If I Needed Someone (as made famous by The Beatles)

“If I Needed Someone” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles, written by George Harrison. It was released in December 1965 on their album Rubber Soul, except for in North America, where it appeared on the 1966 release Yesterday and Today. The song reflects Harrison’s nascent interest in Indian classical music and, through its folk rock styling and use of Rickenbacker twelve-string electric guitar, it serves as an example of the influences exchanged between the Beatles and the American group the Byrds during the mid 1960s. A recording by the Hollies was issued in Britain on the same day as Rubber Soul and peaked at number 20 on the national singles chart. This success gave Harrison his first chart hit as a songwriter, although his criticism of the Hollies’ performance led to a terse exchange in the press between the two groups.

Harrison wrote “If I Needed Someone” as a love song to Pattie Boyd, the English model whom he married in January 1966. The lyrics convey an ambivalent tone, however, and have invited interpretation as a message to a casual love interest. Harrison based the song’s guitar riff on that used by Roger McGuinn in the Byrds’ adaptation of “The Bells of Rhymney”. Following its inclusion in the set list for the Beatles’ 1965 UK tour, the song became the only Harrison composition performed live by the group during their years of international fame.

On release, “If I Needed Someone” was widely considered to be Harrison’s best song to date. Aside from the Hollies, several artists covered the track in the first year after its release, including the American bands Stained Glass and the Kingsmen. A live recording by Harrison, taken from his 1991 tour with Eric Clapton, appears on the album Live in Japan. Clapton also performed the song at the Concert for George tribute to Harrison in 2002, while McGuinn released a cover version on his 2004 album Limited Edition.

In addition to reflecting George Harrison’s interest in Indian classical music,[2] “If I Needed Someone” was inspired by the music of the Byrds, who in turn had based their sound on that of the Beatles after seeing the band’s 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night.[3][4] According to music journalist David Fricke, the composition resulted from “a remarkable exchange of influences” between the Beatles and the Byrds.[5] The two bands formed a friendship in early August 1965[6] when Harrison and John Lennon attended the Byrds’ first shows in London,[7][8] after which Harrison lauded them in the press as “the American Beatles”.[9][10] Towards the end of that month, the Byrds’ Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby met up with the Beatles in Los Angeles, where they discussed with Lennon and Harrison the music of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and American Indo-jazz pioneer John Coltrane.[11] The meeting led to Harrison introducing the sitar on Lennon’s song “Norwegian Wood”,[12][13] and to Crosby and McGuinn incorporating Indian influences into the Byrds’ “Why”[11] and “Eight Miles High”.[14]

I’ll tell you about that song. It was just purely based on the Rickenbacker 12-string sound. Just as the Byrds were influenced by the Beatles, we were influenced by the Byrds.[15]
– George Harrison, 1987
Harrison later likened “If I Needed Someone” to “a million other songs” that are based on a guitarist’s finger movements around the D major chord.[16][nb 1] The song is founded on a riff played on a Rickenbacker 360/12[18][19] – the same twelve-string electric guitar that McGuinn had adopted as the Byrds’ signature instrument after seeing Harrison playing one in A Hard Day’s Night.[20][21] In late 1965, Harrison acknowledged the Byrds’ influence on “If I Needed Someone” when he sent a copy of the Beatles’ new album, Rubber Soul, along with a message for McGuinn and Crosby,[22] to Derek Taylor, the Byrds’ publicist.[23][24] In his note, Harrison said that the riff was based on the one that McGuinn had played on the Byrds’ adaptation of “The Bells of Rhymney”,[25] and that the rhythm was based on the drum part in “She Don’t Care About Time”.[26][nb 2] McGuinn later recalled: “George was very open about it. He sent [the record] to us in advance and said, ‘This is for Jim’ – because of that lick [in ‘The Bells of Rhymney’].”[5][30]

Writing in The Beatles Anthology, Harrison commented on the difficulties he faced as a nascent songwriter during this period, relative to Lennon and Paul McCartney, both of whom had been writing “since they were three years old”.[31][nb 3] He said he wrote “If I Needed Someone” as a love song to Pattie Boyd, the English model whom he married soon after the song’s release.[19][32] The lyrics have nevertheless invited interpretation as being about a groupie or, in the words of music journalist Robert Fontenot, “some other attempt by the singer to juggle two affairs at once”.[33] Author Peter Doggett comments on Harrison’s inspiration, in the context of the Beatlemania that continually encroached on the band’s lifestyle: “‘If I Needed Someone’ may be the first pop song written from the jaded, though not quite exhausted viewpoint of a man who had women lined up outside his hotel door in every city of the world.”[4]

