of ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number.'” McCartney told Miles. The only public mention of the song was in a 1969 interview, when Lennon described it as “another song I wrote around Pepper time that’s still in the can,” and that the lyrics contained only the words in the title. “It just goes on all the way like that, and we did these mad backings,” Lennon added. “But I never finished it. I must.”

Flash forward to April 30, 1969, when Lennon and McCartney decided to return to the track. They added more vocals and sound effects, and welcomed yet another guest: longtime Beatles assistant Mal Evans. It was during this session when Evans contributed his unusual percussion. “I remember at one point we asked Mal to shovel a bucket of gravel as a rhythmic device,” McCartney says in Many Years From Now. “We had a bit of a giggle doing those kind of tracks” Second engineer Nick Webb told Mark Lewisohn that “John and Paul weren’t always getting on that well at this time, but for that song they went onto the studio floor and sang together around one microphone. Even at that time I was thinking ‘What are they doing with this old four-track tape, recording these funny bits onto this quaint song?’ But it was a fun track to do.” Indeed, McCartney later told Miles that “it became one of my favorite Beatles records, just because we had so much fun putting it together.’”

Lennon may have had ulterior motives in returning to “You Know My Name.” According to Lewisohn, Lennon maintained that “You Know My Name” and “What’s the New Mary Jane” were his songs, even though they were registered under the usual Lennon/McCartney moniker. He wanted both songs released, which is why he reunited with McCartney to overdub vocals on April 30. On November 26 Lennon edited the song down from just over six minutes to a little over four minutes, intending to release it as a Plastic Ono Band single. Copies of the 45 were pressed, and Apple announced a release date of December 5, 1969 under the Plastic Ono Band name with “What’s the New Mary Jane” as the b-side. For unknown reasons, the single was put on indefinite hold on December 1. “You Know My Name” finally saw release on March 6, 1970 as the b-side to “Let It Be.”

As previously mentioned, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” consists of five parts: the straightforward rock section, the ska-influenced section (later edited out at Lennon’s request, but restored for the Anthology project), the “hotel lounge” or cabaret section featuring “Dennis O’Bell” (Lewisohn calls it a “seedy nightclub atmosphere”); the fourth part, which features silly voices and sound effects (originally intended as part five but subsequently edited in a different order), and the final jazzy section, featuring xylophone, Jones’ sax solo, and strange vocal mutterings. While these sections seem random, they fit perfectly with the Beatles’ background and interest in music hall and screwball comedy. During their Hamburg shows, the Beatles would often play comedic tracks such as “The Sheik of Araby” and “Your Feet’s Too Big” or the World War I music-hall favorite “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan borrowed from the beloved music hall tradition in writing and recording some of his tracks. As Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison first developed their skills as a skiffle act, they would have listened carefully to Donegan. “My Old Man’s a Dustman” from 1960 combines the British theatrical tradition with the beginnings of modern rock.

The Beatles foreshadowed “You Know My Name” in 1964, when Starr assumed the drums during a segment from A Hard Day’s Night. Note how he almost sarcastically plays, suggesting a cheesy nightclub atmosphere as the professional dancers rehearse. One can hear the origins of the cabaret section of the song in this brief scene.

Another source for the sleazy cabaret section is the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, a cult favorite band who incorporated elements of music hall with modern comedy and rock Today best known for their brief appearance in Magical Mystery Tour crooning the tune “Death Cab for Cutie,” they cut other popular singles including “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (co-produced by McCartney) and “Canyons of Your Mind,” a loopy trip of a tune featuring a vocal approach similar to McCartney’s sleazy “Dennis O’Bell.”

John Lennon reveled in imitating accents for comical effect, and he fully indulged in this passion during “You Know My Name.” He affects a so-called “working-class accent” similar to what performers such as George Formby used in music hall, radio, and film. One of his biggest hits, 1936’s risqué “When I’m Cleaning Windows,” features Formby using this accent to great effect.

When the Beatles first met producer George Martin, they were impressed that he had worked with Peter Sellers and other members of the Goon Show, a groundbreaking comedy radio series also featuring Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. Their absurdist approach later influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Beatles counted themselves as huge fans. Note how Lennon clearly patterned his accent and strange vocal utterings after Goon Show skits such as this one from 1957.

The Beatles’ use of zany sound effects and unusual instruments also dates back to music hall and continued through radio. Lennon favorite and music hall mainstay Max Miller, a British comedian whose image appears on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band cover, used bells and horns to not-so-subtle effect on his 1953 signature tune “Let’s Have a Ride on Your Bicycle.”

Finally, the Beatles further experimented with absurdist comedy on their fan club Christmas records, using sound effects, crazy accents, and stream-of-consciousness humor. One such example is 1967’s “Christmas Time Is Here Again,” which could be considered the prequel to “You Know My Name.”

Years later, Paul McCartney shocked Mark Lewisohn by heaping praise on “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” “Probably my favorite Beatles track! Just because it’s so insane,” he said. “All the memories. … It was just so hilarious to put that record together. It’s not a great melody or anything, it’s just unique.” It may not rank as an all-time fan favorite, but “You Know My Name” reveals the various sources the Beatles drew from in their music: Music hall, absurdist comedy —all of it was fair game in the band’s distinctive sound.


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
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  • Robert

    This actually is one of my all time favorites. I’m 59 years old and I was 13
    when this song first came out. My friends and I were avid Beatles fans –
    Abbey Road was already out and the rumors about the Let It Be/Get Back
    sessions were flying. We had the Get Back session bootlegs so we already
    knew the song “Let It Be”. The single came out and we saw this b-side
    You Know My Name etc – we had NO IDEA what this was. We rode home on
    bikes as fast we could pedal. Played ‘Let it Be’ then flipped the single
    over and out came the opening chords, the shout/singing and all the
    rest. Jaws dropped? What the f***? We played that damn single over and
    over and over – amazed – The Beatles were as crazy as we were. I still
    have the single picture sleeve and all. Anyone who was a teenager when
    that song came out knows what I’m talking about. And Lennon burps!!

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