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“MISERY”

(Paul McCartney – John Lennon)

Although this song is not as memorable as most of the early Lennon/McCartney tracks (or “McCartney/Lennon” as was listed on their first British and US albums), it is very characteristic of their songwriting and performance style in various ways.  It is undeniable in its’ charm, especially for American audiences who, for one unknown reason or another, was denied access to this song on any album since October 15th, 1964, when the “Introducing…The Beatles” album went out of print.  While almost every other song released by The Beatles during their career was available in the US on million selling albums or singles throughout their career, the unavailability of this track made it sound even more charming when it was found by American audiences.  Being able to find the cherished “lost Beatles song” made the enjoyment even sweeter.  (American audiences would have to wait until March 24th, 1980 to hear this track in stereo, as we’ll see later.) 

Manager Brian Epstein with Producer George Martin and John Lennon

Songwriting History

Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, had been encouraging Lennon and McCartney as songwriters, not only for use within their band, but as supplying material for other artists.  Brian saw the monetary and promotional possibilities of supplying known recording artists with new material to record and perform.

The Beatles, unfortunately, did not have an established credibility this early in their career.  It was January 1963, and the group had achieved a top 20 British hit with “Love Me Do” and had just released their second single, “Please Please Me” on January 11th, which had just started to make an appearance on the British charts.  But, stirred up by Brian Epstein’s encouragement, Lennon and McCartney decided to have a go at writing a song together especially intended for a particular recording artist.

The Beatles were just about to start an extensive nationwide tour on February 2nd, 1963.  They were fifth on the bill under Helen Shapiro, whose British chart career The Beatles were very well aware of.  At the age of 14, she started her string of British hits in April 1961 with a top 10, “Please Don’t Treat Me Like A Child”, followed by two number 1 songs, “You Don’t Know” and “Walking Back To Happiness”.  This was followed by a number 2 hit, “Tell Me What He Said”.  In early 1963, Helen’s deep and masculine voice was a hot commodity; surely enough to be top of the bill of a nationwide tour.

On January 26th, 1963, a mere week before their tour with Helen Shapiro began, Lennon and McCartney started work on a song with the sole intention of presenting it to Helen during the tour, being that they would, no doubt, be in her general company during the tour.  They wrote it in a form that they felt would be compatible to her style and suitable to her vocal range.  They reasoned that, even if it ended up as a flip-side on a future record of hers that could still be a boost to their songwriting career.  They started writing the song backstage before a performance they were doing at King's Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, and then completed the song at McCartney's home on Forthlin Road shortly thereafter.

Shortly after the tour began, McCartney, being ever the PR man of the group, got up the nerve to present the song to Helen herself.  The song was then presented to Helen’s manager, Norrie Paramor, who, unfortunately, rejected it without even giving Helen a chance to hear it herself.  In retrospect, McCartney has stated that the reason the song was turned down was probably because of the “downbeat” nature of the lyrics.

A fortunate turn of events did happen, though, concerning another performer on the bill during that tour.  Kenny Lynch, a black singer, songwriter, entertainer and actor from London, also heard the song and decided to record it himself.  He had a minor hit with the song making a first for the Beatles’ songwriting career, being the first original Lennon/McCartney song ever to be recorded by another artist.  Kenny Lynch's version of the song put a soulful spin on the pop song, which caused a little dissension from Lennon, mostly because of his utilizing the skills of British session guitarist Bert Weedon.  John told Lynch about these feelings during a meeting in music publisher Dick James' office in 1963.  "What'd you want to have Bert Weedon on the session for?" Lennon exclaimed.  "I would have played if you'd asked me."

Kenny Lynch would also cross paths with a Beatle years later, appearing on the famous cover of the hugely successful 1973 album "Band On The Run" by Paul McCartney and Wings.

As far as the songwriting itself goes, both Lennon and McCartney are in agreement that “Misery” was pretty much a 50/50 credit, possibly favoring Lennon slightly.  The original first line of the song, as sung by Kenny Lynch, was “You’ve been treating me bad”, whereas, during The Beatles’ recording of the song, the line was changed to “The world is treating me bad.”  This was done with the attempt to make the song have a more universal appeal.

