How Lennon and McCartney Composed “A Little Help From My Friends”

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The Following extract is taken from ‘The Beatles: The Only Ever Authorised Biography’ by Hunter Davies. Hunter was blessed with a fantastic opportunity to watch the most successful songwriters of all time write a hit. The book can be purchased here. Hopefully this will be of invaluable use to budding songwriters.

In March 1967 they were getting towards the end of the Sergeant Pepper album. They were halfway through a song for Ringo, a Ringo sort of song, which they’d begun the day before.

At two o’clock in the afternoon John arrived at Paul’s house in St John’s Wood. They both went up to Paul’s workroom at the top of the house. It is a narrow, rectangular room, full of stereophonic equipment and amplifiers. There is a large triptych of Jane Asher on the wall and a large silver piece of sculpture by Paolozzi, shaped like a fireplace with Dalek heads on top.

John started playing his guitar and Paul started banging on the piano. For a couple of hours, they both banged away. Each of them seemed to be in a trance till the other came up with something good and he would pluck it out of a mass of noises and try it himself.

They’d already got the tune the previous afternoon, a gentle lilting tune, and its name, ‘A Little Help From My Friends’. Now they were trying to polish up the melody and think of some words to go with it.

Are you afraid when you turn out the light,’ sang John. Paul sang it after him and nodded. John said they could use that idea for all the verses, if they could think of some more questions on those lines.

Do you believe in love at first sight,’ sang John. ‘No,’ he said, stopping singing . ‘It hasn’t got the right number of syllables. What do you think? Can we split it up and have a pause to give it an extra syllable?’

John then sang the line, breaking it in the middle: ‘Do you believe – ugh – in love at first sight.’

‘How about,’ said Paul, ‘Do you believe in a love at first sight.’

John sang it over and accepted it. In singing it, he added the next line, ‘Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time.’

They both then sang the two lines to themselves, la-la-ing all the other lines. Apart from this, all they’d got was the chorus. ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.’ John found himself singing ‘Would you believe,’ which he thought was better.

Then they changed the order round, singing the two lines ‘Would you believe in a love at first sight Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time’, before going on to ‘Are you afraid when you turn out the light’, but they still had to la-la the fourth line, which they couldn’t think of.

It was now about five o’clock. Cynthia, John’s wife arrived, wearing sunglasses, accompanied by Terry Doran, one of their (and Brian Epstein’s) old Liverpool friends. John and Paul kept on playing. Cyn picked up a paperback book and started reading. Terry produced a magazine about horoscopes.

John and Paul were singing their three lines over and over again, searching for a fourth.

‘What’s a rhyme for time?’ said John. ‘Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time. It’s got to rhyme with that line.’

‘How about, “I just feel fine”,’ suggested Cyn.

‘No,’ said John. ‘You never use the word just. It’s meaningless. It’s a fill-in word.’

John sang ‘I know it’s mine’ but nobody took much notice. It didn’t make much sense, coming after ‘Are you afraid when you turn out the light’. Somebody said it sounded obscene.

Terry asked what my birthday was. I said 7 January. Paul stopped playing, although it had looked as if he was completely concentrating on the song, and said, ‘Heh, that’s our kids birthday as well.’ He listened while Terry read out the horoscope. Then he went back to doodling on the piano.

In the middle of the doodling, Paul suddenly started to play ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. John joined in, singing it very loudly, laughing and shouting. Then Paul began another song on the piano, ‘Tequila’. They both joined in again, shouting and laughing even louder. Terry and Cyn went on reading.

‘Remember in Germany,’ said John. ‘We used to shout out anything.’

They played the song again. This time John shouted out different things in each pause in the music. ‘Knickers’ and ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ and ‘tit’ and ‘Hitler’.

They both stopped all the shouting and larking around, as suddenly as they’d begun it. They went back, very quietly, to the song they were supposed to be working on. ‘What do you see when you turn out the light,’ sang John, trying slightly new words to their existing line, missing out ‘afraid’. Then he followed it with another line, ‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.’ By slightly rewording it, he’d made it fit in.

Paul said yes, that would do. He wrote down the finished four lines on a sheet of exercise paper propped up in front of him on his piano. They now had one whole verse, as well as the chorus. Paul got up and wandered round the room. John moved to the piano.

‘How about a piece of amazing cake from Basingstoke,’ said Paul, taking down a piece of rock-hard cake from a shelf. ‘It’ll do for a trifle,’ said John. Paul made a face. Terry and Cynthia were still quietly reading.

Paul got a sitar from a corner and sat down and started to tune it, shushing John to keep quiet for a minute. John sat still at the piano, looking blankly out of the window.

Outside in the front courtyard of Paul’s house, the eyes and foreheads of six girls could just be seen peering over the front wall. Then the girls dropped, exhausted, on to the pavement beyond. A few minutes later they appeared again, hanging on till their strength gave way. John Peered vacantly into space through his round, wire spectacles. Then he began to play a hymn on the piano, singing words that he made up as he went along.

‘Backs to the wall, if you want to see His Face.’

Then he seemed to jump in the air and started banging out a hearty rugby song. ‘Let’s write a rugby song, eh.’ No one listened to him.

Paul had got his sitar tuned and was playing some notes on it, the same ones over and over again. He got up again and wandered round the room. John picked up the sitar this time, but he couldn’t get comfortable with it. Paul told him that he had to sit on the floor with his legs crossed and place it in the bowl of his foot. Paul said that George did it that way, it felt uncomfortable at first, but after a few centuries you got used to it. John tried it, then gave up and placed it against a chair.

‘Heh,’ said John to Terry, ‘did you get to the place?’

‘Yeh, I got you three coats, like George’s.’

‘Great,’ said John, very excited. ‘Where are they then?’

‘I paid by cheque and they wouldn’t let me have them till tomorrow.’

‘Oh,’ said John. ‘Couldn’t you have said who they were for? You should have said they were for Godfrey Winn. I want them now.’

‘They’ll be OK tomorrow,’ said Paul. ‘There’s some more stuff to get tomorrow. Don’t worry.’

Paul then went back to his guitar and started to sing and play a very slow, beautiful song about a foolish man sitting on the hill. John listened to it quietly, staring blankly out the window, almost as if he wasn’t listening. Paul sang it many times, la-la-ing words he hadn’t thought of yet. When at last he finished, John said he’d better write the words down or he’d forget them. Paul said it was OK. He wouldn’t forget them. It was the first time Paul had played it for John. There was no discussion.

It was getting near seven o’clock, almost time to go round the corner to the EMI recording studios. They decided to ring Ringo, to tell him his song was finished – which it wasn’t – and that they would record it that evening. John picked up the phone. After a lot of playing around, he finally got through, but it was engaged. ‘If I hold on, does that mean I eventually get through?’

‘No, you have to hang up,’ said Paul.