When was it recorded? Sept. 18, 1968
When was it first released, and on which album? Nov. 22, 1968 on “The Beatles”
Who wrote it? McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Lennon)
Have I heard this song before? Hell yeah
What my research dug up:
Full disclosure: “Birthday” is a fucking weird song and therefore quite possibly one of my favorite Beatles songs. I’m aware of how ridiculous it is, and now you dear readers can be too!
“Birthday” opens the second disk of “The Beatles” (White Album), and was, quoth Wikipedia, “an example of the Beatles’ return to more traditional rock and roll form, although their music had increased in complexity and it had developed more of its own characteristic style by this point.”
“Birthday” was written during an Abbey Road recording session on Sept. 18, 1968… kind of. During the session, the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” was being broadcast for the first time on British TV, and the crew took a break to go to Paul’s to watch to it. Seriously.
“What happened was ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ was on television. That’s an old rock film with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran and a few others… and we wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock. And we said, ‘We’ll do something. We’ll make up a backing track.’ So we kept it very simple– twelve bar blues kind of thing.. …And we came back here to my house and watched ‘The Girl Can’t Help It.’ Then we went back to the studio again and made up some words to go with it all. So this song was just made up in an evening.” – Paul McCartney (1968)
How was John involved in the writing? Good question. We know he was, but quotes about it are kind of conflicted…
- JOHN in 1972: Both of us [wrote it].
- PAUL in 1994: We thought, ‘Why not make something up?’ So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all in the same evening.
- JOHN in 1980: I think Paul wanted to write a song like ‘Happy Birthday Baby’ [sic], the old fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage.
- CHRIS THOMAS (session producer): Paul was the first one in, and he was playing the ‘Birthday’ riff. Eventually the others arrived, by which time Paul had literally written the song, right there in the studio.
The song John was referring to was “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” a 1957 song performed by the American band The Tune Weavers. It was written by two of the groups’ members and was their only hit.
Alan Pollack has some great insight on “Birthday” in his analysis. He notes, “If you make the effort on your own to map out how the rest of the percussion effects are worked into the piece, you’ll find the texture of each section of the song has been carefully and neatly planned out. The point being that even in a song like ‘Birthday’ which we know was worked up very quickly, and where a certain informal, ‘come as you are’ feeling permeates right to the core of the piece, still, nothing is left to chance.”
Similarly, Bill Gibron writes, “With its Moon/June/Spoon lyricism further wicking away the complexity, we wind up with the world’s most famous pop artists playing jam band.” He also noted the song’s “inherent eeriness countermands the song’s sock hop sentiments,” which is a fun turn of phrase.
(Interesting “Birthday” production note – Yoko Ono and Pattie Harrison sing backup on the track.)
It’s custom in my friend circle to post a video of “Birthday” on someone’s birthday. I think the version we use isn’t exactly Safe For Work, so here’s a stationary picture video.
In October 1990 Paul released a new, live recording of “Birthday” as a single. I couldn’t find this version on YouTube so you’ll have to take my word for it.
On July 7, 2010 – Ringo’s 70th birthday — Paul appeared as a surprise guest at Ringo’s Radio City Music Hall concert to perform the song with-slash-for the Beatles’ drummer. There is, blessedly, a video for that version.