Today the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single was released in the U.S., not a moment too soon for Brian Epstein, who was anxious that The Beatles had been out of the spotlight for so long. It seems ridiculous now, when artists frequently go years between albums, but in 1967 a few months with no new material was a long time.

The single was successful, both in the States and in the U.K. (where it would be released this coming Friday), but didn’t chart as well as it would have if it hadn’t been a double A-side. This essentially split the sales and airplay between the two songs, though it did manage to top the U.S. charts for one week.

In the studio, the first order of the day was to create new mixes of “A Day in the Life” incorporating yesterday’s orchestra session. The song was still not finished at this point, with the final piano chord yet to be added, but it was getting there.

The rest of the day was devoted to recording nine takes of a new George Harrison song. In keeping with George’s usual practice, it was untitled at this point; it would later acquire the title “Only a Northern Song.” Spoiler alert: this song did not make the cut for Sgt. Pepper, though it was later repurposed to help fill out the Yellow Submarine album.

This was something of a low ebb for George, who must have been feeling left out of the creative explosion happening around him. He was also bitter about the way his publishing deal had been set up (“Northern Songs” is the name of the publishing company to which he was contracted) and felt, not without justification, that his songs were not taken as seriously as John and Paul’s. In Here, There and Everywhere Geoff Emerick admits:

In general, sessions where we did George Harrison songs were approached differently. Everybody would relax – there was a definite sense that it really didn’t matter.

Says George:

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

At the same time, George seemed to recognize that this was not his best work. “I think he was actually a bit embarrassed about the song – his guitar playing had no attitude, as if he didn’t care,” says Emerick. The last verse kind of says it all.

If you think the harmony
Is a little dull and out of key
You’re correct
’Cause there’s nobody there
And it’s only there’s no one there

Having said that, I would still argue that “Only a Northern Song” isn’t entirely without merit. Take the first two verses:

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

Here George, the first Beatle to experiment with dissonance in “I Want to Tell You,” is groping his way toward something — a challenge, maybe, to the listener to rethink his or her idea of what sounds good. How wrong would if have to sound before you would stop listening? Or would you happily snap up anything with the word “Beatles” on it? Notice also how well this resonates with the opening lines of “With a Little Help from My Friends” (“What would you think if I sang out of tune/Would you stand up and walk out on me?”).

In one or more of the parallel universes, “Northern Song” is given the tender loving care devoted to Lennon/McCartney songs and evolves into something strange and interesting, something that takes the place of one of Sgt. Pepper’s lesser songs. And maybe the album itself evolves in a slightly different direction, one that really explores the idea of an alternate Beatles in a way that Pepper only scratches the surface of.

Well, never mind. It’s only a Northern song.

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