Tag Archives: Ob-la-di Ob-la-da

Jan. 10: Only the Northern Songs, Pt. 1

In 1999, George Harrison called “Only a Northern Song” — recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions in early 1967 but not released until January 13, 1969, on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP — a “piss-take” against his former song publisher, whom he characterized as a con man and thief.

From an interview with Billboard, 30 years after the song’s release:

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 have a joke about it.

“Only a Northern Song” has absolutely nothing to do with the Get Back sessions, but the timing of its release does. Just 72 hours before the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP hit stores, the Beatles convened at Twickenham for a truly climacteric day — not just in these sessions but in the group’s history.

George Harrison and Dick James, 1964.

Three hours (on the Nagra tapes) before George Harrison quit the Beatles on January 10, 1969, the target of his lyrical furor — Dick James — was one of the very first voices heard on the day’s recordings. Starting in 1963, Dick James Music administered Northern Songs, earning the publishing company a fortune and the band’s songwriters a disproportionately scant share of those riches. George’s share was but a fraction of what Paul McCartney and John Lennon managed to earn. Dick sold his majority share of Northern Songs out from under the songwriters about two months after the conclusion of the Get Back sessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Dick James was already on the tip of the Beatles’ tongues during the sessions in the previous days — John’s tongue, really, when he joked the publisher would “have the children” if the Beatles would “have a divorce” and break up. And perhaps anticipating the January 10th appearance, John name-checked Dick in the improvised “Shakin’ in the Sixties” just the day before.

But if there was any significant ire toward Dick, from George or mostly anyone else on the day of his visit, it didn’t materialize in the audio, which revealed a lengthy, seemingly cordial encounter (John said some things counter to this, but more on that next post).

Like so many mornings at Twickenham, the previous night’s must-see TV was the first big subject up for discussion, with Paul, Dick, Ringo Starr, engineer/producer Glyn Johns and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg retelling an astounding confrontation between Peter Cook and Zsa Zsa Gabor in which the comedian referred to the actress as “vain, untalented and a complete non-event.” (John and George hadn’t arrived yet).

An event: The Beatles with Zsa Zsa Gabor, at rehearsals for the Night of 1,000 Stars in 1964.

Paul did his best/worst Zsa Zsa impression for her reply: “I zink you are the rudest man you’ve ever seen.”

This exchange on Eamonn Andrews’ show was literally international news — here’s a syndicated story by Reuters that appeared in that morning’s Chicago Tribune — but of course all news is local when it comes to the Beatles, who seemed to have crossed paths with everyone and everything.

“She’s very honest,” Paul said of Zsa Zsa. “Quite entertaining. One thing I don’t like her for is — she was with her daughter. Her daughter was always around EMI when we were making our last album. We saw Zsa Zsa with her daughter there … and she makes a sort of ass out of her daughter. She’s so honest, she’s a bit too honest. She sort of said, ‘Don’t wear that sweater, darling, it makes you look fat.’”

(Roger McGuinn of the Byrds later claimed that he introduced George to Ravi Shankar’s music at an “LSD party” at Zsa Zsa’s Los Angeles mansion, which the Beatles rented during their 1965 tour. This proves again, there are no Beatles footnotes, only incredible parenthetical, contextual anecdotes worthy of stories themselves.)

The conversation soon shifted to more proximate family matters, when Dick asked Paul if his father and brother, Mike, received his telegram on the birth of Mike’s daughter, Benna, a few weeks earlier — “More gear to the McGear.”

“Mike had become a Benna-ficiary,” Paul replied with what clearly was already a well-worn joke.

Not much later Dick likewise discussed family with Ringo, almost like he was an elder of the clan himself, needling the drummer about more having more kids.

Dick: How’s Maureen? You haven’t even told me.
Ringo: She’s wonderful. She’ll be here later.
Dick: Zak?
Ringo: He’s wonderful, too, thank you.
Dick: No brother or sister on the way?
Ringo: Not yet.

Dick forgot 16-month-old Jason, but Ringo didn’t seem to mind.

A great deal of the conversation between Dick, Ringo, Paul, Glyn and Michael revolved around the extensive Lawrence Wright Music catalog, which was purchased by Northern Songs in 1965, but clearly the extent of the collection wasn’t known to the band until this morning.

“Mind boggles with a catalog like this,” Dick said at one point. “’Cause as fast as you remember some, you forget the other titles.”

