When I’m Sixty-Four

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 6, 8, 20, 21 December 1966
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

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

Paul McCartney: vocals, piano, bass
John Lennon: backing vocals, guitar
George Harrison: backing vocals
Ringo Starr: drums, chimes
Robert Burns, Henry MacKenzie, Frank Reidy: clarinets

Available on:
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Yellow Submarine Songtrack

The first of the Sgt Pepper songs to be recorded, When I'm Sixty-Four was originally intended to be the b-side to Strawberry Fields Forever.

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The song dates back to The Beatles' earliest days. Paul McCartney had composed it on the family piano at 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool "when I was about 15".

Back then I wasn't necessarily looking to be a rock 'n' roller. When I wrote When I'm Sixty-Four I thought I was writing a song for Sinatra. There were records other than rock 'n' roll that were important to me.
Paul McCartney

McCartney used to perform a variation of the song in their Cavern Club era, on piano, when the group's equipment used to stop working.

When I'm Sixty-Four was something Paul wrote in the Cavern days. We just stuck a few more words on it like 'grandchildren on your knee' and 'Vera, Chuck and Dave'. It was just one of those ones that he'd had, that we've all got, really; half a song. And this was just one that was quite a hit with us. We used to do them when the amps broke down, just sing it on the piano.
John Lennon
Anthology

The song was dusted down in 1966, the year McCartney's father Jim turned 64. When I'm Sixty-Four focuses on a young man anxiously looking towards old age; the vocals were sped up in the studio to make them sound more sprightly.

The music is suitably old-fashioned, with a music hall melody and an arrangement prominently featuring George Martin's clarinet score.

I thought it was a good little tune but it was too vaudevillian, so I had to get some cod lines to take the sting out of it, and put the tongue very firmly in cheek.

It's pretty much my song. I did it in a rooty-tooty variety style... George helped me on a clarinet arrangement. I would specify the sound and I love clarinets so 'Could we have a clarinet quartet?' 'Absolutely.' I'd give him a fairly good idea of what I wanted and George would score it because I couldn't do that. He was very helpful to us. Of course, when George Martin was 64 I had to send him a bottle of wine.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

George Martin later regretted not releasing When I'm Sixty-Four as a b-side. Speaking about the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single, he said:

The idea of a double a-side came from me and Brian, really... He came to me and said, 'I must have a really great single. What have you got?' I said, 'Well, I've got three tracks - and two of them are the best tracks they've ever made. We could put them together and make a smashing single.' We did, and it was a smashing single - but it was also a dreadful mistake. We would have sold far more and got higher in the charts if we had issued one of those with, say, When I'm Sixty-Four on the back.
George Martin
Anthology

In the studio

On 6 December 1966 The Beatles recorded Christmas messages for the pirate stations Radio London and Radio Caroline. Afterwards they spent some time rehearsing When I'm Sixty-Four, before two takes of the rhythm track were recorded.

Two days later, without the other Beatles being present, McCartney added his lead vocals to take two. The song was then left until 20 December, when McCartney, Lennon and Harrison taped backing vocals and Starr played chimes.

When I'm Sixty-Four was completed the next day, with the overdub of the three clarinets. During the mixing stage, meanwhile, McCartney decided that the song needed speeding up. On 30 December they scrapped all previous mixes and created a new mono one, which raised the key from C to D flat major.

19 responses on “When I’m Sixty-Four

  1. Albert

    The key was raised from C major to D-flat major.

    Most composers prefer to use the enharmonic equivalent D-flat major because it has just five flats as opposed to the seven sharps of C-sharp major.

    I hope that made any sense.

    1. Rod

      Yes, but C# is a brighter key than Db. I understand they’re tone for tone the same, but C# sounds brighter. It just does. (And so I agree that “When I’m 64 is in C#)

  2. Garrett Hawk

    For the layman, it might be easier to understand if you refer to the key change as going from C major, to C-sharp. (in other words, it’s a half-step up, or for you guitarists, Capo on the first fret.)

    It would be interesting to hear this track slowed down, so that we could hear how the Beatles actually sounded when they recorded it.

  3. BeatleMark

    Paul’s vocals are entirely in the right speaker and the music is all on the left. You can kind of “do your own karaoke” with this song if you turn the right speaker off and sing along with the printed lyrics included with Sgt. Pepper!

  4. BIRCHY

    i have to disagree with you Chris, it’s a good song and well worth it’s place on Pepper, as for John calling it “Granny Shit” i think you have to take that remark with a pinch of salt.

    1. Jonny

      I have to agree that it’s a good song, but I think it would be better placed as a B side or on a less psychadelic album…Let It Be for instance

      1. Jonny

        This would’ve made no sense on a back-to-basics blues rock album. It would have been best placed on the White Album, only because that album was all over the place.

  5. Tom Wotus

    I’m not a big hindsight person, but maybe it could”ve made it as a B-side. On another note, how about “Hey Bulldog” as a single, with “Across the Universe” (wildlife version) on back !?…could have been a follow-up record to Lady Madonna.

  6. JJ

    I’m a clarinet payer. The key of C puts us in D (Bb instrument), Db puts us in Eb. C# would put us in D# – 5 sharps and 2 double sharps. It just wouldn’t work for playability. Db – therefore Eb – is three flats and is very manageable – especially since a bass clarinet could have played a low Eb at the bottom end.

    1. gg

      This is a fine explanation, but the song was sped up, not transposed. The clarinet parts were written in D (sounding C). It only sounded in Db after the track was altered, not when it was being recorded.

  7. John

    I don’t know what drove John’s parade of negative reviews but if I discounted every Beatles song he disparaged there wouldn’t be much left. I’ve always liked this one and its placement on Sgt. Pepper. The character Sgt. Pepper appears to be someone for whom this style would be familiar, judging from his age (“twenty years ago today”) and the horns on the front cover. I can see the Lonely Hearts Club Band playing it in the town hall or on the commons, so in that way it’s one of the closest songs on the album to the supposed concept. And the Sgt. Pepper album seemed to be about blowing the walls off the limits on what a pop-rock LP should be. If “Within You Without You” belongs, why not this one? Musical variety is one of the things I love about the Beatles. This is such a great site– fun fun fun.

  8. Ronald Hörstmann

    Can it be, that this song I heard in the year 1960 in an other Version than the Version from the Beatles? I remember, when we dancing a quick-Step in the cancing scool in Duisburg, they Play this song or was it “Put your Radio on”?.

  9. William R

    My dad is 64 tomorrow. We had a party today in which my sister and I played this on YouTube for him. The birthday greetings were dealt with earlier, but with great timing I produced for him a decent bottle of wine right on cue. I had to suppress my inner laughter at the start of the second verse “I could be handy mending a fuse”! The first volume of Lewisohn’s epic work will no doubt reference the song as Paul composed it “when I was about 15″. Mind you, he thought he was 12 when he met John in 1957!

  10. cold turkey 1987

    Chris got it right. It belongs in the spot of olde brown shoe or only a nothern song which both would have made peppers even better. Don’t hate it, just not a fan.

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