 

Recording History

The recording of this song took place during the day-long recording session in which they recorded the bulk of their first British album “Please Please Me”, on February 11th, 1963.  It was the fifth of ten songs recorded on this day, being the last one recorded during the afternoon session of 2:30 to 6:00 p.m.  Noting that there were multiple takes recorded of four other songs during the afternoon session before “Misery”, it can be estimated that the eleven takes of this song were recorded during the last hour, or between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m.  The Beatles all played their usual instruments during this recording.

“Take One” of the song was complete and performed with great vocal enthusiasm.  Ringo even puts in a little drum fill after the second verse which he dropped later.  Already in place was the ending with John and Paul’s alternating “ooohs” and “la-la-las,” although they sounded fresher and more vibrant this first time around.  The only fault in this take was George Harrison’s rhythmic guitar run in the bridges of the song, which weren’t in time.  Probably for this reason alone, they were asked to try it again.

Just before “take two” begins, George practices his guitar run by himself and it sounds as if he’s perfected it.  This take starts out a little rough, though, with the band’s timing being off just after John and Paul’s vocal introduction.  They quickly recovered from this and put in a spirited performance only to have producer George Martin stop the recording just as the second verse was beginning.  Martin noticed that Harrison’s guitar sounded louder and somewhat more distorted, so he asked him if he changed guitars.  “No…I probably changed the tone,” is what George Harrison explained, although he probably just turned up the volume.  Being the gentleman that he was, Martin asked him to “clean it up a bit, and a little less volume, George” and then they were ready to try it again.

After a bit more practicing on their guitars, “take three” began, only to fall apart just after the first verse started because of John forgetting to switch guitar chords.  “Take four” got a little farther, but just into the second verse John sang “she won’t…” instead of “I won’t see her no more,” which called this try to a halt as well.  “Take five” ended at the same spot because, as John was concentrating on getting the words right, he forgot to change chords again.  They took a little time to drill the words into John’s head before the next take began.

Except for another slight timing issue at the beginning, “take six” was off to a good start.  They had added a few interesting touches to the arrangement by this time, the first noticeable one was Paul’s added grace notes on his bass guitar sprinkled here and there.  The big surprises here are on the fourth measure of the bridges where, in addition to Harrison’s guitar run, Ringo adds a snare drum roll (not unlike what he’d perform a month later at the end of “Thank You Girl”).  The eighth measure of the bridges also contain this snare drum roll along with a newly constructed guitar riff from Harrison that segues nicely back into the verse.  The end of the song also features Ringo’s snare drum rolls whenever either John or Paul sings their “ooohs” or “la-la-las.”  The timing wasn’t perfect, but we see them being very adventurous with the arrangement, possibly at the suggestion of George Martin.

However, Martin must have instructed them to simplify the arrangement again, instructing Ringo to just play a straight 4/4 drum beat throughout the song and for George to only play the first guitar run in the bridges, dropping the second run during the vocal "only one, lonely one."  They implemented these changes for "take seven,” which was also a complete performance of the song.  John changed his “oooh” at the end of the song to a loud hum but still insisted on the “la-la-la” as the song eventually would be fading away.

It was probably at about this point that George Martin decided that he himself would add a piano overdub at a later date to replace Harrison’s guitar run, which he was asked not to play because of his not being able to get the timing right.  He apparently began recording the next "takes" at a speed of 30 ips, instead of the usual 15 ips, to facilitate this future overdub work.

While “take eight” broke down just as the first verse began because of John flubbing the lyrics (“you’ve said the wrong words” Paul points out to John), “Take nine” was a complete version and was deemed “best" at that time, "Misery" considered complete as far as The Beatles performance was concerned.  It was now 6 pm and time for a break to gear up for recording six more songs by 11 pm.

February 20th, 1963, was the date that George Martin chose to record his piano overdubs onto “Misery,” thereby putting the finishing touches on the song.  The Beatles were not present on this day because of being in the midst of their Helen Shapiro tour, but from 10:30 am to noon in EMI Studio One, these piano overdubs were completed.  George Martin experimented with adding piano overdubs onto "take nine" but, upon listening to The Beatles performance, decided that the first half of the song was flawed in various ways, such as a speeded up tempo at the end of the first verse and a flubbed bass note from Paul at the beginning of the song.  

