The Beatles song that Lennon and McCartney made up “on the spot” so they could watch TV
If you were ever in The Beatles, and we’re not sure many of you were, then chances are that the pressure the Fab Four faced during their career will never be put upon you in the same way. The band, for a time at least, were forced into so many obligations and unwanted projects that we can imagine studio time was sometimes far from fun.
It’s a fact which has seen some of The Beatles most cherished flashes of humanity, caught between studio takes or forgotten recording equipment, come to the fore when the band rejected their status as the biggest musical act on the planet. One such moment would lead to the group creating one of The White Album‘s songs “on the spot” as they rushed to watch TV.
By 1968, as the band were deep in the recording sessions of The White Album on September 18th, Lennon and McCartney had a pretty good handle on what writing for The Beatles was all about. A dash of bounce, a double dose of intrigue and dusting of rock and roll all went into the perfect Beatles cocktail. It meant that the duo were more than capable of channelling their talent and creating songs in rapid time.
One such track was ‘Birthday’ from the double album which saw Lennon and McCartney make up the song quickly so they could watch one of their favourite rock and roll movies. “What happened was The Girl Can’t Help It was on television. That’s an old rock film with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran and a few others,” remembers McCartney back in 1968.
“We wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock. And we said, ‘We’ll do something, We’ll make up a backing track.’ So we kept it very simple—twelve-bar blues kind of thing. And we stuck in a few bits here and there in it, with no idea what the song was or what was gonna go on top of it. We just said, ‘Okay. Twelve bars in A, and we’ll change to D, and I’m gonna do a few beats in C.’ And we really just did it like that… random thing.
“And we came back here to my house and watched ‘The Girl Can’t Help It.’ Then we went back to the studio again and made up some words to go with it all. So this song was just made up in an evening. Umm, you know. We hadn’t ever thought of it before then. And it’s one of my favourites because of that.”
Whether Macca was slightly swayed by the promotional trail he found himself on—it wouldn’t have been a good look to bash a track on the album you’re promoting—but it’s clear that Lennon didn’t have the same affection for the song. “‘Birthday’ was written in the studio. Just made up on the spot,” recalls Lennon to Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980. “I think Paul wanted to write a song like ‘Happy Birthday Baby,’ the old fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage.”
It may have been a “piece of garbage” in Lennon’s eyes some years on but it remains a cherished record as it is also a rare example of the duo of Lennon and McCartney working together in unison. More often than not by this time in the band’s career, the band rarely composed songs together, and especially not like this.
Paul confirmed the partnership on the song in 1994: “We thought, ‘Why not make something up?’ So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all in the same evening.”
Whether ‘Birthday’ is your favourite Beatles song or not, the fact that the band could sit down to create a song in one evening’s session and finish it off to their own impeccable standard is high praise indeed and once again confirms Lennon and McCartney as two of the greatest songwriters of all time.