Of all The Beatles’ psychedelic excursions, ‘Only A Northern Song’ represents one of their most experimental. Composed by George Harrison to fulfil the band’s contractual obligation to provide new music for the Yellow Submarine film, ‘Only A Northern Song’ contains dissonant tones, orchestral instrumentation, and self-referential lyrics.
Harrison had originally signed on to the band’s publishing company, Northern Songs, as a contract songwriter due to his lack of input compared to John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the time of the company’s formation. It would take all the way until 1968 for Harrison to see any real money from his own compositions, and that was only through the expiration of his contract with Northern Songs and the establishment of his own company, Harrisongs. Up to that point, Lennon and McCartney were making more money on his songs as owners than Harrison was as the songwriter.
Simultaneously during this period, Harrison began picking up the guitar almost exclusively for Beatles sessions. When composing on his own, Harrison was in the middle of his sitar training with Ravi Shankar, and he instead gravitated towards keyboards as his primary composing tool. Songs like ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘Within You Without You’ were composed with harmoniums, and ‘Only A Northern Song’ found its roots in the Hammond B3 organ.
These two inspirations combined, Harrison’s dissatisfaction with Northern Songs and his move towards keyboards largely formed the foundation of ‘Only A Northern Song’. The fact that it truly didn’t matter what chords he played or words he sang led Harrison to compose a dissonant and chaotic track. The other Beatles, feeling the stress and strain that came with their contractual obligations to Yellow Submarine, embraced the randomness of the song and added in different overdubs accordingly.
The only factors keeping ‘Only A Northern Song’ tied to any sense of solid structure are Harrison’s keyboards, his vocal melody, and Ringo Starr’s drumming. Of course, it is worth noting that Starr was in a similar situation within Northern Songs, and he established Startling Music at the same time Harrison founded Harrisongs. Even Harrison’s organ part is dark and dissonant, reflected in his own lyrical observations. Starr’s drums see him keep a relatively steady beat, except for the occasional fills that recall ‘Rain’ and ‘A Day in the Life’.
McCartney’s bass line, which remains relatively low in the mix, mainly sticks to the low end of the neck. Like a lot of McCartney’s bass lines at the time, the part is mostly improvised and rarely returns to a specific phrase twice. Instead, McCartney jumps up and down through different intervals, adding to the disjointed nature conjured up in the song. Unlike his most creative bass parts, McCartney’s line here feels listless and tossed off, just like most of his contributions to Harrison’s work.
John Lennon’s contribution to the basic rhythm track is ostensibly piano, but he rarely plays any keyboard part, instead having contributed fairly basic tambourine to the initial take. Lennon’s real wild moment came in the overdub stage, where he added the wild glockenspiel parts that made the song so spacey and psychedelic. McCartney added trumpet sounds (if not actual notes) and all four Beatles threw in whatever noises they could come up with at the moment, including percussion, bells, and vocal shouts.
The results are in the middle ground between the musique concrete of ‘Revolution 9’ and the more purposeful psychedelia of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The song was unpopular with producer George Martin, largely dismissed within the group, and tossed off without much thought onto the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. The song’s reputation remains divisive, as its cynical tone and purposeful ambivalence make it not terribly fun to listen to. However, it does capture a fascinating time within the group, which elevates ‘Only A Northern Song’ to at least a place of curiosity.
Explore the isolated audio of the track, below.