Released: 3 December 1965 (UK), 21 February 1966 (US)
Originally released on Rubber Soul in the UK, Nowhere Man was born of John Lennon’s feelings of isolation in his Weybridge home, where he spent hours in solitary contemplation away from the mayhem of Beatlemania.
I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good and I finally gave up and lay down. Then Nowhere Man came, words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
In March 1966, the Evening Standard newspaper published an article by journalist Maureen Cleave about John Lennon’s home life. While the piece became notorious for Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” statement, it revealed much more about the off-duty life of the Lennons.
He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more.’
The theme was touched upon again in Hunter Davies’ authorised biography of the group.
I can get up and start doing nothing straight away. I just sit on the step and look into space and think until it’s time to go to bed…
If I am on my own for three days, doing nothing, I almost leave myself completely. I’m just not here. Cyn doesn’t realise it. I’m up there watching myself, or I’m at the back of my head. I can see my hands and realise they’re moving, but it’s a robot who’s doing it.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
Nowhere Man was written by Lennon during the late stages of Rubber Soul, when he and McCartney were struggling to come up with enough songs for the album.
I was just sitting, trying to think of a song, and I thought of myself sitting there, doing nothing and going nowhere. Once I’d thought of that, it was easy. It all came out. No, I remember now, I’d actually stopped trying to think of something. Nothing would come. I was cheesed off and went for a lie down, having given up. Then I thought of myself as Nowhere Man – sitting in his nowhere land.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
When McCartney arrived the next day to begin a songwriting session, he found Lennon asleep in his conservatory.
When I came out to write with him the next day, he was kipping on the couch, very bleary-eyed. It was really an anti-John song. He told me later, he didn’t tell me then, he said he’d written it about himself, feeling like he wasn’t going anywhere. I think it was actually about the state of his marriage. It was in a period where he was a bit dissatisfied with what was going on; however, it led to a very good song. He treated it as a third-person song, but he was clever enough to say, ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me?’ – ‘Me’ being the final word.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Nowhere Man made its way into The Beatles’ live repertoire, and was one of the songs performed during their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966.
The song also made a brief appearance in the 1968 animation Yellow Submarine, when The Beatles sang it to Jeremy, a creature living in the Sea of Nothing.
In the studio
The Beatles recorded Nowhere Man over two days. The first of these was 21 October 1965, when they taped two takes of the song after a period of rehearsal.
The first of these takes was a false start; the second was a rhythm track played on just electric guitars, with a three-part vocal harmony introduction.
The next day the group began a remake, completing the rhythm track in three attempts. They then overdubbed vocals onto the second of these, including John Lennon’s double tracked lead vocals.
We were always forcing [the Abbey Road staff] into things they didn’t want to do. Nowhere Man was one. I remember we wanted very treble-y guitars, which they are, they’re among the most treble-y guitars I’ve ever heard on record. The engineer said, ‘All right, I’ll put full treble on it,’ and we said, ‘That’s not enough’, and he said, ‘But that’s all I’ve got, I’ve only got one pot and that’s it!’ And we replied, ‘Well, put that through another lot of faders and put full treble up on that. And if that’s not enough we’ll go through another lot of faders’…
Anyway you’d then find, ‘Oh, it worked!’ And they were secretly glad because they had been the engineer who’d put three times the allowed value of treble on a song. I think they were quietly proud of all those things.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn