The opening song on the Beatles For Sale album, ‘No Reply’ was written by John Lennon for Tommy Quickly, another of Brian Epstein’s recording artists.

That’s my song. Dick James, the publisher, said, ‘That’s the first complete song you’ve written where it resolves itself’. You know, with a complete story. It was my version of ‘Silhouettes’: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

‘Silhouettes’ was a 1957 hit for The Rays, an R&B quartet from New York. The opening lines of the song bear a certain resemblance to ‘No Reply’:

Took a walk and passed your house late last night
All the shades were pulled and drawn way down tight
From within the dim light cast
Two silhouettes on the shade
Oh what a lovely couple they made
This happened once before
When I came to your door
No reply
They said it wasn’t you
But I saw you peep through your window
I saw the light
I saw the light
I know that you saw me
’cause I looked up to see your face
‘No Reply’

Paul McCartney later claimed to have assisted Lennon in writing the song:

We wrote ‘No Reply’ together but from a strong original idea of his. I think he pretty much had that one, but as usual, if he didn’t have the third verse and the middle eight, then he’d play it to me pretty much formed, then we would shove a bit in the middle or I’d throw in an idea.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

In the studio

The Beatles taped their demo of ‘No Reply’ for Tommy Quickly on 3 June 1964, although he never released a version of the song. This demo was misfiled and became lost in the 1960s, only resurfacing in 1993; it was released on Anthology 1.

This sprightly first version was treated casually by the group, who played around with the lyrics – at one point singing “I saw you walk in your face”. It also had a shorter “I saw the light” section.

The demo featured a drummer, although Ringo Starr had been taken ill earlier in the day with tonsillitis. Jimmie Nicol may have played instead; he was certainly at Abbey Road that morning for a tour rehearsal with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

The Beatles – with Starr – recorded ‘No Reply’ properly on 30 September 1964, with piano played by George Martin. They perfected it in eight takes, the last of which was used on Beatles For Sale.

John sings this one, and I do the vocal harmony. We tried to give it different moods, starting off quietly with a sort of vaguely bossa nova tempo, building up to a straight beat crescendo in the middle, and then tailing off quietly again.
Paul McCartney
Disc, 14 November 1964

For take five, the group tried repeating the middle section, extending the song from 2:14 to 3:17. However, they dropped this idea in the final version.

Take two of ‘No Reply’ was also released on Anthology 1. As in the demo version, The Beatles had trouble recording the song without deliberately messing up the lyrics (“You walked hand in hand with another plank in my place”). It also repeated the first verse towards the end of the song, in place of the one beginning “I tried to telephone”.

Previous album: A Hard Day’s Night
Next song: ‘I’m A Loser’
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