Getting Better

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 9, 10, 21, 23 March 1967
Producer: George Martin
Engineers: Malcolm Addey, Geoff Emerick

Released: 1 June 1967 (UK), 2 June 1967 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, piano
John Lennon: backing vocals, handclaps
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar, tambura
Ringo Starr: drums, congas
George Martin: piano, pianette

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Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

With lyrics co-written by Lennon and McCartney and music mostly by McCartney, the idea for Getting Better came from a favourite phrase of Jimmie Nicol, The Beatles’ stand-in drummer for their 1964 tour of Australia.

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According to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, the phrase popped into McCartney’s head one day in 1967 while he was walking his sheepdog Martha in Hampstead.

Getting Better I wrote on my magic Binder, Edwards and Vaughan piano in my music room. It had a lovely tone, that piano, you’d just open the lid and there was such a magic tone, almost out of tune, and of course the way it was painted added to the fun of it all.

It’s an optimistic song. I often try and get on to optimistic subjects in an effort to cheer myself up and also, realising that other people are going to hear this, to cheer them up too. And this was one of those. The ‘angry young man’ and all that was John and I filling in the verses about schoolteachers. We shared a lot of feelings against teachers who had punished you too much or who hadn’t understood you or who had just been bastard generally.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Although the title is upbeat and positive, the song deals with anger, unruliness at school and violence towards women. It is likely that the darker edge came from Lennon, who was familiar with all three traits.

It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Much like We Can Work It Out, Getting Better explores the differences in personality between the two songwriters.

I was just sitting there doing ‘Getting better all the time’ and John just said in his laconic way, ‘It couldn’t get no worse,’ and I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John… It was one of the ways we’d write. I’d have the song quite mapped out and he’d come in with a counter-melody, so it was a simple ordinary song.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

In the studio

Recording began on Thursday 9 March. Seven takes were recorded of the rhythm track, being made up of guitars, bass and drums, plus piano from George Martin – played by the strings of the instrument being directly struck.

The following day George Harrison added a droning tambura, McCartney overdubbed his bass part and Ringo added more drums.

Getting Better received its vocals on 21 March. Hunter Davies was at the session, and noted how the backing vocals sounded “flat, grainy and awfully disembodied. I remember thinking, ‘Why am I such a big fan of theirs, why do I think they’re good singers? They’re completely out of tune!”

It is not known whether the out-of-tune vocals were left in the final mix – certainly some of the harmonies are off-key, though these may have been deliberately varispeeded. Either way, perhaps The Beatles had bigger things to worry about: a short way into the session, Lennon announced he was feeling ill and was taken onto the roof of Abbey Road by George Martin.

I was aware of them smoking pot, but I wasn’t aware that they did anything serious. In fact, I was so innocent that I actually took John up to the roof when he was having an LSD trip, not knowing what it was. If I’d known it was LSD, the roof would have been the last place I would have taken him.

He was in the studio and I was in the control room, and he said he wasn’t feeling too good. So I said, ‘Come up here,’ and asked George and Paul to go on overdubbing the voice. ‘I’ll take John out for a breath of fresh air,’ I said, but of course I couldn’t take him out the front because there were 500 screaming kids who’d have torn him apart,. So the only place I could take him to get fresh air was the roof. It was a wonderful starry night, and John went to the edge, which was a parapet about 18 inches high, and looked up at the stars and said, ‘Aren’t they fantastic?’ Of course, to him I suppose they would have been especially fantastic. At the time they just looked like stars to me.

George Martin
Anthology

In 1970 John Lennon recounted the incident:

I never took [LSD] in the studio. Once I did, actually. I thought I was taking some uppers and I was not in the state of handling it. I took it and I suddenly got so scared on the mike. I said, ‘What is it? I feel ill.’ I thought I felt ill and I thought I was going cracked. I said I must go and get some air. They all took me upstairs on the roof, and George Martin was looking at me funny, and then it dawned on me that I must have taken some acid.

I said, ‘Well, I can’t go on. You’ll have to do it and I’ll just stay and watch.’ I got very nervous just watching them all , and I kept saying, ‘Is this all right?’ They had all been very kind and they said, ‘Yes, it’s all right.’ I said, ‘Are you sure it’s all right?’ They carried on making the record.

John Lennon
Rolling Stone, 1970

The song was finished on 23 March, when new vocals were recorded, along with congas played by Ringo Starr.

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21 Responses to “Getting Better”

  1. Andy

    I’m the only one who hear a Fender Rhodes in the song? (Left channel, listen to the remastered version. Listen also to some of the outtakes of the song in the game The Beatles: Rock Band)

    Reply
  2. Yuppers

    Andy: yes, definitely there is an electric piano in the left channel — I’m not even listening to the remastered version and I can hear it, stomping along on the quarter note beats along with the rest. I was wondering why it wasn’t credited, either…

    Reply
    • Joe

      Hey, thanks both. I didn’t notice that before, but it’s definitely there. It’s perhaps most noticeable after the opening line – “It’s getting better all the time” – is sung.