George Martin decided to perform an edit of two different "takes" to get the finished master of The Beatles' performance; the first half of "take seven" and the second half of "take nine."  Upon listening to the original recordings of both "takes," it appears that the main edit occurs just as the third verse begins (at the word "shend")  while George's guitar run in the first bridge of "take seven" must have been edited out as well.  With this complete, George Martin went back to work in performing his piano overdubs onto what was now "take 11," playing the exact riff that Harrison was playing on the guitar, only in octaves and, of course, with perfect timing.  He also played a piano arpeggio on top of John’s introductory guitar chord and added two accent notes in between the lyrics in the final two measures of each bridge.  It took five takes for him to complete these overdubs to his satisfaction (takes 12 through 16).  This becomes the first of many songs that George Martin accompanies The Beatles musically in their career.

All of the original mixes of “Misery” were done on February 25th, 1963 in the control room of EMI Studio One by George Martin and engineers Norman Smith and A.B. Lincoln.  Two mono mixes were done on this day, the first having a chopped off introductory chord (which appears on the original British “Please Please Me” album).  The second mono mix, with the full introductory chord, was sent to Vee Jay Records in the US for inclusion on the “Introducing…The Beatles” album.  For some reason, two stereo mixes were also made on this day, possibly to supply a version with slightly more reverb for the American market.  All of these mixes, though, did have a slight touch of reverb added.

An amusing note to add concerning the recording of “Misery” is the most noteworthy example of the Beatles pronouncing the consonant “s” as “sh”.  It can be slightly detected in other Beatle songs of 1963, such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (“…when I shay that shomething…”), but it definitely can be heard in “Misery” (“…shend her back to me…”).  Add to this the comedic “la,la,la,la,la,la” during the fade-out of the song, and it is apparent that the song was viewed by the band as album filler, being recently rejected by Helen Shapiro.  But, for our benefit, this adds a comedic touch which adds to its’ charm and gives us a hint of the fun-loving Beatles we were soon to get to know in their movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Song Structure and Style

The song was written in one of the most established formulas of popular music of its time.  It was written in the 'verse/ verse/ bridge/ verse' style (or aaba) which does not have a repeatable chorus.  The songwriting style of many of The Beatles favorite artists of the time have a similar song structure, such as Fats Domino and Arthur Alexander.  The title, or hook-line, of the song is found at the end of each verse, which helps listeners to remember the title of the song.  In this case, The Beatles opted not to include a solo of any kind, which, after the last verse, allows for an immediate repeating of the bridge and final verse.  After the guitar strum/piano arpeggio, Lennon and McCartney sing a partially a cappella introduction of the key phrase of the song.  The true tempo of the song then appears as both John and Paul sing all the songs’ lyrics together mostly in unison.  Only when the words “in misery” are sung does McCartney sing a higher harmony.      

Ringo plays metronome-style drums for this song, sticking strictly on the high hat with the right hand for the entire song.  Except for the small drum intro at the beginning of Ringos’ appearance on the song, no drum fills are played at all right through until the song fades.  This is strong evidence, not of Ringos’ lack of skill, but of his performing what is suitable to the song being recorded.  In actuality, take six of "Misery" shows that Ringo originally planned on performing energetic drum fills during the bridge, but this was vetoed in favor of the simple drumming we hear on the song.  It was easily discernable at the time that a Keith Moon-like drumming style was not required here, but he surely did cut loose on other tracks recorded that day, such as “Boys” and “I Saw Her Standing There”, which shows the versatility Ringo had.  He definitely wasn’t a “showboat”, but a group player.                         

The rhythm guitar style used in this song was one that was used quite regularly in the early Beatles recording career (“From Me To You”, “There’s A Place”, “She Loves You” etc.) and which appears here for the first time.  Both John and George are confined to rhythm guitar in the song, which is primarily shifting our focus on the vocals and lyrics.  Take six of the song also shows the guitar phrases that Harrison intended for the bridge of the song which was left off in the end in favor of the similarly sounding phrases played on piano by George Martin.      

A minor surprise in “Misery” is the changed lyrics in the second bridge.  Can’t she see she’ll always be the only one, only one” is replaced with “She’ll remember and she’ll miss her only one, lonely one”.  Usually in Beatles songs, as well as the established song structure of the day, the bridge is identical when repeated.      

It’s also interesting to note that the lyrics, although quite “downbeat”, are accompanied by a very cheerful melody line and chord structure.  Even within the lyrics it is noticeable that the heartbreak sung about isn’t taken quite that seriously.  After we hear about the singer losing his girl “for sure” not being able to see her anymore, we next hear “it’s gonna be a drag”!  It makes the listener feel he’s not taking this breakup so hard after all. 


