Old Brown Shoe

Past Masters album artworkWritten by: Harrison
Recorded: 27-29 January; 25 February; 16, 18 April 1969
Producers: George Martin, Chris Thomas
Engineer: Jeff Jarratt

Released: 30 May 1969 (UK), 4 June 1969 (US)

George Harrison: vocals, guitars, organ, bass
John Lennon: backing vocals
Paul McCartney: backing vocals, guitar, piano
Ringo Starr: drums

Available on:
Past Masters
Anthology 3

Written by George Harrison, Old Brown Shoe was originally released as the b-side of The Ballad Of John And Yoko. It remains a largely overlooked gem from The Beatles' back catalogue.

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I started the chord sequences on the piano, which I don't really play, and then began writing ideas for the words from various opposites... Again, it's the duality of things - yes no, up down, left right, right wrong, etcetera.
George Harrison
I Me Mine, 1980

In the studio

The Beatles performed two versions Old Brown Shoe on 27 January 1969, during the Let It Be sessions at Apple Studios. The first was sung by Harrison with just a piano accompaniment, followed by an attempt by the whole group with Billy Preston.

The next day they returned to the song, playing through it eight times, and once more on 29 January. These versions have all been bootlegged from the hours of rehearsals and jams taped by The Beatles for the Let It Be album.

On 25 February, his 26th birthday, Harrison recorded two takes of a solo demo of Old Brown Shoe. He also recorded versions of All Things Must Pass and Something, possibly so the other Beatles could learn their parts. Why he needed to do this for Old Brown Shoe is unknown - possibly he was dissatisfied with the previous group attempts, and wanted them to reconsider the song.

Each of the demos can be heard on Anthology 3. Of the three, Old Brown Shoe was the most elaborate. Harrison began with vocals and piano, before adding a number of guitar overdubs.

The Beatles eventually began work on the song on 16 April 1969. In the morning Harrison recorded a second demo version, and that evening the group taped four takes.

Track one contained Ringo Starr's drums, while the second and third featured Harrison's guide vocals and lead guitar. Paul McCartney's piano was recorded onto track four, and John Lennon added rhythm guitar onto track eight.

Lennon and McCartney then overdubbed backing vocals onto track five. Electric guitar and bass parts were added by McCartney and Harrison on six, both instruments doubling up the same riffs. Harrison's lead vocals were the last to be added, onto track eight, for which he positioned himself in a corner of the studio to give an intimate sound.

Two days later Lennon's rhythm guitar was wiped in favour of a Hammond organ part. Another lead guitar track was also recorded, both of which were played by Harrison.

41 responses on “Old Brown Shoe

  1. Andrew

    Paul did play the bass according to Ian Macdonald in Revolution in the head. George played a tracking line with his lead guitar to make the funky sound. Although I did read in an interview that George claimed to have played the bass on this. John Lennon played rhythm guitar on this track although we edited out and replaced by George’s organ.

    1. Dr. Robert

      Sometimes MacDonald, though generally reliable, gets it wrong. Examples: Hey Bulldog and One After 909 where he claimed Lennon as the lead player.

      1. mrangemystere

        You’re very correct about MacDonald. In fact, as a trained guitarist (and a Beatles aficionado –– and like many other trained musicians, I find MacDonald’s music criticism in general and his Beatles book in particular, riddled with factual errors, subjective opinion versus knowledge-based analysis, and practically worthless. You give two good examples of MacDonald’s errors; for instance, guitarists watching the film, Let It Be, can actually see Harrison playing the minor pentatonic-based guitar solo to the B7th on One After 909. How could MacDonald be so arrogantly obtuse and sloppy? Besides, however elemental a guitarist Lennon was, he simply did not have the “chops” to pull off the dexterous, bluesy take of One After 909 or the sweeping, slide-like glissandos between the chordal riffing on the Hey Bulldog solo.

        As for MacDonald’s critique and commentary, let us just say, ” I know Barthes’ work. I’ve read many a Barthe essay and critique. MacDonald, you’re NO Roland Barthes”

        Nuff said.

