"The Sheik of Araby" is a true pop standard, originally made famous in the '20s in the New Orleans jazz scene. It's been covered by zillions of people (I've even sung a hackneyed version arranged for high school chorus, cringe), but I honestly don't remember ever reading if the Beatles based their rendition on any particular version. So I don't really know how much originality they're putting into this arrangement, though I suppose that it might not be much. But the thing is, everyone knows this one, so the Beatles brought it out for their audition with Decca on New Year's Day, 1962. It would probably have been a good song for the squares at Decca to hear, especially in the context of the setlist they came up with, which features everything from the crazed rock of "Money (That's What I Want)" to the teenybopper drama of "Take Good Care of My Baby" to the cheesetastic stylings of "Besame Mucho." The Decca setlist demonstrates what to my mind is occasionally questionable taste, but I guess they were trying to show off their versatility as a band as much as anything else. And the Decca recordings demonstrate how tight the band was, certainly.
What I'm sometimes struck by on the Decca auditions is that, not only does George share the lead vocal time almost equally with John and Paul, but that he's singing with all kinds of awesomeness. Remember that "Three Cool Cats" is from this same session, and that one also boasts a freaking terrific George vocal. (And although it's only available on bootleg, you guys should seriously check out the "Take Good Care of My Baby" recording if you can-- George does a spot-on, totally confident impression of a Teen Idol type. It's kind of rad.) "The Sheik of Araby" is no exception. George sings this with all the humor that the song so richly deserves, but his voice also seems to say, "yeah, this is a very silly song, but it doesn't change the fact that I am going to creep into your tent and you are going to freaking love it." He doesn't ham it up, is the point, he just makes fun of himself while still acknowledging that he's a pimp. It's a delicate balance, and somehow his vocal nails it. And even when the vocal is ragged and kind of messy, there's a certain "yeah, I'm not in tune-- fuck you" feeling that I pick up on here as well. Yow. Who is this swaggering lad, anyway? I mean, more than a year later George delivers the much shyer, more adorable vocals on "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and "Chains" on Please Please Me, which is enough to make you wonder if they consciously decided to muck about with George's onstage persona a little in the intervening months.
So anyway, other than George's vocal, I hear this as a fairly conventional version of a fairly conventional song, with some interest derived just from the cool walking bass, the guitar's syncopated flourishes of punctuation (which help move this '20s song a little more into the pop-rock idiom, to my ear), and John and Paul coming in here and there for some background guffawing, all the better to make the thing straight-up funny. It totally would have been fun to hear performed live, for sure. Gees, the Beatles could have been a pretty okay novelty act if they'd wanted to, you know? (Luckily, their aspirations were grander.)
"The Sheik of Araby," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 17 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.