As recorded by the Beatles, “If I Needed Someone” is in the key of A major, over the verses, and B minor in the middle eights (or bridges).[34] The time signature throughout is 4/4. After its introduction, the composition consists of two verses, a bridge, three verses (the second of which serves as an instrumental break), followed by a repeat of the bridge, a further verse, and an outro.[35] The song is in the folk rock style,[36] but incorporates aspects of Indian music through the suggestion of drone over the main musical phrase[37] and its partly Mixolydian harmony.[33] Harrison uses a capo on the guitar’s seventh fret,[18] thereby transposing the D major chord shape to sound as A major.[38]

The Mixolydian melody in the verses comprises the notes A, G, B, C♯ and D, partly mirroring the riff, and is delivered in the same syncopated phrasing.[35] On the fifth bar of each verse, a B melody-note sounds over a ♭VII triad – a chord that musicologist Dominic Pedler terms a G/A “slash” polychord, similar to that used at the start of “A Hard Day’s Night”.[39] The implied drone, or pedal point, in A continues under this new chord,[35][37] aided by the arpeggiated bass line remaining in A.[38] The verses retain an ascendant melodic quality due to the syncopated delivery,[37] the three-part harmonies in the vocal arrangement, and the constant bass figure.[40]

Over the bridges, the new key is set fully in the minor mode, avoiding the Dorian inflections present in previous Harrison songs.[41] These sections begin on an E minor chord, which, in Roman numeral analysis, represents a v minor in the tonic of A and an iv minor in the new key.[42] At the end of each bridge, the return to the home key is effected via an E major chord, marking the only use of the expected G♯ note in the A major scale.[35]

Author Jonathan Gould describes “If I Needed Someone” as “a rueful rain check of a love song” and “an exercise in hypothetical romance”.[43] He comments that the melody’s phrasing on the off-beat and the “drastically arpeggiated” bass line mirror the lyrical theme of “right person at the wrong time”.[40] The lyrics reflect the influence of Bob Dylan, in terms of tone[44] and content.[45] Further to the message of the song title, Harrison offers his love only if he should happen to need “someone”, and on the condition that time allows for such a relationship, and he conveys his feelings in matter-of-fact terms.[46][47] In Fontenot’s description, the lyrics “are representative of the change in the Beatles’ outlook and also of its era: tender but ambivalent”.[33] Harrison invites the woman he addresses to “Carve your number on my wall”, yet offers only the possibility that he will contact her in the future.[48]

Over the two bridges,[49] Harrison presents a more engaged perspective.[48] He states that he’s “too much in love”, but had he and his lover met “some other day”, the outcome might have been different.[50] Fontenot cites these lyrics as the reason why some commentators attach an alternative meaning to the song,[33] whereby the singer is already in a committed relationship and is addressing another woman, with the prospect of continuing a casual encounter.[46][51][nb 4] While considering that Harrison appears to be “playing his options, albeit gently”, author John Kruth deems the line “Carve your number on my wall” to be “one of Rubber Soul’s most enigmatic lyrics” and an evocation of the imagery in “Norwegian Wood”.[32][nb 5]

George Martin, the band’s producer, described Rubber Soul as “the first album to present a new, growing Beatles to the world”.[55] Throughout the project, the Beatles increasingly experimented with sound textures.[44][56] In the case of “If I Needed Someone”, as with “Girl”, a Lennon composition recorded towards the end of the sessions, the use of a guitar capo midway along the instrument’s neck introduced a brighter tone to the group’s guitar sound.[57] Their use of three-part harmonies on the song was also typical of the warmer, more mature sound they achieved on Rubber Soul.[58][59]

