Written by George Harrison, ‘Old Brown Shoe’ was originally released as the b-side of ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’. It remains a largely overlooked gem from The Beatles’ back catalogue.
I started the chord sequences on the piano, which I don’t really play, and then began writing ideas for the words from various opposites… Again, it’s the duality of things – yes no, up down, left right, right wrong, etcetera.
I Me Mine, 1980
In the studio
The Beatles performed two versions of ‘Old Brown Shoe’ on 27 January 1969, during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions at Apple Studios. The first was sung by George Harrison with just a piano accompaniment, followed by an attempt by the whole group with Billy Preston.
The Beatles returned to the song the following day, playing through it eight times, and once more on 29 January. These versions have all been bootlegged from the hours of rehearsals and jams taped by The Beatles for the Let It Be album.
On 25 February, his 26th birthday, Harrison recorded two takes of a solo demo of ‘Old Brown Shoe’. He also recorded versions of ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Something’, possibly so the other Beatles could learn their parts. Why he needed to do this for ‘Old Brown Shoe’ is unknown – possibly he was dissatisfied with the previous group attempts, and wanted them to reconsider the song.
Each of the demos can be heard on Anthology 3. Of the three, ‘Old Brown Shoe’ was the most elaborate. Harrison began by recording vocals and piano, before adding two guitar overdubs. The first guitar part was played mainly on the bottom strings, while the second, which included a solo, was played mainly on the higher strings.
The Beatles eventually began work on the song on 16 April 1969. In the morning Harrison recorded a second demo version, and that evening the group taped four takes.
Ringo Starr was filming The Magic Christian, and was unavailable for the session. In his place, the drums on the song were played by Paul McCartney.
The Beatles recorded four takes of the song. Take two, the first complete run-through, was included on some formats of the 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road. Take four, meanwhile, became the basis of the single version.
Track one of the eight-track tape contained McCartney’s drums, while the second and third featured Harrison’s guide vocals and lead guitar respectively. John Lennon’s piano part was recorded onto track four.
Once take four had been selected as the best attempt, The Beatles added a range of overdubs. McCartney’s bass guitar and another Harrison guitar part were recorded on track six, and Harrison – with backing from Lennon and McCartney – added lead vocals to track two.
Additional backing vocals from Lennon and McCartney were recorded on track five. All of the vocals were intentionally distorted by studio engineer Jeff Jarratt.
The recording of ‘Old Brown Shoe’ was completed two days later. An organ part was added to track eight, and a lead guitar solo was overdubbed onto track seven. Both of these parts were played by Harrison.
Nineteen stereo mixes, ten of which were complete, were also made of ‘Old Brown Shoe’ during the session. The last of these was selected as the master.
‘Old Brown Shoe’ was Harrison’s second song to be issued on the b-side of a Beatles single, following ‘The Inner Light’ in March 1968.
The song was also included on the Capitol Records compilation Hey Jude, released in North America and elsewhere in February 1970. It was later included on the 1967-1970 compilation, also known as the Blue Album, and on the Past Masters collection.
Harrison’s demo was released on Anthology 3 in October 1996. Take two of the song, meanwhile, was included on the super deluxe 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road in 2019.
‘Old Brown Shoe’ was one of eight Beatles songs on Harrison’s 1992 album Live In Japan, which had been recorded on tour the previous year.
Paul was a solid drummer. In fact, I consider Dear Prudence to be the best drumming done on any Beatles album. (I have a degree in music. Major: percussion, so please refrain from man-splaining anything to me or tell me “you don’t get it”. I literally grew up listening to them first run. I get it)