Written collaboratively by John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the final stages of the Sgt Pepper project, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was sung by Ringo Starr.
Poking a little fun at Ringo was actually a lot of fun. ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune?’ Actually, John and I wrote this song within a vocal range that would cause no problems for Ringo, who had a style of singing different to outs. We tailored it especially for him, and I think that’s one reason why it was such a great success for him on Sgt Pepper.
The song was performed very much in the style of the Sgt Pepper album as a whole – the style of a live show in which the song is sung by a certain ‘Billy Shears’. For those old enough to remember, Billy Shears was the name of the person who supposedly replaced me in The Beatles when I’d ‘died’ after a road accident in 1966. That was a crazy rumour that had been doing the rounds. Now Billy Shears showed up, large as life, in the guise of Ringo Starr! So, this song is Ringo’s intro as a character in this operetta.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
Hunter Davies’ authorised biography of The Beatles contains a passage recounting the genesis of the song. Davies observed Lennon and McCartney beginning with a chorus line and segment of melody.
That’s Paul with a little help from me. ‘What do you see when you turn out the light/I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine’ is mine.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
From there they played around with words, performed rock ‘n’ roll songs whenever they got stuck, and spent much time laughing, idly leafing through magazines or chatting about anything that took their fancy.
This was written out at John’s house in Weybridge for Ringo; we always liked to do one for him and it had to be not too much like our style. I think that was probably the best of the songs we wrote for Ringo actually…
It was pretty much co-written, John and I doing a work song for Ringo, a little craft job. I always saw those as the equivalent of writing a James Bond film theme. It was a challenge, it was something out of the ordinary for us because we actually had to write in a key for Ringo and you had to be a little tongue in cheek. Ringo liked kids a lot, he was very good with kids so we knew ‘Yellow Submarine’ would be a good thing for Ringo to sing. In this case, it was a slightly more mature song, which I always liked very much. I remember giggling with John as we wrote the lines ‘What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.’ It could have been him playing with his willie under the covers, or it could have been taken on a deeper level; this was what it meant but it was a nice way to say it, a very non-specific way to say it. I always liked that.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was initially recorded with the working title ‘Bad Finger Boogie’, after Lennon tried to play the melody on a piano having hurt his forefinger. Starr had misgivings about singing the final sustained high note in the song, and refused to sing a certain line.
The song ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was written specifically for me, but they had one line that I wouldn’t sing. It was ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?’ I said, ‘There’s not a chance in hell am I going to sing this line,’ because we still had lots of really deep memories of the kids throwing jelly beans and toys on stage; and I thought that if we ever did get out there again, I was not going to be bombarded with tomatoes.
In the studio
From the start The Beatles knew that ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ would be adjoined to Sgt Pepper‘s title track. From take one it included the “Billy Shears” introduction.
He was to be a character in this operetta, this whole thing that we were doing, so this gave him a good intro, wherever he came in the album; in fact it was the second track. It was a nice place for him, but wherever it came, it gave us an intro. Again, because it was the pot era, we had to slip in a little reference: ‘I get high!’
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The Beatles recorded 10 takes of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ on 29 March 1967, with Paul McCartney on piano, John Lennon beating a cowbell, George Harrison playing lead guitar, and Ringo Starr on drums. Following the final take Starr overdubbed his lead vocals.
The following day – on the morning of which they posed for the Sgt Pepper cover shoot – they added guitar, tambourine, bass and harmony vocals to complete the recording.
Playboy: “With a Little Help From My Friends”?
John: That’s Paul with a little help from me. “What do you see when you turn out the light?/I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” is mine.