Not A Second Time

With The Beatles album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 11 September 1963
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 22 November 1963 (UK), 20 January 1964 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Paul McCartney: bass
Ringo Starr: drums
George Martin: piano

Available on:
With The Beatles

Written and sung by John Lennon, Not A Second Time featured on the group’s second album With The Beatles.

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The song drew notable attention from The Times’ music critic William Mann, who famously wrote a musicological treatise on Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting, published on 27 December 1963.

Harmonic interest is typical of their quicker songs, too, and one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not A Second Time (the chord progression which ends Mahler’s Song of the Earth).
William Mann
The Times

The Beatles were dismissive of such a critique. In the Anthology book, Lennon is quoted as saying:

I still don’t know what it means at the end, but it made us acceptable to the intellectuals. It worked and we were flattered. I wrote Not A Second Time and, really, it was just chords like any other chords. To me, I was writing a Smokey Robinson or something at the time.

In 1980 he returned to the phrase Aeolian cadences, saying:

To this day I don’t have any idea what they are. They sound like exotic birds.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Despite Lennon’s flippancy, the musical structure of Not A Second Time is noteworthy. In Revolution In The Head, Ian MacDonald described it as “a rambling affair composed of an irregular fourteen-bar verse joined to a ten-bar chorus which sounds like a middle eight.”

Lennon tended to write his lyrics first, then fitted chords and melody around the words. While the results here are certainly interesting, the out-of-time introduction, barely audible bass and George Martin’s rudimentary grand piano solo suggest it was regarded as little more than a filler track to complete the album.

In the studio

Not A Second Time was recorded in five takes, plus four overdubs including the piano and Lennon’s double-tracked vocals.

This was the first Beatles recording not to feature George Harrison. The only instrumentation was acoustic rhythm guitar, bass, drums and piano.

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20 Responses to “Not A Second Time”

  1. Tim

    Years ago one of our local FM Rock Stations were doing a “Beatles Tribute” weekend. They played “Not A Second Time”. And the DJ said that John Lennon got the idea of double-tracking his own voice,after having heard Lesley Gore do it on her song “It’s My Party”.

    I have quite a few books on The Beatles,and I am a huge fan. I’ve never actually seen this supposed inspiration in print. But it sure sounds possible.

    I like this song very much. It’s a little bit dark though. What with the lyrics,hurt,trying to come back to him. But he says “no thanks”.

    And the dark tone of the piano,especially the middle solo. It is a good song though. John carried the group through their early years. Just look at their first 4 or 5 albums. He wrote and sang lead on more tunes than the rest of the group.

    Reply
  2. Joseph Brush

    When my friends and I first heard this song (back when it was released), we all agreed that this song and mood was a jaw dropper.

    Reply
  3. Carissa

    Yes, it’s a wonderful song. A unique, strange, beautiful melody. Just a bit rough around the edges (and a little in the middle).

    Reply
  4. Ramon Berger

    Interesting that the first verse is simply repeated and that’s it. I don’t think the Beatles ever did this again.

    It’s like – nothing else to say to her. It’s over, that’s it…

    In Robert Palmer’s cover, he adds his own last verse???

    Reply
    • Joe

      Love Me Do is another song where they repeated a verse – the same one appears four times.

      They sort of did it in While My Guitar Gently Weeps too. I’m not sure why they repeated the first verse, as George ditched a perfectly good one (“I watch from the wings of the play you are staging…”).

      I guess they didn’t take Not A Second Time all that seriously. It certainly doesn’t sound like they were aiming to write a classic.

      Reply
      • paulsbass

        They did this all the time, repeating verses, especially on their early songs. Paul or John desribed it once as coming in handy when you were short of good lyrics: Verse 1, chorus, Verse 2, chorus, middle-eight, repeat Verse 1.

        Just one other example: I feel fine (Verse 1, 2, 2, 1).

        Reply
  5. Roger

    Actually, this is the first song where Harrison didn’t participate…didn’t play guitar or sing. No problem within the group, he just wasn’t needed for this song.

    Reply
    • Ray

      Then who’s playing bass on this song?

      Okay, maybe the bass is hard to hear, but if you listen very very carefully you’ll hear that it’s definitely there. And I have no doubt that it is indeed McCartney.

      Reply
  6. Tom

    Not sure where it’s noted that George didn’t play on this song, but I can at least hear 2 guitars and George is most certainly one of them. If you listen to the stereo remaster, I can hear the prominent guitar on the left and a very low volume, buried acoustic guitar on the right. It’s notable about 3 seconds in, after John sings the word “Cry”, I can hear both guitars, one on each side.

