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“NORWEGIAN WOOD (This Bird Has Flown)”

(John Lennon – Paul McCartney)

“We’ve written some funny songs – songs with jokes in.  We think that comedy numbers are the next thing after protest songs.”

This quote from Paul McCartney from October 22nd of 1965 was in reference to their song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” which they had just completed the day before.  While it does have its’ humorous lines, such as realizing there “wasn’t a chair” after being asked to “sit anywhere,” the song is hardly in a similar category with the likes of Weird Al Yankovic.  However, this song easily became one of the most loved tracks from their groundbreaking “Rubber Soul” album, popular enough to earn a place on their first official US compilation album “The Beatles/1962-1966” (aka “The Red Album”).

The lyrics are one of the fascinating elements of the song that made it stand out, not so much for its’ humor, but for its’ curious interpretation.  What was the real purpose of John’s visit with this woman?  What kind of “fire” did he light, as mentioned at the close of the song?  And, what is “Norwegian wood” anyway?   Most Beatles fans have their interpretations.  You probably do too.  We’ll take a look at what the composers say as to the meaning of the lyrics and see if we got it right.

Another obvious fascinating element to the song is the now common, but then quite uncommon, Indian instrument called a sitar.  After its appearance in this song, everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Box Tops to B.J. Thomas released songs featuring the same instrument.  George Harrison himself was enamored with it enough to continue its use on Beatles records for the next two-and-a-half years.  Just one more example of The Beatles paving the way for future trends.  “If they did it, it must be the thing to do!”

 

John Lennon during his skiing vaction in the Swiss Alps, January/February 1965

Songwriting History

“Norwegian Wood” began to be written by John Lennon while on a skiing vacation in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps with his wife Cynthia and producer George Martin and his wife between January 25th and February 7th, 1965.  “It was during this time that John was writing songs for ‘Rubber Soul,’” George Martin recalls, “and one of the songs he composed in the hotel bedroom, while we were gathered round, nursing my broken foot, was a little ditty he would play to me on his acoustic guitar.  He’d say, ‘What do you think of this one?’  It had a slightly sick lyric, which was very apt to me nursing my injured toe.  The song was ‘Norwegian Wood.’”

“I wrote it at Kenwood,” John Lennon said in 1970, which was no doubt referring to a writing session he had with Paul at some point in 1965 to finish the song.  (“Paul helped me on the lyric” he stated in 1972.)  How much of the song he had written in the Swiss Alps is debatable, but it apparently wasn’t very much.  “Either one of us would have an idea for a start and we’d finish,” Paul explains.  “John would often have the first couple of lines, like in ‘Norwegian Wood,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s good,’ and we’d carry on and finish it all up.  We used to sit down and write like this for three hours usually, until we got very bored and we wanted to go home.”

Paul elaborates about that writing session even further in his book “Many Years From Now”:  “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.  Once you’ve got the great idea, they do tend to write themselves, providing you know how to write songs.  So I picked it up at the second verse.”

The subject matter evolved quite quickly after that.  “It’s a story, it’s him trying to pull a bird, it was about an affair,” Paul explained.  John was very open about this fact in interviews as well:  “I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was writing about an affair,” he stated in 1970, “so it was very gobbledegook.  I was, sort of, writing from my experiences, girl’s flats, things like that.”  In 1980 he elaborated further:  “’Norwegian Wood’ 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 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 smokescreen way that you couldn’t tell.  I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”

There has been much speculation as to who specifically this affair was with.  Childhood friend Pete Shotton insists that the song was about John’s affair with a “sophisticated female journalist,” which led many to believe it was family friend Maureen Cleave.  Philip Norman’s book “John Lennon – The Life” is equally insistent that the song is about John’s affair with Sonny Freeman, wife of photographer Robert Freeman who lived in the same apartment complex in Emperor’s Gate in the early 60’s.  Norman explains that she frequently described herself as Norwegian and that their apartment was decorated with wood paneling.  Lennon never admitted to either of these women as being the afair in question.

“I don’t know how the hell I got to Norwegian wood,” John said in 1980.  “John told ‘Playboy’ that he hadn’t the faintest idea where the title came from but I do,” Paul explains in his autobiography.  “Peter Asher 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.”

Many people assume that the ending lyrics that say “so I lit a fire” mean starting a fire in her fireplace and contemplating the previous day.  Others like to interpret this line to mean he fired up a joint, rationalizing that John did describe “Rubber Soul” as “the pot album.”  While one of these interpretations may be your favorite, neither of them are the truth.

