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(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)
It was in the later months of 1965 that Paul was quoted as saying, “We think that comedy numbers are the next thing.” Whether Beatle fans are conscious of this fact or not, the humor that began creeping into Lennon/McCartney compositions from that time forward made their music all that more enjoyable. The pop formula of ‘boy gets girl,’ as heard in their early career through till the “Help!” album, was becoming a little stale for them. “Rubber Soul” began to interject some humorous lines and subject matter, such as in “Drive My Car” and the “Norwegian Wood” line about being asked to “sit anywhere” and then noticing “there wasn’t a chair,” not to mention the singer becoming an arsonist at the end of the song. Lyrical inclusions like this made Beatles music a little more fun.
Fortunately for us, they continued this practice throughout their career, both Paul and John giving us something to smile about on tracks like “Rocky Raccoon,” “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” And although the “Sgt. Pepper” album is most noteworthy because of its innovativeness and lyrical imagery, we don’t have to look too hard to spot some downright silliness. While lines in “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” have obvious humorous overtones, they are no match for “Lovely Rita,” which exudes silliness lyrically as well as in the performance. Upon examination, we’ll see that they took great pains to slice through the heaviness of the album in order to just have a little fun.
British Traffic Warden, circa 1969
“’Lovely Rita’ was occasioned by me reading that in America they call traffic wardens ‘meter maids,’” stated Paul in his book “Many Years From Now.” He continues: “I thought, God, that’s so American! Also to me ‘maid’ had sexual connotations, like a French maid or a milkmaid, there’s something good about ‘maid,’ and ‘meter’ made it a bit more official, like the meter in a cab; the meter is running, meter maid. Hearing that amused me. In England you hear those American phrases and they enter our vocabulary. We let them in because we’re amused, it’s not because we love them or want to use them, it’s just because it’s funny. ‘Rita’ was the only name I could think of that would rhyme with it so I started on that, ‘Rita,’ ‘meter maid,’ ‘lovely Rita.’ And I just fantasized on the idea.”
Back in 1984, Paul explained, “It was based on the American meter maid. And I got the idea to just...you know, so many of my things, like ‘When I'm Sixty-Four’ and those, they're tongue in cheek. But they get taken for real. And similarly with 'Lovely Rita' - the idea of a parking-meter attendant's being sexy was tongue in cheek at the time."
Barry Miles, co-author of “Many Years From Now,” explains in the book that “Paul wrote the words while walking near his brother Michael’s house in Gayton.” Paul then relates: “I remember one night just going for a walk and working on the words as I walked. This was about the time that parking meters were coming in; before that we’d been able to park freely, so people had quite an antagonistic feeling towards these people. I’d been nicked a lot for parking so the fun was to imagine one of them was a bit of an easy lay, ‘Come back to my place, darlin’.’ It somehow made them a figure of fun instead of a figure of terror and it was a way of getting me own back.” This antagonistic feeling in Britain about traffic wardens is why Paul was also quoted as saying, “I was thinking it should be a hate song, but then I thought it would be better to love her…I was imagining the kind of person I would be to fall for a meter maid.”
Paul’s statement above about how his ‘tongue in cheek’ songs “get taken for real” came to fruition many years after it was released. Paul explains: “It wasn’t based on a real person but, as often happened, it was claimed by a girl called Rita who was a traffic warden who apparently did give me a ticket, so that made the newspapers. I think it was more a question of coincidence: anyone called Rita who gave me a ticket would naturally think, ‘It’s me!’ I didn’t think, Wow, that woman give me a ticket, I’ll write a song about her – never happened like that.”
Although not named Rita, the woman Paul was referring to was Meta Davies, who was the first female ticket officer working in the St. John’s Wood area where Paul lived. “It was in the spring of 1967 that I ticketed Paul’s car,” Rita related. “He was on a meter showing excess, so I gave him a ten-shilling ticket…I’d just put it on the windscreen when Paul came along and took it off. He looked at it and read my signature which was in full, because there was another M. Davies on the same unit. As he was walking away, he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, is your name really Meta?’ I told him that it was. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, ‘That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went…Then, a few months later, I heard ‘Lovely Rita’ on the radio…I was never a Beatles’ fan but you couldn’t help hearing their music. My own daughter used to wait outside the Abbey Road Studios to see them!”
While this story does have the ring of truth, Paul’s explanation of coincidence could definitely be sited or, as Barry Miles explains, “the combination of Meta and ‘meter’ may have provided an unconscious spark of an idea. There is also the possibility that the song was already written and Paul was just being friendly.” Since Meta relates her experience with Paul as happening “in the spring of 1967” and the bulk of the song was already recorded on February 23rd of that year, this last explanation of Paul “just being friendly” may turn out to be the best.