The massive song inventory was very much in the wheelhouse of Paul and Ringo, who each would occasionally interject a superlative or sing along a line from various titles.

“That’s the greatest one you’ve got,” Ringo said of “Stardust,” which he’d record that November, with Paul arranging.

As Dick aptly noted, “there are some golden oldies in there that are ridiculous.”

Ridiculously classic? Absolutely. Like the aforementioned “Stardust,” the songs included “Home on the Range,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Stormy Weather” and “Just a Gigolo.”

And it’s quite ridiculous that the Beatles held an actual financial stake in World War I propaganda songs and other novelties like “Eat Less Bread,” “He’s in the Infirmary Now,” “Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad,” “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s 40.

A song like “Carolina Moon” stood out to Paul — “My Uncle Ron’s favorite. Sings at all the parties.” And while George presumably came to “Hard Hearted Hannah” via another source, the Tin Pan Alley-era Northern Song was a jump-off point for the late-1970s Harrisong “Soft-Hearted Hana.”

Of course the most important inventory in the Northern Songs catalog would always be the ones with the “Lennon/McCartney” credit, and those assets were discussed, too.

“They’ll release ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ by us on the continent,” Paul said. “Hopefully with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the b-side” (and it was a few weeks later).

“How about the ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ covers and things? All right?” Dick asked.

“Yes, doing well,” Paul answered, without mentioning Marmalade’s version had just finished a run at the top of the charts.

“I brought some records over to the flat, just in case you’d like to hear it,” Dick told Paul. “Vera Lynn’s ‘Goodnight’ as a waltz. Stephen [James, Dick’s son] produced it. Done as a 3/4. Sounds beautiful.”

The Beatles had spent the previous six days writing and rehearsing the newest batch of Northern Songs, and nearly 40 minutes into the day’s tapes, the publisher was treated to a sneak peak of five songs. It’s a curious set, featuring Paul solo at the piano, and one that should have been among the clear highlights of every session bootleg. Except, very frustratingly, for much of the half hour he was merely background music.

The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” had become morning standards, so Paul’s performance for Dick wasn’t extraordinary. And to hear Paul tickle the ivories on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was likewise unremarkable. But to hear a piano-based “Don’t Let Me Down” — with Paul alone on vocals with an obvious mastery of and affection for the material — and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are true oddities. The below clip covers a great deal of the music, along with dialogue that will be covered in the subsequent post (so don’t pay too close attention lest you’ll be spoiled!).

(“Don’t Let Me Down” runs from about 52 seconds for nearly two minutes in the above clip. “I’ve Got a Feeling starts around the 4:35 mark and runs about 2 1/2 minutes). 

Around the same time Paul headed over to the piano, George arrived at Twickenham for the final time.

The greeting between George and Dick was warm, with the George offering thanks for a Christmas gift — a set of drinking glasses.

Dick, who most assuredly had no idea George’s wife had walked out on him days earlier, could be excused for his response to the guitarist.

“Useful. Something to drink out of. Or the wife can throw.”

More on Dick James’ visit to Twickenham in the moments before George Harrison left the band coming in the next post, coming soon!

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Jan. 9: Love from Paul

Almost fifty years have passed, and we’re still unsure of how the Beatles’ ditty “Suzy Parker” came about. But the origin story for “Penina” — discussed and introduced by Paul McCartney a few hours after the somewhat mysterious performance of “Suzy Parker” — quite literally appeared in print on the very day we’re discussing, January 9, 1969, in the Daily Express.

A newsworthy trip: Paul in Portugal, December 1968

“Penina” is usually lumped into the pile of Lennon/McCartney songs given away to other artists. Why, you may have seen it on the 1979 EMI compilation “The Songs Lennon And McCartney Gave Away,” alongside far more notable tracks like Peter & Gordon’s “World Without Love” and Billy J. Kramer’s “Bad to Me.” Those were No. 1 hits. “Penina” wasn’t even released in the U.K. or U.S.

So how does “Penina” fit in and how did it come that Paul is the sole author?

Paul, who vacationed in Portugal in mid-December 1968 with Linda Eastman, her daughter Heather, and Beatles biographer Hunter Davies — a trip highlighted by Paul proposing to Linda and her discovery she was pregnant with Mary —  recounted a story of showing up drunk at La Penina, a hotel resort, one night around midnight.


“See the bit in the paper where it said about me giving a song to some group, in William Hickey this morning?” Paul asked the rest of the group a little bit after lunch.