        Another example: MacDonald gives light praise to Harrison’s guitar solo on Old Brown Shoe, claiming it is an “American style” approach. In fact, no noted American rock guitarist of the era –– Santana, Bloomfield, not even the great Hendrix –– were playing their solos through Leslies, and, more to the point, Harrison’s biting solo departs from the pentatonic and anticipates the FUSION style that (Jeff) Beck, Bullock, and Gomez would achieve in the following decade.

        Then there is the matter of MacDonald asserting what George did or did not play without a shred of evidence –– no supporting studio logs, witnesses, bootlegs, nothing –– errors exacerbated by MacDonald’s general musical ignorance ( if memory serves, MacDonald wasn’t even a trained musician).

        I prefer Mark Lewisohn’s and Simon Leng’s works, both of which are much better documented and, certainly of Leng’s, much more musically informed.

    2. vancouverhab

      Groan. Disinformation like this muddles the bleeding filpping obvious. George plays bass–brilliantly–on this song of his: just like he played bass–brilliantly–on the song of his (“Taxman”) that opens “Revolver.”

      For one, every credible authority (which excludes the tiresomely clueless MacDonald)–including, you know, GEORGE HIMSELF–attributes the bass here to George.

      And for two, the signature of a Harrison bass line is the idosyncratic ‘lead guitar’ feel–just such as this one.

      Next?

  2. talis4

    It is clearly McCartney on the bass. I believe tha the Harrison quote is from a time when memories (and attitudes) tended to adversely impact memory. Something akin to lennon’s response to the authorship of “Getting Better”.

  3. anton

    One of the greatest of all Beatles numbers. A glorious piece of work, ridiculously neglected by the generality and a tribute to George’s equally ridiculously underrated luminous talent as writer/arranger.

  4. carlos

    Sure, George played drums too.
    Come on ! We all Beatle fans must know that this particular bass can´t be George´s because he´s never been a fast time guitar (or bass) player. It might have been Paul or whoever else playing bass (Klaus Voorman, John Entwistle, or any other friend). The band was eventually broken so…it could have happened

    1. michael

      If George did play bass, it’s possible that he could have recorded it at half speed, which would enable him to play those fast bass riffs that sound great when played back at normal speed. The bass line does sound high, which could be the result of this, as recording at half speed results in the instrument being one octave higher when played back at normal speed. Does anyone think this could be the case?

  5. Mink

    The bassline in this sounds JUST like in the demo, and VERY similar in style to Taxman.

    And we have a secondary source from one of the primary players confirming that it is George.

    It’s George on bass, guys.

  6. Vonbontee

    Yeah, I don’t know why there’s a controversy about this. George clearly, emphatically says that he played bass himself. I know of no other example of George trying to claim credit for something somebody else played. He never denied that the “Taxman” solo was Paul’s. And Paul would surely make an effort to correct the record if he thought George was wrongly taking credit.

  7. Mark

    I tend to believe that George played the bass part probably played on the Fender Jazz or Fender Bass VI.

    @Carlos, George later played a 6 string bass on a song on Belinda Carlisle’s album “Runaway Horses”

  8. Patyk

    George said (in the interview) that he played the bass line. I believe him. But read this: “They then overdubbed lead guitar and bass onto take four (…)”. It states that when they were doing overdubs the lead guitar and the bass were playing simultaneously (onto the same track). George must have been playing the guitar, so I presume that Paul played the bass, which leads us to the conclusion that the bass line on “Old Brown Shoe” is played both by George and Paul (who did the overdubs). :)

    1. Joe Post author

      You’re confusing takes with tracks. They recorded four takes, the last of which had various overdubs added to it. According to the session notes, the doubled-up guitar and bass riffs were played simultaneously onto track five – it’s unclear exactly who did what, but possible that Harrison was on bass and McCartney on guitar. Then again, Harrison’s memory may have been faulty at the time of the Creem interview.