In any event, the song appears to have been written in early February of 1967, Steve Turner’s book “A Hard Day’s Write” intimating that Paul “began experimenting with it on the piano at his father’s home,” this being “Rembrandt,” a five-bedroom house Paul bought for his dad in 1964 in Heswall, Cheshire. As to any involvement by Lennon in writing the song, John himself clears this up in his 1980 Playboy interview: “That’s Paul writing a pop song. He made up people like Rita, like a novelist. You hear lots of McCartney influence going on now on the radio: these stories about boring people being postmen and writing home. I’m not interested in writing about people like that. I like to write about me, because I know me. I don’t know anything about secretaries and postmen and meter maids.”
The Beatles with George Martin in EMI Studio Two, circa 1967
About half way through the “Sgt. Pepper” sessions, on February 23rd, 1967, the group entered EMI Studio Two at their usual 7 pm starting point (or so says the documentation) to begin work on the newly written “Lovely Rita.” The first job of the evening, however, was creating a stereo master of “A Day In The Life,” which entailed a good amount of time with various mixing attempts and editing being necessary. With this complete, everyone sat down at their instruments to begin the new song.
Eight takes were made of the rhythm track with all four Beatles playing simultaneously but on their own track of the four-track tape. Track one contained George on acoustic guitar, track two had John on acoustic guitar, track three had Ringo on drums and track four contained Paul on piano. Paul’s piano was recorded with a noticeable amount of tape echo to create the desired feel. The tape machine was running at a slower 46 1/2 cycles per second (instead of the normal 50 cycles) to sound somewhat faster on playback. ‘Take eight’ ended up being the keeper, even though they decided to ad lib for a little while at the end of the song, Paul vamping on the piano in a minor chord while both guitarists eventually stopped playing. Thinking that it sounded good that way, and realizing that it was customary to fade out an ending of that length, John is heard saying into his guitar microphone at the very end of the take, “Have ‘em leave it.” John got his way – the vamping became part of the released song as did that final statement.
In Mark Lewisohn’s book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” he mentions that take eight “had a longer piano introduction than on the record,” insinuating that something was edited out of the final version. But, upon listening to the isolated rhythm track on the master tape, we hear Paul count off the song which then ushers in the introduction, this being of the same length of the released version. To give Mark the benefit of the doubt, he may be referring to one of the earlier takes in which they could have experimented with a longer introduction.
A reduction mix was then made of these four tracks which combined them all together into one track of another tape, thus becoming ‘take nine,’ which left tracks open for overdubs. The only overdub recorded on this day, undoubtedly after the other Beatles had left, was Paul’s bass. In his book “Here, There And Everywhere,” engineer Geoff Emerick explains: “With this track, Paul began the practice of recording his bass last, after all the other parts were already committed to tape. Being able to work off of all the other elements of the track – enabled him to hear the song as a whole and therefore create melodic bass lines that perfectly complemented the final arrangement. He would do those overdubs in the wee hours, long after everyone else had gone home. It would be just Richard (Lush) and me up in the control room, with Paul sitting on a chair out in the middle of the studio, away from his usual corner, working assiduously to perfect his lines, giving all he had to the task at hand. Richard would painstakingly drop the multitrack in and out of record, one section at a time, until every note was articulated perfectly and Paul was satisfied with the result. He, of course, was the ultimate arbiter, but he was also constantly peering up into the control room to see if we were giving him a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.”
These late-night bass performances from Paul allowed Geoff Emerick to put on his thinking cap and come up with ideas to capture these low frequency sounds better. “It was Paul’s desire for perfection that enabled me to finally come up with a recording technique that yielded the ultra-smooth bass sound he and I had been pursuing for years. They key was that we would move his bass amp out of the baffles and into the center of the studio; I would then place a microphone about six feet away. With the studio empty, you could actually hear a little bit of the ambience of the room around the bass, which really helped; it gave the sound a certain roundness and put it in its own space. The sound we crafted effectively transformed the bass from a supporting rhythm instrument into a lead instrument.” After the bass track to “Lovely Rita” was committed to tape, the session was complete, it now being 3:45 am the following morning.
The next day, or should I say later that day, work on the song continued. This day, February 24th, 1967, saw the recording of Paul’s lead vocals done in EMI Studio Two between 7 pm and 1:15 am the following day. Since Paul was the only Beatle putting anything down on tape on this day, it seems unlikely that any other Beatles was present, although they may have been there for moral support. These vocals were single tracked only, Paul feeling that double-tracking them was unnecessary. Like the rhythm track, his vocals were also recorded at 46 1/2 cycles per second to make them sound faster when played back. Another reduction mix was made to free up more tracks for future overdubs, two attempts being made, takes 10 and 11, making ‘take 11’ the master version up to this point. At 1:15 am, everyone went home.
