Ringo Starr’s second composition for The Beatles was written in Sardinia. On 22 August 1968 he temporarily walked out of sessions for the White Album after becoming disenchanted with the increasing tensions within the group. He took his family abroad for a boating holiday, returning to Abbey Road on 5 September.
I wrote ‘Octopus’s Garden’ in Sardinia. Peter Sellers had lent us his yacht and we went out for the day… I stayed out on deck with [the captain] and we talked about octopuses. He told me that they hang out in their caves and they go around the seabed finding shiny stones and tin cans and bottles to put in front of their cave like a garden. I thought this was fabulous, because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea too. A couple of tokes later with the guitar – and we had ‘Octopus’s Garden’!
The song was first worked on by Starr and George Harrison during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969; perhaps Harrison felt a sense of solidarity after feeling that his own compositions were being dismissed as second-rate by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
‘Octopus’s Garden’ is Ringo’s song. It’s only the second song Ringo wrote, and it’s lovely. Ringo gets bored playing the drums, and at home he plays a bit of piano, but he only knows about three chords. He knows about the same on guitar. I think it’s a really great song, because on the surface, it just like a daft kids’ song, but the lyrics are great. For me, you know, I find very deep meaning in the lyrics, which Ringo probably doesn’t see, but all the thing like ‘resting our head on the sea bed’ and ‘We’ll be warm beneath the storm’ which is really great, you know. Because it’s like this level is a storm, and if you get sort of deep in your consciousness, it’s very peaceful. So Ringo’s writing his cosmic songs without noticing.
In early 1969, while filming The Magic Christian, Starr was interviewed by the New Musical Express. In the article, which was published in March, the reporter noted that “current Beatle work involves the completion of their next LP and among several tracks so far recorded is one by Ringo titled ‘In An Octopus’s Garden (Or I Would Like To Live Up A Tree)’”. The Beatles had not, at this stage, begun recording the song, although it was known to the group from the January 1969 sessions.
In the studio
In January 1969 Starr brought the outlines of three songs to the band. They were ‘Taking A Trip To Carolina’, ‘Picasso’, and ‘Octopus’s Garden’. On 26 January, at the Apple basement studio, Starr demonstrated the latter song to George Harrison, George Martin, and Glyn Johns.
The arrangement was in place early on, including the opening guitar runs played by Harrison, suggesting that it was well-rehearsed prior to recording. The eight-track tape had Paul McCartney’s bass guitar on track one; Starr’s drums on two; Harrison’s lead guitar on three; John Lennon’s finger-picked rhythm guitar on four; and Starr’s guide vocals on eight.
Take nine from this first session was released in 2019 on some formats of the 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road.
On 29 April Starr overdubbed his lead vocals, though these were later re-recorded, and McCartney added a piano part during the bridges.
The song was then left until 17 July, when McCartney added a bass part, he and Harrison contributed backing vocals, and various sound effects were added – including the sound of Starr blowing bubbles into a glass of water.
The song was completed the following day, 18 July, when Starr finally recorded his lead vocals.
On that date, from 8-10.30pm, ‘Octopus’s Garden’ was mixed in stereo in the control room of Studio Two. Five mixes, numbered 10-14, were made. Starr’s vocals in the verses were treated with artificial double tracking.
Seven mono mixes were also made, for unknown purposes, as Abbey Road was never considered for mono release. ‘Octopus’s Garden’ was the only song on the album to be mixed in mono.