    Reply
  7. DB

    I agree with Tom. I can hear George on an electric guitar–probably the Gretsch–particularly on the breaks– and, as usual, with just the right accent/sound–and, as usual, never more than needed.
    I haven’t listened closely for the bass, but do remember Paul saying that “She Said” was the only Beatles’ song on which he thinks he did not play.

    Reply
  8. Travis

    There a quite a few “odd” songs on “With The Beatles” that I think are criminally underrated for their uniqueness, esp for the time. People still really don’t write songs much like these, with the “dark yet still somehow poppy” strange melodic structures and, as noted, atypical arrangements – “All I’ve Got To Do” and “Don’t Bother Me” are another few examples. All great songs. I think this one’s my favorite. In my opinion, the Beatles were already writing “albums” by this, just their second one, even if subconsciously. There’s a certain thematic sound undercurrent throughout that links the songs together from here on out in their career for the most part. Funnily enough, it usually seems like albums like “With…” through maybe “Revolver”, it was more John and George’s songs that fit the “melodic theme” of the record and Paul would have the poppy, “hit” song that kind of didn’t fit (“All My Loving” here, “Good Day Sunshine” on Revolver”, just to name a few examples)

    Reply
  9. Happiness is a warm gun

    I’ve had this song going through my head since I woke up and realized i never really given the song much thought. I had to laugh when I read William Mann’s critique as well as John’s response. My degree’s in music so I know what Mann means, but no one talks like that unless they’re 1) talking to another musician about the song’s analysis for some academic or educational purpose or 2) trying to impress people. The average music fan can’t make heads or tails of that, and neither can many musicians. So it doesn’t help illuminate what makes the song “work” for most people.

    Moreover, I love that John said he was just trying to write a Smokey tune, because that’s really how a lot of songwriters think. They hear something in another person’s song that they like and they try to recreate it in their own way. They get it intuitively, but their goal is to write a song, not an essay on music theory, so that’s all they need. And it’s not beyond a listener’s grasp to understand these things–i could teach anyone in 2 minutes what a cadence is, as anyone who listens to music has heard them countless times already. But it’s far easier to demonstrate elements of music with music than with writing. When you try to do that in writing, a lot gets lost in the translation.

    The elements Mann points out aren’t unique to Beatles’ songs–they can be found readily in the Mo-Town, rock and roll and skiffle music which the Beatles imitated in their early years. In turn, those musicians had imitated songwriters from previous generations. Granted, to John’s credit, many of these elements have fallen out of fashion, not so much because musicians today don’t like them, but they lack the musicianship to incorporate them. John may have been humbled the musicianship of people like Smokey or Holly, but compared to many rock musicians today, John was a much more ambitious songwriter who consciously developed his craft and he deserves credit for that.

    Reply
    • metzgermeister77

      From what I’ve heard, Mann usually reviewed classical recordings (hence the reference to Mahler), so his issue here was that he was kind of thrown a rock and roll record and had to try and figure out what to say about this style of music he was almost entirely illiterate in.

      Reply
  10. Mem

    I don’t believe this is correct with George not singing on this song. Listen to the last ‘not a second time’ as it just fades out. I’m positive that’s George! John sings the no no no and again i have to say that’s George singing that funny ‘not a second time’. But I could be wrong!

    Reply
  11. metzgermeister77

    One of my least favorite early songs. The recording is rubbish, the tune kind of meanders around without ever going anywhere, and it fades out with nothing more than a halfassed attempt at resolving the song. Should’ve ended up on Anthology.

    Reply
  12. Johan Cavalli

    Not A Second Time is innovative. In the beginning of the song Lennon suddenly throws the melody up almost an octave. In the second verse Lennon varies the melody by singing the same note first with the mouth shut, and the next with open mouth. The melody ends with a low joking minor key? singing “…not a second time”

    Reply
  13. Puddinhead

    I have to think this song reflected the ballsy surreal feel that Lennon was hoping to achieve when he said years later to George Martin that he would like to re-record all the earlier songs which were produced for the masses/marketing needs rather than his pure psychic energy emotional release that colored his whole life ! George Martin once reflected that John would demo a song of his to Martin by standing/playing solo guitar his song which drew Martin’s hair to “stand up on the back of his head” due to Lennon’s brutally honest emotional vocals. I like McCartney but this song shows the vocal drama that only Lennon could put to tape.

    Reply

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