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Young John Lennon
“DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?”
(Paul McCartney – John Lennon)
Inspiration for a hit song can truly come from anywhere. In the case of The Beatles, an infinite variety of sources have been cited by its composers regarding their songs throughout their career. Among them were an affair (“Norwegian Wood”), reading the newspaper (“A Day In The Life”), being sick in bed (“Don’t Bother Me”), an advertisement in a gun magazine (“Happiness Is A Warm Gun”), a marine-life story from a ship captain (“Octopus’s Garden”) and a carnival poster (“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”).
Sometimes the inspiration for a song can come from a deeply rooted childhood memory. In the case of “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”, it came from John’s mother singing a song to him when he a small boy between the ages of one and three years old.
"Wishing Well" scene from "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs"
"My mother was always... she was a good comedienne and a singer," Lennon remembers. "She used to do this little tune when I was one or two years old... she was still living with me then. The tune was from a Disney movie: (sings) 'Do you want to know a secret? Promise not to tell? You are standing by a wishing well.' So, I had this sort of thing in my head, and I wrote it and just gave it to George to sing. I thought it would be a good vehicle for him, because it had only three notes and he wasn't the best singer in the world."
John’s mother Julia was singing a variation of the introduction to the song “I’m Wishing” from the 1937 Walt Disney film “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs” to her son on those occasions of his young childhood. This is from an opening scene of the movie where Snow White is working as a kitchen maid and, as she stands at the castle well, she sings these lines to surrounding doves. Since John was born on October 9th, 1940, the movie was only four years old when John first remembers his mother singing this to him at the age of one.
Although John's quotation above intimates that he wrote the song alone, Paul's book "Many Years From Now" asserts that it was a "50/50 collaboration written to order," a "hack song" written specifically for George. Following the rule that McCartney mentioned about how “John never had his middle eights,” the Buddy Holly-like bridge, as well as the introduction, could possibly have been a contribution from Paul to round out the original idea as brought forward by Lennon, but this is pure speculation. Ian MacDonald's book "Revolution In The Head" hints at Paul's possible involvement when noting "the three descending major sevenths of the verse" being "borrowed" from McCartney's arrangement of "Till There Was You."
Another possible influence on the songwriting of "Do You Want To Know A Secret" was suggested by George Harrison during a Musician Magazine interview in 1987. The R&B hit "I Really Love You" by The Stereos from 1961, which strikes a similar rhythm and tempo, is cited by George as an influence.
The song was written while the recently married John and Cynthia Lennon were living at Brian Epstein’s ‘secret’ apartment at 36 Faulkner Street that Brian usually kept for his sexual liaisons. Since they stayed there for an approximate four months after they were married, the song was written somewhere between August 23rd (the date that John and Cynthia wed) and December 18th, 1962 (when the final Hamburg trip occurred and Cynthia moved into John’s Aunt Mimi’s home on Menlove Avenue).
As to whether the song was written with the intention of it being a vehicle for George Harrison to sing, John stated in his 1980 Playboy interview: "It wasn't for him (George) but soon as I'd written it I thought, 'He could do this.'" McCartney insists, however, that it was the sole intention of the song being written.
What is certain is that Harrison was regarded as a singer of lesser talent than John or Paul, so the song suited him perfectly, being that “it had only three notes,” according to Lennon. Harrison even confirms this sentiment, saying that he didn’t like his vocal work on the song because he “didn’t know how to sing” yet. Comfortingly, John stated in 1980 that “he has improved a lot since then.”
The rumor that the song was intended for fellow Liverpudlian recording artist Billy J. Kramer (the ‘J’ being added to his name at the insistence of Lennon, which stands for his son Julian) has been proved to be unfounded. This fellow Brian Epstein recruit recorded the song well over a month after The Beatles did, on March 21st, 1963, with his recently acquired backup band The Dakotas, and George Martin at the producer's helm. When released in Britain on April 26th, though, the song's success rode on The Beatles coattails and landed a number two spot on the British charts, not being able to surpass the seven week residency of The Beatles’ “From Me To You” at the number one spot.
