What You’re Doing

Beatles For Sale album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 29, 30 September; 26 October 1964
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 4 December 1964 (UK), 14 June 1965 (US)

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

Available on:
Beatles For Sale

Inspired by Paul McCartney's often-stormy relationship with Jane Asher, What You're Doing saw The Beatles experimenting with arrangement and production in a number of ways.

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There are several notable aspects to the song. The first is the four-bar solo drum pattern which introduces the song, which returns again before the coda. It is possible that this, as in Ticket To Ride and Tomorrow Never Knows, was suggested by McCartney.

McCartney deploys an unusual internal rhyming scheme in the verses: 'doing' is paired with 'blue and', and 'running' with 'fun in' - an effect also used on She's A Woman. Additionally, the shouted emphasis of certain words in Lennon and Harrison's backing vocals - which recall those from PS I Love You - add a sense of urgency.

Most notable, however, is the distortion on the guitar backing and solo - an unusual sound at the time. The piano/bass break before the ending also showed The Beatles testing out ideas and establishing recording techniques which they would later use to dazzling effect.

What You're Doing was a bit of a filler. I think it was a little more mine than John's, but I don't have a very clear recollection so to be on the safe side I'd put it as 50-50. It doesn't sound like an idea that I remember John offering, so it sounds like a way to get a song started, some of them are just that. 'Hey, what'cha doing?' You sometimes start a song and hope the best bit will arrive by the time you get to the chorus... but sometimes that's all you get, and I suspect this was one of them. Maybe it's a better recording than it is a song, some of them are. Sometimes a good recording would enhance the song.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

What You're Doing was first released in the UK on Beatles For Sale. US audiences had to wait until June 1965 to hear it, when it appeared on the Beatles VI album.

The song became part of a medley, alone with Drive My Car and The Word, on the 2006 album Love.

In the studio

What You're Doing was recorded over three days at Abbey Road. The first session took place on 29 September 1964, at which The Beatles taped seven takes of the rhythm track.

They recorded another five attempts the following day. At this stage the instrumental break was an octave higher, and there was a brief pause before the coda.

The song was eventually completed on 26 October; the final song to be finished on the final day's recording for Beatles For Sale. Seven takes were recorded, only three of which were complete. Take 19, the final attempt, was the one used for the album.

19 responses on “What You’re Doing

  1. AlbertCunning

    As far as the Lennon/McCartney collaboration goes, ‘What You’re Doing’ — despite John’s hesitance to take credit for it 16 years after its release(Playboy) — appears to be more closely co-written than I first expected.

    Indeed, when John was asked by Hit Parader[Magazine] in 1972[April edition] — eight years earlier — to divide all the Lennon/McCartney songs between him and Paul, he put this song — along with ‘Every Little Thing’** — in a 3rd, “Co-written”, category, not really joined by _that_ many other Lennon/McCartney songs — of course suggesting that he _did_ feel somewhat responsible for these two ‘Beatles For Sale’ tracks.
    (In 1980 he seems to have forgotten why.)

    Of course, John is himself largely at fault for this common misconception about their writing, having suggested to Jann Wenner in 1970 that the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership basically ended around 1962; as well as sometimes presenting the odd contradicting statement, as you’ve seen in this case.
    (In Playboy he even makes a statement contradicting the one about 1962, claiming he had been lying in the first place — from sheer resentment it seems.)

    **In the Playboy interview, John attributed ‘Every Little Thing’ and ‘What You’re Doing’ directly to Paul, only saying ‘I might have done something/Maybe I threw something in.”

    But Paul’s own concession — however vague — about the latter, can’t really be ignored.

    Still, I’d put this one down as 60-70% Paul.
    ‘Every Little Thing’ — 80%.

  2. Matt

    I’d call George and John’s vocals “backing vocals” rather than “harmony vocals”, since the only time they actually harmonize with Paul is at the very end.

    1. Sergioq

      In sure how to spell the sound that John and George “sing” in the background. But to me it shows real musical talent. The concept and execution, that little nuance, things that when all added up make a good song.

  3. Art Connor

    After ‘re-discovering’ some of the mid-period Beatle songs, I find this one to be a bit of charmer. It really has grown on me. Paul’s vocals are a bit different on this track, you can hear some of the angst and frustration coming out as he sings about his relationship. Time has shown some of these so called ‘fillers’ to be hidden and overlooked gems.