Vee Jay's "Introducing...The Beatles" album

American Releases

The first time the US heard the song was on the Vee Jay album “Introducing…The Beatles” , released January 10th, 1964.  The album was prepared for release as early as July 22nd, 1963, but was not released until January to make it the first Beatles album released in the states.                                     

In order to cash in on the Beatles first US visit with their three Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Vee Jay issued a four song extended play single (or EP) entitled “The Beatles – Souvenir of Their Visit To America”.  This was released on March 23rd, 1964 and contained “Misery” as the first song on side one.  As EPs don’t sell as well in the United States as they do in Britain, this release did not chart at all in the Billboard Hot 100, due in part to a percentage of the sales being made through mail order offers.  Nonetheless, it was reported to have sold 78,800 copies.  Capitol records also attempted releasing Beatles EPs on two occasions in the coming months, but they only fared slightly better than this one did.      

Shortly before Vee Jay records were court ordered to cease and desist producing or distributing any Beatles related product, they released the “Introducing…The Beatles” album in two more forms, which contained the song “Misery”.  The due date given to stop Vee Jay production was October 15th, 1964, so on October 1st Vee Jay released a double-compilation album entitled “The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons” coupling the Beatles album with “The Golden Hits of the Four Seasons”.  A score card was even supplied with the album for music fans to decide which group they loved the most.  Even though this higher priced double album only peaked at number 142 on the Billboard album charts, this would mark the third US release on the song “Misery”.      

Then, just three days before the court order took affect, Vee Jay records released the album “Songs, Pictures And Stories Of The Fabulous Beatles” on October 12th, 1963.  This was a blatant attempt at gouging American fans of more money by purchasing the same set of songs they already owned.  With its’ attractive gate-fold full color sleeve, it was designed to look like a new album by America’s favorite group.  But the album inside that sleeve had, not only the same exact song list of the “Introducing…The Beatles” album, but the actual album they had purchased previously with the same label on the record.  This release proved to fool at least some of the US Beatles fans, being that it reached number 63 on Billboards album charts.  Vee Jay records apparently felt that ‘desperate times caused for desperate measures’, since the record label was facing major financial troubles at the time, which eventually resulted in their closing their doors in May 1966.  In effect, though, this became the fourth US release of the song “Misery”. 

As of mid October 1964, Capitol records now had all rights to the early Beatles catalog.  They turned their attention to this catalog on March 22nd, 1965 with the release of the album “The Early Beatles” which contained most of the songs previously licensed to Vee Jay records.  Unfortunately for US Beatles fans, that record did not contain the song “Misery”, nor did any of the makeshift Beatles albums that Capitol records released thereafter.  But another idea of Capitol records came to fruition on October 11th, 1965 with the release of six Beatles singles on the short-lived “Star Line” budget series.  Four of these singles were the Vee Jay singles released in 1964 (“Please Please Me”, “Twist And Shout”, “Love Me DoandDo You Want To Know A Secret”).  The other two singles were new concoctions from Capitol, “Boys” backed with “Kansas City” and “Roll Over Beethoven” backed with “Misery”.   This would mark the fifth US release of the song.  Although this made “Misery” available again for US Beatles fans, it mostly went unnoticed as none of these singles made much of a dent on the Billboard charts (“Boys” did briefly chart, peaking at #102), which was then dominated by the Beatles current number one “Yesterday”.  Although reissues of the single containing “Misery” did surface, it was not available on any US album since October of 1964 and certainly was not available in stereo.      

That takes us to March 24th, 1980, the sixth and final release of the song.  Capitol released the US version of the album “Rarities” which finally rectified this matter.  This album contains the first “true stereo” version of “Misery” in the US since the “Introducing…The Beatles” album went out of print in October of 1964.  US “Beatlemaniacs” were thrilled to finally have this gem available in the form they always wanted to hear it, which made this “filler” song from early 1963 sound like a long-lost masterpiece.        

On February 26th, 1987, the original British "Please Please Me" album was released on compact disc.  While this CD was only released in mono at the time, the re-mastered version of the disc was released on September 9th, 2009 which uses the stereo mix George Martin made on February 25th, 1963.  The true stereo version of "Misery" is now forever available in the US.  

