Day 72: “Getting Better”

When was it recorded?  Mar. 9-23, 1967

When was it first released, and on which album?  Jun. 1, 1967 on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

Who wrote it?   McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Lennon)

Have I heard this song before?   Yes

What my research dug up:

I found a lot of interesting anecdotes and discourses about “Getting Better,” but again, for brevity’s sake, I’ll try to keep this entry concise. (It’s still the weekend; there’s still time to live it up before it’s Monday.)

According to my research, the song’s concept and title came from British musician Jimmie Nicol. Nicol was a drummer who replaced an ailing Ringo while the Beatles toured in 1964. Whenever asked how things were going, Nicol reportedly had the habit of answering, “It’s getting better.”

I have Paul listed above as the primary songwriter since my sources note he mostly wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics. You can definitely tell the lyrics were a joint John/Paul effort though. As Wikipedia notes, “The song’s title and music suggest optimism, but some of the song’s lyrics have a more negative tone. In this sense, it reflects the contrasting personas of the two songwriters.”

“I was just sitting there doing ‘Getting better all the time’ and John just said in his laconic way, ‘It couldn’t get no worse,’ and I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John… It was one of the ways we’d write. I’d have the song quite mapped out and he’d come in with a counter-melody, so it was a simple ordinary song.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)

The tune’s “darker edge,” as the Beatles Bible calls it, came from John’s experiences.

“It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)

Quoth Richie Unterberger’s review, “It’s hard to think of individual tracks from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as being ‘pop’ songs because that album was and is so strongly perceived of as a psychedelic concept work. If cuts are isolated from that album, though, ‘Getting Better’ stands out as one of the poppiest, and not an especially psychedelic one. What gives ‘Getting Better’ more depth than the average pop-rock song is a subtle tension between extremely, almost exceedingly, cheerful optimism and recollections of past hang-ups that have been transcended — maybe.” The repetitive plinking string accompaniment comes from George Martin hitting the strings of a pianette with a mallet; George Harrison highlights the effect with a syncopated tambura part that wraps around the pianette line in the latter part of the song.

Unterberger wrote in his review of listeners who took the poppy number at face value, and I’m afraid up until now I’ve been one of those listeners.  I’m not ashamed to admit it (I have a solid, unironic appreciation for Top 40 hits), but having a bit of background on “Getting Better” plus a better understanding of the lyrics allows me to appreciate it beyond face value.  I still quite like the song (and enjoy how in the context of “Sgt. Pepper’s” it works paired after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) but now I can see and understand its themes for what they truly are.




4 thoughts on “Day 72: “Getting Better”

  1. Sadly, I don’t think John actually meant what he said there about changing his ways. Yoko Ono has hinted that John was cruel to her up until the late 70’s and they even had to take a break from their relationship for a few months at some point after they got married. John was a very conflicted person, but a great songwriter nonetheless!

    1. That is unfortunate. I’d like to think I’m good at separating entertainers’ professional and personal lives, but I always kind of hope for the best – that John really wanted to and could change for the better. (It’s even worse considering how young he was when he was killed.) Semi-related question: have you read “John” by Cynthia (Powell) Lennon? I had a friend recommend it today but I wasn’t sure how biased/unbiased the portrait it paints is.

      1. No, I haven’t gotten around to reading Cynthia’s book. I’m not much of a book reader, although I want to start reading more. I have Hunter Davies’ authorized biography of The Beatles sitting on my bookshelf, so I’ll have to read that at some point!

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