      I’m not sure who played it, though I’d appreciate any suggestions. I’ll give it to McCartney for now, as he was perhaps the best keyboard player of the group (and it was his song).

      Reply
      • LetsPlayCool

        The electric piano in the left channel sounds more like a Wurlitzer to me.
        But I could be totally wrong because the sound depends a lot on the amp, miking, etc…

        Anyway the song is fantastic, and Paul’s bass is amazing once again!!!

        Reply
  3. revloveR

    Hello hello! I hate to be all nit-picky but the song also features handclaps (in the 2nd and 3d verses.) Any idea who provided these?

    Reply
  4. Deadman

    According to Emerick (and Massey), George Martin also added a few notes on a virginal (“which he owned and brought in specially”) after the overdub session when George played the tamboura and Ringo added some open hi-hat.
    Here, There and Everywhere (London, 2007), p. 176.

    Reply
  5. 2much4mymirror

    John’s “It couldn’t get no worse,” is brilliant, and I love his ironic singsong vocalizing “No I can’t complain..oh-ohh…oh-ohh…” John the comedian doing sort of a piss-take on the small-talk cliches people use instead of bluntly saying “Things generally suck right at the moment. And you?” The same joke a few songs later only more deadpan this time: “Nothing to say but whaaat a day/How’s yer boy been?”

    Reply
    • JP

      John’s input was great. He definitely contributed positively to many of Paul’s songs. I wish John had worked with George more on his songs. I know John contends he “helped” George out a bit on Taxman’s lyrics, but other than that, I don’t know that he ever contributed to George’s music (other than his instrumental contributions during recording sessions). Some of George’s songs, though quite good, could have used some levity, something to lighten the mood a bit. Nobody was better at that than John, though George sure gave Lennon a run for his money in the sarcasm department.

      Reply
  6. George Demake

    Another reason why this site is great. Not being a musician, I just assumed that it was the guitars and piano providing what the Fender Rhodes is also playing.
    One of the aspects I enjoy most about this song is the droning tambura that begins the third verse, slowing the tempo a bit before returning it back up to speed.

    Reply
  7. mike50

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone think that Lennon sings the harmony vocals on the “i used to be cruel to my woman …” section? It sounds very lennonish to me, specially the word “love”

    amazing song and great website

    Reply
    • Vonbontee

      I’ve never listened closely enough to be sure, but John definitely harmonizes throughout the verses. Why do you think that one section would be any different?

      Reply
  8. mike50

    well … the way i hear it:

    1st verse – paul on lead vocals and john/george on backing vocals … love when he says “up!” =)

    2nd verse – paul on lead and harmony vocals (double-tracked)

    3rd verse – paul and john harmonizing ???

    is john harmonizing with paul on the 2nd and 3rd verse or is paul harmonizing with himself (double-tracking) ?

    CHEERS

    Reply
  9. Jim Chio

    Harmonies off key and out of tune??? The harmonies are fantastic close-harmonies with major 2nd’s (sometimes referred to as “9′s”) mixed in, from the way I hear it!

    Reply
  10. Greg Nabong

    Does anyone know what guitar effect George used to get that high, crisp sound in the right channel? It sounds so pure, rare and overall just amazing. Also, what is the instrument that ends the song? This instrument being played also has a very high pitch.

    Reply
    • Gaz Hunter

      There are pictures of Paul with a Fender Esquire and a Selmer amp, so it could be this guitar as it only has one pickup in the treble position, or George’s SG?

      Reply
  11. Frederik "Freddan" Adlers

    To many people it doesn’t matter if it is a Rhodes or Wurlitzer in any given song from the 60´s, but to me it does. I’ve tried to dedicate myself to the history of the great man Harold Rhodes and his invention the Rhodes Electric Piano ( http://www.fenderrhodes.com ) that I love. The Rhodes has played an incredibly important role for music since it was introduced at NAMM 1965. Almost every day I find a faulty reference, and I constantly try to set the record straight and help correcting the errors. Right now I face a humongous task when I realize that almost everything written about the Beatles is full of mistakes. The Rhodes was first used in January 1969 on “Get Back” and it was played by Billy Preston who joined the Beatles the same day. The Rhodes used was a gift from Don Randall of the Fender Corporation, and was sent to Apple studios during autumn 1968. All songs recorded before this uses other electric pianos like Wurlitzer, Hohner, RMI and others. F.Y.I / Freddan

    Reply
    • Joe

      It’s not true. McCartney first took LSD with Tara Browne, who died in December 1966 (see Many Years From Now for an account of the trip). It’s generally thought that his first trip was around November 1966.

      McCartney once (in Rolling Stone, 1984, IIRC) said the Getting Better incident was his first time, but I think he meant it was the first time with another Beatle. In Many Years From Now he said:

      “I thought, Maybe this is the moment where I should take a trip with him. It’s been coming for a long time. It’s often the best way, without thinking about it too much, just slip into it. John’s on it already, so I’ll sort of catch up. It was my first trip with John, or with any of the guys. We stayed up all night, sat around and hallucinated a lot.”

      Reply

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