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“YOU CAN’T DO THAT”

(John Lennon - Paul McCartney)

The influence of The Beatles on modern music is still felt today.  Whether current hit makers admit it or not, or realize it or not, the patterns and structures used in popular music most times can be traced back to the pathway paved in the 60’s by the “fab four.”

One of many musical details The Beatles spearheaded was the use of what we can call the “two measure guitar riff.”  This riff, which encapsulates guitar rock throughout the generations, was first popularized by The Beatles in the song “You Can’t Do That.”  The Beatles used this feature continually throughout their career, evidenced in “I Feel Fine,” “Ticket To Ride,” “Day Tripper,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Paperback Writer” and “I Want To Tell You” among others.

The riff usually appears at the beginning of the song played only by the guitar, after which the rest of the band kicks in to play the remainder of the song.  The riff then becomes the prominent, identifiable feature of the song as its’ repeated throughout or in strategic places of the song.

Other 60’s artists were quick to pick up on this trend, such as The Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction” and “The Last Time”), The Yardbirds ("Heart Full Of Soul"), Paul Revere and The Raiders (“Kicks”) and The Monkees (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”).  Evidence of this trend even made it to the 90’s, with hits such as “Blister In The Sun,” “There She Goes” and even “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The Beatles may not have been the first to utilize this gimmick (witness the piano riff on “Money (That’s What I Want),” but they were the first to make it fashionable and trendsetting, as everyone, it seemed, were bent on imitating the formula The Beatles were using.  The trendsetting formula of the “two measure guitar riff” was heard first on the John Lennon rocker “You Can’t Do That.”

Songwriting History

“Paul and I enjoyed writing the music for the film, but there were times when we honestly thought we’d never get time to write all the material,” Lennon said in 1964 about writing the songs for their movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”  "You Can't Do That" was one of those songs.

George Harrison stated in an interview at the time that "'You Can't Do That' was written in Miami Beach."  This would mean that the writing occurred between February 13th and 21st during their first visit to America.  "You Can't Do That" was intended for the film, but it was cut out of the movie at the last minute.  On March 31st, 1964, The Beatles lip-synced the song during the “television performance” sequence of the movie before 350 screaming fans at the Scala Theatre in London.  Phil Collins (of Genesis fame) was one of the 350 fans that day who remember “You Can’t Do That” being part of that performance.  The song may have been cut from the movie, but it was broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 24th, 1964 and is featured in the 1994 video “The Making Of A Hard Day’s Night,” hosted by Phil Collins.

Both John and Paul have acknowledged in interviews that “You Can’t Do That” was entirely a Lennon composition.  Since their contract with EMI was signed in 1962, their aim concentrated mostly on collaboration but, with McCartney securing for himself the A-side for the next single with the self-penned “Can’t Buy Me Love,” this presumably was the catalyst for Lennon to push ahead and concentrate heavily on solo songwriting throughout the rest of 1964.  “You Can’t Do That” was the first-fruits of this determination.

Concerning the song’s inspiration, Lennon stated in 1980, “That’s me doing Wilson Pickett.  You know, a cowbell going four-in-the-bar, and the chord going ‘chatoong!’”  Hearing this from the horses’ mouth, you would think that would settle the issue.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  The problem is that Wilson Pickett had not come into his own as of January of 1964 when this song was written.  By that time, Wilson had only released four early singles which were 6/8 ballads far unlike anything he’s known for, such as “In The Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally,” which were much closer to what Lennon was talking about.  Those early ballads definitely didn’t have a cowbell or anything resembling a “chatoong.”  John obviously was thinking retrospectively and originally found inspiration elsewhere, such as the R&B classics coming out of Memphis at the time.  Confirmation of where the inspiration actually came from may never be known.

One thing that has been established is the honest autobiographical nature of the song’s lyrics.  “I think a lot of these songs…may have been based in real experiences,” McCartney has stated, “or arguments with Cynthia or whatever, but it never occurred to us until later to put that slant on it all.”  John’s possessiveness with the women in his life, especially his first wife Cynthia, has been well documented in the various autobiographies of his life.  Touches of this jealous tendency can be found throughout his songwriting input within The Beatles as well as his solo career, especially 1971’s “Jealous Guy” from his “Imagine” album.