With attention being given to other “Sgt. Pepper” tracks for the next week and a half, especially the new composition “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” the group finally returned to “Lovely Rita” on March 7th, 1967. They entered EMI Studio Two at 7 pm (rumor has it) with the purpose of adding the backing harmonies on the song.
"’Lovely Rita’ was another track where The Beach Boys influence really manifested itself,” Emerick continues. “Paul made a point of telling George Martin that he wanted the backing vocal arrangement to emulate the way the California singing group might approach the song. There were lots of fun overdubs on that track, including the four band members standing around a single microphone humming through a comb and paper, each priceless Beatle comb carefully wrapped with a single layer of the standard issue extra-scratchy EMI toilet paper that we were all constantly complaining about. On that same very silly night, they overdubbed the heavy breathing at the end of the song, with John looning about and sending the others – and Richard and me up in the control room – into fits of laughter. There were a few visitors to the studio that evening, including Davy Jones of The Monkees, and the joss sticks were especially prominent, ensuring that a splendid time was guaranteed for all.”
This fun session was the result, at least in part, of an effect that John heard in his headphones. “John always wanted repeat echo in his headphones,” Emerick recalls. “It gave him more excitement. They’d finished doing the vocal on ‘Lovely Rita’ and he just started fooling around, using the echo as his inspiration.” Also among the guests in the studio that evening was folk-rock musician Shawn Phillips who reportedly sang background vocals with the group on the song. His recent studio work with Beatles friend Donovan undoubtedly got him his invite to the session. By 2:30 am the next morning, they all filed out and enjoyed the next day off from session work.
Two weeks later, after they had premiered three more “Pepper” tracks in the studio, they finally got around to finishing off “Lovely Rita.” This session was on March 21st, 1967 in EMI Studio Two, starting at the usual documented time of 7 pm. The first order of business was performing vocals for the newly recorded song “Getting Better” which, as detailed in the history of that song, resulted in a near-miss catastrophe as John was left alone on the roof of EMI while experiencing an LSD trip.
John’s participation in the session was over at this point, him telling the others “I’ll just stay and watch.” What he ‘watched,’ starting approximately at 10 pm, was their figuring out what to do about the solo section of “Lovely Rita.” Geoff Emerick explains: “The opportunity arose for me to make my recording debut on a Beatles album…but my shy nature let me down. After hours of attempting a Harrison guitar solo that never quite worked, they were stuck for an idea, and the frustration was starting to show. I distinctly remember standing at the top of the stairs in Studio Two and Paul’s shouting up at me, ‘Geoff, you tell us what the solo should be.’”
“My suggestion was that they try something on piano,” Emerick continues. “To my surprise, Paul asked, ‘Why don’t you play it?’ In a kneejerk reaction – and to my everlasting regret – I demurred; I was simply too embarrassed to demonstrate my musical skills. Paul shrugged his shoulders and took a stab at it, but he still wasn’t a hundred percent certain that it was a good idea, so he had George Martin play something instead. While Paul listened up in the control room, George reeled off a honky-tonk-style solo that was deemed acceptable, although, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about it.” This solo, according to “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” was recorded at 41 1/4 cycles per second to sound faster when played back.
Before Paul took John home to ‘come down,’ he made one final suggestion concerning this piano solo. “In the true ‘Pepper’ spirit of experimentation, Paul asked me to screw things up so the solo didn’t sound like it was coming from a piano,” Emerick recalls. “By that stage, I had already adopted a policy that no piano was ever recorded the same way twice. As a result, I was miking pianos from underneath, taping mics to the soundboard – anything to get it sounding dirrerent each time. This time around, I decided to place some sticky editing tape on the guide rollers of a tape machine that was sending signal to the echo chamber, causing the tape to wow and flutter. The end result was an audible, and quite interesting, ‘wobble’ in the piano sound. It was yet another contravention of the rules that, with any band other than The Beatles, would have easily gotten me fired.”
With this solo put to tape, the recording of “Lovely Rita” was complete, it now being about 12:30 the next morning. Apparently without The Beatles present, the released mono mix of the song was made by George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush in the control room of EMI Studio Two. They worked quite hard at getting the right mix, making 15 attempts with the tape machine running at 48 3/4 cycles per second throughout the entire song. In the end, parts of remixes 11 and 14 were deemed the best which they then edited together. By 2:45 am, this infamous recording session was finally over.
