Studio Two, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott
While the sessions for the White Album often found The Beatles labouring for days on individual songs, at other times they worked quickly. One example of this was ‘Birthday’, written and recorded on this day.
Paul McCartney arrived earlier to the studio than the other Beatles, and began playing around with the song’s guitar riff. As the rest of the group arrived they began jamming, and the song developed into ‘Birthday’.
We thought, ‘Why not make something up?’ So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. We said, ‘We’ll go to there for a few bars, then we’ll do this for a few bars.’ We added some lyrics, then we got the friends who were there to join in on the chorus. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all on the same evening. I don’t recall it being anybody’s birthday in particular but it might have been, but the other reason for doing it is that, if you have a song that refers to Christmas or a birthday, it adds to the life of the song, if it’s a good song, because people will pull it out on birthday shows, so I think there was a little bit of that at the back of our minds.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The Beatles recorded 20 takes of the song, after which they decamped to McCartney’s house to watch the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It. This was the first UK television screening of the rock ‘n’ roll classic, starring Jayne Mansfield and featuring guest appearances from Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and was shown on BBC 2 from 9.05-10.40pm.
What happened was The Girl Can’t Help It was on television. That’s an old rock film with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran and a few others. Gene Vincent. And we wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock. And we said, ‘We’ll do something, just do a backing track. We’ll make up a backing track.’
So we kept it very simple, 12 bar blues kind of thing. And we stuck in a few bits here and there in it, with no idea what the song was or what was gonna go on top of it. We just said, ‘OK, 12 bars in A, and we’ll change to D, and I’m gonna do a few beats in C.’ And we really just did it like that. Random thing. We didn’t have time for anything else, and so we just recorded this backing.
And we came back here to my house and watched The Girl Can’t Help It. Then we went back to the studio again and made up some words to go with it all. So this song was just made up in an evening. Um, you know. We hadn’t ever thought of it before then. And it’s one of my favourites because of that. I think it works, you know, ’cause it’s just, it’s a good one to dance to. Like the big long drum break, just ’cause, instead of, well, normally we might have four bars of drums, but with this we just keep it going, you know. We all like to hear drums plodding on.
Radio Luxembourg, 20 November 1968
Take 19 of ‘Birthday’ was chosen as the best version, and the four-track tape was copied onto an eight-track machine – the copies were numbered takes 21 and 22. Meanwhile, McCartney and John Lennon wrote the lyrics, which they then overdubbed.
Guests at the session were Yoko Ono and Pattie Harrison, who joined in with backing vocals and handclaps. The recording was completed with tambourine and piano, the latter fed through a Vox amplifier and treated with distortion.
At around 4.30am ‘Birthday’ was mixed in mono. John Lennon used the studio control room microphone to announce: “This is Ken MacIntosh and the roving remixers. Take farty-one”.
Also on this day...
- 1973: Ringo Starr buys Tittenhurst Park from John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- 1969: Paul McCartney performs on Badfinger’s Rock Of All Ages
- 1968: George Harrison is interviewed for New Musical Express and BBC
- 1967: Filming: Magical Mystery Tour
- 1966: John Lennon travels to Carboneras, Spain
- 1964: Live: Memorial Auditorium, Dallas
- 1960: Live: Indra Club, Hamburg
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.