Only A Northern Song

Yellow Submarine album artworkWritten by: Harrison
Recorded: 13, 14 February; 20 April 1967
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

Released: 17 January 1969 (UK), 13 January 1969 (US)

George Harrison: vocals, organ, effects
John Lennon: piano, glockenspiel, effects
Paul McCartney: bass, trumpet, effects
Ringo Starr: drums

Available on:
Yellow Submarine
Anthology 2
Yellow Submarine Songtrack

Recorded in 1967 during the Sgt Pepper sessions, George Harrison's Only A Northern Song wasn't released until the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album in early 1969.

Download on iTunes

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 Lennon and 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'.
George Harrison

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.
George Harrison
Billboard magazine, 1999

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.
Paul McCartney

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, 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 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.

46 responses on “Only A Northern Song

  1. Matt R

    This song transcends all other musical compositions. There simply isn’t anything like it at all… and there probably never will be. Beatles at their creative peak I’d say.

  2. Rufus

    Always thought this was BY FAR the weakest Beatles song — but then had a listen tonight, and realized it’s actually not that bad. And its value, as a document of George’s real frustrations as a member of the band, is kind of incredible. It’s like George’s ‘Glass Onion.’

  3. Marty in Boulder

    Can someone shed any light on the mix found on the original CD (1987) version of “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack” The original vinyl LP (1969) had this track in fake stereo. The new remastered CD has it in mono. The remixed “Yellow Submarine Songtrack” CD (1999) has it in real stereo. What mix appears on the first CD version?

  4. Craig

    The stereo version from the 1999 Yellow Sub is so much better than the hissy mono one on the new remasters. They should have used the stereo one again. But then again I think they should have re-mixed all the new remasters and balenced out the L/R channels, anyway!

  5. StarrTime

    People complain about this songs mediocrity, but listen to the lyrics…that’s sort of the point of the song, “it doesn’t really matter what chords I play…”

  6. Max

    I have “Yellow Submarine” on VHS (the U.S. re-release!) and I always fast-forwarded past this song because the animations in that scene always freaked me out. I like this song because it’s such a slap in the face.

    And truly if The Beatles recorded them screaming & breaking glass and put on the A-side of a single it would go ot the top 10.

  7. Doug Lindsay

    I have always felt this is one of the Beatles and certainly George’s most psychedelic songs. The barrage of non-rock type instruments, the lack of a “pretty little melody” and the catchy hook being a total piss-take add up to a total disregard for convention. It’s also nice that they can’t be accused of taking themselves seriously on this one. It probably helps that the first few times I heard it I was “listening late at night” but I thought the band quite right.

  8. Cassie

    Isn’t there a bit of folklore with this tune in that Ringo is apparently so drunk for one of the sessions, he sings or slurs something & falls into the glokenspiel? I believe you can hear some of this in the background…too funny! But a GREAT tune…nice chord changes going into the refrain…very cool!

    1. James Ferrell

      Right you are–very nice changes going into the refrain. The simple melody (starts out is a Lennonesque one-note melody) works well over the chords, and then there’s a nice release of the tension when he gets to “it’s only a Northern song.” Really effective.

  9. Debauchee69

    Now that Rock & Roll is Dead (2010), the Beatles are consigned to the ashheap of history we loving know as ROCK-N-Roll. Fifty year out, I still don’t understand their fame. They were the Premier Mersy Beat Band of 1963 but Mersy beat died by 1965. The Beatles should have died along with Mersy Beat (Chad&Jeremy, Lulu, Billy J.) but they MORPHED into Folk-Rock (Rubber Soul), Psychedelic (Revolver/SGTPepper), AOR (White LP) and Symphonic Rock (Abby Road). For the life of me, I can’t figure why they were so restless and inventive—why didn’t they just take the money and run back in 1965? Why did the Beatles feel so compelled to push the out limits of RockNRoll? Mark my words, you will NEVER see a group as Advengard as that of the Beatles again.

    1. irierepublic

      I feel that “why so constantly innovating Rock” is pretty simple to piece together an understanding for an off the top of the head answer

      ~they each had wildly contrasting personalities, view on life, and other such things but blended perfectly as one
      ~everyone brought something to the table including new sounds (instruments, chords/tunings, vocals, ect.)
      ~Brian Epstein!!
      ~they hated being on stage singing love songs to noise cancelling screams of teenage girls, so they actually embraced and wanted a change instead of being forced by the suits
      ~Pressure and fighting to stay on top courtesy of the music industry
      ~ And aside from the obvious “superial musical talents” ……..
      ~It also must be some type of a GIANT equation of factors that i would imagine looks like this if it could look like anything (lol)———– [Drugs honestly might be the main and simple answer tho]

