They say good things come to those who wait, and few are more aware of the truth of that statement than songwriters. You can’t expect to pluck great songs out of the ground all day long, some time time to germinate. A songwriter might feel an idea growing deep within the meat of their brain for weeks on end before they find the means to translate that collection of imagined noises into the real world — and that’s just the first step. From there, pop songwriters need to hone their tracks into the most pleasing and palatable of forms before they even think about capturing them on spools of studio tape. In particularly severe cases, this whole process can take years, as The Beatles’ Ringo Starr discovered the hard way.
Starr sat down to write ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ around four years before it was recorded and released on The Beatles 1968 LP, The White Album. It was first mentioned on July 14th, 1964, when the group were invited to perform on the BBC radio series Top Gear (no, not that one). During an introduction to ‘And I Love Her’, Starr was asked if he had any intentions to write songs for the group, to which he replied that he had written only one, at which point Paul McCartney interjected by singing Starr’s lyrics: “Don’t pass me by, don’t make me cry, don’t make me blue”. The song was also mentioned in a radio interview – this time in New Zealand – during which Starr jokingly tried to convince the rest of the band to “sing the song I’ve written, just for a plug”.
But the song never truly surfaced, and it would be several years before The Beatles would agree to take on Starr’s track. “I wrote ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ when I was sitting round at home,” Starr once recalled, describing the genesis of the long-ignored song. “I only play three chords on the guitar and three on the piano. I was fiddling with the piano – I just bang away – and then if a melody comes and some words, I just have to keep going. That’s how it happened”.
“I was just sitting at home alone and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ arrived,” Starr reiterated, remembering the moment it was finally picked up. “We played it with a country attitude. It was great to get my first song down, one that I had written. It was a very exciting time for me and everyone was really helpful, and recording that crazy violinist was a thrilling moment”.
So why did it take so long for The Beatles to record ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. Well, it might have something to do with the fact that, on their return from India in 1968, The Beatles found themselves in the midst of an immensely creative period and subsequently recorded as much available material as possible. Indeed, The Beatles were so prolific during this time that George Martin attempted to convince the boys that it might be better to cut down the double album to a slimmer, higher-quality collection of tracks. This notion was vetoed by the others, however.
The song itself went through a lengthy gestation period before Starr and the rest of the band were happy with it. In the studio, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ was recorded under the working title ‘Ringo’s Tune (Untitled)’ and, later, ‘This Is Some Friendly’. At one point it featured an orchestral introduction, written and arranged by George Martin. “It was for John that I did an off-the-wall introduction, because we hadn’t a clue what to do with Ringo’s song,” Martin recalled. “In the event, the intro was too bizarre for us to use, and the score was scrapped,” he added.
Eventually, the song was completed. But even on tape, it had something of a difficult life. There were a number of variations between the mono and stereo versions of The White Album when it was released in 1968. The mono version of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, for example, was noticeably faster than that of the stereo mix, containing more of the improvised fiddle overdubs that had been cut down for the stereo master.
Ringo himself wasn’t particularly pleased with the end result, recalling how he’d “busked around a bit” after finishing a take. “When I heard it played back at the end of the session I was hoping they’d scrub that bit out, but they didn’t, so there I am on record, scraping away! I was very surprised they kept it in, it was pretty dreadful,” he added.
Still, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ has a certain rough-shod charm that I really appreciate. I suppose that’s the really difficult thing about songwriting: you can never be quite sure how a track will be received until it’s out in the world and standing on its own two feet.