This Boy

Past Masters album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 17 October 1963
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 29 November 1963 (UK), 20 January 1964 (US)

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar
Paul McCartney: vocals, bass
George Harrison: vocals, lead guitar
Ringo Starr: drums

Available on:
Past Masters
Anthology 1
On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2

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

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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 John 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 group 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.

41 responses on “This Boy

  1. grace

    The vocal harmonies in this song are great. It sounds like 4 part sometimes cause the way its written, when its really only three. Just overall great harmonies. John had a tough time with a high note in this song. You can hear his voice crack multiple times during a session on anthology dvd and then if you watch them perform this live you see john raise his eyebrows in approval after he nails the high note. Wooohoooo john

  2. robert

    Should anyone care to get just a glimpse at the enormous talent these “lads” had, one need only watch a live performance of This Boy (Ed Sullivan is a great one).

    Not only are the harmonies as spot on as if in the studio, plus they are playing their instruments whilst singing AND – watch how relaxed they are – watch their eye contact – smiles and inside jokes all while singing incredible harmonies that people today can’t imitate or replicate.

    All this live, no in ear monitors, no fold back monitors, Ringo keeping solid time when he can barely hear the guitars. Heck they could barely hear their own guitars. Oh – not to mention “self-mixing” by gauging their distance from a single shared mic!!

    Singing and playing an incredibly intricate song (listen to the guitar triplets played while singing) under conditions today’s “super stars” would never tolerate.

    Go on, youtube a live performance of This Boy and be amazed!

    1. jay

      The “inside joke” they are smiling at the beginning of the track for is not an inside joke at all, it’s a pretty funny fumble – in the first line, as paul and george sing “That boy”, john mistakenly sings “This boy” – after which he exchanges a look with paul, trying not to laugh. On the anthology DVD you can hear them make the same mistake in the studio, this time during the fade-out part of the song, when one sings “this” and two sing “that”, after which they all break out laughing. 🙂

    1. GniknuS

      Well I think it’s obvious who sang high…Ringo of course. But I think John sang low, you can definitevely hear his voice on some of the tooooooooo’s. So that would leave George for the middle, although those could definitely be the other way around.

    1. Vonbontee

      I’ve never noticed that, but I see no reason to believe that’s not the case. As early as “I Saw Her Standing There” they’d already discovered the benefits of splicing together different takes to create a master. If I think of it, I’ll give it a close listen tonight.

  3. Erik

    I remember reading somewhere the speculation that this was one of John’s first songs about Julia – that it expressed some version of his little-boy feelings when men would take his mom out. It definitely has an incredible tragic ache in the lead vocals.

  4. AlbertCunning

    “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.”

    As someone who’s always preferred Paul over John — although the ‘who-wrote-what debate’ is beginning to bore me — I must admit I love the ambiguity of John’s statement.

    1. Charlie

      What’s ambiguous? John said that he wrote “This Boy,” and “In My Life.” Paul disagrees, and claims to have written all the songs that he sang, and that he co-wrote everything (at least the hits) that John sang, too. That’s not ambiguous either.

      1. Johan cavalli

        Lennon was the dominant composer before Yesterday, and that embarrased McCartney. Therefore McCartney had a tendency to claim he was co-writer of Lennon´s songs before Yesterday.

  5. 2much4mymirror

    Ian MacDonald judges this to be a John-composed song. He groups it with two early Lennon-penned songs, “If I Fell” and “Yes It Is,” which, like “This Boy,” combined poignant melodies with an undercurrent of wounded pride and vindictiveness lyrically. I’ve tended to view this as primarily a John song, but the way Paul describes it, it could have been a 50/50 song like “She Loves You” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. We’ll never know for sure.

  6. bob

    I think this song & Happy just to dance with you defined the Beatles in the early 60’s. I don’t know why this song NEVER charted on it’s own individual artistry & brilliance I think This boy showed so MUCH more depth and reflection in a lyrical sense than the “A” side i want to hold your hand.

  7. Dan L

    John’s singing on the middle eight to This Boy…I’ve always thought this one of the most moving, and exhilarating, vocals in the history of pop music. And I’ve always found it a pity that they didn’t find room for a second go-round of that middle eight — which the song really called for.

  8. Julian

    In my opinion, if the middle-eight was twice in the song, it would dilute some of its’ specialty. John punches you right in the gut with the double-tracking and then never does it again. THAT is perfect to me.

  9. Dan L

    I see your point, Julian, and you may be right (although I suspect their main purpose was to keep the song from going too far beyond two minutes). Still, would you say that the emotional impact of “Yes It Is” – something of a successor to “This Boy” – was diminished by the double-use of John’s middle eight in that number?

    1. Julian

      I think by early 1965 The Beatles weren’t that concerned about keeping a song short. That said, “Yes It Is” to me is more mature and compositionally refined than “This Boy”. Just amazing.

  10. Graham Paterson

    First heard this as the B side of I Want To Hold Your Hand on a family members 45 and soon after on The Love Songs compilation. This is a song I love with such a beautiful harmony , courtesy of John, Paul and George. A great solo singing effort by John Lennon in the middle eight. Whilst this is a collaboration, I always considered this slightly more a Lennon song.

  11. Johan cavalli

    If we analyse the song musically, we have to differ the melody from harmony. Lennon always said he composed the melody, and McCartney said “we did it together”. ( McCartney is not clear and distinct – consciously? He could have meant he did the harmonies). But the press people is always more positive to McCartney (because he did Yesterday and always is smiling?) and call it a co-composition. The melody is wonderful even without the harmonies. Listen to “Ringos theme” in A Hard Days Night.

  12. LMW28IF

    I came to realize that the whole Ringo’s Theme aspect of this song is entirely because George Martin’s instrumental of the song was used in Ringo’s wandering around scene in the movie A Hard Day’s Night, but for awhile it got me to wondering if maybe the lyric was a taunt from John toward Pete Best. It kind of worked, Pete wanting the group to drop Ringo and take him back in the band. Just silliness.

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