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.
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 — Paul’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).
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.
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 a few weeks earlier in late December 1968, 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.
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!