As printed in that day’s Daily Express, under the headline “Beatle Paul writes a £20,000 holiday tip”:

McCartney had spent an evening listening to the resident band at the resort’s luxury Penina Golf Hotel. He decided to give a tip in appreciation. And composed a few bars — called Penina — for the lucky bandleader, Anibal Cunha. To help them along McCartney beat out the rhythm on the drums.

Paul elaborated: “And I sat in on drums, and they said, ‘Give us a song.’ So I said, OK.”

Good lord, is that all it takes? Someone get me in the same room as Paul McCartney, I have absolutely no good material.

“’I’ve been to Albufera, had a great time there,’” Paul sang before continuing to describe the scene. “It was called La Penina, the hotel. And they were all digging it and singing along, and it was good. And William Hickey [in the paper] said he’s giving away this 20,000-pound song.”

Per the paper’s report:

As the shareholders of Northern’ Songs (currently standing at 33s. a share) know, McCartney compositions never fail to net £20,000 at the very least.

Northern Songs shareholders in fact are presently benefiting from a rif, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney borrowed-from another performer, Jimmy Scott. The Marmalade version of this song topped the hit parade this week for the first time.

Paul didn’t mask his disgust with the report:

“Cunts. That’s what you write something, for a riff. You don’t say ‘hello,’ and you haven’t got a riff when you say ‘hello.’ That’s the riff I got off of Jimmy Scott, those two words (“Ob-la-di, Ob-La-Da”). You’d think I’d taken his life. It’s not as though he wrote the song.”

This wasn’t the only time on these tapes Paul would show his frustration with Jimmy Scott regarding ownership of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Over the years, however, Paul’s softened his view on Scott. This is from just weeks ago, during his promotional tour for Egypt Station:

Meanwhile, back in 1969, the newspaper report continued, quoting Apple press officer Derek Taylor:

“John and Paul saw him right,” says Mr. Taylor. “They, are themselves often asked for help on their travels. And it just isn’t possible for them to refuse.”

Having only heard of “Penina” from the newspaper and Paul’s own recollection, the rest of the group finally had their chance to hear — and participate — in what would be the lone known Beatles performance of the song.” Paul has a vague memory of the lyrics, and the rest of the group clearly has no idea how the song goes (this is in deep contrast to “Suzy Parker,” by the way, lending more support to the argument that song wasn’t a pure improvisation). Here’s how they sounded:

It’s not quite “Elanor Rigby” — it’s hardly “Wild Honey Pie” (or “Fuh You” for that matter, to evoke Egypt Station again). But it’s a Paul McCartney original and from the same moment in time he was writing songs like “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” so it deserves to be at least more than a footnote.

Been to Albufeira, I had a few drinks there
And now I’m on my way home
I really don’t care
La Penina, La Penina, La Penina hotel
Well it’s been a long road …

OK, maybe that could be a footnote. (Albufeira, by the way, was where Paul wrote the lyrics to “Yesterday” in 1965. How’s that for a footnote?)

When the song was finally released a few months later — by Anibal Cunha’s band, Jotta Herre — the sleeve proudly trumpeted the Beatle’s songwriting credit. And it’s a lone McCartney credit, not Lennon/McCartney. The eventual lyrics have just three verses, with the final one ending with a first-person reference. It’s a languid offering, plaintive at best sporting simplistic lyrics that recap the evening sung over a bland melody.

(Chorus)
Penina, Penina, Penina one night
Penina, Penina, Penina one night

I’ve been to Albufiera
And I had a good time there
And then I came to Penina
And found good friends

Drinking liquid, making music
Love has come to my heart
Beat the drums take me home
Helping friends free my soul

Time has come, time has gone
Time to bet for keeping friends
Take my arm girl, lets go home
Thank you all, love from Paul

In challenging the report that it was a £20,000 song, Paul was clearly giving the song little merit in January 1969. After all, it was just a riff!

In short time, however, Paul was interested in taking a little bit of ownership in “Penina,” starting soon thereafter with his blessing the band to use his name as a promotional tool.

In an interview with a Portuguese magazine published in July 1969 and beautifully titled “Jotta Herre — the godchildren of Paul McCartney,” Cunha disclosed further communication with the bearded Beatle.

