Song Facts: The Beatles — "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
By the fall of 1965, the Beatles and George Martin had come to regard the recording studio as a place to experiment, think outside the box and slowly pull away from their tried-and-true formulas.
On October 12 of that year, they did just that, recording a brilliant new John Lennon composition inspired by a clandestine affair he was having at the time. The recording would feature an exciting new tool, George Harrison's sitar.
The exotic stringed instrument wasn't new only to Harrison and the Beatles, but to all of pop music—although an unreleased early version of the Yardbirds' June 1965 single, "Heart Full of Soul," features a sitar, and the Kinks' "See My Friends," released in July, is clearly raga-inspired, with the guitar calling to mind the sound and timbre of a sitar. Perhaps British recording engineers hadn't had very rewarding sitar experiences in the past.
"It was very hard to record [the sitar] because it has a lot of nasty peaks and a very complex wave form," said EMI engineer Norman Smith. "My meter would be going right over into the red, into distortion, without us getting audible value for money."
The October 12 version of the song, then called simply "This Bird Has Flown," features the sitar in the intro and in the middle eight, as Harrison, sometimes clumsily, mimics Paul McCartney's harmony vocal. Also notable about the October 12 recording is that Ringo Starr is playing drums.
Unhappy with the first version, the band attempted the song nine days later, when, on the fourth take, they nailed it. Lennon's acoustic guitar opens the track, and Starr, as he did for "And I Love Her," eschews drums completely, in favor of other percussive instruments, in this case finger cymbals and a tambourine.
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. Fanelli, a former member of Brooklyn jump-blues/swing/rockabilly band the Gas House Gorillas and New York City instrumental surf-rock band Mister Neutron, also composes and records film soundtracks. He writes GuitarWorld.com's The Next Bend column, which is dedicated to B-bender guitars and guitarists. His latest liner notes can be found in Sony/Legacy's Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram.