The song dates back to The Beatles’ earliest days. Paul McCartney had composed it on the family piano at 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool “when I was about 15”.
Back then I wasn’t necessarily looking to be a rock ‘n’ roller. When I wrote ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ I thought I was writing a song for Sinatra. There were records other than rock ‘n’ roll that were important to me.
McCartney used to perform a variation of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on piano in the Cavern Club era, when The Beatles’ equipment occasionally stopped working.
‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was something Paul wrote in the Cavern days. We just stuck a few more words on it like ‘grandchildren on your knee’ and ‘Vera, Chuck and Dave’. It was just one of those ones that he’d had, that we’ve all got, really; half a song. And this was just one that was quite a hit with us. We used to do them when the amps broke down, just sing it on the piano.
The song was dusted down in 1966, the year McCartney’s father Jim turned 64. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ focuses on a young man anxiously looking towards old age; the vocals were sped up in the studio to make them sound more sprightly.
The music is suitably old-fashioned, with a music hall melody and an arrangement prominently featuring George Martin’s clarinet score.
I thought it was a good little tune but it was too vaudevillian, so I had to get some cod lines to take the sting out of it, and put the tongue very firmly in cheek.
It’s pretty much my song. I did it in a rooty-tooty variety style… George helped me on a clarinet arrangement. I would specify the sound and I love clarinets so ‘Could we have a clarinet quartet?’ ‘Absolutely.’ I’d give him a fairly good idea of what I wanted and George would score it because I couldn’t do that. He was very helpful to us. Of course, when George Martin was 64 I had to send him a bottle of wine.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Martin later regretted not releasing ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ as a b-side. Speaking about the ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ single, he said:
The idea of a double a-side came from me and Brian, really… He came to me and said, ‘I must have a really great single. What have you got?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got three tracks – and two of them are the best tracks they’ve ever made. We could put them together and make a smashing single.’ We did, and it was a smashing single – but it was also a dreadful mistake. We would have sold far more and got higher in the charts if we had issued one of those with, say, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on the back.
In the studio
On 6 December 1966 The Beatles recorded Christmas messages for the pirate stations Radio London and Radio Caroline. Afterwards they spent some time rehearsing ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, before two takes of the rhythm track were recorded.
‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was completed the next day, with the overdub of the three clarinets. During the mixing stage, meanwhile, McCartney decided that the song needed speeding up. On 30 December they scrapped all previous mixes and created a new mono one, which raised the key from C to D flat major.