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The Beatles in a scene from the movie "A Hard Day's Night"

"I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER"

(John Lennon - Paul McCartney)

Capitol Records president Alan Livingston assigned the task of screening EMI British records for possible release in the US to producer Dave Dexter"Dave was a good musicologist, he was a writer, he was a producer," stated Alan Livingston, "and I trusted Dave's ears and was not concerned about it."  Unfortunately, Dave Dexter wasn't impressed by the first two Beatles singles that came across his desk.  The main reason for his rejection of both "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me" was the prominent use of the harmonica, which Dexter viewed as a blues instrument that had no place in pop music.

Possibly because of Capitol's view of the harmonica, The Beatles shied away from featuring the instrument with their singles to appease the US market.  When Capitol was finally coerced into signing the group to their label and releasing the single "I Want To Hold Your Hand," there was not a harmonica in sight.

What Capitol couldn't have known back then is how The Beatles would turn the American music industry on its' ear and become a huge 'cash-cow' for their label just over a year later.  The tide had definitely turned and Capitol would embrace whatever The Beatles would throw their way.

An example of the 'about-face' attitude they adopted was concerning the song "I Should Have Known Better."  With the release of their third Capitol single "A Hard Day's Night," they decided they didn't want to issue the B-side that Parlophone Records did in Britain, namely the somewhat downbeat "Things We Said Today."  With the intention of promoting their upcoming motion picture, Capitol wanted to place a song from the movie's soundtrack on the flip side.  Of the five possible choices, they picked one that prominently featured John Lennon puffing that same 'blues' instrument.  I guess the harmonica did have a place in pop music after all.

Songwriting History

"One of the most memorable things of the trip (to Paris) for me," George Harrison stated, "was that we had a copy of Bob Dylan's 'Freewheelin'' album, which we played constantly."  Their three week concert season at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, France, had them held up in the lush George V Hotel from January 15th through February 4th, 1964.  In between shows they had a piano brought in specifically for them to start writing songs for their first motion picture which was set to begin shooting on March 2nd.  But when they weren't songwriting, they were listening to their newly acquired Bob Dylan album.

"I think that was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all," Lennon remembered in 1970.  "I think Paul got the record from a French DJ.  We were doing a radio thing there and the guy had the record in the studio.  Paul said, 'Oh, I keep hearing about this guy,' or he'd heard it, I'm not sure - and we took it back to the hotel."  John stated in 1964, "And for the rest of our three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it.  We all went potty on Dylan."

Although the harmonica was beginning to take a back-seat for the Beatles in the studio (last used in the September 12th, 1963 recording session for "Little Child"), Lennon found a whole new use for the harmonica as inspired by Bob Dylan.  His 'huffing/puffing' folk style of harmonica playing got John writing a song around this medium.  While Lennon had been using the harmonica (or "harp" as he was prone to call it) as a blues instrument, he now appears to have put that aside forever. 

He now began to reformat himself as a folk musician in the style of his new-found hero.  He even started wearing a Dylan-style hat during this period (as seen in the "A Hard Day's Night" movie as well as the cover of his book "In His Own Write") and eventually using a harmonica brace during concert performances (while performing the Dylan-inspired "I'm A Loser").

For January of 1964, this was as far as the Dylan influence had gotten.  Lyrically, "I Should Have Known Better" stays very close to the cliché-heavy romanticism of earlier Lennon/McCartney songs.  "Just a song - it doesn't mean a damn thing," Lennon remarked in 1980.  It wasn't until later, after The Beatles actually got to spend time with Bob Dylan on different occasions, which John saw fit to express himself lyrically in a more emotive and therapeutic way (such as in "Help!").  Musically, the Dylan influence manifested as well, such as with "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away."  But as for now, the harmonica was as far as Lennon got.

One fact that hasn't been contested is that "I Should Have Known Better" was written entirely by John.  "That's me," Lennon stated about the song in 1980.  His authorship is very apparent, especially the 'one-note' melody line of the verses, which is heard many times throughout his songs during the Beatle years.  Examples of this are the verses in "Help!" and the bridge in "Girl."