Kramer’s lack of vocal prowess was also apparent on his rendition of the song but, with the help of vocal double-tracking and George Martin’s piano riff during the falsetto notes at the end of each verse, this song began a string of British hits for him, which consisted mostly of “Lennon / McCartney” compositions. His recording of the song also accomplishes the achievement of “Do You Want To Know A Secret” having a placement at the number two spot in both Britain and America, The Beatles achieving this goal in the US in May of 1964.
The Beatles at EMI studios, 1963
Sometime during The Beatles December 1962 visit to Hamburg, Lennon taped a version of the song for demonstration purposes, in order for Billy J. Kramer to learn in preparation for his recording of it. John taped this demo version in the bathroom of a Hamburg nightclub because, as he insisted, it was the only place he could find that was quiet enough to do the recording. After the song was completed, John flushed the toilet, possibly to symbolize his opinion of the song at that time.
Only one proper session was needed to capture on tape this classic performance by The Beatles. It was the fourth of eleven songs recorded on the historic marathon session of February 11th, 1963 to complete their first British album “Please Please Me.” The afternoon session began at 2:30 on that day and, after recording the bulk of the song “A Taste Of Honey,” they commenced recording “Do You Want To Know A Secret” between approximately 3:15 and 3:45 p.m.
After five takes of the song, not all complete performances, take six was the keeper, which was performed without any edits and with full instrumentation by all four members of the band. Harrison sang lead vocals simultaneously with the band on all of these takes, but no harmony vocals were recorded yet. Take seven and eight were attempts at recording Lennon and McCartney’s harmony “doo-dah-doo”s onto 'take six' while Ringo, at the suggestion of George Martin, tapped two sticks together during the song’s bridge. 'Take seven' had the vocalists sing their "doo-dah-doo" backing vocals on all verses but, before 'take eight' began, John asked George Martin, "hello...should we just do it on the second verse like we said?" After the producer agrees, John states, "ok, so we wait," 'take eight' with backing vocals starting on the second verse then becoming the keeper.
Both the mono and stereo mixes of the song were made on February 25th, 1963, as were the mixes for the rest of their first album. Both of these mixes were made from the complete take eight, which included the harmony and sticks overdubs. No Beatles were present at this session; only George Martin and engineers Norman Smith and A.B. Lincoln were present.
The Beatles also recorded "Do You Want To Know A Secret" six more times specifically for BBC radio, the first being on March 6th, 1963 at Playhouse Theatre in Manchester between 8 and 8:45 pm for the radio show “Here We Go,” which was produced by Peter Pilbeam and broadcast on March 12th between 5 and 5:29 pm. The next recording of the song was on March 21st, 1963 between 1 and 2 pm in Studio One of BBC Piccadilly Studios in London for the radio show “On The Scene,” airing between 5 and 5:29 pm on March 28th of that year, which was before the above mentioned “Here We Go” show. Next was the April 1st, 1963 recording in Studio One of BBC Piccadilly Studios in London between 2:30 and 5:30 pm for the show “Side By Side,” which was aired on April 22nd of that year between 5 and 5:29 pm.
Then on May 21st, 1963, The Beatles recorded the song for their first performance on the prestigious “Saturday Club” program, this occurring between 5:30 and 6:30 pm at Playhouse Theatre in London, which was then broadcast between 10 am and noon on May 25th, 1963. The day before, May 24th, 1963, the song was recorded in Studio Two of Aeolian Hall in London for the first edition of a new BBC radio show entitled “Pop Go The Beatles,” which was produced by Terry Henebery between 2 and 6 pm on that day and aired on June 4th between 5 and 5:29 pm. Finally, on July 10th, 1963, well after Billy J. Kramer's version of the song was on the charts, The Beatles recorded "Do You Want To Know A Secret" in Studio Two of Aeolian Hall in London with Terry Henebery producing between 1:30 and 3:30 pm for the seventh edition of their “Pop Go The Beatles” radio series, which aired on July 30th between 5 and 5:29 pm. It is obvious that the group was much more familiar with the song by this time, George's vocals being performed with much more confidence. Also interesting here is how fast-paced they perform the song as well as the final ending chord unlike the faded ending on the studio album.