The stereo mix of “Lovely Rita” wasn’t created until April 17th, 1967, in the control room of EMI Studio Two by the same engineering team. Two remixes were made, presumably the second one being the keeper. The rhythm track was placed exclusively in the left channel with the bass guitar and piano solo panned to the right. All vocals, which include the comb and toilet paper segments, are centered in the mix.
Song Structure and Style
For the entire Beatles catalog thus far, this is the first time that there exists an ambiguity as to the labeling of the sections of one of their compositions. Is the first vocal section a chorus, or is it an introduction? Is the first solo vocal section a chorus or a verse? Is the next solo vocal section a verse or a bridge? Opinions vary and it all appears subjective.
Since Paul has never said anything in interviews to hint at what his intentions were (that is, if it really mattered to him anyway), we’ll categorize them in order to differentiate the sections. The structure, therefore, consists of ‘intro/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ chorus (solo)/ verse/ chorus/ outro’ (or abcbbcba). As we’ll see, there are added measures here and there and other nuances which spice up the format even further.
It all begins with an eight-measure introduction, the first four measures being mostly instrumental. The first three measures are played by Paul on piano, George on acoustic guitar (played high up on the neck) and John on acoustic guitar (played lower on the neck). The second measure includes an airy but melodic “aaaaah” sung by Paul to set the mood of the song while it all drops off for the fourth measure to allow for Ringo to blast out an interesting drum fill.
The second half of the introduction repeats the simple chord pattern of the first half but with Ringo knocking off a simple 4/4 drum beat as Paul’s overdubbed bass bounces up and down rhythmically as almost a lead instrument would. John, Paul and George (and Shawn?) fill the foreground with Beach Boys-like harmonies singing “Lovely Rita metaah maid,” which can easily be heard here, as well as later in the song, as “lucky Rita” or “love me Rita.” (Check it out with headphones!)
As the introduction ends, we hear what sounds like John on the background vocal overdub exclaim “aah,” followed by “ohhh” in the first chorus after Paul sings the words “Lovely Rita.” This first chorus is eight measures long and features Paul’s single-tracked but highly ADT’d vocal track on top of the regular rhythm track and his overdubbed bass work. An interesting rising comb-and-toilet paper sound is heard at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth measure, which has an enormous amount of reverb added to make it sound uncannily like horns.
The first verse then begins, which is fourteen measures in length, this comprising two repeated six measure phrases and two added measures that allow the singer to catch his breath. Paul’s Liverpudlian accent comes out in the line “in a little white booook” from the sixth measure. From the seventh to the fourteenth measure we hear vocal maracas sung (?) by Paul, heard as a repeated “chick-a-chick-a-chick-a” performed during a background vocal overdub. The final two measures of this verse feature the second and final appearance of comb-and-toilet paper notes, which are once again highly reverberated.
A second chorus is now heard which is actually quite different from the first in many respects. First of all, it has a different set of lyrics and, second of all, it is a whopping fourteen-measures long as compared to only eight measures in the first chorus. The extra measures are filled with more Beach Boys-like harmonies which actually begin in the third measure behind Paul’s lead vocal line “may I inquire discreetly.” The word “maid” in the background vocals is stretched out from the seventh to the tenth measure, followed by a harmonized “aaah” in the eleventh and twelfth measures. A trademark “beatles break” then occurs which allows Ringo to take center stage once again for another drum fill that segues nicely into the instrumental chorus that follows. Paul himself brings in this piano solo with the exclamation “Rita!” at the end of the final measure.
The instrumental chorus is back to eight measures as the first chorus was, but is filled with George Martin’s impressive barroom-like piano solo, accentuated with Paul’s descending “whoa – oh – oh – oh” from the lead vocal overdub in the background. George Martin’s slow Jerry Lee Lewis-like rising flourish ends his musical involvement on the song as well as the instrumental chorus, leading directly into the second verse, which once again is fourteen measures long. This verse contains all of the existing elements from the previous one with the exception of the comb-and-toilet paper accents at the end. Instead, the same chords change and Paul harmonizes with himself on a sustained “ohhh” to end the verse. Another interesting feature heard here from the background vocal track is someone’s ‘champagne pop’ sound, probably performed with a hand hit against a slightly open mouth, heard in the fourth measure after the words “and over dinner.” (Get out those headphones again!)
One final chorus is heard next with yet different lyrics, this chorus being only six measures long this time. The final word of the last line “make me think of you” ushers in what appears as an eight measure conclusion, which is a repeat of the last four measures of the introduction repeated twice. On top of the background vocal harmonies is Paul meandering through the song’s title a few times, such as “oh, lovely Rita, Rita, Meetah maid.”
