Did the Beatles write their songs down?
None of it was written down by us. It’s basically notation. That’s the bit I can’t do. Paul McCartney (2018)
The Beatles did not read or write music. When recording songs there would (sometimes) be a hand-written set of lyrics and (sometimes) suggested chords. This was all they needed to begin rehearsals, a process in which every aspect of the arrangement was constantly refined by on the hoof .
Early in their recording career they worked under severe time pressure — a rough cut of their first album was ready in ten hours. By The Beatles(1968) that was barely giving them time to unpack their guitars. A single take of Helter Skelter ran for 27 minutes and the final version was built on the 21st take. They often lost track of what they had tried
In the Peter Jackson documentary we see this impromptu approach combined with a doomsday clock deadlone of a looming performance. Early on there is an astonishing sequence in which Paul plays a prototype version of GET BACK to Ringo and George. Ringo is yawning but within a couple of bars his feet start swinging to the beat. George picks up his guitar and begin improvising. They are already working out their parts out.
A dummy lyric is extemporised around the title — it would later become a pointed satire about attitudes to immigration. A final version changed direction completely, reverting back to the phrases John and Paul had called out to each other at Twickenham. Billy Preston joins the party, improvising as if he has known all his life. All of this without the annotation of anything. “We really should write this down,” says John, but a pencil never appears
But how do I play it?
The Beatles did not use sheet music. Others, from school students to traditional professional musicians, did not play by ear but through reading a score. Brian Epstein realised that this could provide an additional revenue stream. Live everyone else in the business, he assumed this would be modest and with a limited shelf life
In 1963 Epstein organised the setting up of a music publishing company, Northern Songs. Its catalogue became an extremely valuable commodity, the best-selling songbook in print music. Against all expectations it was a lucrative cash cow.
“We just signed this thing, not really knowing what it was at all about [and] that we were signing our rights away for our songs. John and I didn’t know you could own songs. We thought they just existed in the air. … And therefore, with great glee, publishers saw us coming. We said to them, ‘Can we have our own company?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ We said, ‘Our own?’ They said, ‘Yeah, you can. You’re great. This is what we’re going to do now.’”
Paul McCartney Many Years From Now
In Part One of the Get Back documentary, we see publisher, Dick James visiting the Twickenham sound stage. He is there to update The Beatles about what is happening to their catalogue. They seem only mildly curious — more interested that Vera Lynne had covered Fool on the Hill and Goodnight than in the vast financial potential of Northern Songs.
This inattention would soon prove costly. In September 1969 Northern Songs was bought out by Lew Grade. In the aftermath of The Beatles divorce, they would lose control over their own songs.
As in so many musical matters, George Martin initially acted as a facilitator in the process of converting recordings into sheet music. Transcribing the songs into the conventional format was not always straightforward. On one famous occasion Martin was unsure of a note John was singing in the line ‘And I’ve been working like a dog’.
“Is it an E or an F John?’
‘Yeah, one of those.”
George Martin also wrote all the scores used by session musicians working on Beatles recordings. This was a key role, particularly on recordings requiring classically trained players, like YESTERDAY and ELEANOR RIGBY. For A DAY IN THE LIFE, for example, Paul McCartney wanted ‘freak outs’ and ‘aural happenings’ to fill the two bridges. Martin had to translate these ideas into conventional musical terms
Producing sonic masterpieces at lightening speed did not leave time for George Martin time for his old transcription detail — which was becoming increasingly complex. Junior Abbey Road staff now had the daunting task of writing down exactly what was being played. Identifying the famous chord that opens A HARD DAYS’S NIGHT was one example of how difficult such transcription could be. It was not until 2001 George Harrison finally confirmed that this was F add9 (“It is F with a G on top (on the 12-string), but you’ll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.”)
And good luck working out what George was doing with his sitar.
Inevitably, mistakes were made. During his Twickenham visit, Dick James breezily complains about ‘the wrong chords’ often being found in pop sheet music. The Beatles nod dutifully. Amen to that! Terrible drop in standards.
Of course, Lennon and McCartney were themselves cheerfully cavalier about such technicalities. Nor would they have had much empathy for bewildered apprentice guitarists pouring over tab charts or baffled pianists trying to work out what they were reading wrong. They hadn’t needed such luxuries.
Paul McCartney once found his step-sister’s sheet music on the piano in his father’s house. The title – Cradle Song — suggested a lullaby. Unable to decode ‘the dots on the page’, he began creating a new melody, which he memorised. This would eventually end up as Golden Slumbers in the medley on Abbey Road
Decades after the band broke up, A new Complete Beatles Songbook (Hal Leonard) was completed from scratch. According to Todd Lowry, who oversaw the revised version this was necessary because the existing songbooks were fundamentally inaccurate:
The songs had been printed in wrong keys, had wrong notes, wrong chords, wrong words. In other words, they had been sloppily done as sheet music.
‘Slopily’ seems a little harsh. The original transcriptions were produced under tremendous time pressure. The later ones dealt with daunting sonic complexity.
Sheet music for pop hits had started as a cottage industry for a niche market. It was now a multi-million dollar business.