Song Structure and Style
The structure of this song is very similar to most of the songs on this album, being that it follows the 'verse/ verse/ bridge/ verse' (or aaba) pattern. One identifiable difference is the Spanish-flavored introduction, which adds a distinguished touch to the song and creates an air of anticipation.
Another noticeable trait of the song which makes it uniquely similar to “Love Me Do” is that each verse is lyrically identical. These are the only two Beatles songs in their whole catalog to follow this (some might call) skimpy pattern. Much experimentation continued to develop as Lennon and McCartney matured as songwriters, as evidenced even as early as their next album (witness the confusing but identical structure of “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child”). It should be noted, though, that there are enough intricacies held within these uncharacteristically long 14 bar verses to make up for the song’s minimal structure.
Once again, the songwriters opted not to include a solo of any kind. Being that the song is quite short in length (1:56) some may suggest that it needed one. If they decided to include a solo, the extended identical verse would no doubt have been repeated a fourth time, which would have made the slight song structure very noticeable, as in “Love Me Do.” Leaving it the way they did appears to have been the wisest choice because most listeners don’t notice the three identical verses without putting them under close scrutiny.
The song begins with a minor chord introduction, which loosely comprises four bars, this being a throwback to many of John's favorites from the 1930's and 40's, as well as something then utilized by one of his current favorite songwriting teams, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. An impressive rising guitar riff from Harrison then acts as a segue into the first verse. The melody line of the verses mainly consist of movement up and down the scale with the exception of the falsetto highlight at the end of each verse. A distinctive descending chord pattern from George is repeated five times per verse, which is each time accompanied by John and Paul’s “doo-dah-doo” harmony backing vocals on the second and third occurrences of the verse.
The song utilizes two changes in pattern within the verses between the 11th and 13th bar of each verse, which adds character to the song. The surprise falsetto at the end of the verse detracts from the repetitious melody line and acts as a tasteful segue into the next verse, or bridge in the case of the second verse.
After a somewhat abrupt transition from the second verse, the short six bar bridge finds George singing solo to give the background vocals a short break, thus reducing their redundancy. The simple melody line repeats twice before a smoother transition occurs to lead us back into another identical verse, which this time is extended by repeating the last two bars until it fades.
As far as their performance, Harrison is truly to the fore with his strong Liverpudlian accent and skillful lead/rhythm guitar work. Opinion has it that one unnoticed vocal flub was left in because of the hurried nature of this full day's recording schedule, that being the first line of the bridge, which shows George supposedly inverting the words "a" and "the" ("I've known the secret for a week or two") becoming "I've known a secret for the week or two." However, this is proven to be false by the release of the album "On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2," which reveals George singing it exactly the same way as the EMI studio version we all know so well. It's just the Liverpudlian accent after all!
Lennon’s guitar work is hardly discernable throughout, but is most noticeable during the song’s introduction where John plays a jangly guitar while George strums the discernable guitar chords. McCartney adds impressively complicated bass runs throughout the verses while occasionally flubbing a stray note here and there, most noticeably at the beginning of the bridge and during the fade-out. These flubs were no doubt left in because of the rapid-fire recording process being instituted on that day.
Ringo plays a shuffle beat throughout almost the whole song without any drum fills. The only two exceptions to this are during the verses where, on the 11th and 12th bars, he plays a syncopated rhythm and then, during the 13th bar, he plays only eighth notes on his bass drum. The bass drum eighth notes then recur alternatively with the shuffle beat as the song fades.
The lyrics are a little more innocent and “cuddly” than what suited the band even back then, which most likely was the deciding factor in giving the song over to George to sing as well as donating it to Billy J. Kramer shortly afterwards. This innocence, though, comes across as very convincing and relatable to the young female fans, which overwhelmingly comprised their audience at the time. The intricacies of the chord and overall song structure, however, compensate for the simplistic and repetitive lyrics, creating a pleasant slice of 1964 Beatlemania.
