Only a Northern Song - The Beatles

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"Only a Northern Song" - The Beatles (1967)

“Only a Northern Song” was George Harrison personal condemnation of the music publishing industry. George himself described the song as a joke relating to “Liverpool, Holy City in the North of England.”

He and Ringo had much to complain about as while the two musicians were key players in turning the songwriting talents of McCartney and Lennon into huge riches for them, they received literally none of the publishing or song writing royalties that only McCartney and Lennon received. In fact, until he established his own songwriting company, McCartney and Lennon’s publishing company, Northern Songs, retained the copyright of his songs and earned tens of percent more in royalties than he did. George felt he was nothing more than a “writer on contract” for Northern Songs.

The song’s overall tone is, what Beatle scholar Ian MacDonald called “nonchalant and mild dissonance.” He wrote that the nasally sarcastic key-changes complemented the suppressed bitterness of Harrison’s lyric.

Lennon’s wailing background vocals near the end gives the song’s out-of-control feel. A basic drum and bass hold the song together, with an organ providing additional basic rhythms. Although the track loses control at times and stretches musical boundaries it does so without becoming too avant-garde.

Dr. James Spiegel points out that lyrics of the song counterbalance the hysteria and near worship of the band’s music, if only by reminding fans of the obvious fact that they were only making music. For instance, “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play…As it’s only a Northern song.”

In her essay “The Beatles and the Struggle Against Inauthenticity”, Erin Kealey writes that the tranquility of inauthenticity includes the belief that we already have answers to questions we may develop. In this song, we are told that the chords and words of the song, not to mention the time of day or their clothes and hair, are all meaningless. If we come up with questions about their music, we can be assured that “it doesn’t really matter” because “it’s only a Northern Song.”

But, she wonders, maybe the prearranged answers won’t suffice. For instance, The Beatles also tell us: “If you think the harmony / is a little dark and out of key/you’re correct, there’s nobody there.”
Kealey points out that it is at this moment, the Beatles break through the assurance of tranquility to give us an insight into our struggle with the dominant interpretations of Inauthenticity.

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