    The short drum intro is right from the Phil Spector/Beach Boys songbooks. That’s the hook of the song for me. Great stuff even at this early stage with different instruments being used, and experimenting with recording techniques.

  4. Cameron McIntosh

    I remember this song from day one in the U.S. The tympani drum in the beginning always made this song stand out. I believe today after understanding the dynamics and chemistry of how The Beatles operated I agree this song is more Paul and John 70/30. John was very bitter in the early Playboy interview but once he calmed down, he became more humble.

  5. T. G.

    I don’t know, but when I hear Paul singing on What You’re Doing I automatically think it’s Paul’s song because he’s the one putting the groove to it. And for the most part, history has shown that it was mostly his song idea. But also, it can’t be forgotten that none of the Beatles ever sounded the same on their own when they went solo.

  6. carlos gutman

    Maybe the drum introduction is the hook (as Art Connor says) but please let´s not forget the marvelous guitar riff all along the song (wich dosn´t have anything to do with the melody stucture) which I´m sure is George´s own suggestion and collaboration on the writing of the song

    1. Bruuhn

      Isn’t that a 12 string Rickenbacker? I’ve read that this song, along with Words of Love, Hard Day’s Night and Ticket to Ride popularized that Rickenbacker sound which the Byrds obsessed over and 20 years later was reborn through Peter Buck, Johnny Marr and all the other 80’s guitar-jangle rockers. To me that’s the most lasting aspect of this song.

      1. Matt

        I’m surprised the connection to Jackie DeShannon’s tune “When You Walk In The Room” isn’t more noted – her song came out a year earlier and she did tour with the Beatles prior to their song. “Room” wasn’t as much a hit for Jackie as later the Searchers – but if you listen to slower DeShannon version (appears it was sped up for the single) – there more than a passing influence…just sayin’… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqyKe93eBI4

        1. James Ferrell

          Very similar 12 string riff and overall feel. Similar (though less so) to the Searchers’ Needles and Pins (zah).

          I never liked this one much but I think it’s an interesting transitional step toward Rubber Soul. Together with It’s Only Love from Help, which I think of as John’s counterpoint to this Paul song.

  7. Steve

    In an interview in Disc (14 November 1964), Paul says he played “some” piano on the track. As there isn’t a lot of piano in there, I think it’s likely that he played it all.

  8. steve pais

    I think when Paul sings “you” (at 1.04) someone in the back sings “I” simultaneously… is that correct? If so, why did they leave it unaltered on the track? or was it on purpose?

    1. Joe Post author

      My guess is they were in a hurry. There are loads of mistakes on The Beatles’ early recordings (for another example, listen to I’ll Get You, where the vocals simultaneously go “There’s gonna be a time, when I’m gonna change your mind/make you mine”).

    1. Julian

      I guess it was one of those times when George & Ringo would first hear the song & then arrange something to it (that’s how GOOD they were). It sounds like George’s Rickenbacker, so maybe it’s him!

  9. Bluepepper54

    Lots of early tracks had these small imperfections (a sign of the times to get productions out the door while the iron was hot, as well as a nice memory of times when ‘live’ music was not always perfect); great fodder for those who like to read into things that are not really there.

  10. Patricio García

    There is an early take, take 11, probably recorded on sept 30th, that sounds SO beautifuly raw. You’ll find it in youtube. I think is better than the final versión. Sometimes George Martin / Paul McCartney tended to over-produce.

  11. Jennifer

    I love this one. I love Paul’s high-pitched vocals – there is a sense of impatience to it that really comes through, which is in keeping with the lyrics. I love the drums. I love the little shouty bits leading into the lines: LOOK what you’re doing; PLEASE stop your lying, etc. The middle eight in this one is a sheer delight, as well. It pleads in desperation, then softens into that long, drawn out ‘me-e-e-e-e’ as the accompaniment drops out. (It’s sort of like he’s giving up on the frustration and impatience and just saying, “Who’m I kidding, baby? I love you.”) George Martin’s undulating piano adds a unique resonance to the instrumental break. That said, as much as I like the song, I think Paul is on point when he says that sometimes the recording is better than the song.

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