The Beatles arrive in America, February 7th, 1964

Recording History

As soon as the Beatles got back from their first historic visit to America in February of 1964, they commenced recording songs for their upcoming motion picture.  February 25th was their first of four days of recording sessions booked in Studio Two of EMI for recording the songs to be used in the movie.  Two sessions were booked on this day, the first used to finish off "Can't Buy Me Love" and then fully record the Lennon song "You Can't Do That," which finalized their next international hit single.

The second session for this day, which ran from 2:30 to 5:30 pm, premiered two more songs for the movie, namely "And I Love Her" and "I Should Have Known Better."   Unfortunately, this afternoon/evening session did not see either of these songs to completion, nor were any takes of these songs used in the final recordings.  Both were started again from scratch the next day.

Only three takes of "I Should Have Known Better" were recorded on this day, and only one of these was complete.  The second take itself only lasted seconds as John broke down laughing because of his harmonica playing.  One thing that should be mentioned is that the song sounded somewhat different at this stage, beginning with an even more Dylan-ish harmonica introduction as well as some guitar work from George Harrison at the end of the song.  As 5:30 rolled around, they decided they would start it again fresh the next day.

They returned to Studio Two the next day (February 26th) at the same time (2:30 to 5:30 pm) and devoted the entire three hour session to re-doing the song.  The problem area of the song was the bridge, where most of the 19 takes of the song performed on this day broke down.  For the first five takes (take 4 through 8 to indicate the three takes they made the previous day) they played all their usual instruments except for John who sang and played harmonica only.  On take nine John decided to play acoustic guitar instead of harmonica for the first time.  This ended up being the final take of the song, although they continued to improve upon it until it became take 22, which included double-tracking John's vocals and overdubbing the harmonica playing.  This allowed segments of the song to include both John's vocals and harmonica playing at the same time.

March 3rd, 1964 was the day that the mono mix of the song was made in the control room of Studio One.  What was now considered 'take 22' was used for this mix, which was performed by producer George Martin and engineers Norman Smith and A.B. Lincoln.  This mix, as well as five others, was sent along to United Artists for them to use in the production of the movie.  An edit was also made to the song on this day concerning the harmonica heard in its' introduction.  The fourth of the four measure introduction of the song showed John taking a needed breath, which created a gap in his harmonica playing.  In order to fix this, they grafted in a repeat of the third measure to replace the fourth measure.  This made it appear that he played the harmonica uninterrupted for four straight measures.

On June 9th, in the control room of EMI Studio Three, George Martin, Norman Smith and 2nd engineer Ken Scott convened to make copies of the previous mono mix to be sent to United Artists Records and Capitol Records in the US.  This mix was used by United Artists for both the mono and stereo soundtrack album and by Capitol for the B-side of the upcoming "A Hard Day's Night" single.

June 22nd, 1964, was when EMI studio personnel finally decided to create the first stereo mix of the song.  This marathon session, which ran from 10 am to 9 pm in the Studio One control room, saw the entire contents of the British "A Hard Day's Night" album mixed for stereo, as well as other mono mixing and editing work.  Right around noon, George Martin, Norman Smith and 2nd engineer Geoff Emerick made the stereo mix of the song.

Because of the rushed atmosphere of this day, and because they held stereo mixing of such little value, they didn't take the time to graft in the third measure of the introduction into the fourth measure.  So the stereo mix most generally heard throughout the years included the gap in John's harmonica playing towards the end of the introduction.  Not a cardinal sin by any means, but a noticeable difference.

One other noticeable difference in this stereo mix is an edit in the rhythm track during the final bridge.  This occurs just before the words “and when I ask you to be mine” and can be heard distinctly in the left channel.  Incidentally, John's harmonica work and George's 12-string guitar strums in the bridges as well as the guitar solo is mostly heard in the right channel while the rhythm track (drums, acoustic guitars and bass) is heard mostly in the left channel.  All of the vocals are centered in the mix. 

One other stereo mix of the song was made, but not until early 1982.  A mixing session was booked at this time to finally create a stereo mix of the song without the harmonica gap in the introduction.  This mix was created primarily for the 1982 album release "Reel Music."  One noticeable difference, though, is that this stereo mix grafted in a repeat of the second measure instead of the third measure as done in the mono mix.  The harmonica performance was slightly different in these measures, so the true Beatlemaniac will notice the difference.

It's also interesting to note that the video version of the "A Hard Day's Night" movie contains this newly-created stereo mix of the song when it first appears in the movie (in the train scene).  The first stereo mix of the song with the harmonica gap is then used for the second appearance of the song in the movie (in the TV show scene).

