Saturday, August 1, 2009


You know, I really could have planned my "Birthday" listening day a bit better. Perhaps I should have listened to it on one of the Beatles' birthdays, or on the birthday of some Beatles entourage member or one of the wives. Or I should have listened to it on my OWN birthday, or something. But a lot of those days have passed, and I was inspired in different directions. And today, dammit, I'm in the mood to listen to "Birthday." But I still feel the need to give a reason. So here's what I've got: today (Facebook reminds me) is the birthday of a friend of mine who listened to a lot of Beatles with me back when I was at my most obsessed, which was when I was in like eighth grade. She'd scour the thrift shops and yard sales with me for old records and listen patiently as I talked incessantly about how dreamy all the Beatles were and stuff, and got kind of into it herself, or at least was polite enough to pretend to. So happy birthday to her! I don't even know if she reads this, but whatever. By the way, the video below, made by YouTuber genius doctorzaius72, is inexplicably hilarious. (Emphasis on "inexplicably.")

One thing I love about Paul is that he sometimes just owns his own commercial savvy and refuses to apologize for it. He's actually said about "Birthday" that he figured a song about birthdays would stand to make a lot of money, because people would sing it at birthdays and so forth, and it would just be a good thing to have in one's repertoire. Clever Paul. He doesn't seem to have written this one entirely on his own, though-- he's claimed that it belonged to him and John jointly, and that they wrote it in the studio while jamming and messing around one day. John has said it was Paul's completely, but he's also said that it's terrible, so I think he was just trying to shift what he saw as the blame over to Paul on this. But we know we can't trust John on such matters, so I'm ignoring him here.

But anyway, yeah, this was hastily written by the two of them during a studio jam. The one piece of the recording history that everyone seems to remember is that in the middle of the "Birthday" jam session, the whole band and crew went over to Paul's house around the corner from Abbey Road studios to watch The Girl Can't Help It, a 1956 rock and roll movie starring Jayne Mansfield that was only then, in 1968, making its debut on British television. Since the Beatles were huge fans of both Jayne Mansfield and of the various rock stars that performed in The Girl Can't Help It (including Little Richard, Fats Domino, and the Platters, among others-- I actually just saw this on TCM a few weeks ago, and that's who I remember), I guess they were pretty psyched to see it. Interestingly, it doesn't appear to have been anyone's birthday in particular on the day they came up with this, so I guess it really was Paul's commercial instincts that steered he and John toward birthday-friendly lyrics to go along with his guitar riff.

There are some interesting personnel choices here, including John on the memorable lead guitar riff and George on, oddly, bass. Is this the only Beatles track in which George plays bass? I'm not sure, but it might be. Note that for much of the song the bass is essentially playing in octaves with the lead guitar, which seems like the kind of bass playing that a guy accustomed to playing lead guitar would play. (Though I quite like the octave guitar lines. There's a fun, clean simplicity to the sound they get here.) Paul, meanwhile takes the piano part, and Beatley significant others Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono (the former, I guess, was around because she wanted to see The Girl Can't Help It, and the latter was just, you know, always around) are singing backup and clapping.

Although the song is kind of silly and meaningless, at least in terms of the lyrics, everyone seems to be playing like they mean it. (Which is why I call bullshit AGAIN on John when he says this song sucks.) Paul especially so-- not only does his heavily echoed, heavily percussive piano part completely rock, especially whenever it's duetting with the guitars, but his vocals are freaking unhinged. He is screaming really high in his range here, just rocking the hell out of the silly words and making them sound as sincere and meaningful as all get out. I love a screaming Paul! (Maybe he was inspired by the thought of Little Richard in The Girl Can't Help It.) John's singing alongside him on the choruses and seems to be having fun, but Paul, one must admit, outshines John in these moments through his sheer exuberance. You almost forget John is there sometimes. Note, too, how much the song is leaving up to Ringo. Ringo's never sounded better-- his first solo is generally agreed to be in the Abbey Road medley, but he has some really soloistic moments here, as when he plays into the verse. Oh, and in the instrumental break, Ringo's playing with Paul's piano is freaking sweet-- it's like John and George on the two guitars are having some kind of musical argument with Ringo and Paul on the drums and piano. So kickass. Anyway, listen to all the fun fills and stuff Ringo gets in throughout this thing-- he's, once again, just hanging out and casually being a genius. Love.

So, um, happy birthday if it's yours! But it doesn't matter if it's not, you know. Every day is a good day for "Birthday."

"Birthday," released in the U.K. side C track 1 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Ok, that video made my day.

    I can't explain why I like this ridiculous song. And I wouldn't want to listen to it often but man, do they rock here. Just sounds like they're having a good time.

  2. I never knew George played bass on this. It's funny that people know who played what on what song. I was just reading a short interview with Hunter Davies and he was saying Beatle fans knew more about the Beatles than they did. He said memories were so sketchy and that sometimes "facts" would be so skewed in books and interviews that he would start believing and remembering things that weren't really true. But isn't it fascinating that 40 years later we know who played what on this song? Bill

  3. It is, Bill! Though it's largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Mark Lewisohn that we even KNOW who played what. I always remember this one because it IS so weird for George to have played bass.

  4. I bet George looked funny playing bass, he was always so involved when playing guitar, can you imagine his face while playing bass like a lead guitar? Bill

  5. This is one of those songs where all the elements just work together so well. I love the section where the guitar and piano answer each other a half dozen times. The whole song rocks. Great stuff.

    I never really thought much about who played what instruments on each song. And i kinda assumed George was always playing lead. Your posts have enlightened me that Paul and John each played some great guitar licks, and on many of my favorite songs.

    Thanks for another great post, Meg.