When was it recorded? Oct. 12 and 21, 1965
When was it first released, and on which album? Dec. 3, 1965 on “Rubber Soul”
Who wrote it? Lennon (with noteworthy contribution from McCartney)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
Quoth Wikipedia, “Lennon started composing the song on his acoustic guitar in January 1965, while on holiday with his wife, Cynthia, in the Swiss Alps.” According to John…
“‘Norwegian Wood’ is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)
Despite the phrasing of that quote, John claimed Paul helped him write parts of “Norwegian Wood” upon his return in other interviews. Paul at least had to explain the title of the song when John didn’t know where it came from.
“I came in and he had this first stanza, which was brilliant: ‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.’ That was all he had, no title, no nothing. I said, ‘Oh yes, well, ha, we’re there.’ And it wrote itself. …So I picked it up at the second verse, it’s a story. It’s him trying to pull a bird, it was about an affair. John told Playboy that he hadn’t the faintest idea where the title came from but I do. Peter Asher [brother of Jane Asher, Paul’s then-girlfriend] had his room done out in wood, a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, ‘Cheap Pine,’ baby. So it was a little parody really on those kind of girls who when you’d go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood. It was completely imaginary from my point of view but in John’s it was based on an affair he had. This wasn’t the décor of someone’s house, we made that up” – Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Or was it? John Lennon – The Life writer Philip Norman claims the woman John was having an affair with was model Sonny Freeman (then married to Beatles photographer Robert Freeman). Quoth Beatles Books, “Norman explains that she frequently described herself as Norwegian and that their apartment was decorated with wood paneling.” That said, John never confirmed who the subject was or was not.
According to Paul, “Norwegian Wood” is “in waltz tempo, 3/4 time, it’s a quirky song, like an Irish folk song; John liked that…”
Upping the quirk factor is the inclusion of the traditional Indian sitar. (Good Lord, has much been made of the inclusion of that sitar…) Three things you should know about this point in time:
- English rock band The Yardbirds recorded “Heart Full of Soul” in Feb. 1965. Originally, it featured a sitar solo, but it was replaced with a guitar solo. The Beatles shared the stage with the Yardbirds in the summer of ’65, so it’s possible they knew of this experimentation.
- English rock band The Kinks recorded “See My Friends,” which quoth the Beatles Bible, “featured a pseudo-Indian drone and an approximation of a sitar played by Dave Davies on a guitar” in Apr. 1965.
- A sitar was featured in the Beatles’ movie, “Help!,” appearing on the incidental track “Another Hard Day’s Night” to reflect the film’s globe-encompassing action. According to the Beatles Bible, George “first encountered a sitar during the filming of ‘Help!’ in a restaurant scene filmed… April 5 and 6, 1965.”
(Just for kicks, here’s “Another Hard Day’s Night.” It’s cute.)
So all of this combined with his growing appreciation for Indian music in general prompted George to go out and buy his own sitar.
“I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we’d recorded the ‘Norwegian Wood’ backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.” — George Harrison (Anthology)
The Beatles first recorded the song under the title “This Bird Has Flown” on Oct. 12, 1965. According to the Beatles Bible, “They spent much of the session rehearsing and arranging the song, eventually taping just one track and a series of overdubs.” This version appeared on “Anthology 2” in 1996. Of a plethora of differences, Alan Pollack points out the song was originally in the lower key of D and the tempo is slightly slower (or at least “more lumberingly deliberate, even a bit mechanical”).
The Beatles redid the song in three takes on Oct. 21.
If you’re so inclined, this video features the Oct. 12 take you just listened to plus the demo takes from Oct. 21. I think it’s stupidly fascinating to listen to the song evolving.
Here’s the final version.
I’ve always really liked this song, so listening to the demos was really just icing on today’s cake. (“Another Hard Day’s Night” was the cherry on top of whatever strange cake I’m baking, because that was great and I adored it.)