Birthday

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 18 September 1968
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, bass guitar, piano, handclaps
John Lennon: vocals, tambourine, lead guitar, handclaps
George Harrison: lead guitar, handclaps
Ringo Starr: drums, handclaps
Pattie Harrison, Yoko Ono: backing vocals, handclaps
Mal Evans: handclaps

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)

The opening song in the second half of The Beatles’ White Album, Birthday emerged from a jam in Abbey Road’s studio two.

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The Beatles had scheduled an earlier start for their 18 September 1968 session, in order to watch the classic rock ‘n’ roll film The Girl Can’t Help It. It was showing that night for the first time on British TV, on BBC Two between 9.05 and 10.40pm.

I had mentioned to Paul a couple of days earlier about The Girl Can’t Help It being on television during this evening. The idea was to start the session earlier than usual, about five o’clock in the afternoon, and then all nip around the corner to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue, watch the film and go back to work.

So on the day Paul was the first one in, and he was playing the Birthday riff. Eventually the others arrived, by which time Paul had literally written the song, right there in the studio. We had the backing track down by about 8.30, popped around to watch the film as arranged and then came back and actually finished the whole song. It was all done in a day!

Chris Thomas
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Chris Thomas was standing in for George Martin, who was away at the time. Paul McCartney’s memory is that the song was a joint effort with John Lennon.

We thought, ‘Why not make something up?’ So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. We said, ‘We’ll go to there for a few bars, then we’ll do this for a few bars.’ We added some lyrics, then we got the friends who were there to join in on the chorus. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all on the same evening. I don’t recall it being anybody’s birthday in particular but it might have been, but the other reason for doing it is that, if you have a song that refers to Christmas or a birthday, it adds to the life of the song, if it’s a good song, because people will pull it out on birthday shows, so I think there was a little bit of that at the back of our minds.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

John Lennon, interestingly, later claimed that the song had been written in India. While this has been disputed by others, he did throw some light on the sound effects that can be heard towards the end of the song, particularly after the final chord.

Birthday was a straightforward song to record, and all four Beatles contributed. Backing vocals were added by Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono, and all – including the group’s assistant Mal Evans – recorded handclaps.

The effects heard towards the song’s end, and in the ‘I would like you to dance’ section, were created by a piano microphone fed through a guitar amplifier with effects added.

Based around a standard blues structure, Birthday contains one of McCartney’s finest vocal performances on the White Album. Perhaps the soundtrack to The Girl Can’t Help It – which featured Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and others – played a part.

Birthday was written in the studio. Just made up on the spot. I think Paul wanted to write a song like Happy Birthday Baby, the old Fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

55 responses on “Birthday

  1. Joseph Brush

    Don’t you believe Paul?
    Isn’t Many Years From Now, Paul’s revelations of the songwriting story?
    Who knows better?
    Paul McCartney or Chris Thomas?

    1. EltonJohnLennon

      In “Many Years From Now” Paul writes much which is – in my opinion – controversial. For example: He says that he wrote the “I read the news today”-part from “A Day in the Life” together with John. But we all know that John wrote this bit alone.

      1. Sebastian Mora

        EltonJohnLennon Sunday 25 April 2010
        In “Many Years From Now” Paul writes much which is – in my opinion – controversial. For example: He says that he wrote the “I read the news today”-part from “A Day in the Life” together with John. But we all know that John wrote this bit alone.
        In fact John Lennon said in his interviews WITH PLAYBOY AND HIT PARADER that Paul not only contributed the “Woke up fell…” section but also the short lick “I love to turn you on”. This shows that Paul’s has some participation in John’s section, and maybe he really helped on the second and last verse like he said.
        Controversial doesn’t mean false. In Lennon’s Playboy and Hit Parader interviews you can count in one hand the songs in which John mentioned any help from Paul in his songs. But on the other hand, John said he helped Paul in a lot of songs. That’s not only controversial but surely inexact and unfair too. You really think that McCartney only helped John in five or six songs? In the book Many years from now, Paul’s finally revealed his contributions to John’s songs, because Lennon never did. Many John’s fans obviously didn’t like that, but doesn’t mean that McCartney is not telling the true. At least, Paul was there, they don’t.
        It’s ok if you believe more in John’s version than Paul’s (I tend to believe more in Paul’s version, at least in most of the cases, though, for example, on Birthday case, I think the most credible source its Chris Thomas, because I think if you watch a beatle write a song in front you is something you never forget), but I don’t know if it is right to say “But we all know that John wrote this bit alone”. How? Any of us were there. Paul was there, John was there, we can only speculate what really happened.