The Beatles in EMI studio two, February 1964

Recording History

Having just returned to London on February 22nd, 1964, from their triumphant first visit to America, The Beatles had a very busy schedule ahead of them.  Their first motion picture, untitled at this time, was due to start shooting on March 2nd and songs for the film needed to be fully recorded before the movie could be started.  The seven song requirement meant they had to get cracking right away, so after filming a television appearance on February 23rd, they headed to EMI studio two on February 25th ready for work.

There were two recording sessions on February 25th (George Harrison's 21st birthday), the first running from 10 am to 1 pm, which was devoted entirely to the month old “You Can’t Do That.”  The band played the song live on mostly newly acquired instruments:  John's brand new Rickenbacker 325 designed especially for him, George's new Rickenbacker 360-12 string guitar, and Ringo's second Ludwig drum kit (Paul's 1963 Hofner bass had been in use in the studio since "I Want To Hold Your Hand").  John also sang lead vocals live along with the instruments.  Four complete takes were taped (along with five false starts) before everyone was satisfied.  One of the complete takes (take 6) can be heard on “Anthology 1” which shows John as the only one singing at this point.  This is not a “guide vocal” as authors claim, but their usual practice of getting a perfect recording live.

A decision was made to include backing vocals from Paul and George so by take nine, which ended up being the keeper, all three vocalists were singing live on this basic recording.  Onto this they performed three overdubs; Paul playing the cowbell throughout the song, Ringo playing the bongos, and finally John double-tracking his vocals during the bridges.  This then was used as the finished master version of the song.

George Martin wasted no time in creating the mono mix for the song.  The next day, February 26th, Martin and engineers Norman Smith and Richard Langham reserved a morning session (10 am to 1 pm) to perfect the mono mix of “You Can’t Do That” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” which were dutifully shipped off to Capitol Records in the US for their next single release.  George Martin held off Capitol releasing “Roll Over Beethoven” as the next American single with promises of something great, so he didn’t waste any time getting these new masters sent to Capitol as soon as possible.  It took four remix attempts of “You Can’t Do That” to get it right, but thereafter served as the mono mix heard everywhere to this day.

March 10th saw George Martin and Norman Smith for some unknown reason performed a stereo mix of the song (along with six other mixes) that was experimental and never used.  Also, interestingly, George Martin entered the studio on May 22nd, well after the British and American release of the song as a single, to record a piano overdub, which took the song to “take 10.”  What his intentions were are unknown, but this overdub was shelved and never heard by the public to this day.

At the last minute as usual, George Martin oversaw the true stereo mix of the song on June 22nd, 1964.  This was done using “take 9” so as to forgo the piano overdub done on May 22nd.  This was done just in time for the British album release of “A Hard Day’s Night” on July 10th.  This was the only stereo mix of the song released, but not yet in America.  Since “You Can’t Do That” was featured on the US album “The Beatles’ Second Album,” and only a mono mix existed at that time of its’ release (April 10th, 1964), Capitol Records created a duophonic (fake stereo) version of the song for the stereo master of the album.  The true stereo mix, however, contains the rhythm track (drums, bass and George's guitar) mostly in the left channel with John's rhythm guitar and solo mostly in the right channel.  All the vocals are centered in the mix.

Another recording of the song can to be on August 23rd, 1964 at the Beatles’ live performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California.  Capitol Records desired to record the group live and release it as a US only album, since George Martin vetoed the idea for the British market.  It was reluctantly co-produced by George Martin and American producer Voyle Gilmore with Hugh Davies as engineer.  The album didn’t get released at the time because of the disapproval of The Beatles and Capitol Records because of the poor quality of the recording.  Although a revamped version of the album did get released internationally in 1977 as “The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl,” the song “You Can’t Do That” was cut from the track list and is in the vaults somewhere collecting dust.

The Beatles did revive the song briefly in the studio during their infamous “Get Back/Let It Be” sessions.  The second day of taped rehearsals in Twickenham Studios on January 3rd, 1969, saw The Beatles go over the song again after nearly four and a half years of it not being touched.

Sometime in 2016, Giles Martin, George's son, aquired access to the live recording of "You Can't Do That" that the group performed at the Hollywood Bowl on August 23rd, 1964.  From this, he produced a magnificent version of the song to be used as a bonus track on the long-awaited re-release of "Live At The Hollywood Bowl." 

Song Structure and Style

“You Can’t Do That” follows a typical 12-bar blues pattern for the verses with an eight measure bridge formed in a verse/verse/bridge/verse (or aaba) structure typical for early Lennon/McCartney compositions.  A guitar solo section is included following the verse structure, followed by an additional bridge and verse before the song closes.

