‘Nowhere Man’ is generally regarded as one of the best John Lennon compositions of all time. Featured on their 1965 album Rubber Soul, the song reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100, quite the feat considering it was the first Beatles track to be entirely unrelated to love or romance. In this way, ‘Nowhere Man’ marked a shift in the trajectory of The Beatles’ songcraft, seeing them embrace philosophical subject matter more in line with Bob Dylan’s early output.
Much has been written about the lyrical content of ‘Nowhere Man’, a track whose rambling evocations of aimlessness seems to capture the proto-slacker sensibility of the 1950s beat movement. But little has been said of the phenomenal production style that arguably cemented the record’s success both in the UK and across the Atlantic.
The Beatles returned to studio two of Abbey Road to record an initial rhythm track of ‘Nowhere Man’ on October 21st 1965. Unfortunately, the session was unsuccessful, and The Beatles left feeling frustrated, having spent an entire day in the studio with little to show for it. They returned the next day, however, and recorded five more takes, the last of which George Martin decided was acceptable.
As you can hear in the isolated recording of the guitar parts below, much of the track’s energy stems from the jangly and trebly-heavy acoustic guitars which form the core of the recording. The resonance of these sections is largely down to the use of Lennon’s Jumbo J-160 E acoustic guitar, which he’d relied upon on a number of occasions in the past and which, by this point, become a firm favourite.
The acoustic sections are perfectly complemented by the sonic blue Fender Stratocasters used by Lennon and George Harrison. The overdubs of Lennon and Harrison’s twin guitars add a crystalline quality to the overall recording. While listening to the backing track, Lennon asked the studio engineer, Mark Lewisohn, to make the guitars as high-pitched as possible. Initially, Lewisohn was reluctant, fearing that pushing the treble of the guitar tracks too far might shift the mix off-balance. However, with a little persuasion, he was eventually convinced.
Paul McCartney would go on to describe the guitars in ‘Nowhere Man’ as some of the most treble-y he had ever heard on record. Listening to the isolated track, it’s clear how much of the track’s atmosphere is down to Lennon’s in-the-moment creative decision. It’s fascinating to hear how, in this track, The Beatles are finally beginning to experiment with their instruments, treating them as instruments with unique sonic properties that, throughout the song, are exploited to magnificent effect.