        1. robert

          So here’s a thought that might add some clarity to just about every “who helped who on which song” discussion out there. In the way the Beatles worked, there were two times a song was composed. First usually at home either John alone or Paul alone (sometimes together) but the germ of the song would be written. Sometimes in Paul’s case the song would be brought into the studio almost completely done.

          But then once in the studio as the song was fleshed out and started getting formally arranged, there was plenty of input on chord changes, melody structure, tempo, song structure (verse, bridge ,chorus order etc) plus changing lyrics that didn’t seem to flow or land properly on the melody or beat etc.

          There’s plenty of out takes showing this give and take and everyone throwing ideas in to get a song completed. Even Let It Be had different tempos, Two of Us had different feels, Something did as well – tons of examples of this.

          This is known as the collaborative creative process.

          So given all that, it is highly possible that John Paul and George can each have a different sense of who contributed what in what song during the many different moments the stew was being brewed.

          Add to that relational dynamics, drug use, faulty memories, egos etc, and it should be no wonder that they very much have different recollections on how a particular song was finalized.

          1. Sebastian Mora

            John Lennon to Playboy: “it’s easier to say what I gave to him than what he gave to me. And he’d say the same.”
            That’s true. But what is sad is many people (most of John’s fans) don’t understand that. They want to think that Paul is making up the history and exaggerating his contributions to The Beatles songs. But he isn’t . In the book Many Years From Now, Paul is telling his side of the story (like John did it in the Playboy Interviews), because Lennon never really want or care to talk about Paul’s contributions to his songs. Both versions , Paul’s and John’s, surely are imperfect, but both versions should have the same respect.

    2. Sebastian Mora

      Well, in this case I believe more in Chris Thomas, because I think if you watch a beatle compose a song in front you is a thing you never forget. For Paul wrlting Birthday is just another day at work. And Lennon comment also indicates that the song was mostly Paul’s. Also, Mal Evans was present in the session and in one of Beatles monthy books said that all of the ideas in the composition and construction of the song “seem to came from Paul”. You can download The beatles montly books in Taringa, If you dont believe me.
      “Isn’t Many Years From Now, Paul’s revelations of the songwriting story?” if you said that with irony, its sad, and shows not objetivity and no respect for Paul.

    3. Sebastian Mora

      Well, in this case I believe more in Chris Thomas, because I think if you watch a beatle compose a song in front you is a thing you never forget. For Paul wrlting Birthday is just another day at work. And Lennon comment also indicates that the song was mostly Paul’s. Also, Mal Evans was present in the session and in one of Beatles monthy books said that all of the ideas in the composition and construction of the song “seem to came from Paul”. You can download The beatles montly books in Taringa, If you dont believe me.
      “Isn’t Many Years From Now, Paul’s revelations of the songwriting story?” if you said that with irony, its sad, and shows not objetivity and no respect for Paul.

  2. Vonbontee

    Certainly not a particularly great song but a really enjoyable performance. Sounds like they had fun doing this one, unlike most of the album. How is it that Pattie Harrison was the only Beatle wife allowed to contribute to recordings?

      1. philmat

        I was always sure that was a Hammond in the background. If it’s a piano, it’d be interesting to know what effect they put it through. Sounds like a phaser or chorus.