      {new outcast (drop-out) culture in society + a new young smart open minded generation that wanted exploration of everything INCLUDING music+ public acceptance of mind body and soul expansion (natural or chemical) + A top notch music studio inhabited with 4 musical geniuses loaded with the newest and most evolved musical tech./equipment + a bunch of really friggin good LSD+ Epstein} == Limitless progression and evolving of new styles, sounds, and record ideas___ Now you Divide that by the Common Denominator { sum \ “Lennon;McCartney”} == the foundations ___ that total is finally Multiplied by the Constant as a Whole { sum X “The Beatles” } == the ground-breaking game-changing legacy an evolution/introduction of new musical styles, sounds, and albums.

      im sure the mathematical terminology is far from correct format but; i hate math, still makes sense it”adds up” lmao

  10. Tom Wotus

    NOT a strong “George Song” to me,but I can certainly appreciate its origin,and his motivation behind writing it.Giving it a more Beatle-ish sound, in hindsight, would have heightened George’s disdain and feelings of an “after-thought” composer, because he certainly wasn’t.The campy-psycho arrangement really robbed the song of it’s true quality..but it fit the times, as they say. BUT how well-received would it have been, otherwise?

  11. Jeff

    Whether some consider this song weak or not, I have always like it for some reason. I only first heard it in ’96 when the 2nd Anthology collection was released. George is my favorite Beatle and I have always felt that his contributions to the Beatles were never fully appreciated. This song is just pure 1967 Beatles – weird, pyschedelic, a bit disjointed but brilliant. The famous Harrison wit, or contempt, providing the song’s inspiration and perhaps deciding its fate.

  12. Paul

    I much prefer the basic track found on Anthology. Without all the added sounds, the organ is constantly audible and makes it a very psychedelic and atmospheric song.

  13. carlos

    Was the official final version (which appears in the 1969 YELLOW SUBMARINE LP) actually mixed in 1967 or was it eventually re-mixed in 1968 instead ?

  14. Art Connor

    It’s fun to include this and Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields in a Sgt Pepper playlist. The three missing songs! Where would you sequence them?

      1. Vonbontee

        Hm. I’d do it this way:

        SPLHCB/WALHFMF/LSD/Getting Better/Fixing A Hole/Only a Northern Song/She’s Leaving Home/BFTBOMK!/Within You Without You/When I’m 64/Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane/Lovely Rita/Good Morning Good Morning/SPLHCB (reprise)/A Day In The Life

        (Damn, that was harder than I thought! The idea of a single album containing both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day In The Life” is something I can barely contemplate.)

        1. Drake

          SPLHCB/WALHFMF/LSD/Getting Better/Fixing A Hole/She’s Leaving Home/BFTBOMK!/Penny Lane/Only A Northern Song/Within You Without You/When Im 64/Good Morning Good Morning/Lovely Rita/SPLHCB reprise/Strawberry Fields Forever/A Day In The Life

          1. Joe Post author

            I’m slightly reluctant to have a load of lists of song titles on this page – it clogs up the comments section. This discussion would be far better in the Fab Forum – please go there if you’d like to continue, and keep this page about Only A Northern Song. Thanks!

    1. Art

      It’s not fair to do it this way. The proper question is, which three tracks would you leave off the LP when including these (along with the listing). Makes it a lot tougher. Nearly impossible, I’d say.

  15. Happiness is a warm gun

    I can’t claim to like this song. Certain elements of the recording and information about the song are interesting and I an appreciate intellectually, but aesthetically it’s a dud for me. I just don’t enjoy listening to it.

    I will say that I would have liked it better on Sargent Pepper than on Yellow Submarine–I had not known this was written during that time until I read this, but that very fitting IMO. Its acerbic tone is evident to me and that made it always seem out of place with the Yellow Submarine set. Had it been included on Sargent Pepper, I think that would have helped play down the Gilbert and Sullivan vibe of that album that I never care for much either.

    The other thing is this song’s background kind help me fill out my understanding of George’s evolution as a songwriter. Being in a band with a pair of egos like John and Paul, with their own intense dynamics and drama between them, would have been at times insufferable for someone less assertive, I’m sure. So for George, his only path to making being a Beatles bearable was to develop his songcraft and really stand out on his own. It was a sink-or-swim situation for him. I mean, he may have dismissed this as a piss-take, but it didn’t make the cut while the tedious “She’s Leaving Home” and the irritating …Mr. Kite” did. I bet that stuck in George’s craw when they revisited this song in the studio. I have to wonder if that helped motivate him more to write songs the other Beatles couldn’t dismiss so easily.

