Sunday, September 20, 2009

Only a Northern Song

Since I seem to have not been in a good mood at all since returning to North America, I'm finding the sardonic strains of "Only a Northern Song" particularly affecting on this HarriSunday.

A lot of people don't like this song, I think, or just feel rather indifferent about it, but I like it a lot. I love that George's songs reveal a personality at war with itself-- on the one hand espousing the mystical truths he was learning through meditation and study of, you know, the space between us all and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion, and so on. I love that sometimes he very earnestly denounced materialism and, some years after the Beatles' breakup, the entire idea of living in a material world. And then on the other hand he could nurture this bitterness that revealed his own inability to actually let shit go. All the Beatles were ripped off throughout their career to some degree or other thanks to a few early bad decisions, but George just seethes about it, doesn't he? (For more seething, see also: "Taxman.") Some songs see an unattractive melding of these two conflicting worldviews-- as in "Piggies," in which George's motives are surely pure but his ego just can't stop him from making us feel bad about how we're not as enlightened as he is. (It's the song that most makes you want to say "Shut UP, George." Either that one or "Within You Without You.")

But anyway, "Only a Northern Song" falls right there at the bitter end of George's spectrum. Rightly so. I don't hold George's bitterness against him at all-- he's only human, for God's sake, as much as he dearly wished to be on a higher plane than the rest of us. The song is about a particularly shitty publishing deal that George found himself locked into. Northern Songs was the publishing company set up by Brian Epstein to handle all the Beatles' songs. At some point, for tax reasons, Northern Songs head Dick James took the company public, keeping a large chunk of the company for himself and his entourage while giving John and Paul a 15% share each. George, though, wasn't recognized as anything beyond a hired songwriter, and got something under one percent of company shares-- which meant, unfortunately, that both John and Paul were bound to make more money on songs that George wrote than George himself did. (And of course James made even more.) So, you know, that's lame. As soon as he could get out of it, George did so, and set up his own publishing company called Harrisongs. But while he was still stuck at Northern Songs, he let loose his feelings on the matter here.

The joke is that, since George won't make any money on this song anyway, screw the whole thing. "It doesn't really matter what chords I play," shrugs George. The song's production pretty much goes with that philosophy as well. "Only a Northern Song" dates to the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and sounds it. (It got left off that album, because no one could really figure out a place for it there. And although it's a shame that George didn't get his standard two songs on Sgt. Pepper, I do kind of agree that "Only a Northern Song" would have sounded out of place on that album-- I don't know, maybe it's just because I'm not used to hearing it there. Anyway, as an "extra" song, it was thrown over to the Yellow Submarine filmmakers for use on the soundtrack album.) The Sgt. Pepper-era sound effects were deployed all over the place, and since the whole point of the song is, who cares?, they're deployed in a particularly willy-nilly way. Paul is playing a trumpet, poorly (it's one of the only instruments Paul can't play, which is ironic because it's the first instrument his father ever bought him when he was a kid), while the others play glockenspiels and fancy organs and mess around with tape loops. But again, the mood of the song is essentially indifference and sarcasm. Which makes the whole song funny, but also weirdly dark and mildly joyless. The "Yellow Submarine" session this is not, if you catch my drift.

And so, you know, you either like this kind of thing or you don't. But it's hard to love a song that even the author seems so determined to not love. So, I like "Only a Northern Song." Whether or not you do might say something significant about your personality. If he'd wanted to, George could have taken the completely solid pop melody and gone in a different direction with it, changing the words to make it about something other than itself. And the fact that he didn't surely tells us something significant about George's personality too.

(But before I leave off, I want to note parenthetically that, in my opinion, Yellow Submarine-- the film-- gives "Only a Northern Song" a whole new level of interest. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie, even as it's probably ultimately meaningless trickery. Like cubist navel-gazing. Love.)

"Only a Northern Song," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Yellow Submarine, January 17, 1969; in the U.S. January 13, 1969.


  1. Another song i dislike. Two in a row. No offense to you, Meg. You have to cover them sometime. This song is just plain BLAH and DULL. Your explanation of the history of the song is interesting, but a song has to stand on its own, and this one doesn't. Still, as usual, I found what you wrote interesting.

  2. I think its appearance in Yellow Submarine is about the only thing this song has going for it. Vocal performance isn't good, probably intentionally.

    What interests me is that Ben Folds did the same thing to satisfy a contract, and I like that song much better. I think it's probably a better song on its own, but also, I don't mind if Ben Folds tanks one. George, on the other hand, kind of messed with something sacred. And he was already behind, having not written a certifiably good song and sung it well, in my opinion, until Taxman. He should maybe be a little embarrassed that fans like me think this song isn't very good -- and that it's better than some of the ones he wrote back when he was trying. Savoy Truffle, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, It's All Too Much, and Blue Jay Way were all good songs with great vocal performances. Kind of a shame he took this step backward, no less so for being intentional.

  3. Not a big fan of the song, but love your observations on George. So true!

  4. Your observations on George's contradictory personality are well put -- the mystical, spiritual side versus the materialistic, bitter side. It reminds me of that famous quote George is supposed to have said in 1969 when Paul was trying to leave Apple. George is supposed to have said to Paul, "You'll stay on the fucking label. Hari Krishna." And hung up. Which shows what an ass George could be, but is also kinda hilarious.

    Oh, and I don't like this song, either.

  5. Gad, Anon, I hadn't heard that story. George WAS kind of an ass.

    Troy, remember that "Only a Northern Song" predates all those songs you mentioned-- it was recorded in February of 1967 for Sgt. Pepper, than dragged out of obscurity when they needed stuff for Yellow Submarine later on. So it wasn't a step backward from those, though it's an utterly fair (and true) argument that this one's not up to the level of anything he put on Revolver.

    I knew I would like this song more than most. Eh, I think it's catchy. And I truly do love the scene in the movie.

  6. Well I for one like this one, too.