Sunday, July 26, 2009

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

I actually kind of hate summer. Isn't that awful of me? I mean, yes-- the produce! the beach! the bars relatively free of college students!-- but on days like today when the humidity is like 10,000 percent none of that other stuff matters, and I sit around sweating and swearing and wondering if today is the day when we should install the stupid air conditioner, except we're both too hot and gross and tired to lift anything heavy so of course we're not going to, we're just going to yell at each other and let our bodies slowly congeal to the couches. I grew up much further south than where I currently live and have seen a lot of hot days in my time, but I have never been able to get used to them-- I just get ANGRY.

That's why I really need the Beatles to be at their most adorable today. Nothing else stands any chance of cheering me up. Luckily, it's HarriSunday, and I can listen to George sweet-talk me about some secret he's got. Aw. Who couldn't feel better?

As if "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" wasn't going to put me in enough of a good move, some YouTuber decided to set it to a video that tries to turn the friendship between John and George into tawdry slash. I find this effort hilarious. Brava!

"Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was written by John, according to almost every source I've read-- except, of course, Barry Miles' Many Years from Now, fast becoming one of the books that most annoys me on this blog. That book has Paul claiming that he and John wrote this in a fifty-fifty split, which, fine. I am too tired to fight Paul on this stuff anymore. Believe who you want, but just remember that Paul's version of the story does not, I believe, appear anywhere until this book's 1997 pub date (someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I'm not), whereas there are several instances of John saying he wrote "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" on his own that Paul never seemed to feel the need to correct at the time. Other evidence that it's John's: John spoke very specifically about its inspiration, which was a song his mother Julia used to sing to him when he was little, "I'm Wishing" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (That song's introduction has Snow White confiding to the woodland creatures: "Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell? We are standing by a wishing well.")

The other fun fact about "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is that John recorded a demo of the song with acoustic guitar accompaniment in the toilet of a nightclub in Hamburg, which he claimed to the quietest place he could find. This was in order to present a tape to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, another Merseyside band managed by Brian Epstein, for consideration as their first single. They recorded it, and it ended up being a big hit for them on the singles charts (backed with "I'll Be On My Way"; truly, a pairing of two of the most adorably adolescent Lennon-McCartney songs ever). I don't think that demo still survives, but those who heard it have reported that it ended with John flushing rather dramatically.

At any rate, "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was given to George to sing because, this early on in the Beatles' career, George wasn't really that great a singer yet. And this little ditty doesn't have a very wide pitch range, so he could hit all the notes all right, even if he does (if I'm honest) sound a little awkward and geeky on them. All the better to seduce the squirmy adolescent girls, though, no doubt. More impressive than the vocal is the guitar work, which, though understated, is very nicely crafted around that descending riff that forms the song's framework. The riff, which eventually gets echoed in the heavily reverbed "doo-dah-doo" backup vocal line, hints at some chromatic motion in the chords that might be more interesting that it sounds, which is indeed the case. As cute and non-threatening as "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is, it's still quite a showcase for John's flair for odd chords. Another of my favorite bits is the slow introduction-- not only is this kind of unusual for a Beatles song anyway (it's more of a Tin Pan Alley nod), it's an early example of the seamless yet stirring move from minor to major that will become a Beatley hallmark. So, you know, don't know "Do You Want to Know a Secret?". It's as solid an early song as any other album track, maybe even more so.

And today, it's just what I needed. Still and all, it's too hot to do anything but nap. I'm off for now.

"Do You Want to Know a Secret?", released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 3 of Vee Jay's Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.


  1. Megan ... after watching the YouTube video you posted for this song, i now know the real reason the Beatles broke up --- they got fed up with posing together for stupid assenine pictures. Geez, louise.

    Getting to your oft raised question about song authorship. When Paul or John remark that they wrote such and such song, are they referring to the lyrics? The lyrics and the music? That makes a difference, and i imagine can lead to confusion.

    With no sound facts to back myself up, I always kinda thought the lyrics were written by John and Paul, or J, P, or G individually, along with some idea of how the music would be, either worked out on piano or guitar, and then as a band they went into the studio where they figured out the actual music for the various instruments and harmonizing patterns, etc.

    Can you explain a bit what the general process was? If not in a comment, perhaps in a future post?

    BTW, I do like Secret, esp the opening guitar, but the whole feel of the song.

  2. In this case, John was clearly inspired by the words in the Snow White song, and I believe he just doodled out a tune to them on the guitar, then worked the words into a love song. The lyrics to these early songs were not exactly sweated over, you probably realize-- it was only later that John or Paul ever gave them much thought. Paul frequently finished songs before he finessed their actual words (famously with "Yesterday"/"Scrambled Eggs" etc) whereas John might have more closely linked them as he wrote.

    Anyway, John or Paul would have written a song on either a guitar or a piano, so they were working out a melody and harmony at the same time, and that's what I'm kind of referring to when I refer to the "song" itself. What happened in the studio had more to do with timbre and structure-- they were figuring out the details of the instruments and when to play the various bits and so on. The chords would have most likely been established by then, though they might have been played around with, especially if Paul suggested a particularly weird bass line.

    But all of this was subject to be different in any particular case. Which is why the Beatles were so interesting.

  3. Thanks, Meg. That doc i mentioned the other day attributed Dylan's first couple albums with encouraging/prompting John to write more personal songs, with deeper lyrics, saying after listening to Dylan's writing, John realized a rock song could be about anything. Sounds reasonable, and I'm sure it's true, but they sure beat the heck out of it in the documentary.