Norwegian Wood - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

The day after the second session for NORWEGlAN WOOD, McCartney informed New Musical Express that he and Lennon had found a new direction: 'We've written some funny songs - songs with jokes in. We think that comedy numbers are the next thing after protest songs.'[1] Whether this was itself a joke or a genuine reflection of their uncertainty at this transitional point in their development is hard to say. Probably it was both. What is beyond doubt is that Rubber Soul - the hinge on which the two phases of The Beatles' stylistic development swings - includes several songs written in the form of comic short stories. One, DRIVE MY CAR, even has a punchline.

Clearly Lennon and McCartney were running out of variations on simple romance and knew they had to branch out or dry up. Probably they privately agreed with their publisher Dick James that most of their lyrics didn't 'go anywhere' or 'tell a story'. Certainly they were aware that Bob Dylan, with his tumultuously original singles 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and 'Like A Rolling Stone', had rolled back the horizons of the pop lyric in a way they must acknowledge and somehow outdo. Indeed several of their English rivals had stolen a march on them by following Dylan's lead. The Rolling Stones with 'Satisfaction', The Kinks' 'See My Friend', The Animals' 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place', The Who's imminent 'My Generation' - all cut deeper than the standard pop song, offering social and sexual observations that made The Beatles' lyrics seem tame. On the purely technical front, the UK chart during summer 1965 had been unusually rich in mould-breaking singles like The Who's 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere', The Yardbirds' 'For Your Love', and Unit 4 Plus 2's 'Concrete and Clay'. Even the ostensibly conservative Beach Boys had abandoned surf pop for the subtler sound-world of their dreamy idyll 'California Girls' and the commercially unsuccessful 'The Little Girl I Once Knew' with its novel sonorities and bold 'radio silence' tacets. If The Beatles didn't find a new road soon, they risked appearing passť (apart from being boring, pop's only recognised deadly sin).

Usually said to have been written mostly by Lennon, NORWEGlAN WOOD is the first Beatle song in which the lyric is more important than the music. In the spirit of the teasing narratives in Dylan's recent albums, with their enigmatic women and hints of menace, it was hailed as a breakthrough - and, despite the fact that its admired elusiveness was mostly a product of bluff and evasion, found its way into a book of modern verse. For his part, Lennon was uneasy about trespassing on Dylan's territory [2] and when the latter, on his next album Blonde On Blonde, produced an inscrutable parody of NORWEGlAN WOOD called '4th Time Around', the head Beatle was, as he later admitted, 'paranoid': what did that title mean? NORWEGlAN WOOD, I'M A LOSER, YOU'VE GOT TO HIDE YOUR LOVE AWAY, and ... BABY'S IN BLACK? Or was it the cap? [3] And what was Dylan driving at in those closing lines: 'I never asked for your crutch/Now don't ask for mine'...? In the end, the matter was settled amicably when the two met - for the fifth time [4] - in London in April 1966. In truth, Dylan got on reasonably well with Lennon, with whom he had a fair amount in common.[5] Towards McCartney, on the other hand, he was cooler, despising songs like YESTERDAY and MICHELLE as sell-outs to soft pop, unaware that Lennon co-wrote the latter and that McCartney added more than a little to NORWEGlAN WOOD.

Precisely how much McCartney wrote of NORWEGIAN WOOD remains in dispute. Talking to Playboy in 1980, Lennon claimed it as 'my song completely'. Some years later, McCartney stated that he had contributed the idea that the house should burn down, a dramatic insight into the lyric's casually obscure last three lines.[6] If so, he may also have supplied the title Lennon settled on (having begun with 'This Bird Has Flown').[7] Debatable in terms of its lyric, the musical authorship of NORWEGIAN WOOD is equally vexed. There's no doubt that Lennon wrote the modally-inflected E major tune of the verse/chorus. The lighter E minor middle eight, however, sounds more like McCartney (whose vocal line here is the melody to Lennon's harmony); in fact, when interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon attested that this section was McCartney's, which makes NORWEGIAN WOOD close to a fifty-fifty collaboration.

