Norwegian Wood was a landmark recording for The Beatles, being one of the first Western pop songs to feature the sitar, an Indian instrument.
John Lennon had the idea for the song while on a skiing holiday with his wife Cynthia, in St Moritz in the Swiss Alps. They were joined by George Martin, who injured himself early on in the holiday, and his future wife Judy Lockhart-Smith.
It was during this time that John was writing songs for Rubber Soul, and one of the songs he composed in the hotel bedroom, while we were all gathered around, nursing my broken foot, was a little ditty he would play to me on his acoustic guitar. The song was Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) demonstrated the continuing influence of Bob Dylan upon The Beatles’ music. Dylan himself responded with 4th Time Around on 1966’s Blonde On Blonde album, which shares a similar melody and lyrical theme.
The song was about an extra-marital relationship Lennon was having at the time. His friend Pete Shotton later suggested that the woman in question was a journalist – possibly Maureen Cleave, a close friend to Lennon.
Norwegian Wood is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Although begun in Switzerland, Norwegian Wood was completed as a collaboration between Lennon and Paul McCartney. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon attributed the middle section to McCartney, although in a 1980 interview with Playboy he called it “my song completely”.
I came in and he had this first stanza, which was brilliant: ‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.’ That was all he had, no title, no nothing. I said, ‘Oh yes, well, ha, we’re there.’ And it wrote itself. Once you’ve got the great idea, they do tend to write themselves, providing you know how to write songs. So I picked it up at the second verse, it’s a story. It’s him trying to pull a bird, it was about an affair. John told Playboy that he hadn’t the faintest idea where the title came from but I do. Peter Asher had his room done out in wood, a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, Cheap Pine, baby…
So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath’. In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In February 1965 The Yardbirds recorded a single, Heart Full Of Soul, with a sitar player. Although the part was later re-recorded on a guitar by Jeff Beck, it is possible that The Beatles – who appeared on a bill with The Yardbirds in June, the month Heart Full Of Soul was released – would have been aware of the burgeoning influence of Indian music upon the group’s sound.
In April The Kinks recorded See My Friends, which featured a pseudo-Indian drone and an approximation of a sitar played by Dave Davies on a guitar. His brother Ray Davies, who wrote the song, had become interested in Indian music since visiting the country on a tour stopover in December 1964.
By the time of See My Friends’ release, George Harrison had begun listening to Indian music. He had first encountered a sitar during the filming of Help!, in a restaurant scene filmed at Twickenham Studios on 5 and 6 April 1965.
I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.
Interestingly, Norwegian Wood wasn’t the first Beatles recording to feature a sitar. The North American version of the Help! album featured an instrumental, called Another Hard Day’s Night; a medley of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘I Should Have Known Better’ performed on a sitar, tablas, flute and finger cymbals.
Another Hard Day’s Night was the recording which soundtracked the film’s restaurant scene. Although The Beatles didn’t perform on it, the US Help! album was issued in August 1965, four months prior to Rubber Soul.
In the studio
The Beatles began recording Norwegian Wood in the evening of 12 October 1965, under the working title This Bird Has Flown. They spent much of the session rehearsing and arranging the song, eventually taping just one track and a series of overdubs.
George had just got the sitar and I said, ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Just do it how you want to do it,’ and I said, ‘I just want to do it like this.’ They let me go and I did the guitar very loudly into the mike and sang it at the same time, and then George had the sitar and I asked him could he play the piece that I’d written, dee diddley dee diddley dee, that bit – and he was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learnt the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
The original version went unreleased until Anthology 2 in 1996, and The Beatles remade the song in three takes on 21 October. The first of these – numbered take two – featured a heavy sitar introduction and no bass. Take three was mainly acoustic with no sitar, and take four was the final version, which featured the sitar part overdubbed once the rhythm track was complete.