 

Song Structure and Style

Once again, Lennon takes a standard songwriting structure and adds a few unique elements to make the song stand alone.  The primary component of the song is the verse, which propels the song throughout.  The bridge, which is repeated twice in the song, acts as the emotive climax with its' Beatles trademark jump to falsetto.  The actual structure appears as 'verse/ alternate verse/ bridge/ verse/ instrumental verse/ alternate verse/ bridge' (which become abcaabc).

We start out with a four measure introduction that is the last Beatles song to feature harmonica at the beginning of the song.  John's voice heralds in the first verse which, as all the verses do, hold out the first 1½ measures on one note, which is always on the word "I."  In fact, this is the only time the song's title is heard throughout the song.  This verse is ten measures long, extending the expected eight measures by an insertion of two measures in the middle, which repeat the previously heard melody line ("that I would love everything that you do").  The single-note fast-paced melody line that is held throughout drives upward to climactically end the verse.

A second verse then begins which sounds structurally the same as the first, but is in fact only eight measures long and is used as a transition to the bridge that immediately follows.  Since this transitory bridge is also repeated when the bridge is repeated, we'll give this the designation of 'alternate verse.'

The bridge is sixteen measures long and is made up primarily of quarter notes, which emphasizes the importance of the lyrics, making teenage girls blush as John confesses his love for them.  (Even actress Pattie Boyd hides her eyes embarrassingly at this point of the song in the movie.)  Even the double-tracking of John's voice disappears for most of this verse, adding an intimate touch.  After the falsetto jump of the twelfth measure we land back in the home key for the perfect resolve.

After another structurally identical verse, the ten measure verse pattern is repeated once more as an instrumental section, which presents a solo played on George Harrison's newly acquired Rickenbacker 12-string.  We then repeat the alternate verse and bridge to round out the song, complete with a faded-out conclusion echoing the opening moments of the song with the addition of the repeated last phrase "you love me too."

Lyrically the song doesn't say much of meaning, but accomplishes it purpose exceptionally well, be it ever so naïve.  The singer "should have known" that he would fall in love with the girl in question because of all the things she does, which apparently includes kissing.  Lennon touches once again on the 'law of attraction' philosophy, stating complete confidence that when he expresses his love for the girl, "you're gonna say you love me too."  He isn't hoping; he knows!

John's Dylan-like harmonica work, which ended up a little 'bluesy' in the end after all, is truly the highlight of the song.  That, of course, and his convincing vocal delivery which pumped an effervescent quality into the Beatles of 1964.  While his rhythm guitar work may have been rudimentary, it suited the Dylan-esque 'singer-songwriter' persona he was trying to achieve.

George Harrison is next to be mentioned for his simple but effective guitar solo, keeping strictly to the melody line with only limited embellishments.  A nice touch also heard from George is the guitar strums at the beginning of each measure of the bridge to signal the chord change.  This well-thought out addition dispensed with any 'clunkiness' that may have crept in to muddy up the arrangement.  Well done.

Paul takes a back seat on the track vocally letting John sing this intimate song himself, but provides some well-rehearsed bass runs which are subdued enough not to be too intrusive on the simple arrangement.  Its' presence in the back of the mix suits the song well.

Ringo plays the role of 'metronome' throughout the song, doing no more than keeping a steady beat, which is all that the song calls for.  We'll hear him show his chops elsewhere on the album, such as on "Tell Me Why."

 

American Releases

The US first heard "I Should Have Known Better" on the highly-anticipated soundtrack album to their first movie "A Hard Day's Night" released by United Artists on June 26th, 1964.  The album was rush-released to make sure Capitol Records didn't grab all the attention with their soon to be released album "Something New," which was also to include the song.  Since United Artists got their album out first, Capitol decided not to include a few of the soundtrack songs on their album, this being one of them.  This American sountrack album, however, got its' compact disc release on January 21st., 2014, both the mono and stereo versions of the album being contained on a single CD.

On July 13th, 1964, however, Capitol released their "A Hard Day's Night" single and, with the intention of promoting the movie for their own benefit, placed "I Should Have Known Better" as the B-side.  This was the second and last time Capitol chose a different song as the flip-side for a single than what was issued in Britain, which happened to be the non-soundtrack song "Things We Said Today."  As a B-side, "I Should Have Known Better" placed on its' own on the Billboard pop charts at #53.

