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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 was 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"

Songwriting History

"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 was 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).

There is an uncertainty as to whether the song was written for the sole purpose of providing a track for George Harrison to sing on the first album. “I can’t say that I wrote it ‘for’ George,” says Lennon, but McCartney insists 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 later, on March 21st, 1963, with his recently acquired backup band The Dakotas and George Martin at the producers’ helm. When released in Britain on April 26th, though, the songs’ success rode on the Beatles coat tails 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

Recording History

Sometime during the Beatles December 1962 visit to Hamburg, Lennon taped a demo of the song for demonstration purposes in order for Billy J. Kramer to learn in preparation for his recording of the song.  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 run-throughs of the song, not all complete performances, take six was the keeper, which was performed musically 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 while Ringo, at the suggestion of George Martin, tapped two sticks together during the song’s bridge.  These takes were overdubbed onto the complete take six of the song, while take eight saw the song as complete.

Both the mono and stereo mixes of the song were made on February 25th, 1963, as was 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. 

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 a lot of intricacies held within these uncharacteristically long 14 bar verses to make up for the skimpiness of the song’s structure.

Once again, the songwriters opted not to include a solo of any kind to the song.  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, though, the extended identical verse would no doubt have been repeated a fourth time, which would have made the skimpy 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 unless under close scrutiny.

After the minor chord introduction, which loosely comprises four bars, an impressive rising guitar riff from Harrison 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 occurrence 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 small break to reduce its’ 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 the full days' 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 almost throughout 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” then 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.  The 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. 

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO "DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET"

American Releases

America got its’ first taste of this song on January 6th, 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.

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 number two on the Billboard charts in May of that year, not being able to pass “Can’t Buy Me Love” which was number one 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 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 along 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.  This marks the fourth and fifth appearance of the song in the US.

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.  This album then appeared on an individual CD on January 21st, 2014, this CD 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.  This would make the sixth and seventh appearance of the song in America.

Surprisingly, despite the immense popularity and chart position of the song in 1964, “Do You Want To Know A Secret” has never been included in 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,” which would have fit in perfectly among the love ballads included therein.  And since it just missed the number one spot on the Billboard charts, it didn’t make the cut for the multi-million selling album “Beatles 1.”

The song, nonetheless, is available in its’ rightful place on the “Please Please Me” CD as originally released in mono on February 26th, 1987 and in re-mastered stereo on September 9th, 2009.

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 and 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 re-mastered 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."  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.

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."
     

 

The Beatles in Hamburg, Germany (Dec. 1962)

Live Performances

Although there is no documentation to prove it, the Beatles may have started performing the song as early as December 1962 during their fifth and final Hamburg visit, since the song was written shortly before this time.  The many hours of performing that was demanded of them in their Hamburg sets may very well have motivated them to include this newly written song in their set list.

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 spotlight George Harrison song 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 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.

The Beatles performed the song on the BBC radio show “Here We Go” on March 6th, 1963, which aired on April 12th.  The BBC show “On The Scene” was next, recording the song on March 21st and being aired on March 28th, before the above mentioned “Here We Go” show.  Next was the BBC show “Side By Side,” which was performed on April 1st and aired on April 22nd.  The famous “Saturday Club” was next, which was performed on May 21st and aired on May 25th.  On May 24th, the song was recorded for “Pop Go The Beatles,” which aired on June 4th.  Finally, on July 10th, well after Billy J. Kramer’s version was on the charts, the Beatles recorded the song for the last time for “Pop Go The Beatles,” which aired on July 30th, 1963.

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 didn’t think fit to promote it through performances since July of 1963.  Their dislike for the song was also an influence for them to discontinue performing the song, 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.” 

Conclusion

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 were rock and roll songs that preceded it.  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 none different than 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.

Song Summary

"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:

  • George Harrison –   Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar (1957 Gretsch Duo Jet)
  • John Lennon - Rhythm Guitar (1958 Rickenbacker 325), 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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