Paul McCartney, the song’s co-lyricist, explains:  “She makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek.  She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath.’  In our world they guy had to have some sort of revenge.  It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the décor of her house wonderful?  But it didn’t, it meant I burned the f**king place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental.”  There you go!

As far as the melody and who wrote what, Paul helps us to round out these details as well.  “It’s in waltz tempo, 3/4 time, it’s a quirky song, like an Irish folk song; John liked that, we liked that...It’s 60-40 to John because it’s John’s idea and John’s tune.  But I filled out lyrically and had the idea to set the place on fire, so I take some sort of credit.  And the middle was mine, those middle eights, John never had his middle eights.”  Therefore, the melody of the songs’ bridge (“she asked me to stay…”), which they usually referred to as “middle eights,” was written by Paul while the rest of the melody appears to be from John.

Since the song did not appear on the August 1965 released album “Help!,” the writing session between John and Paul at Kenwood apparently was done shortly before the song was recorded.  This would date the completion of the song around early October of 1965.

 

George Harrison on sitar

Recording History

“It’s the first pop song that ever had a sitar on it,” John said in 1980.  “I asked George to play this guitar lick on the sitar.”

“It was such a mind-blower that we had this strange instrument on a record,” Ringo elaborates.  “We were all open to anything when George introduced the sitar:  you could walk in with an elephant, as long as it was going to make a musical note.  Anything was viable.  Our whole attitude was changing.  We’d grown up a little, I think.”

After tinkering around with a sitar that was a prop on the set of their movie "Help!" on April 5th and 6th, 1965, George took his curiosity with the instrument a little further later that year.  “I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft,” George relates.  “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 (twelve-string and six-string acoustic, bass and drums) 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.”

John adds, “He was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar, but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learnt the bit.”

The recording session described above by George Harrison took place on October 12th, 1965, which was the very first day The Beatles convened in EMI Studio Two to record what became the “Rubber Soul” album.  The first session on this day ran from 2:30 to 7:00 pm and concentrated solely on the song “Run For Your Life.”  Immediately thereafter, they spent the next four-and-a-half hours (from 7 to 11:30 pm) on “Norwegian Wood,” although its title was simply “This Bird Has Flown” at this point.

The rhythm track was performed in only one take, although “much rehearsing, head-scratching and overdubbing,” as Mark Lewisohn describes it in his book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” took place during this lengthy session.  As George stated above, two acoustic guitars, bass guitar and Ringo tapping on his cymbals made up the rhythm track.  They then overdubbed John’s lead vocal, Paul’s harmonies during the bridge, two overdubs of sitar from George, finger cymbals and maracas by Ringo, and John double-tracked his vocals at the end of every line in each verse.

Engineer Norman Smith remembers the difficulty he had in recording the sitar:  “It is very hard to record because it has a lot of nasty peaks and a very complex wave form.  My meter would be going right over into the red, into distortion, without us getting audible value for money.  I could have used a limiter but that would have meant losing the sonorous quality.”

Nonetheless, they worked out the bugs and got an adequate recording of the sitar on this first version of the song.  Their original intention of this being a “comedy number” is most evident in this version, with their labored vocals and goofy-sounding sitar riff at the songs’ conclusion.  But, with all this work being done and a strict time schedule to get the album done, they still decided that this wasn’t good enough.  John wasn’t happy.

“We went through many different versions of the song,” John remembers.  “It was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said.  They said, ‘Just do it how you want.’”

This opportunity came nine days later on October 21st, 1965, in EMI Studio Two where the song was started again from scratch.  Another four-and-a-half hour session ran from 2:30 to 7:00 pm and showed the group once again experimenting with different arrangements.  The first try of the song on this day (take two) premiered an interesting double-tracked sitar introduction played along with John’s acoustic guitar to the melody and chords of the bridge.  It then segued into the verse with a simple drum and bass guitar rhythm kicking in as George plucked out the melody line on the sitar.  “I did the guitar very loudly into the mike and sang it at the same time,” John remembers about the session on this day.  Paul also did his background vocals during the rhythm track this time around.  This rather awkward take wasn’t deemed good enough for overdubs and they took a little time to re-think their strategy.

Take three shows that they decided to change the title of the song to “Norwegian Wood,” hence Norman Smith’s announcement “This Bird Has, er…er…Norwegian Wood take three.”  This time around, however, they decided to lift the key of the song from D major to E major, accomplished by John placing a capo on the second fret of his Gibson acoustic guitar, thereby deciding to hold off on recording the sitar for the time being.  George “dubbed it on after,” as John explained in interview, possibly varispeeded from the same key that George had been playing in the earlier versions.  Take three closely resembles the finished version, although it didn’t get past the rhythm track, which consisted of John and George’s acoustic guitars and Paul’s bass with vocals.

