Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Rubber Soul album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 12, 21 October 1965
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 3 December 1965 (UK), 6 December 1965 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Paul McCartney: harmony vocals, bass
George Harrison: sitar, 12-string acoustic guitar
Ringo Starr: bass drum, tambourine

Available on:
Rubber Soul
Anthology 2

Norwegian Wood was a landmark recording for The Beatles, being one of the first Western pop songs to feature the sitar, an Indian instrument.

Download on iTunes

John Lennon had the idea for the song while on a skiing holiday with his wife Cynthia, in St Moritz in the Swiss Alps. They were joined by George Martin, who injured himself early on in the holiday, and his future wife Judy Lockhart-Smith.

It was during this time that John was writing songs for Rubber Soul, and one of the songs he composed in the hotel bedroom, while we were all gathered around, nursing my broken foot, was a little ditty he would play to me on his acoustic guitar. The song was Norwegian Wood.
George Martin

The song demonstrated the continuing influence of Bob Dylan upon The Beatles' music. Dylan himself responded with 4th Time Around on 1966's Blonde On Blonde album, which shares a similar melody and lyrical theme.

Norwegian Wood was about an extra-marital relationship Lennon was having at the time. His friend Pete Shotton later suggested that the woman in question was a journalist - possibly Maureen Cleave, a close friend to Lennon.

Norwegian Wood is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I'd always had some kind of affairs going, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn't tell. But I can't remember any specific woman it had to do with.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Although begun in Switzerland, Norwegian Wood was completed as a collaboration between Lennon and Paul McCartney. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon attributed the middle section to McCartney, although in a 1980 interview with Playboy he called it "my song completely".

I came in and he had this first stanza, which was brilliant: 'I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.' That was all he had, no title, no nothing. I said, 'Oh yes, well, ha, we're there.' And it wrote itself. Once you've got the great idea, they do tend to write themselves, providing you know how to write songs. So I picked it up at the second verse, it's a story. It's him trying to pull a bird, it was about an affair. John told Playboy that he hadn't the faintest idea where the title came from but I do. Peter Asher had his room done out in wood, a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, Cheap Pine, baby...

So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, 'You'd better sleep in the bath'. In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn't the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn't, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The sitar

In February 1965 The Yardbirds recorded a single, Heart Full Of Soul, with a sitar player. Although the part was later re-recorded on a guitar by Jeff Beck, it is possible that The Beatles - who appeared on a bill with The Yardbirds in June, the month Heart Full Of Soul was released - would have been aware of the burgeoning influence of Indian music upon the group's sound.

In April The Kinks recorded See My Friends, which featured a pseudo-Indian drone and an approximation of a sitar played by Dave Davies on a guitar. His brother Ray Davies, who wrote the song, had become interested in Indian music since visiting the country on a tour stopover in December 1964.

By the time of See My Friends' release, George Harrison had begun listening to Indian music. He had first encountered a sitar during the filming of Help!, in a restaurant scene filmed at Twickenham Studios on 5 and 6 April 1965.

I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft - it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we'd recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up - it was just lying around; I hadn't really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.
George Harrison
Anthology

Interestingly, Norwegian Wood wasn't the first Beatles recording to feature a sitar. The North American version of the Help! album featured an instrumental, called Another Hard Day's Night; a medley of A Hard Day's Night, Can't Buy Me Love and I Should Have Known Better performed on a sitar, tablas, flute and finger cymbals.

Another Hard Day's Night was the recording which soundtracked the film's restaurant scene. Although The Beatles didn't perform on it, the US Help! album was issued in August 1965, four months prior to Rubber Soul.

In the studio

The Beatles began recording Norwegian Wood in the evening of 12 October 1965, under the working title This Bird Has Flown. They spent much of the session rehearsing and arranging the song, eventually taping just one track and a series of overdubs.

George had just got the sitar and I said, 'Could you play this piece?' We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn't coming out like I said. They said, 'Just do it how you want to do it,' and I said, 'I just want to do it like this.' They let me go and I did the guitar very loudly into the mike and sang it at the same time, and then George had the sitar and I asked him could he play the piece that I'd written, dee diddley dee diddley dee, that bit - and he was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn't done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learnt the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

The original version went unreleased until Anthology 2 in 1996, and The Beatles remade the song in three takes on 21 October. The first of these - numbered take two - featured a heavy sitar introduction and no bass. Take three was mainly acoustic with no sitar, and take four was the final version, which featured the sitar part overdubbed once the rhythm track was complete.

26 responses on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

  1. Flavio Mascarenhas

    Oh, I guess that this song was quite a tribute to a girl named Sonny, a german woman who liked to say that she was born in Norway. Actually, it seems that she and her husband lived in the first floor of the house where John and Cyn lived until 1964 or 65 in London. Her apartment was almost entirely wooden decorated. Later, Mr George Martin has partially confirmed this story.

  2. SD

    The sitar was played on the first two takes but beginning with Take 3 it is not heard on the basic tracks and they decided to overdub it. This overdubs were made onto Take 4 which became the final master.
    For the recording of the basic tracks, George switched to guitar, playing the 12-string acoustic.

    The backing recording was laid onto two tracks:
    1) John’s acoustic guitar, Ringo’s bass drum and tambourine(right channel)
    2) Paul’s bass, George’s 12-string (left channel)

    The two overdubbed tracks:
    3) George’s sitar (left)
    4) Lennon’s lead vocal, McCartney’s harmony vocal (right)

    Note: maracas and finger cymbals were only played in earlier takes not in the final master take.

  3. Mavo

    I am surprised that neither Lennon or McCartney ever gave up the “true” meaning of the phrase Norwegian Wood! This song came out when I was 12 years old and my English teacher recited it in class as poetry! When he did.. it became obvious to me that Norwegian Wood was a little secret code by Lennon that really meant “knowing she would”! Listen to the song again and see how well that phrase fits. And Lennon has admitted he was trying to hide the true meaning of the lyrics to hide his infidelity. I think it is obvious what he meant!

  4. BeatleMark

    The U.S. mono edition of this song on “Rubber Soul” is riddled with recording errors. George’s cough can be heard during the song, and also there’s someone saying “Sounds good!” right after the sitar solo.

  5. Elsewhere Man

    This quote from Paul bears repeating:

    “It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge”

    Too funny! I always did picture a fire being lit in a fireplace, never arson!

  6. Dave Rybaczewski

    The first comment about Sonny is found in the Philip Norman book “John Lennon – The Life.” Sonny is actually Sonny Freeman, the wife of Robert Freeman, photographer of the Beatles during the early years (including the “Rubber Soul” album cover). They lived it the same complex that the Lennon’s lived and were pretty close friends. Supposedly, John and Sonny carried on an affair in the Freeman’s wood panelled home. She was known to speak of herself as “Norwegian.”

    None of this has been confirmed except for Philip Norman’s book; his facts can be off at times (as is his older book “Shout!”) but he makes it sound legit.

    1. 1W72nd

      Sonny Drane (sometimes erroneously referred to as “Sonny Freeman Drane”) was born in 1939 as Sonnhild Spielhagen. Her father Dr. Wolfgang Spielhagen became the deputy mayor of Breslau – now the Polish city of Wroclaw – in 1942. When Gauleiter Karl Hanke declared Breslau a fortress in January, 1945 and forbid its citizens to flee the Red Army’s advance, Spielhagen, wanting to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, opposed the decision and recommended capitulation instead. At almost the same time, he obtained the permission of the mayor, his direct superior, to take his wife and two childres (Gisela and our Sonny) to Berlin, where he thought they’d be safer. Eager not to be taken for a deserter, he quickly returned to Breslau, where Gauleiter Hanke ordered his arrest on the following day and his execution on the day after that (January 28), after which his corpse was thrown into the Oder river.

  7. Craig

    Heard this story/theory at another great blog : HeyDullblog. I really love this idea, think it has a good deal of truth to it that it may actually be the real deal.

    This song is about John’s affairs, we know that. But it’s about a certain kind of affair, or woman: the easy score, the guaranteed lay as it were. In other words, John, ‘Knowing She Would’, enjoyed these types of no-effort liaisons. He eventually changed ‘Knowing She Would’ into “Norweigan Wood”.

    Sounds like something John would do, knowing his love and mastery of wordplay. One of the great things about this song is that we don’t know and probably never will, who it was about. But this theory is my favorite.

    1. 2much4mymirror

      Very interesting idea. Using the working title “Knowing she wood” would have been John’s equivalent of Paul’s famous “Scrambled Eggs” for “Yesterday” only much cleverer.

      1. dwankan

        Yes, but the lyric is the title of the song. You could babble for days about what if he meant one phrase of many that might sound like what he actually said, but you would be wasting your time. What the song says is “Norwegian Wood.” Anything other than that is irrelevant and most likely completely untrue. Luke Skywalker may have looked like your uncle Joe, but Star Wars is not about your uncle Joe. The same principle applies here.

        1. stuartgardner

          “Luke Skywalker may have looked like your uncle Joe, but Star Wars is not about your uncle Joe. The same principle applies here.”

          Oh, now that is good! I’ll take that with me, if you don’t mind.

  8. 2much4mymirror

    Here’s another one where the extent of Paul’s contribution to a Lennon-identified song is hard to pin down(despite Paul’s claim that there were only two they disagreed on, “In My Life” and “Eleanor Rigby”). Contributing the middle presumably meant both words and melody? Or could it have been just lyrics (as in Paul’s posthumous contribution of lyrics to a middle melody John already had on “Free as a Bird”)?

    1. AlbertCunning

      Paul is obviously wrong. ‘Ticket To Ride’, anyone? ‘This Boy’?

      I agree. It’s tricky.
      First John attributes the middle eight to Paul, which I have always assumed meant the music rather than the words — probably because of Paul’s harmony vocal(Yes, it’s the E minor, A, F# minor, B7 bit);
      a year or two later, Paul is given lyrical credit only, while he ends up being relegated to a mere spectator in John’s last major interview.

