Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beatles Weekend Song Spotlight: Birthday

Some of my favorite Beatles songs have become so especially loved because of their story, as much as the song itself. "Birthday" is one of those songs. Herewith, in addition to a little background, is its story.

In 1968, the first cracks in the foundation of the Beatles personal and professional relationship started to appear, but the stress that created those cracks started in late 1967, when the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, died of an accidental overdose that August 27th.

Epstein's role in managing the Beatles was significantly reduced since they stopped touring in 1966, but he was still critical to them by keeping the Beatles in a four-person cocoon, addressing every non-musical concern they had and allowing them to float through their careers with no barriers to their creativity.  And though it would come out much later that his dealings with the Beatles' finances were far more mercenary than at first thought, the individual Beatles all respected Epstein and the job he did.

When Epstein died, John's first thought was, "Well, we're fucked now." And they were. Disagreements on their business dealings, the disaster that was Magical Mystery Tour, John's falling in love with Yoko - all these elements put stress on the relationships between all of them, especially John and Paul.

So when they got back in the studio for the recording sessions that would produce 1968's double-album The Beatles (also known as The White Album), everything was tense. John insisted Yoko be right there in the studio. Worse, there was no real musical collaboration taking place - as John would later say, "[those sessions] were me and a backing band, Paul and a backing band, George and a backing band." Everyone was walking on eggshells and still getting on each other's nerves.  Especially galling was that Yoko would interject her opinion on the music the Beatles were making; that really pissed off Paul and George.

One day during the sessions, John and Paul found out that the BBC was going to be broadcasting The Girl Can't Help It on TV for the first time later that week. They had a few laughs remembering seeing the movie in the theatre years ago and decided that when the time came, they would bug out of the studio and head over to Paul's house to watch it.

But they didn't want to waste a whole day of studio time, so the day the movie was to be broadcast, September 18, they went into the studio by themselves early in the day (they were accustomed to recording at night) and hammered out a tune like the old days, just sitting with their guitars in their laps and getting it done. They had most of the song's structure worked out by the time they left for Paul's house to watch the flick.

After the movie was over, all four of them met back in the studio and added vocals, a second guitar part, handclaps, etc. Whereas the Beatles usually were quite methodical in their recording, and individual songs could take months, this song, "Birthday," was done in about 18 hours altogether.

I think it's a nice story on a bunch of levels.  First, amidst a swirl of negative emotions ranging from tension to downright animosity, John and Paul dropped any petty bullshit because a flick they wanted to see was coming on TV.  Second, they went in the studio and co-wrote - truly collaborated on - a track for the album, working together for the first time in a long time (indeed, "Birthday" was the only song on the entire White Album that was actually co-written by John and Paul), and coming out with a really good song on the other side.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I would like to think that John and Paul remembered that they were still friends that day.

So yeah, even though I like the song - it's a nice bluesy vamp in E, a great song and easy to play besides - it's one of my favorites because of its backstory.

And there's also this: I mentioned that in 18 hours they finished the song. They started on the afternoon of September 18th, and they had a completed mono mix at about 4:30AM the following day, September 19, 1968 - thus completing the song "Birthday" on the very day I was born.

So there you go - let me know if you enjoyed this and if I should do more of these from time to time.


  1. I enjoyed it.
    I've been a fan of the group since High School when I first discovered, oddly enough, The White Album.

    However, a lot of the back stories like that I know nothing about and that was an enjoyable story.

  2. Thanks Grrouchie. I think I'll do one every now and again, maybe once a month or so.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Gary - I enjoyed it as well.

    Do you take requests? I'd be curious for backstories on any of the following: Hey Jude, A Day in the Life and the cover of Abbey Road.

  4. "Birthday was written in the studio. Just made up on the spot. I think Paul wanted to write a song like Happy Birthday Baby, the old Fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage."

    John Lennon, 1980
    All We Are Saying, David Sheff

    I always like the song. Of course, I remember being horrified years ago when Lennon either trashed or could not remember much about songs that seemed to mean so much to me. Only John Lennon ...

  5. "You have to be a bastard to make it, and that's a fact. And the Beatles are the biggest bastards on earth."

    --John Lennon

  6. For a Beatles post which I was going to skip, and being influenced by Josie's comments about your Beatles post... I will say this was well written and enjoyable to read.

  7. Thanks W. Yeah, I don't know why, but Josie either hates the Beatles, or just hates me writing about them.

  8. I did not enjoy it. In fact I would've enjoyed it even less had I read it. :P

  9. Is it jealousy, Josie? Are you bitter that I feel stronger about the Fab Four than I feel about you?

    If so, green is an ugly color on you.

  10. Oh, and Cranky, yes, consider your suggestions registered. Can do!