Take four was the keeper, which began with John performing three attempts at the acoustic guitar introduction.  After the first try, John stops and says “no, okay” and immediately tries again.  After the second attempt he stops and calmly exclaims “wrong,” and jumps right into the version that made it onto the finished recording.  An additional eight measures is included in the instrumental portion of the song at this stage, which brings this section to sixteen measures as the rest of the verses have.  At the end of the song, John smugly says “I showed ya.”  With that, the rhythm track, consisting of two acoustic guitars, bass guitar, bass drum beats and vocals, is complete and ready for overdubs.

George then overdubs his distinct sitar part, playing the riff during much of the song and performing a drone during the second and fourth verses.  Therefore, the sitar ended up being used as more of a complimentary ingredient to the song rather than the primary focus as originally intended.  The answering sitar phrases heard in the bridges of the song are therefore dropped in favor of letting the acoustic guitar strums take precedent.

Ringo then enters the picture for overdubs, performing parts on tambourine and what sounds like knee slaps during the bridges of the song.  Who needs drums to be a good percussionist?

No time was wasted in performing the mono and stereo mixes of “Norwegian Wood,” the mono mix being done on October 25th, 1965 in the control room of EMI Studio Two by George Martin and Norman Smith with Ken Scott as 2nd engineer.  One mistake they made with this mix is George Harrison coughing on his sitar track during the bridge (just before the words “so I looked around”).  He is not playing the sitar during this part so obviously an engineer forgot to turn down the fader to that track during the mix.  Nobody noticed the flaw at the time and it got released to the public that way.

The first stereo mix was performed the following day, October 26th, 1965, also in the control room of EMI Studio Two by George Martin, Norman Smith and Ron Pender as 2nd engineer.  The cough is not detected in this mix so they remembered to turn down the sitar track during the first bridge this time around.  However, a quick discernible voice is heard just before George starts his sitar riff in the instrumental section of the song.  This was probably a cue from someone to instruct George to start playing.  This flaw was also unnoticed and got released to the public as well.

A second stereo mix was made by George Martin in 1986 in preparation for the “Rubber Soul” album being released on compact disc for the first time.  This has become the prominent mix of the song that is available to this day.

 

Bob Dylan with John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Song Structure and Style

Recorded in 3/4 time, “Norwegian Wood” continues in a similar pattern to the Bob Dylan-inspired “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” from earlier that year, therefore many speculate that this song was also a Dylan-inspired song.  A minimalist approach was definitely taken with the structure of the song, the single chord verses with a repeated downward-spiraling melody line being the consuming feature of the entire track.  What on the surface could have resulted in monotony became an amazingly enduring trait in this highly respected song.

The simple structural approach consists of ‘verse/ bridge/ verse/ verse (instrumental)/ bridge/ verse’ (or abaaba).  A simple introduction and conclusion are thrown into the mix which also highlights the pointed melody line.

The sixteen-measure introduction takes the exact form of the verses that follow by repeating the single-chord eight-measure melody line twice.  However, the first half of the introduction is played solo by John on acoustic guitar while the second half is an identical repeat with George playing the melody line on sitar and Paul kicking in with a simple bass guitar part.  George is also heard on 12-string acoustic guitar during this section as well.

The first sixteen-measure verse follows immediately afterward with John singing the melody line and George echoing the last four notes of each phrase on sitar.  The verse is played in E major but the bridge that follows it shifts to E minor.  The Beatles have become fond of shifting the key from major to minor as evidenced in the songs “I’ll Be Back” and “And I Love Her,” to name a couple.

This bridge is characterized by the higher harmony of Paul throughout as well as George’s strident 12-string strums on the downbeat of every other measure, not to mention the flavorful little transitional notes he plays as the bridge concludes.  Ringo appears for the first time of the song in this section with his syncopated leg-slapping in measures five through eight and then thirteen thru sixteen.  Although George’s sitar is resting during the bridge, he does put in a good cough at the end of the seventh measure (on the mono mix only).

A second identically-structured verse then begins which features the reemergence of the sitar as a simple drone that’s heard on the downbeat every four measures.  George also plays fragrant little phrases throughout on 12-string guitar from the original rhythm track.  (A lyrical difference between this and the first version appears, that being a switching of the lines “biding my time” with “drinking her wine,” as can be heard on “Anthology 2”.) 

A third verse immediately follows that acts as an instrumental section to the song.  After a quiet but detectable cue from an unknown person (as heard in the stereo mix), George once again plays the melody line on the sitar, repeating it twice this time to fill out the full sixteen measures.  (He only plays this once on the first version of the song as heard on “Anthology 2”.)

Another sixteen-measure bridge is then heard which features all the same ingredients as the first bridge with the addition of Ringo’s bass drum playing a quick “ba-bum” on the downbeat of every other measure.  He also begins a tambourine rhythm that is heard on the two and three beat of every measure throughout.

The final verse concludes the story with all of the elements of the second verse, including the sitar drone and fragrant 12-string picking from George.  Ringo continues the bass drum pattern into this section of the song and alters the tambourine to a single hit on the downbeat of every even numbered measure.  This segues nicely into the songs’ conclusion which is actually a repeat of the first half of a verse, therefore being eight measures in length.  George plays the melody line one final time on the sitar and, thankfully, omits the clumsy final ending phrase he plays in the first version (see “Anthology 2”).

Being the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, John Lennon is very much the focal point of the song.  This gives the illusion that the story contained therein is entirely John’s, although the song is very much co-written from John’s original idea.  His vocal work is single-tracked entirely and performed while playing his excellent rhythm guitar work, which appropriately has the effect of a story-teller or singer-songwriter.  His vocal style, however, is a little less like Dylan and more like something we haven’t heard before.  “John sings like an Irishman a bit on it,” exclaims George Harrison.

As for his rhythm guitar playing, his solo introduction sets the tone for the whole song.  It introduces the recurring melody line excellently and is played forcefully throughout the entire track.  We can be grateful that John insisted on redoing the song like he wanted it, for his guitar work in the first version was simple that of background guitar strumming while the double-tracked sitar flagrantly dominated the proceedings.

As for the sitar, the performance may not have impressed the masters, but the impact on the masses was huge.  “Even though the sound of the sitar was bad, they were still quite happy with it,” George remembers.  He was the first to admit “I played the sitar very badly.”  Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar relates:  “My nieces and nephews made me hear ‘Norwegian Wood’ after I had met George (in 1966).  Before this, I had not heard anything (by the Beatles) and I was not much impressed by it.  But I saw the effect on the young people.  I couldn’t believe it.  It seems that they were lapping it up.  They loved it so much.”

George’s work on 12-string acoustic guitar is also especially noteworthy, giving the track a warm, earthy tone that sounds just as viable today as it did in 1965.

Ringo may not have been able to ‘bash away’ at the drum kit on this song, but his presence is felt nonetheless.  Replacing the use of maracas and exotic finger-cymbals on the first version, he succumbs to the standard use of tambourine and ‘leg-slapping,’ not unlike what he performed on “I’ll Follow The Sun” the previous October.

While Bob Dylan’s lyrical style may have been in the mix, John and Paul’s story is much less rambling and much more telling.  That’s not to say there aren’t any ambiguities.  The tone of the lyrics is a description of the singer being “had” by a girl instead of the other way around as he was used to.  Since “she showed me her room,” it was a given that a sexual encounter would be imminent.  Why else would he relent to engage her in conversation “until two” o-clock in the morning if he didn’t think it would lead to something worthwhile.  In the meantime, he describes the situation as anxiously “biding my time, drinking her wine.”

But, as the story unfolds, she was leading him on the whole time.  Eventually, because of it being so late, she indicated that “it’s time for bed,” but not with him.  She laughingly says no to any possibilities by giving the excuse that “she works in the morning.”  Since it’s so late, and knowing he’s been tricked, he goes off to “sleep in the bath.”  This unusual phrase is explained by John’s long-time friend Pete Shotton who remembers John asking guests at his residence in Gambier Terrace to sleep in the bath because of the lateness of the hour.

And, of course, when he finds that “this bird has flown” by the time he wakes up, he’s mad enough about being “had” that he “lit a fire” to burn down the place.  “Isn’t it good?”, he slyly asks himself.

 

American Releases

December 6th, 1965 was the first American release date for “Norwegian Wood” on the album “Rubber Soul.”  Capitol smartly kept it as the second song on the album, undoubtedly recognizing it as an impressively strong track.  Capitol's version of "Rubber Soul" was released on an individual compact disc on January 21st, 2014, both the mono and stereo versions of the album contained on a single CD.

It was a strong enough track, in fact, to earn a place on the first official compilation album “The Beatles/1962-1966” (aka “The Red Album”).  This double album was released on April 2nd, 1973 and contained an impressive total of six tracks from the British “Rubber Soul” album.

