A big debate has raged among many Beatles fans across the years, and it centres on their album Beatles For Sale. For some, the record is merely a stepping stone for the Fab Four. The album sees John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr traverse the genre and style barriers laid out before and begin to show themselves not as the mop-top boyband they had been labelled but the intrinsic artistes they would become. For others, the LP may well be a bridge to another pasture, but it should be regarded as revolutionary for being the first step on an impressive journey.
No matter where you stand on the album’s position in the group’s iconography, one thing cannot be denied, it has some terrific songs on it. Tracks like ‘No Reply’ and ‘Eight Days A Week’ were one thing, but the LP also holds a few noted gems on there, too, including ‘Baby’s In Black’ and ‘She’s A Woman’. But perhaps one of the album’s standout songs was a track that could have nearly ruined their reputation.
Written by Paul McCartney when he was just a teenager, ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’, like many of McCartney’s finest pieces, is a lilting ballad. Unique for its delivery, the song was initially written when Macca was only 16 and yet captures the pure optimism and passion he has given everything in his life. However, the material almost never saw the light of day because of what it could do to The Beatles’ reputation.
“I wrote that in my front parlour in Forthlin Road. I was about 16,” recalled McCartney when speaking with Mark Lewisohn for The Complete Beatles Recording Session. “‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ was one of those very early ones. I seem to remember writing it just after I’d had the flu, and I had that cigarette – I smoked when I was 16 – the cigarette that’s the ‘cotton wool’ one. You don’t smoke while you’re ill, but after you get better, you have a cigarette, and it’s terrible; it tastes like cotton wool, horrible. I remember standing in the parlour, with my guitar, looking out through the lace curtains of the window, and writing that one.”
When speaking to David Sheff for Playboy, Lennon noted how stereotypical of McCartney’s writing the track was: “That’s Paul again. Can’t you tell? I mean, ‘Tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.’ That’s another early McCartney. You know, written almost before The Beatles, I think. He had a lot of stuff.” It’s true; he did write a huge amount of songs before The Beatles solidified.
In fact, below, we have a rich piece of Beatles history as we revisit the song’s demo recording from all the way back in 1960. It featured McCartney, Lennon, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe and was recorded in McCartney’s downstairs loo while on a school holiday. It doesn’t have the delicate arrangement of the final recorded version and has a few changed lyrics, but it is still a marvellous listen.
So why did it take so many years for ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ to reach vinyl? Well, McCartney was worried the song would ruin the band’s R&B reputation. “It wouldn’t have been considered good enough [to be performed by the group],” McCartney told Lewisohn. “I wouldn’t have put it up. As I said before, we had this R&B image in Liverpool, a rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, hardish image with the leather. So I think that songs like ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’, ballads like that, got pushed back to later.”
Ironically, by the time the band did release the song, it had the potential to sound similar to the rest of their pop hits, so McCartney and the band set about making sure the track was as different as could be: “On the record, we got Ringo to tap his knees. We were thinking in terms of singles, and the next one had to always be different. We didn’t want to fall into the Supremes trap where they all sounded rather similar, so to that end; we were always keen on having varied instrumentation. Ringo couldn’t keep changing his drum kit, but he could change his snare, tap a cardboard box or slap his knees.”
The Beatles managed not only to deliver a song that sounded different from the rest of their music but convince the British public that they weren’t confined to one sound or another, which, considering their change of style for Rubber Soul, was some much-needed groundwork. Below, listen to both the album and the early bootleg version of ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.