If you’ve ever seen The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s wild 2006 reinterpretation of Infernal Affairs, you might remember a little scene where Jack Nicholson extolls the virtues of John Lennon’s artistry by slightly misquoting him: “You give me a fucking tuba and I’ll get something out of it.” The fact that the citation is slightly off isn’t quite as disturbing as Nicholson playing with a severed hand while he says it, but the point remains the same. The Beatles were artists, and they could make music out of anything, even if it wasn’t their primary instrument.
It wasn’t just restricted to Lennon either. Paul McCartney tried out everything from trumpet to clavichord while recording with the group, while George Harrison tried out a number of different Indian instruments, including the tambura and the swarmandal, on top of his well-known sitar lines. But for Harrison, the biggest mystery came from one of the world’s most common instruments: the piano.
Starting in 1967, Harrison largely abandoned the guitar as a compositional instrument. Having taken up sitar lessons with Ravi Shankar, Harrison gravitated towards keyboards during The Beatles’ psychedelic era. Songs like ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘Only a Northern Song’ were composed on the Hammond Organ, despite Harrison having no specific training on keyboard instruments. Even after he returned to the guitar, Harrison continued to experiment with keyboards, composing a late-period Beatles gem on the piano.
‘Old Brown Shoe’ is a blues-infused track that Harrison brought in during the Get Back sessions. Frustrated with his bandmates’ unwillingness to acknowledge tracks like ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t It a Pity’, Harrison began tossing off songs like ‘I Me Mine’ while packing away his more personal songs for a later date. One of those new impromptu songs was ‘Old Brown Shoe’, which Harrison wrote around his fumbling through piano chords.
“I started the chord sequences on the piano, which I don’t really play, and then began writing ideas for the words from various opposites,” Harrison recalls in his book I Me Mine. “Again, it’s the duality of things – yes no, up down, left right, right wrong, etcetera.” The band had previously explored the idea of duality in the song ‘Hello, Goodbye’, and the familiarity of the concept likely played a part in ‘Old Brown Shoe’ being given more attention than some of Harrison’s other songs.
Originally meant to be gifted to Joe Cocker, Harrison kicked the song around The Beatles’ sessions in early 1969. There remains some debate as to who plays on the studio recording: according to Beatle experts like Mark Lewishon and Ian MacDonald, Harrison performed all the instruments except drums and, ironically, piano, which were handled by Ringo Starr and McCartney, respectively. However, the liner notes for the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of Abbey Road includes conflicting credits, which put Lennon on piano and McCartney on both bass and drums.