      1. Patyk

        Thank you for correcting my mistake, I’ve used the wrong quotation. Nevertheless, it is still true that – as you said – these riffs were played at the same time. But all in all, we still don’t know who played which instrument and I believe that the “Paul on lead guitar” version seems as plausible as the “Paul on the bass”. Which one is the right one? I don’t know. It seems to be the matter of opinion.

  9. brian

    I like how George near the end of this song, Paul in “Mother Nature’s Son” and John in “Polythene Pam” each manage to reuse The Beatles most famous tagline, “yeah, yeah, yeah” within the context of the song which I imagine was a very conscious inclusion by them. There’s probably at least one other occasion where the line’s used within a post 1963 Beatles song but I can’t think of it.

    1. Joe Post author

      The most obvious one is probably All You Need Is Love, towards the end of the song.

      I’d never really noticed George using the phrase on this song. I disagree, though, that this and Mother Nature’s Son were very consciously included due to their similarity to She Loves You – both instances sound ad-libbed and have different melodies from SLY. However, I do think Lennon’s use of the phrase on Polythene Pam was a deliberate reuse of the phrase.

  10. David Lee Fairey

    When George played bass, his style was matter-of-fact (root notes, thirds and fifths), whether it be during the Beatles or on his solo albums.

    I can accept that George gave Paul the idea of having a bass guitar following a lead guitar-line but to me the bass line on Old Brown Shoe is technically challenging and to me, has McCartney’s fingerprints all over it. On the assumption that it is Paul playing bass, I reckon it is one of his finest bass lines throughout the canon of Beatles songs.

    And what a tight, powerhouse performance the Beatles give! Starr really hits the groove (off-beat must suit him!) and the guitar solo is brilliantly executed. The only let down is the paper-thin (and distorted) lead and backing vocals. If they could be remastered and brought up in the mix, then you have an amazing ‘Beatles’ recording proving that toward the end of their collective career, they could still rock!

    That this was shoved to the b-side of The Ballad Of John and Yoko shows that Paul and John STILL treated George like a little brother. Old Brown Shoe is streets ahead of The Ballad Of John and Yoko.

    And that’s why I pleased the Beatles called it a day when they did, otherwise we may never have had All Things Must Pass and Living In The Material World!

  11. ken

    it is quite obvious that Paul and George are very compitent guitar and bassist. So why couldnt George play bass while Paul doubled the part on guitar. George already knew the bass part since he had done it on the demo.

  12. Rorschach

    not that George couldn’t have.. he played competent bass… but the bass can be a more challenging instrument to play in terms of fingering. the same set of notes played at the same speed would be more challenging unless it was done on the Fender VI and the sound of the bass on OBS sounds like the Fender Jazz or the Rick.

  13. appmanga

    The comments about bass playing kill me. A four string bass is simply a regular guitar minus the two (B-E) highest strings. If someone’s a lead guitarist, they can play more than competent bass. What makes good bass lines is similar to what makes good solos: note choices and dexterity. But good bass players also have to have taste and rhythm. If you can play lead guitar, you can play bass.

  14. Pablo

    I´ll give my bit to the confusion : although I thought it was naturally Paul on bass, even because it´s on of the most difficult bass lines on the entire Beatles catalogue, I hadn´t seen this Harrison interview in which he claims to have played it . If he claimed it, it must have been him.

    But the most important thing is that, contrary to Mark Lewhison´s account, there still is a bit of John´s rhythm Cassino guitar, which is very audible on the refrains. It´s definitely him , because his sound is unmistakable. Then it ceases to appear until the next refrain and in the coda, whenh it´s quite loud.

    I always thought George played the piano, as he had done earlier on the demo recording, but if it´s true that he is on bass, then it´s quite possible that Paul played the piano.

    One of George´s best ever rocks , good lyrics and , unfortunately, the vocals were mixed low.
    Superb guitar solo, by the way, by George Harrison, undoubtly.

  15. Sergio Alejandro Genzon

    It is totally believable that George played the bass on this track , just like he did on She Said She Said, golden Slumbers , carry That Weight, even a bass part played on acoustic guitar on Two of Us, a great bass line on Maxwell Silver Hammer. Of course !

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