On June 30th, 1992, Capitol released the box set “Compact Disc EP Collection” which contained “Misery” due to its inclusion on the original British EP “Beatles No. 1.” 

Then on September 9th, 2009, the box set “The Beatles In Mono” was released which features a re-mastered mono version of the song…never sounded better.

Then, on November 11th, 2013, the album "On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2" was released.  An interesting live version of "Misery" is contained therein, the song being recorded on March 6th, 1963 for the radio program "Here We Go."  George Martin's piano runs are here replaced by George Harrison's now-competent guitar fills, which he now had time to perfect.  Notice, however, John nearly forgetting his "oh, oh, oh, oh" vocal near the end of the song.

Live Performances

Even though both Lennon and McCartney both testified in interviews that this song was just ‘hacked out for someone,’ “Misery” did end up being in the Beatles set list periodically for the next few months.  Kenny Lynch had indeed taken on the song as a released single and in concert appearances, but this didn’t stop the Beatles from performing it themselves.  After all, it was featured very prominently as the second track of side one on their current album “Please Please Me” which was riding high on the British charts during 1963.

The Beatles included “Misery” in their set list during their Tommy Roe/Chris Montez national theater package tour which ran from March 9th through the 31st.  Although they apparently skipped the song during the following Roy Orbison tour of May and June, they resumed performing the song in later shows, June 30th at the ABC Cinema in Norfolk being the last known performance.  Their “Please Please Me” album, which featured the song, was enjoying its’ third week at number one on the British charts at the time and they no doubt wanted to capitalize on its’ success.         

It could be argued that, since the material chosen for the album came from their “stage act”, the song must have been performed before the date of the recording.  This song appears to be an exception to that rule, since the song had just been written (on January 26th) and subsequently rejected by Helen Shapiro’s manager within a period of two weeks.  Proof of this fact can also be heard by listening to the 11 takes of the song, which clearly shows suggestions being made of how to perform the song (such as the bass line).  These things would have undoubtedly been worked out beforehand had they performed the song previously.  It’s inclusion on the album probably came about because of the increase of songwriting royalties it would generate, as Brian Epstein was encouraging at the time.       

The first BBC radio appearance was on March 6th on the BBC show “Here We Go” which aired on April 12th.  They then performed the song on March 16th on the “Saturday Club” BBC show which aired live.  On March 21st, the song was performed on the “On The Scene” BBC show which aired on March 28th.  It was then performed on the “Side By Side” BBC show on April 1st, which aired on April 22nd.  Then on April 3rd it was performed on the “Easy Beat” BBC show, airing on April 7th.  On May 24th they performed it on the “Pop Go The Beatles” BBC show, which aired on June 4th.  Then we go to September 3rd for their final performance of the song on the “Pop Go The Beatles” BBC show, which aired on September 17th. 

Conclusion

It stands to reason that, although this isn’t the most influential Beatles song by any stretch of the imagination, the Lennon/McCartney catalog would be amiss without this classic piece of early songwriting.  The fun-loving nature of this performance, coupled with the tongue-in-cheek “downbeat” lyrics, create an atmosphere of warmth and charm that give us an early glimpse of their wit.  And, dare I say, this is arguably the happiest sad song ever written! 

Song Summary

Misery

Written by:  Paul McCartney / John Lennon 

  • Song Written: January 26, 1963
  • Song Recorded: February 11 and 20, 1963
  • First US Release Date: January 6, 1964
  • First US Album Release: Vee Jay #VJLP 1062 Introducing…The Beatles 
  • US Single Release: Capitol Star Line #6065 (B-side to “Roll Over Beethoven”) 
  • Highest Chart Position:  n/a 
  • British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS3042 Please Please Me 
  • Length: 1:46 
  • Key: C major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Norman Smith, Richard Langham, Stuart Eltham, Geoff Emerick 

Instrumentation (most likely): 

  • John Lennon   Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1958 Rickenbacher 325)
  • Paul McCartney Lead and Harmony Vocals, Bass Guitar (1961 Hofner 500/1)
  • George Harrison – Rhythm Guitar (1957 Gretsch Duo Jet)
  • Ringo Starr –  Drums (1960 Premier 58/54 Mahogany)
  • George Martin - Piano (1905 Steinway Vertegrand upright) 

Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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