First released as the b-side to ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘This Boy’ was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney as an exercise in three-part harmony.

Just my attempt at writing one of those three-part harmony Smokey Robinson songs. Nothing in the lyrics; just a sound and harmony.

There was a period when I thought I didn’t write melodies, that Paul wrote those and I just wrote straight, shouting rock ‘n’ roll. But of course, when I think of some of my own songs – ‘In My Life’, or some of the early stuff, ‘This Boy’ – I was writing melody with the best of them.

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The song was composed while The Beatles were on tour in 1963.

‘This Boy’ was another hotel-bedroom song, twin beds, one afternoon somewhere; we had arrived around one o’clock. We had a couple of hours to kill, so we thought, Well, let’s write one. Rather like the hotel where we wrote ‘She Loves You’. It’s funny, I remember the room and the position of the beds: John and I sitting on twin beds, the G-Plan furniture, the British hotel with olive green and orange everywhere, that marvellous combination, the colours of vomit.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Based on the circular chord sequences that were a staple of American doo-wop recordings, ‘This Boy’ showcased the group’s skill at singing in close harmony, along with a blistering middle eight sung by Lennon.

It was very co-written. We wanted to do a close-harmony thing, we liked harmonies and we were quite good at them. We used to do a close-harmony version of the Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’, which was good for the versatility in the band. We weren’t all rock ‘n’ roll, we could change the pace, which was always nice after you’d played for three hours. We wrote it in two-part harmony and then put the third part in for George to sing; we’d never actually tried to write something like that. Nice middle, John sang that great, then we’d go back into the close-harmony thing.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The song drew notable attention from The Times newspaper’s music critic William Mann. In a famously florid article on Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting, published on 27 December 1963, he wrote:

The slow, sad song about ‘This Boy’, which features prominently in Beatle programmes, is expressively unusual for its lugubrious music, but harmonically it is one of their most intriguing, with its chains of pandiatonic clusters, and the sentiment is acceptable because voiced cleanly and crisply.

An orchestral version of ‘This Boy’, scored by George Martin, was included in the A Hard Day’s Night film. It later appeared on his 1964 album Off The Beatle Track, and on the film’s US soundtrack release.

I had scored an instrumental version of ‘This Boy’ as part of the background music, and I used it for the sequence where Ringo is wandering by the river. We called it ‘Ringo’s Theme’, and it got into the charts in America as an orchestral record – that pleased me somewhat.
George Martin

The incomplete takes 12 and 13 of the song were released on the ‘Free As A Bird’ single in 1995. A live version from the Morecambe And Wise Show, recorded on 2 December 1963, was included on Anthology 1.

In the studio

‘This Boy’ was recorded on 17 October 1963, after The Beatles had completed ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. It took them 15 takes to complete the basic track. After that two overdubs were added, mainly of the three-part vocal harmonies.

The arrangement was largely in place before they began. One difference, however, was the inclusion of a guitar solo in the middle eight, which was later dropped. The song also had a full ending, although it was given a fade-out during the mixing stage.

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