At their peak, the Beatles were prolific songwriters. Many of the songs on Abbey Road were partially finished but glommed together into a delightful mélange. The Beatles were also known for recording many takes and retakes of the same song until they felt that it was perfect. Paul’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” took weeks to record until every other band member hated the song. At this point in their careers, most of the Beatles’ rehearsals were made up of writing riffs, testing lyrics and arranging parts of songs. They would pair off and work on guitar parts or keyboard fills. It was rare to make a great deal of progress on a particular song. Songs often took weeks to manifest themselves and many more to complete.
This brings us to why “Birthday” is very unique in terms of most Beatles releases. The catchy yet simple tune kicked off the second disc of The White Album and was fully recorded less than one day. The group snuck off to watch a movie in the middle of recording it, returned, and then completed it. The origin of the song is somewhat contested, though Lennon suggested that while they co-wrote the song it was mainly Paul’s. Paul wanted to create something in the vein of the 1950s “Happy Happy Birthday, Baby”, by Bobby Vee. Instead, the result was a rocking blues song very different from anything they had released previously. In a 1972 interview, John suggested it had been written during their extended stay in India but later recanted that and agreed that it was made up on the spot in the studio. In his famous 1980 Playboy interview, as with many Beatles’ songs, John described “Birthday” as “a piece of garbage.” According to Paul, it was no one’s birthday but he realized that songs about birthdays or Christmas had staying power.
The recording session began late afternoon on September 18th, 1968. In this case, the group agreed to meet earlier than usual (they usually started late and worked through the night) as they wanted to make sure to catch the TV broadcast of the 1958 movie The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The picture was originally intended to make Mansfield a star while poking fun at rock and roll music. However, the result was the opposite as it introduced youngsters around the world to the new blues and rock and roll styles. With cameos by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and The Platters, it was a huge influence on a teenaged Lennon and McCartney. It was scheduled to air at 9:05 pm.
Under this time constraint, Paul arrived first at EMI Studio and began pulling together the now-classic riff, which is a simple blues progression on distorted guitar with a bass line that doubled and called-back the same riff. By the time the others arrived, the structure of the song had mostly been completed. They attempted different keys and experimented with options for a bridge. Once they had the basic song written, it was time to perform multiple takes and make adjustments along the way. In this case, there would be 20 takes with the first one beginning at 6 pm. It took one hour to create the basic structure of a complete and original song. The initial takes had timing problems, false starts, and stops but by later takes it was all coming together. By Take 20, at around 8:30 PM the backing track to the song was nearly complete as the group took a break to rush over to Paul’s home to watch the movie.
Take a listen to this backing track on the Super Deluxe re-release of the White Album to “Birthday (Take 2/Instrumental Backing Track)” and you’ll get a feel for first the brilliant guitar work of George Harrison (right channel) and supporting effort by John Lennon (left channel). With the vocals and overdubs, you sort of lose the grungy riffs that lay the latticework for the vocals. Also, in this take two things are unique: the song ends abruptly, and the guitar fills are more prominent and, in my opinion, better than the later more subdued release.
After the movie, they returned to the studio and began the overdubbing process. This became a family affair as both George’s wife Pattie Boyd and John’s girlfriend Yoko Ono can be heard singing “Birthday…” during the two bridges. Other unique elements appear in the song through its final construction including an odd-sounding flanged piano pumped through a Leslie speaker (most obvious in the very last sound heard in the song).
The redubbing and re-recording of parts were completed by 5 am the next morning which resulted in the final mono-mix that would be released. The stereo mix was not completed until about a month later. In just over 12 hours, including a two-hour break to watch a movie, the Beatles had written a classic and memorable song. Whether it was due to the artificial pressure of being ready for the TV movie or the mysterious ether that talented songwriters seem to tap periodically, the result was magical.
-Photo: Beatles with headphones (Getty Images)