‘Lovely Rita’, Paul McCartney’s affectionate tale of a female traffic warden, was originally written as an anti-authority satire. As McCartney later explained, “I was thinking it should be a hate song… but then I thought it would be better to love her.”
Nobody liked parking attendants, or meter maids, as they were known in that benighted era. So, to write a song about being in love with a meter maid – someone nobody else liked – was amusing in itself. There was one particular meter maid in Portland Place on whom I based Rita. She was slightly military-looking. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but those meter maids were never good-looking. You never heard anybody say, ‘God, that’s one stunning parking attendant.’
In any case, I caught a glimpse of Rita opposite the Chinese embassy in Portland Place. She was filling in a ticket in her little white book, The cap, the bag across her shoulder. It’s sheer observation, like painting en plein air. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the secret to successful songwriting is the ability to paint a picture.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
Traffic wardens were a relatively new feature of British life in 1967. In America they were colloquially known as meter maids, a term which caught the imagination of McCartney via a newspaper story.
There was a story in the paper about ‘Lovely Rita’, the meter maid. She’s just retired as a traffic warden. The phrase ‘meter maid’ was so American that it appealed, and to me a ‘maid’ was always a little sexy thing: ‘Meter maid. Hey, come and check my meter, baby.’ I saw a bit of that, and then I saw that she looked like a ‘military man’.
Some time later, a traffic warden called Meta Davies claimed she had given McCartney a parking ticket in St John’s Wood, London.
His car was parked on a meter where the time had expired. I had to make out a ticket which, at the time, carried a 10 shilling fine. I’d just put it on the windscreen when Paul came along and took it off. He looked at it and read my signature which was in full, because there was another M Davies on the same unit. As he was walking away, he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, is your name really Meta?’ I told him that it was. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, ‘That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went.
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner
McCartney wrote the words for ‘Lovely Rita’ in the Wirral near Liverpool, while walking near his brother Michael’s house in Gayton.
I remember one night just going for a walk and working on the words as I walked… It wasn’t based on a real person but, as often happened, it was claimed by a girl called Rita [sic] who was a traffic warden who apparently did give me a ticket, so that made the newspapers. I think it was more a question of coincidence: anyone called Rita who gave me a ticket would naturally think, ‘It’s me!’ I didn’t think, Wow, that woman gave me a ticket, I’ll write a song about her – never happened like that.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In the studio
Recording began on 23 February 1967 in Abbey Road’s studio two. Eight takes of the rhythm track were recorded, with George Harrison and John Lennon on acoustic guitars, Ringo Starr playing the drums, and Paul McCartney on piano. Take eight was the best, and onto this McCartney added his bass part.
The next day his lead vocals were taped, following which ‘Lovely Rita’ was left until 7 March 1967. On that day the song’s distinctive backing vocals and sound effects were recorded. Led by Lennon, The Beatles made various groaning, sighing and screaming noises, played paper and combs, and added some cha-cha-chas for good measure.
The paper and combs can best be heard immediately before the line “When it gets dark I tow your heart away”. The Beatles’ assistant Mal Evans was sent to collect paper from Abbey Road’s lavatory. Stamped with the words, “Property of EMI”, the paper was threaded into hair combs and blown, giving a kazoo-like effect.
George Martin recorded the song’s piano solo on 21 March 1967. It was taped with the tape machine running at 41¼ cycles per second, and was mixed at 48¾ cycles. This made the solo much faster and higher pitched than it had been during the recording.
As with the backing vocals, the piano was plastered in tape echo, and also varispeeded to give a honky-tonk effect.
I used to try out funny things in odd moments and I discovered that by putting sticky tape over the capstan of a tape machine you could wobble the tape on the echo machine, because we used to delay the feed into the echo chamber by tape. So I suggested we did this using a piano sound. The Beatles themselves couldn’t think what should go into the song’s middle eight and they didn’t really like my idea at first, but it turned out fine in the end because of the effect. It gave the piano a sort of honky-tonk feel. In fact, Paul asked me to play the solo when I made the suggestion but I was too embarrassed.