The opening song in the second half of The Beatles’ White Album, ‘Birthday’ emerged from a jam in Abbey Road’s studio two.
The Beatles had scheduled an earlier start for their 18 September 1968 session, in order to watch the classic rock ‘n’ roll film The Girl Can’t Help It. It was showing that night for the first time on British TV, on BBC Two between 9.05 and 10.40pm.
I had mentioned to Paul a couple of days earlier about The Girl Can’t Help It being on television during this evening. The idea was to start the session earlier than usual, about five o’clock in the afternoon, and then all nip around the corner to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue, watch the film and go back to work.
So on the day Paul was the first one in, and he was playing the ‘Birthday’ riff. Eventually the others arrived, by which time Paul had literally written the song, right there in the studio. We had the backing track down by about 8.30, popped around to watch the film as arranged and then came back and actually finished the whole song. It was all done in a day!
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
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
‘Birthday’ was a straightforward song to record, and each of the Beatles contributed. Backing vocals were added by Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono, and all – including the group’s assistant Mal Evans – recorded handclaps.
‘Birthday’ was written in the studio. Just made up on the spot. I think Paul wanted to write a song like ‘Happy Birthday Baby’, the old Fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The effects heard towards the song’s end, and in the ‘I would like you to dance’ section, were created by a piano microphone fed through a guitar amplifier with effects added.
Based around a standard blues structure, ‘Birthday’ contains one of McCartney’s finest vocal performances on the White Album. Perhaps the soundtrack to The Girl Can’t Help It – which featured Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and others – played a part.
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.
Radio Luxembourg, 20 November 1968