We start out with a four measure introduction which introduces the landmark “two measure guitar riff” in the first two measures.  The same riff is then repeated for the remaining two measures of the introduction joined by the rest of the band, cowbell and bongos included.

We then enter into the first 12 measure verse, highlighted by a melody line emphasizing the quarter notes of the measures.  Lennon’s voice is single tracked, which is suits the intimate address of the lyrics perfectly well.  The surprise twist of the verse structure comes on the ninth measure which shows all instruments and vocals performing staccato eighth notes on the phrase “told you before” on the D chord.  This is followed by the signature “break” used in a lot of the early Beatles songs, but this time only lasts for a solitary eighth note before the drums kick back in followed by the vocals, which highlight the key phrase of the song, “Oh, you can’t do that” on the tenth measure.  The twelfth measure takes us back to the D chord, which is a perfect segue into another verse.

The second verse contains some subtle but interesting changes, one being the melody line now focusing on eighth notes instead of quarter notes.  The second change is the appearance of answering backing vocals from Paul and George starting from the sixth measure.  The verse ends identically as the first did except for staying on the G chord to propel them into the bridge.

The unpredictable chord changes in this eight measure bridge snake along with the bluesy melody line and background vocals to generate an engaging vibe.  The seventh and eighth measure display the jabbing staccato eighth notes heard in the verses, which move the song nicely back to the third and final verse of the pattern.

This third verse has a completely different set of lyrics, unlike The Beatles tendency to just repeat the first verse again (witness “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You”).  This verse needed to be different in order to show the finality of the story with a pleading “so please listen to me if you want to stay mine.”  John Lennon was truly proud of this song and it shows; no cutting-corners for this one.

This third verse reverts back to ending in a D chord to segue into the solo section of the song, which is performed over the complete set of verse chords.  Lennon himself steps out for the first time on record to play lead guitar, creating tension while the background vocals chant along the title of the song. 

Then we hear a reprise of the bridge and third verse as it ends in a surprising but suitable subdued ending in lead guitar/bass unison.  John was quite proud of the conclusion to this song.  "The break at the end of the record?  That's George with his 12-string doing that bit,"  Lennon stated at the time.  "Isn't it a great sound?  Like a piano."

"You Can't Do That" is a remarkably heavy performance unmatched by anything The Beatles produced thus far, but standing as a harbinger of heavier things to come.

As stated earlier, the lyrics are frank and autobiographical in nature, expressing to the world the insecurities he lives with and the struggles of those he’s closest too.  He does not express these feelings in an apologetic way, but aggressively and in a justifiably demanding way.  His girl is not allowed to be caught even innocently “talking” to another “boy” if she doesn’t want to be ‘let down’ and ‘left flat.’  He goes as far as saying that he thinks “it’s a sin” and is, in effect, the last straw.

Lennon uses the bridge to justify his demand by explaining that “everybody’s green” with envy about him winning her in the first place.  Therefore he fears being laughed at by onlookers if the appearance shows she might be interested in someone else.  This insecurity has taken hold of him to the point of saying, in the final verse, “I can’t help my feelings” and that they are driving him ‘out of his mind.’  As revealed in various biographies of his life, the demanding ways Lennon showed in his relationships with the women of his life, Yoko included, attest to this song being a true-to-life testimony of what he expected of them.  In hindsight, Paul himself recognized this to be true.

Lennon definitely shines on this track, especially as lead guitarist.  “I find it a drag to play rhythm all the time,” Lennon explained in 1964, “so I always work myself out something interesting to play.  The best example I can think of is like I did on ‘You Can’t Do That’…I like playing lead sometimes, so I do it.”  John hammers out a wiry solo which combines the elements of a rhythm guitarist as well, eclipsing into something George Harrison wouldn’t be able to devise.  John vocally nails it as well, performing a rough but convincing bluesy growl deserving of being the standout vocal track on the album.

Paul and George’s background harmonies are more shouted than sung, but it works to create the rough energy that is necessitated by the lyrics.  George Harrison's new 12-string is heard prominently in the main riff of the song, which is performed to perfection.  He otherwise may have been relegated to rhythm guitar on this track, but it is played with great attentiveness to the feel of the song, which can also be said of McCartney’s bass work, although quite low in the mix.  Ringo rides primarily on the hi-hat throughout while not providing any variance from his rock beat apart from his accents at the end of each verse.  The Beatles as a whole produce an unpolished masterpiece.