      Maybe John, in 1980, psychologically, simply wanted to take full responsibility for being unfaithful?

  9. Pan Demi

    This song sure is about smoking marijuana. Everyone who smoked for a while knows how well the lyrics fit that. Think about it: why else would he sleep in the bath? And in the end: “this bird has flown… so I lit a fire, isn’t it good norwegian wood” meaning “this high is over, so I lit another joint, isn’t it good marijuana”. It just doesn’t make sense that it’s about a girl: why would she leave him alone at her place? And if she did, why would he view this as rejection (“this bird has flown”)?

  10. pepperland

    If you listen to the Rockband tracks, you can hear Ringo (probably) hitting against something with his hands or clapping in the middle section and also again at the same time as the tambourine and the bass drum in the last section. Go ahead and listen to it on the drum track, it’s definitely there.

  11. Art

    I always thought the deed was consummated – hence the instrumental/interlude following immediately on “and then she said ‘it’s time for bed.'” After all the song is acknowledged to be about an affair – not about a tease. And I assumed also that “I crawled out to sleep in the bath” meant crawling out of bed, not out of the living room or whatever. Of course Phillip Norman writes to the effect that the pass when unrequited, and I can see how that interpretation fits with what Paul says about figuratively burning the place down. But I still don’t read “She told me she worked in the morning” as necessarily meaning she wouldn’t sleep with him, but possibly that she insisted he leave afterwards – and laughing at that. So more like she was in control, and not him, and that’s what he found shameful or hurtful. Any thoughts on this? Cheers.

    1. Marshall

      Art, that is really a revelation–very defensible based on the text. “Crawled OUT”…of bed–yes! And the idea of her kicking him out of bed when she’s done with him, laughing a little awkwardly, and then being gone before dawn is very compelling. John’s being treated in a way he may perhaps of treated some others after a one-night stand.
      On the other hand, “out” could refer to “out of the room”–crawling because he’s been biding his time drinking TOO MUCH wine, only to be rejected in the end.
      It’s great both ways! The hallmark of Beatles’ “constructive ambiguity.”
      Just like it’s great to hear “This Bird Has Flown” or, as is unshakably the case for me sometimes: “Whispered the Fool.”

  12. lead

    Go back and read the line “under the influence of Bob Dylan”. I don’t think you need to look for a solid narrative as much as a montage of experience, image and idea–as well as stream of consciousness. If he was continuously having affairs, it makes you wonder if just another night in the sack would inspire a whole story. I’m sure one experience got the song started, but then it was filled out by whatever he came up with to make it a song. “Norwegian would” sounds quite plausible for the chorus, but other parts of it could be inspired by the journalist he was also sleeping with (“had to work in the morning”). In the end, it’s probably just the craft of songwriting that turns it into a single story. And the dark humor fire at the end shows that at least some of it is fiction.

  13. ivan rubino

    Incredible. All people are absolutely wrong. The song was about a supposed affair, that never got to the “end”, between Brigitte Bardot and John Lennon. Bardot was the blowing mind sexual fantasy of Lennon during his life. He even made Cynthia try to look like Bardot. When the Beatles went to France, the “meeting” was arranged. Lennon was so “blown up” that he had to much wine and to much dope and, when he was awoke, the “bird”, which obviously means the girl, was gone. Obviously a Girl to leave Lennon alone, if he was “out”, at the peak of his stardom, had to be some woman as Bardot. The Norwegian Wood, refers to the “decoration” of the hotel room in which the ” meeting” was arranged. And the phrase ” So I lit a fire” means exactly that. He lit a fire. The bird, of his life’s fantasy, was gone. Surely never to return.

    How much bullshit is said about the “hidden” meanings is astounding. What man in the world would come home, a day after to his wife and say: “Sorry, darling, I was caught up in a meeting with Brigitte Bardot”? Not even Lennon, for sure. For all of Paul says, will keeping saying, adding to the story, is bullshit. He was, is and will ever be, covering up for his pal. More indeed because the meeting never got to ” the expected end”. So they, both, had to lit the fire that was never lit because of too much wine and dope. That’s it folks…

    1. Joe Post author

      Nice theory. In case this is anything other than wild conjecture (the very thing you seem to criticise others for), what’s your source?

      The Beatles didn’t meet BB in France in 1964. Lennon’s disastrous meeting with her didn’t take place until 1968, in London.

  14. Nina Moler

    I hesitate to enter the fray with people more knowledgeable and articulate than I, but has no one noticed that Norwegian Wood is an anagram of a woman’s name, Rowena Goodwin? I understand that John Lennon enjoyed word play.

    I so enjoyed visiting this website and reading the civil exchange of ideas. It gives me a greater appreciation of my very first album, a Christmas present from my brother Dean when I was a very little girl. I still have Rubber Soul and play it on my Crosley turntable.

Leave a reply