"I Should Have Known Better" had not been heard in true stereo in the US throughout the '60's, being that the United Artists soundtrack album placed the mono mix on the stereo copies of the album.  But on February 26th, 1970, Apple Records made it right.  Allen Klein, the Beatles new manager, was anxious to have another Beatles album on the market in America since he just negotiated a very lucrative new contract for the band.  The result was an album entitled "The Beatles Again."

Although the album didn't include any songs that were new to the American audience, it pulled together songs that spanned the entire Beatles catalog that were not released on a Capitol album as of yet.  Since "I Should Have Known Better" fit the bill, it was included on the album.  After the initial run of the discs were printed, the decision was made to re-title the album "Hey Jude," which was the title printed on the album cover.  Hot on the heels of the highly successful "Abbey Road" album, American fans bought this album in droves also, which ended up peaking at number two on the Billboard album charts for four weeks.  The "Hey Jude" album received a compact disc release on January 21st, 2014.

The song didn't get another release until March 22nd, 1982 on the compilation album "Reel Music."  The premise of this album was to put together the highlights of all the songs from the Beatles films.  The album did well enough to make it up to #19 on the Billboard album charts.  Not only did "I Should Have Known Better" make it onto the album, but a segment of the song even appeared in "The Beatles Movie Medley," which was a #12 hit single comprising snippets of seven songs from the "Reel Music" album.

February 26th, 1987 was the date that the original British "A Hard Day's Night" album was finally released in America in the compact disc format.  While this CD was only available in mono at the time, the re-mastered stereo version was released on September 9th, 2009.

On June 30th, 1992, Capitol released a box set entitled “Compact Disc EP Collection” which contained the mono mix of “I Should Have Known Better” because of its inclusion on the original British EP “Extracts From The Film A Hard Day's Night.”

The mono mix was also re-mastered and became available on the box set "The Beatles In Mono," which was released on September 9th, 2009.

 

Live Performances

The Beatles gave the song a short British performance life in 1964 that started just after the album was released there.  There were two BBC appearances of the song; the first being recorded on July 14th for the show "Top Gear" which aired on July 16th, then a recording done on July 17th for an installment of "From Us To You" that was broadcast on August 3rd.

Their British tour of late 1964, which ran from October 9th in Bradford to November 10th in Bristol, included the song as well.  They also mimed a performance of the song for British TV on October 14th, which was broadcast on "Scene At 6:30" on October 16th.  By the time the end of the year rolled around, their use for the song faded away, focusing instead on their newly recorded material for the British album "Beatles For Sale."

 

Conclusion

For a song that only reached #53 in America, "I Should Have Known Better" has always maintained a high profile as for radio airplay and has become a very recognizable piece of Beatles history.  All most people need to hear is the opening couple of seconds, with its' colorful harmonica riff, to start bobbing their heads and preparing to sing along when the fifth measure begins.

Even though the song is structured around the simplest of chord patterns and features cliché-heavy teenage lyrics, the irresistible melody line embodies the whole of what the Beatles of 1964 was all about - fun.  Knowing as we do that the song was written on a tight deadline and wasn't viewed with much affection by its' writer, it shows Lennon as an absolute natural at effortlessly concocting a memorable piece of music that can only make you smile and sing along.

Song Summary

 "I Should Have Known Better"

Written by:  John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written: January 1964
  • Song Recorded:  February 26, 1964
  • First US Release Date: June 26, 1964
  • First US Album Release: United Artists #UAS 6366 "A Hard Day's Night"
  • US Single Release: Capitol #5222 (b-side of  "A Hard Day's Night")
  • Highest Chart Position:  #53
  • British Album Release: Parlophone #PCS 3058 "A Hard Day's Night"
  • Length: 2:44
  • Key: G major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Norman Smith, Richard Langham

Instrumentation:

  • John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1962 Gibson J160E), Harmonica (Hohner Chromatic)
  • Paul McCartney - Bass Guitar (1963 Hofner 500/1)
  • George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1963 Rickenbacker 360-12 Fire-glo)
  • Ringo Starr - Drums (1963 Ludwig Downbeat Black Oyster Pearl)

 Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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