American Releases

The first appearance of “You Can’t Do That” in the states was on March 16th, 1964 (four days before it was released in Britain) as the flip side to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”  The picture sleeve Capitol used for the single contained the same Dezo Hoffmann picture that was used for their first Capitol single I Want To Hold Your Hand.”  As the A-side of the single raced to number one on the Billboard charts (only taking two weeks to do so), the flip side peaked at the respectable position of #48.

Interestingly, the Savoy printing plant was asked by Capitol to help with the pressing of this fast selling single.  They printed a small amount of these singles on yellow/black vinyl, as well as straight yellow vinyl, as souvenirs, which are highly collectable today.

The next appearance was less than a month later (April 10th, 1964) on the Capitol album “The Beatles’ Second Album.”  Capitol was then enjoying the chart success of The Beatles’ latest single “Can’t Buy Me Love” but could not include the song on this album because it was earmarked for the upcoming movie soundtrack for “A Hard Day’s Night,” which was licensed to United Artists Records for album release. Since it had been determined at this point that the single’s B-side, “You Can’t Do That,” would not be on that soundtrack album, they could include it here.

Capitol was so anxious to release this album that they decided not to wait for a stereo mix of the song.  All they had was the mono mix that was used for the single.  In order to get the ball rolling, they released the album with the track in mono only, creating a duophonic stereo mix for use for the stereo copies of the album.  Therefore, all treble frequencies are heard on one channel while all bass frequencies are heard on the other.  Even though George Martin did create a stereo mix on June 22nd, Capitol never bothered to replace the duophonic version all the time that “The Beatles’ Second Album” was in print.  On January 21st, 2014, this album was released as an individual compact disc for the first time, the mono and stereo mixes being contained on a single CD.

“You Can’t Do That” was then included on a limited edition single entitled “Music City / KFWBeatles,” which was released about June 5th, 1964.  This single was manufactured for Wallichs Music City in Canogo Park, California in conjunction with radio station KFWB.  Released on “Capitol Custom Services” record label, they were used in promotion of the grand opening of the Wallichs store, being distributed to all those who attended on that day.

Side one of this single featured a 1:40 interview segment by The Beatles entitled “The Beatles Talking,” while side two featured the B-side of their recent single.  Copies of this disc is highly collectable, especially if preserved in its’ original tan mailer.

August 10th, 1964, saw the next release of the song on a compilation album Capitol released entitled “The Big Hits From England & USA.”  Prepared to capitalize on the recent British boom in the US, the album contained both sides of The Beatles’ March single, as well as other British Capitol artists Cilla Black and Peter & Gordon.

"You Can't Do That" did get a partial American release on the Capitol documentary album, "The Beatles' Story," on the track "Who's A Millionaire?"  The double album was released on November 23rd, 1964.  Surprisingly, "The Beatles' Story" was also released on compact disc on January 21st., 2014, but only as contained in the 13 album box set "The U.S. Albums." 

Sometime in 1967, Capitol released Beatles music on a brand new but short-lived format called "Playtapes."  These tape cartidges did not have the capability to include entire albums, so two truncated four-song versions of "The Beatles Second Album" were released in this portable format, "You Can't Do That" being on one of these releases.  These "Playtapes" are highly collectable today.

Interestingly, when Capitol released their 8-track version of the album "Beatles '65" in 1969, they included "You Can't Do That" as a bonus track in order to flesh out its eleven songs to twelve, these being more easily divided between the four tracks on the tape.

The following release of the song takes us all the way to June 7th, 1976 with the release of the Capitol double album “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.”  This album marks the first time a stereo version of the song was available in the US.  The stereo mix of the song made by George Martin on June 22nd, 1964 graced this album but, since this disc is long out of print, a stereo version of “You Can’t Do That” was quite rare to hear and own in the states for many years.

In October of 1980, the album “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” was divided into two separate albums, “You Can’t Do That” appearing on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Volume 1.”  Once again, the true stereo mix can be heard on this album.

February 26th, 1987 was the date that the original British "A Hard Day's Night" album was released on compact disc for the first time.  This CD was only in mono for many years, but the September 9th, 2009 re-mastered version restores the stereo mix to its rightful place.  The stereo version of "You Can't Do That" is now readily available in the US. 