  16. Bob

    “Only A Northern Song” falls a little short of greatness, but it fits really well with the overall feel of “Sgt. Pepper.” I wish McCartney and Lennon had taken a LITTLE more interest in George’s compositions. Imagine how good “Northern Song” MIGHT have turned out, with a collaborative dose of John’s wit and Paul’s musical magic. Those elements would have elevated it to be “Mr. Kite’s” equal. Maybe George didn’t WANT any helping hands with his songwriting, but in this case it would have been a good thing.

    1. Rockpile

      I definitely hear you on this. I think George’s songs always improved with the others’ input: Paul’s piano on While My Guitar, John’s lyrics on Taxman, Ringo’s drums on Long Long Long. But, you have to hand it to Paul on this song and his bass playing. It’s the only instrument holding the song together amidst the chaos.

    2. Simon

      Personally, I think Only A Northern Song would be absolutely PERFECT on Magical Mystery Tour – that was more of a “fun album” rather than Sgt Pepper. I would exchange OANS for Your Mother Should Know on MMT and THAT would be an even better album than already.
      Placing George’s other lost masterpiece – It’s All Too Much should be on Sgt Pepper (in track running order, maybe after Good Morning, Good Morning).

  17. Garferty

    Is it just me, or does George’s vocal at the start sound a *lot* like If I Needed Someone? Every time I hear OANS I think it’s the most absolutely blatant repeat, but I’ve never noticed anyone else pointing it out.

    1. James Ferrell

      Good observation–both the melody line and the almost-all-upbeats rhythm are very similar. Until you get to the “it doesn’t really matter part”, where OANS goes it’s own way.

  18. MIMS

    There’s a George Martin quote about “Within You, Without You” where he talks about a song George presented for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ that Martin thought was too boring, so he told him to go write another one (which turned out to be WY,WY). I’ve often wondered if this is the song he’s referring to or if George had another song that was never completed.

  19. Nigel

    This song has a special meaning for me, because I pretty much heard it the day it was originally released. I remember walking down the street and spotting a majestic, colourful new Beatles album in the store window. It was Yellow Submarine, with eye-popping cartoon characters on the cover. I immediately went in and bought the record. Couldn’t wait to get home to put it on, as I was the most raving Beatles fan (I was twelve at the time).

    In my extreme excitement, I made a mistake and put side B first; the sounds of Martin’s symphony orchestra that started pouring out of the speakers completely shocked me. I skipped to the next track — same thing! I continued skipping over track after track, only to realize in my utmost horror that there are no Beatles to be heard!

    I was desperate, and so I broke down in tears. My parents got upset and demanded explanation. When I explained my desperation, they laughed and brushed it off, saying that it’s okay.

    After I’ve simmered down, I flipped over to the side A, and to my great relief, finally heard the Beatles. OK, Yellow Submarine was the famous song I’ve known all my childhood, but the next song (Only a Northern Song), was such a culture shock for me, that I still remember the extreme confusion this song initially put me in.

    I continued listening and re-listening to the four new Beatles songs, until I got sleepy and went to bed.

    But the next day, an amazing thing happened: I could not wait for the school classes to be over so that I could go home and listen to Only a Northern Song! That song got stuck in my head, I kept humming it all day long, as I was yearning to hear it again.

    To this day, I feel that it’s one of the most magical, unbelievably creative and catchy and witty songs. Even playing it on my guitar, it sounds super special. George was a fantastic songwriter, and this is one of his best songs ever.

  20. Seán

    As a child, this was the song from the film that fascinated me the most – especially with the psychedelic animation that went with it.

    But musically it’s amazing; the chord changes are unrivalled and the reverberated organ is beautiful. I’m still trying to work out the drawbar registration for it.

    I also think a notable point of this song is, whether intentional or not, George’s strong Liverpool accent, especially on the lines “It doesn’t really matter what clothes I wear/Or how I fare or if my hair is brown”. There’s also a peculiar harmony that appears on just the word “brown”, I’m assuming caused by a double-tracking error.

  21. oldfartbassplayer Walt

    How many 60s survivors in the forum have pictures of themselves from those days?
    Bell bottoms, tie-dyed shirts, long, disheveled hair and beards- just a little
    cringe-worthy looking at this stuff NOW

    I personally think this song fist in PERFECTLY with the spirit of psychedlic music when
    it was recorded. So weird that it seemed to be recorded specifically for the Yellow
    Submarine score

    Now that our perceptions of ‘normal’ music have moved 40 years past, the song doesn’t
    seem to appeal to as large a group – (hah- some of whom may not be as old as the
    track is!).

    But these sounds have been reverberating inside my head for decades, and I STILL LIKE

    Just don’t get me started on 70s wardrobe and disco 😉

  22. Julian Bailinson

    Anyone else prefer the lyrics on the Anthology Version? There’s something I find much more amusing about the more self-deprecating lines, especially “You may think the words are not quite right. But they are, I just wrote them myself.”

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