During the making of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, George Harrison began to grow frustrated with his meagre role within The Beatles set-up and went about voicing his anger in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.
Harrison had become disenfranchised by this point, and his role on the album was a fairly minimal one. Rather than throw punches, the ‘Quiet Beatle’ decided instead to rely on his Scouse wit, and the end result was the self-deprecating effort ‘Only A Northern Song’.
It wasn’t just his position in the band which had grated on Harrison, but also the broader politics of the music industry. He felt disillusioned and unmotivated to write songs because of his deal as a junior songwriter with The Beatles’ publishing house, Northern Songs, who would make more money from any potential releases than he would.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney both had a 15% stake in Northern Songs, whereas Ringo Starr and Harrison only owned 0.8% of the company, which created an uneasy dynamic in their camp. George set up his own company in 1964 and would eventually start releasing his material through Harrisongs after his contract expired in 1968 with Northern.
In Anthology, he opened up about the track and the circumstances which inspired the lazy effort. “‘Only A Northern Song’ was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England. In addition, the song was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd, which I don’t own, so: ‘It doesn’t really matter what chords I play… as it’s only a Northern Song’,” he explained.
The business side of the industry had swallowed up Harrison, and he’d lost his appetite for creativity. This issue clouded his mind, and the guitarist couldn’t escape from the thoughts of parasites leeching off the back of his hard work.
Years later, Harrison discussed the incident with Billboard, stating: “I realised Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I thought, ‘Great, somebody’s gonna publish my songs!’ But he never said, ‘And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you’re assigning me the ownership of the songs,’ which is what it is.
“It was just a blatant theft. By the time I realised what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalog, I wrote ‘Only A Northern Song’ as what we call a ‘piss-take,’ just to have a joke about it.”
In the end, The Beatles would decide against placing ‘Only A Northern Song’ on Sgt. Pepper’s, but it did later find a home on Yellow Submarine. While the lyrics to the track are low-energy, and everything about it is lacklustre, that’s precisely how Harrison felt when he wrote it. At that moment, a humdrum mess was the only way for Harrison to express his emotions.
‘Only A Northern Song’ was an act of self-sabotage by Harrison, who was desperate to get out of his contract with the publishing house even if compromising his art was the necessary cost.