In February of 1994, Capitol reissued the "Can't Buy Me Love/You Can't Do That" single for use in jukeboxes.  This 45, which was printed on green vinyl under the Cema series with the words "For Jukeboxes Only" printed on the label, is becoming highly collectable.

November 21st, 1995 saw the next release of the song on the highly successful “Anthology 1” album.  Take six from the original recording sessions on February 25th, 1964, can be heard in its’ entirety, which is notable for its’ lack of background vocals and different lead guitar solo.

November 15th, 2006 saw the release of the box set “The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1,” which contains the song in mono and duophonic stereo as originally heard on "The Beatles' Second Album."

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

On November 11th, 2013, the album "On Air - Live At The BBC Volume 2" was released which included yet another version of "You Can't Do That."  This version was recorded on July 14th, 1964 for the radio program "Top Gear."


On July 24th, 2012, the iTunes Store, in partnership with EMI Records, released a Beatles compilation album entitled "Tomorrow Never Knows," the purpose of which was to highlight the group's influence on the history of rock music.  The album had the approval of Paul and Ringo, as well as the board of directors for the estates of John and George, and was successful enough to peak at #24 on the Billboard album chart.  "You Can't Do That" was a unique but fitting choice for this release.

On September 9th, 2016, the long-awaited remastered release of "Live At The Hollywood Bowl" became available, Giles Martin taking those original tapes and bringing them to life as never heard before.  Their Hollywood Bowl performance of "You Can't Do That" from August 23rd, 1964 was included on this release as a bonus track. 

 

The Beatles on "Ready Steady Go"

Live Performances

The Beatles wasted no time in including the song in their live performances.  Its’ performance life started as early as February 28th, 1964, almost a month before the song was released in Britain.  This was for the BBC radio show “From Us To You,” which was broadcast on March 30th.  They premiered the song on British television on the March 20th live broadcast of “Ready Steady Go,” as well as the March 25th edition of “Top Of The Pops.”

April 26th saw them perform the song at the New Musical Express Poll-Winners’ Concert, and then it remained in their set list throughout their 1964 world tour.  During the American leg of this tour, “You Can’t Do That” was always performed second after “Twist And Shout.”  After the tour was over, the song was retired from their set list.

After the above mentioned BBC radio appearance of the song on “From Us To You,” they performed it three more times for BBC radio.  “Saturday Club” featured the song on April 4th, being recorded on March 31st.  Then they recorded it on May 1st for another edition of “From Us To You,” which was broadcast on May 18th.  Finally, they recorded it on July 14th for “Top Gear,” which aired of July 16th, 1964.

Conclusion

From its’ opening guitar riff to its’ surprisingly unique subdued conclusion, “You Can’t Do That” shows a new direction for The Beatles music.  They had taken the subject matter from ‘holding hands’ to describing a ‘controlling jealousy’ while still encompassing the subject of relationships that permeated the Lennon/McCartney lyrics up until then.  They showed with this song that the future was endless; they were broadening their horizon.

The Beatles were rightly proud of “You Can’t Do That,” performing it to perfection on every occasion.  No funny faces or ‘spastic’ acts from John, but in absolute seriousness.  When asked during a 1964 interview which Beatles song George Harrison liked most, he unhesitatingly proclaimed, “I like ‘You Can’t Do That,' personally.”  The song may not have become as popular as they’d have liked it to become, but it stands as testimony to Beatles’ fans as a highly respected B-side and album track.

Song Summary

"You Can’t Do That

Written by:  John Lennon / Paul McCartney

  • Song Written: February, 1964
  • Song Recorded: February 25, 1964
  • First US Release Date: March 16, 1964
  • US Single Release: Capitol #5150 (B-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love”)
  • First US Album Release: Capitol #ST 2080 The Beatles’ Second Album
  • Highest Chart Position: #48
  • British Album Release: Parlophone # PCS 3058 A Hard Day’s Night
  • Length: 2:37
  • Key: G major
  • Producer: George Martin
  • Engineers: Norman Smith, Richard Langham

Instrumentation (most likely): 

  • John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 325)
  • Paul McCartney - Harmony Vocals, Bass Guitar (1963 Hofner 500/1), Cowbell
  • George Harrison – Harmony Vocals, Rhythm Guitar (1963 Rickenbacker 360-12 Fire-glo)
  • Ringo Starr – Drums (1963 Ludwig Downbeat Black Oyster Pearl), Bongos

Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski

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