When was it recorded? Feb. 13-14 and Apr. 20, 1967
When was it first released, and on which album? Jan. 17, 1969 on “Yellow Submarine”
Who wrote it? Harrison
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
According to Alan Pollack, “In this song… George is bemoaning the second-class treatment he gets as a songwriter from the other Beatles; the apparent creative invisibility he feels it is futile for him to try to transcend in their eyes.” True, but “Only a Northern Song” works on more levels than that.
“‘Only A Northern Song’ was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England. In addition, the song was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd, which I don’t own, so: ‘It doesn’t really matter what chords I play… as it’s only a Northern Song’.” — George Harrison (Anthology)
British music publisher Dick James formed Northern Songs in 1963 alongside Brian Epstein, Paul, and John. Quoth Wikipedia, this was “primarily to exploit Lennon–McCartney compositions,” with George and Ringo acting as writers-for-hire until their contracts expired in 1968. While John and Paul each owned 15% of the public company’s shares, George got 0.8%; this is important because, as Wikipedia again spells out, “because Northern Songs retained the copyright of its published songs, this meant Lennon and McCartney, as major shareholders, would earn more from his [Harrison’s] songs than him.”
“Only a Northern Song” was, by George’s admission, a ‘piss take’ to mess with the company as well as a way to cope with the situation.
There are more levels within the actual song. According Pollack, “The tune, with its primarily step-wise motion and limited range, suggests a mood both obsessing and in-drawn, uncannily in tune with the lyrics. The harmony, by contrast, with its erratic pace of change and sudden changes in direction, seems uncomfortably restless; uncannily in tune too with yet another dimension of those lyrics.” Quoth Wikipedia, “The result is a nonchalant, seemingly uninspired melody expressing Harrison’s dissatisfaction with contractual requirements while the real action happens ‘under the table’ where seemingly haphazard harmony cleverly pulls the strings.” Tricky.
The Beatles first recorded “Only a Northern Song” under other of George’s stellar working titles, “Not Known,” on Feb. 13, 1967. If you can do the math, you’ll notice this was actually during the recording of the “Sgt. Pepper” album. The band recorded nine takes of the rhythm track; George overdubbed lead vocals onto Take 3 the next day.
After completing “Sgt. Pepper,” the Beatles worked on “Only a Northern Song” again on Apr. 30. George redid the vocals, and the group added bass, trumpet, and glockenspiel parts. They called this version Take 11.
At this point, Take 3 and Take 11 were mixed together in sync. The final result is a weird, phasing effect that made “Only a Northern song” “one of The Beatles’ most psychedelic recordings,” according to the Beatles Bible.
Quoth the Beatles Bible again, “‘Only A Northern Song’ didn’t make the grade for ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ and so was held over for an unspecified future release until the creators of the ‘Yellow Submarine’ film needed more songs for the soundtrack.” Ta-da.
Those lyrics are priceless.
Because the original mono version of “Northern Song” was created by synching two tape machines, the studio had trouble making a stereo version of the song. Though fake mixes were made over the years, a true stereo version of “Only a Northern Song” wasn’t made until 1999.
A new mix of “Only a Northern Song” appeared in 1996 on “Anthology 2.” According to the Beatles Bible, “It was made up of the basic track from 13 February with organ, bass, drums, and the vocals – featuring slightly different lyrics – that Harrison later re-recorded. The bass and guitar from the 20 April session was also incorporated in the mix.”