The rule for The Beatles was simple: if you wrote the song, you get to sing the song on the record. It was a simple premise that ensured no feelings were hurt when either John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and, sometimes, Ringo Starr walked into Abbey Road studios with a brand new tune. It provided each songwriter with enough space to enact their vision and complete the piece of art they had initially intended to express. While there are some occasions that the lead songwriter didn’t sing the track, there are very few that were given away like ‘Good Night’.
The final song on the band’s ‘return to rock and roll’, their self-titled White Album, ‘Good Night’ is often thought of as one of Lennon’s most cherished pieces of work. Written as a lullaby for his son Julian, the track is a tender kiss on the forehead as the Fab Four bid you adieu on their 1968 record. Considering the premise of such a well-constructed song, it seems strange that John Lennon would refuse to sing the track. However, there was one reason the effortlessly cool songwriter wouldn’t put his name down for the lead vocals: his reputation.
Despite being regarded as one of the most famous faces on the planet, Lennon was always a little insecure. Whether it was his place within the band, having been their leader initially, or indeed his place within the grand landscape of art itself, Lennon always felt himself to be on shaky ground. By 1968, he had built up the reputation of being a no-holds-barred rocker who expressed his subversive and out-there opinions through his music. Even going back to his childhood in the working-class neighbourhoods of Liverpool, Lennon, like most of the boys around him, desperately cultivated a tough image. It perhaps makes sense then that he wouldn’t want to be perceived as being ‘soft’.
That notion is given further credence when we look back at how Lennon saw The White Album. Having endured Paul McCartney’s indulgent concept on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this record was when Lennon and the rest of the group wrestled back control: “What we’re trying to do is rock ‘n roll, ‘with less of your philosorock,’ is what we’re saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are. You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I’m getting into it, I’m just doing my old bit… not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. It’s just natural.”
With such a focus on the band’s return to rocking, it makes perfect sense that Lennon would ditch out on the opportunity to record the vocals for ‘Good night’ and instead send them the way of the group’s drummer, Ringo Starr. The percussionist later noted what a departure the song was from Lennon’s usual repertoire: “Everybody thinks Paul wrote ‘Goodnight’ for me to sing, but it was John who wrote it for me. He’s got a lot of soul, John has.”
Paul McCartney clearly had to field similar questions when he noted during 1968: “John wrote it, mainly. It’s his tune, uhh, which is surprising for John — ‘cos he doesn’t normally write this kind of tune. It’s a very sweet tune, and Ringo sings it great, I think. The arrangement was done by George Martin, uhh, ‘cos he’s very good at that kind of arrangement, you know — very sort of lush, sweet arrangement.” It was a lushness that had started to grate on Lennon by the time of his infamous interview with David Sheff in 1980 when he said of the track: “‘Good Night’ was written for Julian, the way ‘Beautiful Boy’ was written for Sean… but given to Ringo and possibly overlush.” Considering the track featured 12 violins, three cellos, three violas, three flutes, clarinet, horn, vibraphone, double bass, and a harp, the lushness of the song was never in doubt and a perfect accompaniment to Starr’s voice.
Ringo Starr’s vocal is always a valuable moment on any Beatles record. However, taking the listener to the end of this particular odyssey is some of the drummer’s most pleasing work in front of a microphone. Delicate, sweet and soulful in equal measure, he carries the audience off into the night with a gentle arm around the shoulder. Still, despite how brilliant Starr’s singing is, we can’t help but wish we could have heard Lennon turn his vocal cords towards something more touching.
The only people who seemingly heard Lennon’s original incarnation of the track were those in the studio, including McCartney: “I think John felt it might not be good for his image for him to sing it, but it was fabulous to hear him do it, he sang it great,” recalled his songwriting partner in 1994. “We heard him sing it in order to teach it to Ringo, and he sang it very tenderly. John rarely showed his tender side, but my key memories of John are when he was tender, that’s what has remained with me — those moments where he showed himself to be a very generous, loving person. I always cite that song as an example of the John beneath the surface that we only saw occasionally… I don’t think John’s version was ever recorded.”
For now, Lennon’s version of the track will remain only in the minds of those that witnessed him teach it to Ringo Starr. Listen to The Beatles song Lennon refused to sing, ‘Good Night’, below.