America got its first taste of this song on January 10th, 1964 with the release of the Vee-Jay album “Introducing…The Beatles. Both versions of the album contained the song, so it was available in this form until the album went out of print on October 15th, 1964, peaking at #2 on the US Billboard album chart just under "Meet The Beatles!" at #1.
Vee-Jay decided to release the song as the a-side of a single on March 22nd, 1964, backing it with a non-album track “Thank You Girl,” which previously was used as the b-side to the second US Beatles single “From Me To You.” “Do You Want To Know A Secret” peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts in May of that year, being unable to pass “Can’t Buy Me Love” which was #1 at the time. This identical single was then re-released on the Vee-Jay “Oldies 45” label in August of 1964 in order to place the record in the “Oldies” section at record stores and acquire additional sales.
The next two releases were with the last ditch efforts of Vee-Jay records to cash in on Beatlemania before they had to legally walk away. “The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons,” released on October 1st, 1964, coupled the “Introducing…The Beatles” album with “The Golden Hits of the Four Seasons” as a double album. “Songs, Pictures And Stories Of The Fabulous Beatles,” released on October 12th, 1964, was the actual “Introducing…The Beatles” album repackaged in a gatefold sleeve.
Capitol Records now makes sure that the song is not out of print for long as it is released on an album and single. The album “The Early Beatles” is released on March 22nd, 1965, which features the song as the climatic last track of side two. Incidentally, mono copies of this album contained a "Type B" mix of the songs created by Capitol Records that combined both channels of the stereo mix into one, the legitimate mono mixes of these songs created by George Martin appearing on the above mentioned Vee-Jay releases. This album then appeared on an individual CD on January 21st, 2014, containing both the mono and stereo mixes on one disc. The familiar single, with “Thank You Girl” as the b-side, is then released on their Star Line budget label on October 11th, 1965.
Surprisingly, despite the immense popularity and chart position of the song in 1964, “Do You Want To Know A Secret” has never been included on any “Greatest Hits” or compilation album in the US or Britain. Even Capitol Records in America, who programmed the 1973 double compilation album “1962-1966,” (also known as the ‘Red Album’) overlooked this song which would have been a perfect candidate. They instead included lesser known album tracks such as “Girl” and “Drive My Car.” Capitol also missed the boat by not including the song on their 1977 compilation album “Love Songs,” where it would have fit in perfectly among the love ballads included therein. And since it just missed the #1 spot on the Billboard charts, it didn’t make the cut for the multi-million selling album "Beatles 1."
The first time the original British "Please Please Me" album was made available in the US was the "Original Master Recording" vinyl edition released through Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in January of 1987. This album included "Do You Want To Know A Secret" and was prepared utilizing half-speed mastering technology from the original master tape on loan from EMI. This version of the album was only available for a short time and is quite collectable today.
The song then became available on the “Please Please Me” CD as originally released in mono on February 26th, 1987, a vinyl edition coming out in the US on July 21st, 1987. A remastered stereo version of the album was then released on September 9th, 2009 on CD, a stereo vinyl edition coming out on November 13th, 2012.
On June 30th, 1992, it was also included on the box set “Compact Disc EP Collection” due to the song being included on the original British EP “Twist And Shout,” which was released in their home country on July 12th, 1963.
On April 11th, 2006, the box set “The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2” was released, featuring both the stereo mix and "Type B" foldover mono mix of “Do You Want To Know A Secret” as originally available on “The Early Beatles.”
The September 9th, 2009 released box set “The Beatles In Mono” also included the song in a vibrant remastered state. This is undoubtedly the best available reproduction of the song to date.
On November 11th, 2013, the album "On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2" was released, which included an excellent unheard version of "Do You Want To Know A Secret" that was recorded on July 10th, 1963 for the radio program "Pop Go The Beatles," as detailed above.