Translated, roughly, from Portuguese to English via Google Translate:

I have only one thing to regret, and we must involve the name of Paul McCartney and the friendship he gave us. But, in truth, he also forced us to do so. And in a letter he sent us he tells us categorically. “Use my name without hesitation, let it be used for your publication.” And, finally, the commercial entities linked to the release of the album knew this and took advantage of the idea. Well Paul’s name has a made market and it is assumed that it will be commercially valid.

The song was not really that commercially valid, to use that term. Neither the original version nor a subsequent cover that year by two-time Portuguese Eurovision contestant Carlos Mendes — whose cut appeared on the aforementioned EMI compilation — appears to have made much of a dent in sales, despite the McCartney name behind the song. Perhaps it was the quality of the song that played a role.

A quarter century later, in a 1994 interview in his Club Sandwich fan club magazine, Paul sounded like there was more to the story than perhaps there was:

I went to Portugal on holiday and returned to the hotel one night slightly the worse for a few drinks. There was a band playing and I ended up on the drums. The hotel was called Penina, I made up a song with that name, someone made enquiries about it and I gave it to them. And, no, I shouldn’t think I’d ever record it myself!

The Summer 1995 issue of the same magazine likewise listed “Penina” among the songs Paul gave away, chronologically listed between bona-fide hits “Goodbye” (Mary Hopkin) and “Come and Get It” (Badfinger), showing a breathtaking contrast of song quality with his Portuguese throwaway.

To this day, Paul still hasn’t recorded “Penina,” but the song lives on. Mendes re-recorded it for his latest LP, which came out in April 2018.

And while “Suzy Parker” lives on only through bootlegs and YouTube clips, having become the actual footnote in Beatles lore, you can see the 71-year-old Mendes perform “Penina” live in concert in Portugal this December, nearly 50 years to the day Paul wrote the song a few hours away at the Penina Hotel and Golf Resort.

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Jan. 3: Let you down, leave you flat

Central to the legend of the Get Back/Let it Be sessions is the looseness of the group as they sloppily play covers and fool around with their own old songs. So many weird things, tucked in between a million takes of “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” right?

It’s what appealed to me in listening to the Get Back sessions in the first place, so long ago,  when it was available on only curated compilations on vinyl.  And really bad sounding ones, too.  But go to record shows or Beatlefests and scan the back cover, and things seemed like they’d be cool! All these crazy cover songs, all these oldies of theirs, all these outtakes of songs we know and songs we don’t.

But the reality usually didn’t match the fantasy. [This overall theme will absolutely be covered again in this blog, likely ad nauseum].

And on Jan. 3, they did indeed have some fun with some oldies and originals. It’s not great. And really, I think things like this add to the generic resentment toward these sessions by Beatles fans. The band doesn’t care, so why should we?

Really, not a bad point. But it is interesting so long as you accept it for what it is. It’s no different than those of us who have office jobs spending a few minutes doodling on a notepad between taking care of real work, right? Their office happens to be the studio, and their doodles, songs. And if we’re eager enough to listen to their doodles as big enough fans, well… this is what we get.

So while the band didn’t spend all that much time the first few days genuinely going over their old songs,  in addition to a poke at Every Little Thing and the reintroduction of “One After 909,” the band on Jan. 3 went into the back catalog for “You Can’t Do That” — after a take of  Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” a song that seems to have inspired the song off A Hard Day’s Night.

It was pretty much 3 a.m. bar-band quality. The song breaks down about a minute in, during the “everybody’s green” part. John keeps singing, Paul keeps in there, too, and eventually the song sort of comes back to life.  They make it through the instrumental portion of the song before things completely break down for good.

More fun and somewhat historic, I suppose, was when Paul took the mic for a more significant take of “I’m So Tired.” Obviously, this was not meant to be anything beyond a bit of fun. Again, more 3 a.m. bar band. But perhaps even moreso. At least, here we got through the song. And even with an attempt at the end-of-song babble!

There’s no context, by the way, for why they went into this take. The tapes I’m listening to (A/B Road) just go from an unidentifiable jam cut straight into “I’m So Tired.”

They stick with the White Album (flip from side 2 to 1 if you’re so inclined) for the next song they roll right into.  As on the record, Paul takes the lead on “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” — kicking things off with the bass line — but it doesn’t take very long for John to take over.

And with Marmalade’s version of the song presently sitting atop the British singles charts (while the White Album was the best-selling LP), why wouldn’t the McCartney/Lennon songwriting team enjoy themselves all the way through the song?

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