‘For No One’, Paul McCartney’s meditation on the end of a love affair, was one of the highlights of the Revolver album.

It’s a song about rejection. The breakup, or marking the end of a relationship that didn’t work, has always been quite a rich area to explore in a song. Having been through it a few times – as I suppose a lot of people have – it was an emotion I could relate to, and it seemed like a good idea to put into a song because probably a lot of other people could relate to it too. In the song, I’m talking about two people who’ve broken up, but obviously, as with any writer, it all comes from your own experience, and inevitably you’re talking about yourself…

It’s a horrible moment when you’ve broken up with someone, and you look at them – this person you used to be in love with, or thought you were in love with – and none of that old feeling is there. It’s like it just switched off too, and it’s not great to be on the receiving end of that.

At that time, you think any love affair could or should or would or will last forever, unless it’s a really quick ‘wham, bam, than you ma’am’ one-night stand. But when you’re going out with someone, when it’s your girlfriend and you’ve been with her for a reasonable amount of time, it’s very different. Jane Asher and I were together for around five years, so at the back of my mind I expected to marry her, but as the time got closer, I think I also realised it wasn’t right.

The song was written in March 1966 while McCartney was on holiday with Jane Asher in Switzerland. It was originally called ‘Why Did It Die?’

I was in Switzerland on my first skiing holiday. I’d done a bit of skiing in Help! and quite liked it, so I went back and ended up in a little bathroom in a Swiss chalet writing ‘For No One’. I remember the descending bassline trick that it’s based on, and I remember the character in the song – the girl putting on her make-up.

Occasionally we’d have an idea for some new kind of instrumentation, particularly for solos… On ‘For No One’ I was interested in the French horn, because it was an instrument I’d always loved from when I was a kid. It’s a beautiful sound, so I went to George Martin and said, ‘How can we go about this?’ And he said, ‘Well, let me get the very finest.’

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney's lyrics for Why Did It Die?, later retitled For No One

George Martin wrote down the understated melody that Paul sang to him, and Alan Civil performed it. Always pushing boundaries, Martin and McCartney decided to insert a top note into the score outside the instrument’s normal range.

We came to the session and Alan looked up from his bit of paper: ‘Eh, George? I think there’s a mistake here – you’ve got a high F written down. Then George and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and smiled back at him, and he knew what we were up to and played it. These great players will do it. Even though it’s officially off the end of their instrument, they can do it, and they’re quite into it occasionally. It’s a nice little solo.
Paul McCartney

The song was admired by John Lennon, who spoke positively about it in a 1980 interview for Playboy.

One of my favourites of his. A nice piece of work.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The distinctive chords were played by McCartney on George Martin’s clavichord, which was brought in to EMI Studios from Martin’s home.

It was a very strange instrument to record, and Paul played it. But we wanted a very special sound, and French horn was what he chose.

Paul didn’t realise how brilliantly Alan Civil was doing. We got the definitive performance, and Paul said, ‘Well, OK, I think you can do it better than that, can’t you, Alan?’ Alan nearly exploded. Of course, he didn’t do it better than that, and the way we’d already heard it was the way you hear it now.

George Martin

Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for For No One

In the studio

The Beatles began recording ‘For No One’ on 9 May 1966. Ten takes of the rhythm track were recorded, with Paul McCartney on a Steinway grand piano and Ringo Starr on drums.

The tenth take was selected as the best. McCartney overdubbed a clavichord, and Starr added maracas, hi-hat, and tambourine.

McCartney overdubbed his lead vocals on 16 May. The tape was slowed to 47.5 cycles rather than the usual 50, which made the vocals higher and faster upon playback.

Alan Civil’s horn solos were recorded on 19 May, as was McCartney’s bass guitar and a tambourine part.

George Martin rang me up and said ‘We want a French horn on a Beatles song, can you do it?’ I knew George from his very early days at EMI because I’d been doing a lot of freelance work then. So I turned up at Abbey Road and all the bobbysoxers were hanging around outside and trying to look through the windows.

I thought the song was called ‘For Number One’ because I saw ‘For No One’ written down somewhere. Anyway, they played the existing tape to me, which was complete, and I thought it had been recorded in rather bad musical style, in that it was ‘in the cracks’, neither B-flat nor B-major. This posed a certain difficulty in tuning my instrument. Paul said, ‘We want something there. Can you play something that fits in?’ It was rather difficult to actually understand exactly what they wanted so I made something up which was middle register, a baroque style solo. I played it several times, each take wiping out the previous attempt.

Alan Civil
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Civil was the principal horn player in the Philharmonia Orchestra. He was paid a session fee of 50 guineas (£52.50) and was given a credit on the sleeve of Revolver, leading to more work and greater recognition for his playing.

Previous song: ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’
Next song: ‘Doctor Robert’
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