Supposedly about an affair Lennon was having with a journalist, the song holds the attention partly through its lyric obliqueness and partly through its unusual instrumental colour, provided by Harrison's doubling of the main descending line on sitar. The Beatles had rented a house on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles during their 1965 American tour, and it was there, on 24th August, that they met two of The Byrds, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. During a day spent tripping on LSD, an experience which later found its way into SHE SAID SHE SAID, Lennon and Harrison sat with McGuinn and Crosby playing 12-strings and discussing the music of the Indian sitar-player Ravi Shankar. Harrison had been interested in this instrument since he'd heard it used to spice up the soundtrack of Help!,[8] but it was new to Lennon who, sensitised by the 'acid', became fascinated by the exotic raga phrases Crosby played to him. Conceivably the sustained E major of his part of NORWEGIAN WOOD represents his version of the drone common to all Indian classical music, while his descending melody may have been a gesture at reproducing the Oriental intervals to which he had been introduced seven weeks earlier by The Byrds.[9]

The sitar posed limiting problems, its sharp waveforms making the VU meter needles leap into the red without leaving much sonority behind. Nor were The Beatles sure of the arrangement, going through four versions in two sessions, including a complete remake.[10] The result, from their point of view, was worth the effort. NORWEGIAN WOOD became one of the most popular tracks on Rubber Soul and a favourite among folk musicians in Britain and America.

Notes:

  1. New Musical Express, 22nd October 1965. Protest songs - then all the rage - were a particular bugbear with the apolitical Beatles, their pet hate at the time being Barry McGuire's 'Eve Of Destruction'.
  2. According to the ex-Animals' organist Alan Price, Lennon told him before the song was recorded that the other Beatles were 'taking the mickey out of him' for copying Dylan in it. Lennon had at least given up wearing a peaked 'Dylan cap' by then, this job having been assumed by Donovan.
  3. See previous note.
  4. The previous occasions were: 28th August 1964 at the Hotel Delmonico, New York; after one of Dylan's London gigs in May 1965; 13th and 16th August 1965 at the Warwick Hotel, New York.
  5. Up to a point. See their edgy conversation taped in London in May 1966 (Mojo, November 1993).
  6. Musician (February 1985). For a different explanation, see Shotton, p. 122.
  7. Aside from a reference to the Sixties fashion for Scandinavian pine interiors, Lennon admitted to having no idea why NORWEGIAN WOOD was so called.
  8. Giorgio Gomelsky, then manager of The Yardbirds, claims Jimmy Page introduced Harrison to the sitar, having bought one from an lndian musician hired to play on The Yardbirds' 'Heart Full Of Soul' around mid-March/mid-April1965. (The riff in question ended up performed on guitar by Jeff Beck.)
  9. According to artist Barry Fantoni, The Beatles got their immediate idea for using pseudo-Indian drones from The Kinks' 'See My Friend', released two months before they began work on Rubber Soul. Instead of a tambura, Ray Davies plucked the drone chord (E flat major) on his Framus 12-string before standing it near the amp so that feedback sustained it. This sound was then heavily compressed to create a pulsing effect. Pete Townshend identifies this as 'the first reasonable use of the drone' in pop, preferring it to anything comparable by The Beatles and admitting to adapting it - on The Who's My Generation album - in his similarly melancholy 'The Good's Gone' (and perhaps also in 'Out In The Street'). The Beatles would certainly have heard 'See My Friend' before they left for their August 1965 American tour and no doubt stole from it, but it would be wrong to conclude that it was the sole cause of their subsequent interest in pseudo-Indian drones. In the first place, a drone is implicit in TICKET To RIDE, which may well have influenced 'See My Friend'. In the second place, Harrison had started to listen to the music of Ravi Shankar some time before 'See My Friend' was released.
  10. The first version, issued on Anthology 2, is badly out of tune, a problem created by the sympathetic strings of the sitar. It includes extra sitar phrases on the middle eight, wisely omitted for the remake, and is (approximately) in D major, a whole tone lower than the version issued on Rubber Soul. Since the NORWEGIAN WOOD melody derives from the guitar D chord, the official 1965 release must have been either transposed (unlikely), played with capoed guitars and bass, or (likeliest) varispeeded.

Posted: 23 apr 2017