  3. thomas

    Any song is really only as good as it’s performance; the rock and roll genre itself being based on simple live performances by gifted (and largely unschooled) garage-band musicians. To come up with such a solid rocker while just jamming and goofing around reveals not only great musicianship but a mastery of Rock’s blues-based roots few other pop groups had. Not only is Birthday one of my favorites on the White Album, it really shows the talent the Beatles had. If disc 2 only had less Revolution No. 9 and more Birthday/Yer Blues or Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence combos (almost like double A sided singles in album format…)

    The White Album has several not so great songs. But Birthday isn’t one of them. I can only wonder what the album would have been like if George Martin’s wishes had been followed and a single disc (rather than double) had been produced. Ah well, it’s the White Album. Perhaps best to let it be and enjoy.

    1. CaroleTucson

      “I can only wonder what the album would have been like if George Martin’s wishes had been followed and a single disc (rather than double) had been produced.”

      Yep. I’d imagine most Beatle fans have wondered that at one time or another. It’s fun to sit down and try to pick the 14 tracks that should be included :)

          1. thomas

            I don’t think I could altruistically follow the forum’s parameters. There’s a number of songs I’d eliminate but I don’t think 7 songs per side would represent enough of those songs I consider essential and just have to keep.

            Also I’m not sure reinventing the white album would be anything more than an exercise of my liking certain songs best. Having said that I’d probably have to go with maybe 8 songs per side (long — about 25-26 minutes per side but not unheard of on albums.) I also couldn’t include Ringo because the one song he wrote for himself (instead of Lennon-McCartney) is one I would definitely eliminate. Sorry Richard!

            Oh well…

    2. philmat

      I agree. Certainly Revolution 9 should not have been there, or anywhere, for that matter. It’s just a long piece of raving insanity, typical of John at the time. I can’t imagine why the others went along with it. Probably just to keep the peace. It was The Beatles at their lowest.

  4. Anders

    How silly to try to draw from the whole that is The White Album. The greatness of which is the plentyful of material to choose from! There’s a whole McCartney album in there! A whole Lennon album! And half a Harrison album as well! Stay away from the tracks you don’t like and there’s still enough stuff to blow you away, right?

    (Birthday is one of the best in there, imho!)

    1. JP

      Yes. It was really irritating how John would publicly trash songs (usually Paul’s) by simply dismissing them as garbage or throwaways. However, Lennon never publicly called any of Yoko’s “songs” trash, which is a far more apt description of 98% of what she wrote. In fact, I think that might be a reason why Paul claimed John collaborated in the song’s composition – to show it wasn’t simply one of his songs that John had no part in writing and disliked. It is also the height of hypocrisy and arrogance to call any of Paul’s White Album tracks garbage when John had Revolution 9 on the same record.

      1. Happiness is a warm gun

        I think you’re being unfair–it seems John trashed his own songs far more often than Paul’s or songs that Paul ad significant contributions.

        John had issues and those issues colored his opinions of things. I made an argument in the John forum that he had bipolar disorder, and people with untreated bipolar tend to be hypercritical, especially about themselves and anything they have been a part of, and often they recall things in a highly distorted, emotionally colored and unreliable fashion that often makes them portray past events either very negatively or very positively. It’s difficult for these people to think about things in a detached, leveled way because they experience everything through the filter of either mania or depression. John’s role in the Beatles exposed him to pressures that triggered his insecurities, anxieties and fears of inadequacy, while his relationship with Yoko appeared to be (in its better periods) an emotional sanctuary for him. IMO, it’s the cycle of mania-depression speaking. Sad to say that, but it makes sense if you’ve ever spent time working with someone who is bipolar.

        1. Joaco

          Not a bad theory. I’m pretty sure he didn’t think it was garbage when he recorded it. But coming from a family of musicians, I also know sometimes people look down on their own work because they associate it with bad experiences in its recording sessions. I think it’s a great song, one of the best in the album. Paul plays it often in his gigs and it’s always a great time in his shows when he does.

  5. Schminking of gin

    Lennon even said he wished he could re-record Strawberry Fields, especially Strawberry Fields. The guy just enjoyed being contrarian a lot, and I guess being overly modest when you are that supremely talented is preferable to being supremely arrogant. He’s said many different things about the same songs, depending on the year and his mood and probably his interviewer

  6. Paul B. Schmid

    First off, George played the Fender VI.

