I have to tell you what I learned today while researching for this song both shocks and saddens me. I really hope there was an agreement off the books where John and Paul were giving George and Ringo money. If they weren’t, a crime of ethics has been committed in my opinion.
Yellow Submarine is the tenth studio album by English rock band the Beatles, released on January 13, 1969 in the United States and on 17 January 1969 in the United Kingdom. It was issued as the soundtrack to the animated film of the same name, which premiered in London in July 1968. The album contains six songs by the Beatles, including four new songs and the previously released “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love”. The remainder of the album is a re-recording of the film’s orchestral soundtrack by the band’s producer, George Martin. The album was recorded before – and issued two months after – the band’s self-titled double LP (also known as the “White Album”) and was not viewed by the band as a significant release.
“Only a Northern Song” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1969 soundtrack album Yellow Submarine. Written by George Harrison, it was the first of four songs the band provided for the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, to meet their contractual obligations to United Artists.
Harrison wrote “Only a Northern Song” out of dissatisfaction with his status as a junior songwriter with the Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs. The lyrics and music convey his disenchantment at how the company retained the copyright for the songs it published, and at how, following its public listing in 1965, the major shareholders profited more from his compositions than he did. The recording features Hammond organ, played by Harrison, and an overdubbed montage of assorted sounds including trumpet blasts and spoken voices, anticipating John Lennon’s 1968 sound collage “Revolution 9”. Due to the difficulty in assembling the completed track from two tape sources, “Only a Northern Song” remained a rare song from the Beatles’ post-1963 catalogue that was unavailable in true stereo until 1999.
George Harrison said that the subject matter for “Only a Northern Song” related to both his city of birth, Liverpool, in Merseyside, and the fact that the copyright for the composition belonged to the Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs. Author Brian Southall describes the song as Harrison’s “personal denunciation of the Beatles’ music publishing business”, given his disadvantageous position with Northern Songs. The company was floated on the London Stock Exchange in February 1965, as a means of saving John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ principal songwriters, the tax liability generated through the international success of their catalogue. Harrison had formed his own publishing company, Harrisongs, in late 1964; despite the financial advantages offered by his 80 per cent stake in that company, he agreed to remain with Northern Songs, to aid the flotation scheme. Among the four Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were major shareholders in Northern Songs, each owning 15 per cent of the public company’s shares, and the pair earned considerable wealth over the first year of the flotation. Harrison and Ringo Starr, as contracted songwriters, owned 0.8 per cent each. This arrangement ensured that, in addition to the company retaining the copyright of all its published songs, Lennon and McCartney profited more from Harrison’s compositions than he did.
The composition is a meta-song, in that its subject is the work itself. While commenting on the pointlessness of writing for Northern Songs, Harrison employs musical dissonance to express his dissatisfaction with the company. In musicologist Walter Everett’s description, this is achieved through the use of “ill-behaved tones” and “wrong-mode” chords.
If you’re listening to this song
You may think the chords are going wrong
But they’re not
We just wrote them like that
If you’re listening late at night
You may think the band are not quite right
But they are
The just play it like that
And it doesn’t really matter what chords I play
What words I say
Or time of day it is
As it’s only a Northern song
It doesn’t really matter what clothes I wear
What words I pair
Or if my hair is brown
‘Cause it’s only a Northern song
If you think the harmony
Is a little dull and out of key
‘Cause there’s nobody there
And it’s only there’s no one there
Songwriters: George Harrison
(c) United Artists/King Features Syndicate