Interestingly, two samplers for the above album were released at that time for promotional purposes, a five-song sampler and a fourteen-song sampler. Both included this newly available BBC recording of "Do You Want To Know A Secret."
On December 17th, 2013, iTunes released a 59 track compilation album entitled "Bootleg Recordings 1963" only available on their downloading platform. This album included "take 7" of "Do You Want To Know A Secret" as recorded at their February 11th, 1963 EMI recording session as well as two BBC performances of the song, the first from the May 25th, 1963 "Saturday Club" show and the second from the March 2nd, 1963 "Here We Go" program. The purpose of this album was to extend the copyright of these recordings under European Union law from 50 years (which would have expired at the end of 2013) to 70 years (until 2033), this being considered an official release. This compilation album was only available in the US on that date to those in the know for a number of hours for $39.99 in its entirety or to be purchased as individual tracks, but was later made available for purchase as well.
The Beatles in Hamburg, Germany (Dec. 1962)
Although written in the later part of 1962, it appears that The Beatles chose not to perform the song throughout the remainder of that year, possibly holding on to it for consideration for the B-side of their second EMI single, which of course didn't happen. The many hours of performing that was demanded of them in their Hamburg sets may have been a motivation for them to include it, but they instead decided to keep it under wraps.
It is no secret that “Do You Want To Know A Secret” was not considered a favorite among the band members. Because of this, and with the song being considered a Billy J. Kramer song by May of 1963, it had a short performance life as a Beatles song. It was included as a George Harrison spotlight early on, even at a concert in Sheffield the day after they recorded the song in the recording studio. They also performed it during their Tommy Roe / Chris Montez tour between March 9th and 31st, as well as on their Roy Orbison tour from May 18th through June 9th of 1963. The last known performance of the song was on June 30th at the ABC Cinema in Norfolk.
Even though the single became a major US hit ten months later, The Beatles never saw fit to perform the song in the states. Billy J. Kramer’s version was relatively unknown on American shores, and remains that way to this day, but The Beatles still considered it a “Kramer” song and unfit to promote through performances after July of 1963. Their dislike of the song was also an influence for them to discontinue performing it, focusing instead on what they considered as the more mature lyrics and songwriting styles of their recent releases. The band preferred the rocking “Roll Over Beethoven” as the Harrison spotlight in their live performances instead of the mellow “Do You Want To Know A Secret.”
One thing that the song accomplished back in mid 1964 was an increase to The Beatles credibility, especially with the parents of the screaming teenagers who wouldn’t stop talking about their latest heroes. This was the eighth US top 40 hit from the group, all of which preceeding it were rock and roll songs. With this song, as with “P.S. I Love You” six weeks later, The Beatles first showed themselves to the American public at large as capable of writing a tender love ballad. American parents had to take notice that there was more to them than decadence, long hair and rock and roll.
The impact of this song was no different from that of the huge American Beatle hits that surrounded it: “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Love Me Do.” Yet both of these songs are well represented within the realm of the recording media to this day. “Do You Want To Know A Secret” seems to be easily forgotten as the monster hit that it was. No, it wasn’t just another album track on their first album. It was a delicate and melodic ingredient that had a definite place in making up Beatlemania of 1964.
"Do You Want To Know A Secret?"
Written by: Paul McCartney / John Lennon
- Song Written: October 1962 (approx.)
- Song Recorded: February 11, 1963
- First US Release Date: January 6, 1964
- First US Album Release: Vee Jay #VJLP 1062 “Introducing…The Beatles”
- US Single Release: Vee Jay #587
- Highest Chart Position: #2
- British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS3042 “Please Please Me”
- Length: 1:56
- Key: E major
- Producer: George Martin
- Engineers: Norman Smith, Richard Langham
Instrumentation (most likely):
- George Harrison – Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar (1962 Gibson J-160E)
- John Lennon - Rhythm Guitar (1962 Gibson J-160E), Background Vocals
- Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1961 Hofner 500/1), Background Vocals
- Ringo Starr – Drums (1960 Premier 58/54 Mahogany), Sticks
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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