What follows is another twenty-one measures of tom-foolery in a minor key with John and Paul heavy-breathing, moaning and making what sounds like haunted house shrieks on top of the adlibbed rhythm track. John’s instruction from that rhythm track to “have ‘em leave it” was followed, so their silly vocal high jinks were left in as well.
Paul’s bouncy and well-rehearsed bass work is a prime feature of the song, as was his plodding but well performed piano work. His vocals were sometimes a little off-pitch (such as on the line “and Rita paid it”) which could have been hidden if double-tracked. However, being that the song was of a comical nature anyway, they apparently felt it good enough for release.
Although a Paul song, it comes across as a group effort with John’s voice being the most easily spotted in the harmonies and goofy vocals at the end. Both he and George Harrison’s acoustic guitars as heard throughout the song, George’s being the more prominent. Ringo lays down a heavy backbeat for the song and also puts in a grand performance with some powerful drum fills here and there. And, of course, George Martin could always be counted on to pull off a great keyboard solo, even as a short notice last resort.
Paul’s lyrics are nothing short of clever with some nice touches of rhyming humor. After he begins proceedings with the generalized pun “when it gets dark I tow your heart away,” Paul continues the song in a narrative form, as if giving us a play-by-play of how and why he asked her out and what happened on the date. Rhyming “Rita” with “meter,” as well as “tried to win her” with “over dinner,” shows Paul with tongue firmly in cheek. British phrases abound as well, with “free to take some tea with me” and “give us a wink” standing out. And how can you resist a silly but homespun line like “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two”?
June 2nd, 1967 was the release date of their landmark album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Positioned as it was after many tracks that spanned various genres of music, from the waltz-like strings of “She’s Leaving Home,” the ‘Big Top’ atmosphere of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” the spiritually Eastern flavor of “Within You Without You,” and the 1920’s pastiche of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it was a welcome return to the rock/pop rhythms we all come to expect from The Beatles when we heard “Lovely Rita” blast through our speakers.
The album took on many reissues through the years, the 1978 picture disc version being a quite unique one. Then the album got its’ first compact disc release on September 21st, 1987, which was then re-mastered and re-released on September 9th, 2009.
For those audiophiles who need to hear the original mono mix of the song as heard on the short-lived original release (although there doesn’t appear to be anything noticeably different from the stereo mix other than the separation), it was released on CD for the first time within the box set “The Beatles In Mono” on September 9th, 2009.
Being past the tour life of the group, The Beatles never performed “Lovely Rita” live. However, Paul finally brought the song to the stage during his "Out There!" tour, which began on May 4th, 2013, foregoing his piano for an acoustic 12-string guitar.
“The song is a cartoon, a rock-‘n’-roll ragtime with a tongue-in-cheek narrative that brings the cardboard sitcom to life.” So states Tim Riley’s book “Tell Me Why,” this being just one of the countless examples of critical praise given to the song. Even Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution In The Head,” who many times gives his honest but shockingly negative appraisals of Beatles songs, proclaims the piece as “imbued with an exuberant interest in life that lifts the spirits.”
Paul obviously didn’t think of the song as a ‘masterpiece’ (evidenced by him never performing it live) but rather as a fun piece of literary fantasy. The creatively silly atmosphere evident in the recording studio that day exude the fun they had and the effect the song should have on us: Simply stated - Don’t take it all that seriously – it’s just a touch of levity in an otherwise ‘heady’ album. Perhaps it was best put by John Robertson in “The Complete Guide To The Music Of The Beatles”: “’Lovely Rita’ was a glorious throwaway.”
Written by: John Lennon / Paul McCartney
Song Written: February, 1967
Song Recorded: February 23, 24, March 7, 21, 1967
First US Release Date: June 2, 1967
US Single Release: n/a
Highest Chart Position: n/a
Key: E major
Producer: George Martin
Engineers: Geoff Emerick, Richard Lush
Instrumentation (most likely):
Paul McCartney - Lead and Background Vocals, Piano (Hamburg Steinway Baby Grand), Bass Guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 4001 S), comb and toilet paper
John Lennon - Rhythm Guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E), Background Vocals, comb and toilet paper
George Harrison - Rhythm Guitar (1962 Gibson J-160E), Background Vocals, comb and toilet paper
Ringo Starr - Drums (1964 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), comb and toilet paper
George Martin - Piano (Hamburg Steinway Baby Grand)
Shawn Phillips - Background Vocals
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski