With lyrics co-written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and music mostly by McCartney, the idea for ‘Getting Better’ came from a favourite phrase of Jimmie Nicol, The Beatles’ stand-in drummer for eight days of their 1964 world tour.
According to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, the phrase popped into McCartney’s head one day in 1967 while he was walking his sheepdog Martha in Hampstead.
‘Getting Better’ I wrote on my magic Binder, Edwards and Vaughan piano in my music room. It had a lovely tone, that piano, you’d just open the lid and there was such a magic tone, almost out of tune, and of course the way it was painted added to the fun of it all.
It’s an optimistic song. I often try and get on to optimistic subjects in an effort to cheer myself up and also, realising that other people are going to hear this, to cheer them up too. And this was one of those. The ‘angry young man’ and all that was John and I filling in the verses about schoolteachers. We shared a lot of feelings against teachers who had punished you too much or who hadn’t understood you or who had just been bastards generally.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Although the title is upbeat and positive, the lyrics of ‘Getting Better’ deal with anger, unruliness at school and violence towards women. It is likely that the darker edge came from Lennon, who was familiar with all three traits.
It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Much like ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Getting Better’ reveals the differences in personality between the two songwriters.
I was just sitting there doing ‘Getting better all the time’ and John just said in his laconic way, ‘It couldn’t get no worse,’ and I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John… It was one of the ways we’d write. I’d have the song quite mapped out and he’d come in with a counter-melody, so it was a simple ordinary song.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In the studio
Recording began on Thursday 9 March 1967. Seven takes were recorded of the rhythm track, being made up of guitars, bass and drums, plus piano from George Martin – played by the strings of the instrument being directly struck.
‘Getting Better’ received its vocals on 21 March. Hunter Davies was at the session, and noted how the backing vocals sounded “flat, grainy and awfully disembodied. I remember thinking, ‘Why am I such a big fan of theirs, why do I think they’re good singers? They’re completely out of tune!”
It is not known whether the out-of-tune vocals were left in the final mix – certainly some of the harmonies are off-key, though these may have been deliberately varispeeded. Either way, perhaps The Beatles had bigger things to worry about: a short way into the session, John Lennon announced he was feeling ill and was taken onto the roof of EMI Studios by George Martin.
I was aware of them smoking pot, but I wasn’t aware that they did anything serious. In fact, I was so innocent that I actually took John up to the roof when he was having an LSD trip, not knowing what it was. If I’d known it was LSD, the roof would have been the last place I would have taken him.
He was in the studio and I was in the control room, and he said he wasn’t feeling too good. So I said, ‘Come up here,’ and asked George and Paul to go on overdubbing the voice. ‘I’ll take John out for a breath of fresh air,’ I said, but of course I couldn’t take him out the front because there were 500 screaming kids who’d have torn him apart. So the only place I could take him to get fresh air was the roof. It was a wonderful starry night, and John went to the edge, which was a parapet about 18 inches high, and looked up at the stars and said, ‘Aren’t they fantastic?’ Of course, to him I suppose they would have been especially fantastic. At the time they just looked like stars to me.
In 1970 John Lennon recounted the incident:
I never took [LSD] in the studio. Once I did, actually. I thought I was taking some uppers and I was not in the state of handling it. I took it and I suddenly got so scared on the mike. I said, ‘What is it? I feel ill.’ I thought I felt ill and I thought I was going cracked. I said I must go and get some air. They all took me upstairs on the roof, and George Martin was looking at me funny, and then it dawned on me that I must have taken some acid.
I said, ‘Well, I can’t go on. You’ll have to do it and I’ll just stay and watch.’ I got very nervous just watching them all , and I kept saying, ‘Is this all right?’ They had all been very kind and they said, ‘Yes, it’s all right.’ I said, ‘Are you sure it’s all right?’ They carried on making the record.
Rolling Stone, 1970
‘Getting Better’ was completed on 23 March, when new vocals were recorded, along with congas played by Starr.