The Beatles, “Only a Northern Song” from Yellow Submarine (1967): Deep Beatles

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George Martin dubbed it “the song I hated most of all.” In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick called it “substandard,” a “weak track” with “minimal content that seemed to go nowhere.” Ian MacDonald dismissed it as “dismal” and a “self-indulgent dirge” in Revolution in the Head. George Harrison later described it as a “piss take.”

Indeed, “Only a Northern Song” is rarely ranked among fans’ favorite Beatles songs. Does the song deserve to be dismissed as insignificant? It may not be listed among all-time favorites, but the track is notable for its psychedelic elements, as well as addressing a piece of Beatles history.

Indirectly, “Only a Northern Song” references the Beatles battle over publishing rights. How the Beatles lost ownership of their own songs dates back to 1963, when Brian Epstein decided to form a publishing company that would maintain ownership of the Beatles’ compositions. Music publisher Dick James, Epstein, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney became majority owners of Northern Songs, Ltd. The two Beatles each owned 20 percent of the business. Just two years later, Northern Songs went public, with Lennon and McCartney each owning a 15 percent stake while George Harrison and Ringo Starr split a small percentage.

“Talking personally about the songs I wrote when I was very young, this guy came up to me and said, ‘Well, you’ve got to have your music published.’ I go, ‘What’s that?’ So that when it goes out, you can get some money for it. So, here, why don’t you sign this form and I’ll publish your music for you,’” Harrison told Creem in 1987. “They forget to say, ‘And, incidentally, I’m gonna steal your song and I will own it for the rest of my life, and you don’t own that song, even though you just wrote it.’”

During a June 19, 1999 interview with Billboard’s Timothy White, Harrison expanded even further.

It was at the point that I realized Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18-or 19-year old kid, I thought, “Great, somebody’s gonna publish my songs?” But he never said, “And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you’re assigning me the ownership of the songs [Harrison had written as a Beatle],” which is what it is. It was just a blatant theft. By the time I realized what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalog, I wrote “Only A Northern Song” as what we call a “piss-take,” just to joke about it.

In addition, he explained it referred to his Liverpool youth. “‘Northern Song’ was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England,” Harrison wrote in his autobiography I, Me, Mine.

Harrison first brought “Only a Northern Song” to Abbey Road Studios on February 13, 1967. After working on the track that day as well as February 14 and April 20, the group decided to shelve the song. By 1968, the Beatles found themselves having to compile an album for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack; returning to “leftovers” from past sessions, they selected “Only a Northern Song.”

The Beatles began work on what was then titled “Not Known” – George Harrison was notorious for not naming songs until late in the recording process – on February 13, 1967, completing nine takes of the rhythm track. They decided on take three as best; the next day, Harrison overdubbed two lead vocals. After completing Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles returned to the song, now called “Only a Northern Song,” on April 20.

After erasing Harrison’s original vocals, they added bass, trumpet, and glockenspiel. Next, the Beatles created another mix with rerecorded vocals, now called take 11. These two versions were then blended together in sync to create the mono mix. The final lineup includes George Harrison on lead vocals, organ, and various effects; John Lennon on piano, glockenspiel, and various effects; Paul McCartney on bass, trumpet, and various effects; and Ringo Starr on drums.

Interestingly, producers of the Yellow Submarine movie were in the studio during this session, and they were none too pleased with “Only a Northern Song.” After the Beatles added a cacophony of sounds to the track, McCartney picked up a trumpet. “The film producers were wandering around the studio and they had to sort of go along with this: I saw some very sad faces while I’m playing this trumpet,” McCartney later recalled in John C. Winn’s That Magic Feeling: The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy, Volume Two: 1966-1970.

The original February 13 take resurfaced on the Anthology 2 compilation; it featured the basic track with organ, bass, drums and the vocals Harrison originally recorded. The bass and guitar from April 20 were used in this version, and the sound collage overdubs are omitted. The Anthology edition also features slightly different lyrics. For example, instead of singing “But they’re not, we just wrote it like that,” Harrison sings “But they’re not, I just wrote them like that.”

Other differences include the following:

Submarine version: “When you’re listening late at night / You make think the bands are not quite right / But they are, they just play it like that.” Anthology version: “When you listen late at night / You may feel the words are not quite right / But they are, I just wrote them myself.”

Submarine version: “If you think the harmony / Is a little dark and out of key / You’re correct, there’s nobody there.” Anthology version: “If you think the harmony / Is a little off and out of key / Then you’re right, ‘cause I sing it myself.”

In addition, the cacophony of sound effects and instruments reflects the avant-garde art movement of the 1960s. John Cage, a prominent member of this genre, was a pioneer of “noise music,” a subset of the Fluxus art movement (of which Yoko Ono was also a member). Cage challenged listeners to reconsider what constitutes music. For example, why can’t the sound of a whistling tea kettle or the popping sound of a toaster constitute music as much as the dulcet tones of a violin or horn? Karlheinz Stockhausen, another significant figure of the movement, essentially pioneered modern electronic music, and also questioned the very notion of sound. Avant garde-leaning musicians in the 1960s were attracted to Stockhausen’s experiments in tape and early electronic sound. One can hear the similarities between the noise in “Only a Northern Song” and the distorted sounds in Stockhausen’s 1952 composition “Etude.”

The trumpet and other instruments that seemingly clash are typical elements of Cage’s “noise music,” as evident in Atlas Eclipticalis from the early ’60s.

George Harrison’s bitterness seeps through every line of “Only a Northern Song,” although he takes the unusual approach of writing about composing and performing. “You may think the chords are going wrong / But they’re not, we just wrote it like that,” he sings, sarcasm dripping in every syllable. Other theories abound that Harrison was also expressing his anger over not being featured as much as the Lennon/McCartney partnership.

“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play / What words I say or what time of day it is,” he snarls, possibly referring to the other Beatles’ apparent lack of interest in his work. The last words introduce even more intrigue: “as it’s only a Northern song.” Is he referencing Northern Songs, or is he affectionately ribbing his Liverpudlian heritage? Taking the perspective of Harrison feeling diminished by his bandmates, the word “only” could connote how his compositions were received in the studio.

The swirling organ dominates until the “chords are going wrong” line, when McCartney’s off-kilter trumpet enters the scene. The instrumental section best illustrates the Cage and Stockhausen influence, the cacophony creating a sense of displacement and confusion. The sounds almost overwhelm Harrison’s voice in the final stanza, the effects adding an eerie tone as Harrison sings “there’s nobody there.”

Echoing avant-garde elements in songs such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “A Day in the Life” (the latter being particularly appropriate, since “Northern Song” was first recorded during the Pepper sessions), the dissonance overtakes the music, random chatter audible as the song fades out. Sounds engulfing the song would be further explored in the John Lennon composition “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Today, “Only a Northern Song” deserves more appreciation for its historic references, wry humor, and psychedelic elements. In addition, it demonstrates how Harrison wanted to distinguish himself from Lennon and McCartney sonically. Mojo asked top musicians and writers to rank the Beatles’ Greatest 101 Songs, and “Only A Northern Song” was chosen as number 75. Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook summarized why he selected the song as one of the Beatles’ best: “It reflects George Harrison’s musicality, which was something distinct from Lennon and McCartney,” he said.

Music publishing issues — which would haunt the Beatles for decades — and the “noise music” trend of the 1960s figure into the Yellow Submarine track, making it a thematically and structurally challenging song; as George Harrison proclaims, “Only a Northern Song” may be “a little dark and out of key” – but only in the most intriguing sense.

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