    The research I’ve done: unusual recording time, Paul writing song, Paul played lead guitar, Yoko, Patti, and Mal were all on the recording, the recording and mixing, done on September 18, 1968, was a rush job. This all adds up, dispite what those in the “inner circle, including Paul, stated” to being a birthday present to Linda Eastman, (September 24th) who had JUST moved to London for good, and moved in with Paul at Cavindish. What are your thoughts to my theory??

  7. CJ Price

    what john says in the 1970 playboy interview should be taken with a grain of salt. He was bitter and when eveything he wrote with or without paul was garbage…spare me john

    1. Joseph Brush

      How can he spare you?
      He was bitter at that particular time but towards the end of his life he had mellowed.
      People are allowed to change their minds.

  8. John Cobb

    I have a question that has bugged me a long time about this great song “Birthday”. Is there, or is there not, a drum solo by Ringo? Is it considered or qualifies as a solo? They say “The End” was the 1st and only time Ringo ever done one. When I first learned that, I thought “Wait a minute… Yes he did too do one before…”. Am I wrong????

  9. vonbontee

    That doesn’t really count as a “solo” by most peoples’ musical definition – he’s just playing a really basic 2/4 rhythm over and over for 8 bars or however long it is. And it’s not even a solo performance, really, since somebody else is accompanying him on tambourine throughout!

    1. John Cobb

      Yeah, vonbontee, I see what you mean. It is only a basic 2/4 beat for 8 bars and there is John with the tambourine too. But it is close enough that I have to wonder if Ringo maybe thought close to the reaction he gave for doing “The End”. I think both were very simplistic attributes and were wonderfully done. (Just the right amount, not too much as I agree with Ringo on solos being overly done sometimes.) When I heard his comment about solo’s, It brought me to this song and wondered why, “Birthday” was pretty darn close.

    2. robert

      While I fully understand, respect and appreciate vonbontee’s point above – one could also forward the position that the drum section in Birthday is indeed a solo, albeit a rather uncreative and mundane solo (and I love Ringo, but it is what it is).

      It’s sort of like the guitar “solo” in Dizzy Miss Lizzie. Is it a solo or a couple of guitar notes repeated over and over for 12 bars?

      In terms of the tambourine playing along with Ringo, while drum solos are typically done without any other instruments, I don’t think it’s a requirement that it be only drums (guitar solos aren’t only guitar), especially since in the case the other instrument is a percussion instrument – maybe it’s a percussion solo – albeit a rather uncreative and mundane solo.

      Not being argumentative (at least not intentionally) just looking at it from all angles.

      FYI – I’ve been playing musical instruments for 49 years – at one time semi-professionally, if it matters.

  10. Matthew Wayne

    Interesting that the guitar riff is similar to the riff from little Richard’s “Lucille” with a couple of notes elided. I wonder if his anticipation of the movie put him in a Little Richard mindset.

  11. James Ferrell

    I love the guitar tones on this one, especially the higher octave guitar. Anyone know what Paul/George was playing on and through? A strat through a Deluxe Reverb or a Twin?

  12. Von Bontee

    Ignorance on my part there…Maureen Starkey also performed on the white album. And of course Yoko too, but she wasn’t a wife yet.

  13. also-Paul

    I think the basic idea to this song came from Paul – and Paul alone – only later has it been worked out in collaboration of the whole group!
    Several indications for this version:
    1) Paul sang the main voice (although helped by John and probably George)
    2) Paul played guitar, George the 6-string-bass – something typical only in Pauls songs
    3) Paul played it later in his concerts – which he did almost exclusively with “his” songs (exception: Help as a tribute to John)
    4) John called it “garbage” – a strong indication that it wasn´t his idea

    I think Paul in his book “Many Years From Now” was often too generous in attributing assistance to John, when it were only some lines or even words … that might be due to his (earlier) difficulty to write good lyrics, and his easiness to invent fine music – he regarded good lyrics (too) high – and a great melody maybe too low.

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