In preparing the tracks for the October 21st, 1977 released compilation album “Love Songs,” the powers that be couldn’t resist including “Norwegian Wood” once again.  The 1965 mix was altered artificially to pan the vocals to the center, although EMI claims that no addition mix was made for this release.

The new 1986 stereo mix by George Martin, however, was used for the “Rubber Soul” compact disc release on April 30th, 1987.  This mix was also used when the CD was re-mastered and re-released on September 9th, 2009.

1996 saw two US releases of “Norwegian Wood.”  On January 24th of that year, the song was released as a single for the first time on the Capitol Cema series of “For Jukeboxes Only” 45s.  This song was paired with George Harrison’s second “Rubber Soul” song “If I Needed Someone” and was printed on both black and green vinyl.

Then, on March 18th, 1996, the highly anticipated “Anthology 2” set was released which featured the long sought after “take one” of “This Bird Has Flown” that was recorded on October 12th, 1965.  Although this version had been available for years on bootleg albums, the general public was now able to own it on an official Apple release.

On April 11th, 2006, Capitol released the box set entitled “The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2” which featured the entire American “Rubber Soul” album as it was originally heard in 1965.

For those of you who find it important to hear George coughing on the original mono mix and to own the original 1965 stereo mix, these are now available in the US once again on the box set “The Beatles In Mono,” which has re-mastered these mixes and released them on September 9th, 2009.

Live Performances

Wouldn’t it have been great if, in the middle of their set during the 1966 tour, George Harrison picked up his Indiacraft sitar, sat down cross-legged on the stage, and accompanied The Beatles on “Norwegian Wood”?  But, alas, they never considered doing such a thing.  Therefore the song was never performed live by the group.

            

The Beatles receiving a sitar lesson, 1965

Conclusion

The obsession of the sound of the sitar in pop music is usually credited to its first appearance on The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood.”  The Yardbirds did bring the instrument to the recording studio first in an attempt at recording the riff in their Graham Goldman-penned song “Heart Full Of Soul,” but they instead acquiesced to an electric guitar imitation of the sitar sound as played by their guitarist Jeff Beck.  The Kinks also imitated the sitar drone with an electric guitar on their British record “See My Friends.”  While both of these songs were released by mid 1965, The Beatles were the first to actually use the sitar in a pop recording with their December release of the “Rubber Soul” album.

Or is this true?  Take a closer listen to The Beatles American soundtrack album of “Help!”  What do we hear in the first five seconds of the album on the James Bond-like intro of the title track?  A sitar.  What do we hear starting about seventeen seconds into the instrumental track entitled “From Me To You Fantasy”?  A sitar.  The instrumental track “Another Hard Day’s Night” is a medley of three Beatles songs, namely “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” played with what lead instrument?  A sitar.  And the final song of side two, entitled “The Chase,” is a full two-and-a-half minute traditional Indian instrumental played on various Indian instruments featuring what lead instrument?  A sitar.

While it is true that the soundtrack instrumentals produced for the movie “Help!” were the work of composer Ken Thorne and were included in conjunction with the international flavor of the film, it still stands as true that this Beatles album, released in America on August 13th, 1965, was the first pop record to feature the sound of the sitar.  The Beatles may not have played the instrument on this album, nor did they have anything to do with these tracks, but US Beatles fans heard it here first.  It was no surprise for them to hear it again on “Norwegian Wood” four months later.  And then, the rest of the world seemed to latch on to the sitar craze, equating it with “flower power,” “free love” and taking drugs (all to Ravi Shankar’s chagrin).

However you slice it, this was another ‘Beatles first.’

 Song Summary

 Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Written by:  John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written: January 25th to October 1965 (approx.)
  • Song Recorded: October 21, 1965
  • First US Release Date: December 6, 1965
  • First US Album Release: Capitol #ST-2442 “Rubber Soul
  • US Single Release: Capitol Cema #S7-18888-A (green vinyl) Capitol Cema #S7-19341 (black vinyl)
  • Highest Chart Position: n/a
  • British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS 3075 “Rubber Soul
  • Length: 2:00
  • Key: E major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Norman Smith, Ken Scott

 Instrumentation:

  • John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E)
  • George Harrison – Rhythm Guitar (1964 Framus Hootenanny 5/024 acoustic 12-string), Sitar (India Craft)
  • Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1963 Hofner 500/1), Harmony Vocals
  • Ringo Starr – Drums (1965 Ludwig Super Classic Black Oyster Pearl), tambourine, legs (his own)

 Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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