The song’s lyrics, although light-hearted, continue Harrison’s established themes of introspection and slight misanthropy. The title was a pun on The Beatles’ hometown and the company which published their songs.
Northern Songs was founded in 1963 by The Beatles, their manager Brian Epstein, and music publisher Dick James to publish John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songs. Harrison and Ringo Starr were essentially writers-for-hire until their contracts expired in 1968.
‘Only A Northern Song’ was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England. In addition, the song was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd, which I don’t own, so: ‘It doesn’t really matter what chords I play… as it’s only a Northern Song’.
During 1966 Harrison had become disenchanted with being a Beatle, and contributed relatively little to Sgt Pepper. ‘Only A Northern Song’, while conceived as a joke, also served as a complaint against the dominance of the Lennon-McCartney partnership and the few songs he was allowed to record each year.
I realized Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I thought, ‘Great, somebody’s gonna publish my songs!’ But he never said, ‘And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you’re assigning me the ownership of the songs,’ which is what it is. It was just a blatant theft. By the time I realized what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalog, I wrote ‘Only A Northern Song’ as what we call a ‘piss-take,’ just to have a joke about it.
‘Only A Northern Song’ didn’t make the grade for Sgt Pepper, and so was held over for an unspecified future release until the creators of the Yellow Submarine film needed more songs for the soundtrack.
[The filmmakers] wanted some new songs from us, so we recorded ‘Only A Northern Song’ in Abbey Road. I remember playing a silly trumpet. My dad used to play. I can’t, but I can mess around a lot – and that song gave me the perfect framework. It was very tongue in cheek.
The song became one of The Beatles’ most psychedelic recordings, featuring a host of unusual instruments including timpani, glockenspiel and chimes, and a phasing effect caused partly by the mixing together of two versions of the same rhythm track.
In the studio
The Beatles began recording ‘Only A Northern Song’ on 13 February 1967, with the working title ‘Not Known’. They taped nine takes of the rhythm track, four of which were complete. The best was take three, onto which George Harrison overdubbed two lead vocals the following day.
It was returned to on 20 April, after The Beatles had completed Sgt Pepper. They discarded the vocals from 14 February, and in their place added bass, trumpet and glockenspiel. They then made another mix with new vocals, known as take 11. The two versions were then mixed together in sync to make the final mono version.
A new, slightly faster mix of the song was included on Anthology 2 in 1996. It was made up of the basic track from 13 February, with organ, bass, drums, and the vocals – featuring slightly different lyrics – that Harrison later re-recorded. The bass and guitar from the 20 April session was also incorporated in the mix.
A stereo version of ‘Only A Northern Song’ wasn’t made available until 1999, when Apple released the Yellow Submarine Songtrack collection.