The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

Which Beatles song samples Shakespeare?

The extraordinary story of an unintended Beatles/Bard mashup

In April 1964, The Beatles were railroaded into performing the “Pyramus and Thisbe” episode from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a TV special for the US market. They approached the hammed up their unfamiliarity with the text:

When hecklers shouted ‘Roll Over Shakespeare’ they might have expected a collective thumbs up from the stage. The Beatles did Chuck Berry — the Bard was just not their bag .

Lennon and McCartney were avid readers. The latter had enjoyed studying literature at school, where Hamlet was apparently a set text. In The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (2021) McCartney suggests that the song Let it Be may have been inspired by ‘lines {from Hamlet that} had subconsciously planted themselves in my memory.’

Paul’s subconscious may have played tricks — see here — but Shakespeare is directly, if unintentionally, quoted in another Beatles song.

On 29 September, I967, John Lennon worked with George Martin and the Abbey Road sound engineers on a potential new single, I Am The Walrus. They had the basic architecture of the song but were experimenting with additional sound sources, especially for the outro.

One of these was the Mike Sammis singers, who specialised in the close vocal harmonies used in advertising jingles. Though used to singing unusual lyrics (TUC is a biscuit/that melts in your mouth/and burst into flavour) the eight male and eight female singers had their versatility was tested by Martin’s score. It consisted of extended whoops, “ho ho ho, he he he, ha ha ha” and playground rhymes “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper” and “Got one, got one, everybody’s got one”.

The idea of using voices was a good one. We got in the Mike Sammes Singers, very commercial people and so alien to John that it wasn’t true. But in the score I simply orchestrated the laughs and noises, the whooooooah kind of thing. John was delighted with it. George Martin The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Never a man to undercook, Lennon continued to add more layers.

We did about half a dozen mixes and I just used whatever was coming through at that time. John Lennon Anthology

For Mix 22 of these they added a live radio feed from the BBC Third Programme. This was an evening-only station dedicated to the high arts, notably poetry and drama.

Due to be renamed BBC Radio 3 at midnight, the station was marking the bittersweet occasion with a broadcast of a complete Shakespeare play. This had been recorded on the 24th of August, three days before the death of Brian Epstein.

The words Lennon could not hear clearly

Lennon was unaware that he was listening to Shakespeare. All he heard was the sound of voices — or rather what sounded like a single voice:

I never knew it was King Lear until, years later, somebody told me — because I could hardly make out what he was saying. It was interesting to mix the whole thing with a live radio coming through it.

With the wonders of sound technology we now can hear the words that were a muffled blur on the night of the recording. They come from Act IV Scene VI.

Why does the King Lear sample work so well? A happy accident?The Beatles specialised in these, often unconsciously plugging into the zeitgeist.

A year before I Am the Walrus’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Stoppard’s play uses two minor characters from Hamlet to explore postmodernist ideas about the nature of art and reality. Lennon seems to intuitively grasp the theme and, by mysterious alchemy, provides a fitting soundtrack.



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