The Beatles are arguably the most popular band of all time. Their music is heard everywhere and known by almost everyone. A huge number of their songs became number one hits, all over the world. And yet, for all that fame and infamy, there are a handful of Beatles songs that the average person has never even heard of. These songs were released in strange places, or never even released until long after the band had broken up, and as a result only hardcore Beatles fans know about them. As crazy as it sounds to call any song by the most famous band of all time “obscure”, these songs are certainly less talked about than the hits or fan favorites. So let’s take a moment to talk about the lesser-known Beatles songs and find out why they’re so obscure.
I’ll Be On My Way
Released: First broadcast on the radio show Side by Side in 1963, first released on an album on 1994’s Live at The BBC
Writers: Paul McCartney, with possibly some help from John Lennon
A lot of “lost” Beatles songs come from very early in their career. There were many songs that they played during their Cavern Club days but later abandoned by the time they got signed to a label. A handful of these songs later wound up on Anthology 1, not to be heard by fans until decades after the band had broken up. But another batch of these early Beatles songs would still be recorded and released in the 60s, just not by the Beatles themselves. These are often called “the songs the Beatles gave away”.
Brian Epstein managed the Beatles, but he also managed several other less-famous bands and artists. Knowing the songwriting talent of Lennon-McCartney, he asked them to provide songs for his other groups to record. Throughout their career, the Beatles “gave away” dozens of songs, most of which they never recorded themselves. I’ll Be On My Way is considered the first song they gave away. Written sometime around 1961 by Paul McCartney, with possibly some help by John Lennon, it was part of the Beatles’ early live repertoire. But by the time the Beatles were seriously trying to get signed to a label they seemed to have lost interest in the song, with no demos of it being recorded during their auditions unlike other forgotten Beatles songs such as Like Dreamers Do or Hello Little Girl. In 1962 the Beatles were signed to Parlophone records, and a year later another group managed by Brian Epstein called Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were also signed to the same label. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ first single would be a cover of the Beatles’ own Do You Want to Know a Secret?, with I’ll Be On My Way as the B-side.
This version of I’ll Be On My Way, the first of many Lennon-McCartney songs given to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, would be the only recording of this song most people were able to listen to at the time. However, a lucky few who listened to the radio on the 24th of June in 1963 were able to hear the Beatles perform the song they had already given away.
In early April of 1963, the Beatles recorded some shows for the BBC Radio series Side By Side. For the shows they played an assortment of songs, mostly songs off the recently-released Please Please Me, with a couple of covers thrown in. But during the last show they inexplicably played I’ll Be On My Way. Despite having given the song to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas to record in March, the Beatles brought back the song one last time, allowing people to hear the original Beatles version just weeks before the Dakota’s B-side was to be released. Maybe they wanted to show the world what their version of the song sounded like. Maybe they were instructed to play it in order to promote the upcoming Dakota’s version. In any case, this is the only known recording of the Beatles playing this song.
Recorded at the BBC’s Paris Studio in London with the aim of producing a “live” sound, this song uses the classic Beatles line-up of Ringo on drums, George on lead guitar, Paul on bass, and John on acoustic rhythm guitar. John is arguably the lead vocal, though as typical for Beatles songs of this era Paul is singing in such a close harmony with John that they sound like one voice. They only diverge for the chorus, splitting apart into a more traditional harmony. It’s a really nice effect.
Starting with an intro that almost feels like it’s in minor, the song proper hovers somewhere between softer rock ’n’ roll and the music hall-influenced pop that Paul often favors. It’s not slow enough to be a ballad, but it’s a bit more quiet than your average Beatles song. George’s energetic rockabilly-style guitar work is a highlight, and probably one of the main factors that cause this song to be described as showing a clear influence from Buddy Holly. Ringo’s drums are very sparse and metronome-like. The bassline is also quite simple, but it occasionally does the same riff as the guitar which is a nice touch. Despite featuring so few instruments and studio tricks, the song still has a kind of rich sound. It’s not a perfect tune, but it has its merits and it’s notable for how different it sounds from most other Beatles songs, feeling more like one of their covers than the in-house style they would later refine. For me, one of the most interesting parts of the song is it’s outro. The tempo changes slightly, the guitar starts playing on the offbeats, and as John and Paul chant the title over and over their voices seem to get more and more excited. It almost feels like it’s building up to something, but then the song just fades out, staying within the standard two minute length common to pop songs of the time. Still, there’s something about this outro that seems to foreshadow the future sound of the Beatles.
The songs that inspired the Beatles often had outros. Buddy Holly and the Crickets had a short little outro on That’ll Be the Day, a song the Beatles covered when they were still the Quarrymen. Carl Perkins, another huge influence on the Beatles, often gave his songs outros that sped up the tempo slightly. The Beatles often favored elaborate intros on their earlier songs, but about halfway through their career they made Ticket to Ride, a song with an outro that speeds up the tempo and changes the whole feel of the song. After that,elaborate outros became a Beatles thing, whether it was the nightmarish ending to Strawberry Fields Forever or the huge sweeping conclusion to songs such as Hey Jude and All You Need Is Love. The humble outro to I’ll Be On My Way foreshadows all of this. When you first hear it, just for a second it feels like it’s going to keep building up energy like the end of Ticket to Ride. It’s the Beatles in one of their earliest forms, giving us a hint of what’s to come.
Looking back on this song, Paul McCartney remarked “It’s a little bit too June-moon for me, but these were very early songs and they worked out quite well” (Many Years From Now, Barry Miles). The simple rhymes and short four-line verses show a much clearer influence from Buddy Holly than the music itself. Holly’s songs were built around these types of quick-succession rhymes and Lennon-McCartney replicate this style almost perfectly. But underneath the deceptively simple exterior this is actually one of the more lyrically-rich early Beatles songs. It’s got imagery surrounding the change from day to night, which serves as a metaphor for the end of a relationship. During the bridge the narrator describes going somewhere “where the winds don’t blow/ and golden rivers flow”, an oddly surreal and dreamlike line for the Beatles at this point. And finally the last verse gives us “They were right, I was wrong/ True love didn’t last long”. That line subverts everything pretty little pop songs like this are usually about, from their common theme of defying outsiders who don’t believe in the lovers to the concept of true love itself. In a few simple lines, Lennon-McCartney have subtly upended the cliches of the genre they’re writing it and replaced them with something a little bit more melancholy and introspective. Combined with the upbeat sound of the music, the song gives off a lovely bittersweet feeling.
I’ll Be On My Way is one of the most fascinating early Beatles songs, both because the only version of it actually recorded by the Beatles is a rough “live” take, and because it sounds so different from their usual style. It hovers somewhere between a blend of their influences and a hint at what the future will sound like, tied together with some intersting lyrics. Though it’s no surprise it’s often overlooked, given how it was released, I think it’s time we all give this song a second chance at recognition.
Thank you for reading this article! Feel free to point out any errors and I’ll try to fix them if possible. Also feel free to suggest any Beatles songs you think I should cover here. Next month I’m thinking about covering You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).