The Beatles taped the rhythm track of “If I Needed Someone” at EMI Studios in London, in a single take, on 16 October 1965.[60] The recording took place just before midnight at the end of a session dedicated to their next single, “Day Tripper”.[61] Harrison played his new, 1965 Rickenbacker 360/12 on the song.[62][nb 6] According to musicologist Walter Everett, the sound of Harrison’s chiming guitar, combined with that of Lennon’s Fender Stratocaster rhythm part, produced “the Beatles’ brightest guitar sound yet”, and so served as “a fitting tribute to the Byrds”.[38] Using his new Rickenbacker 4001S bass,[65] McCartney’s playing on the track inaugurated an ostinato-heavy style that would feature prominently on the band’s 1966 recordings, particularly the song “Rain”.[66]

The group carried out their vocal overdubs during the afternoon of 18 October.[61][67] Over the instrumental break and the outro, the harmonies consist of McCartney singing a third above and Lennon a tenth below Harrison’s double-tracked lead vocal.[40] During the same session, Ringo Starr added a tambourine part.[61][67] Although some Beatles authors credit Martin as having played harmonium, Fontenot says this contribution is inaudible on the completed track.[33] A mono mix of the song was made on 25 October, and a stereo mix on 26 October – the day the Beatles collected their MBEs from Buckingham Palace.[68]

EMI’s Parlophone label released Rubber Soul on 3 December 1965,[69] with “If I Needed Someone” sequenced as the penultimate track.[70] In the United States – where Capitol Records typically altered the content of the Beatles’ albums, reducing the number of songs and using single A- and B-sides to create further album releases[71][72] – the track instead appeared on the North American album Yesterday and Today in June 1966.[73] The song was widely considered to be Harrison’s best composition to date;[2][74] according to music critic Richie Unterberger, “If I Needed Someone” and “Think for Yourself”, which also appeared on the UK version of Rubber Soul, were the first Harrison-written songs “to really make people sit up and notice”.[48] In his review for the NME, Allen Evans described it as “a quick-tempo up-beater” and a “more-ish track”.[75][76] McCartney later said he considered “If I Needed Someone” to be the first of Harrison’s “landmark” songs for the group.[77]

Beginning with the band’s UK tour in December 1965, “If I Needed Someone” replaced “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, written by Carl Perkins, as Harrison’s vocal spot in the Beatles’ live shows.[78][79] “If I Needed Someone” thereby became the only Harrison composition that the Beatles played in concert during their touring years.[48][80][nb 7] In addition, with the group finding it increasingly difficult to replicate their studio recordings in concert,[82] it was one of only two Rubber Soul tracks that they performed live, the other being “Nowhere Man”.[83] The song’s inclusion in their set list throughout 1966 marked the only time that Harrison continued to use his Rickenbacker 360/12 on stage during the group’s final year as live performers.[84] In their concerts that year, McCartney introduced Indian-style melisma into his singing on “If I Needed Someone”, similar to the vocal ornamentation he had used on the recording of Harrison’s Revolver track “I Want to Tell You”.[85] In a segment subtitled “Beatlemania goes sour”, the 1982 documentary The Compleat Beatles used a clip from the Beatles’ ragged performance of the song, at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo,[86] as an illustration of the growing division between the band as recording artists and live performers.[87]

In November 1995, “If I Needed Someone” was issued as the B-side of “Norwegian Wood” on a jukebox single, pressed on green vinyl.[88] The release was part of a series of Beatles jukebox singles issued by Capitol’s CEMA Special Markets division.[89] The song was also one of the Beatles tracks that Capitol included on the compilation album The Best of George Harrison,[90] released in 1976 following the expiration of Harrison’s contract with EMI.[91][92]

In late October 1965, the Hollies were brought a demo of “If I Needed Someone” by their producer, Ron Richards, who had received the demo from George Martin.[94][nb 8] At this stage of their career, most of the Hollies’ singles were written by outside writers,[98] yet the band were divided about whether to record a Beatles song, given the traditional rivalry between the two groups’ hometowns, Liverpool and Manchester.[99] With Graham Nash and Allan Clarke keen to record the song,[100] the Hollies accepted it as the follow-up to their recent hit “Look Through Any Window”.[94] The group recorded their version in three takes on 17 November 1965, in the same studio as the Beatles. Backed by the Clarke–Hicks–Nash composition “I’ve Got a Way of My Own”, the single was released by Parlophone on 3 December, the same day as Rubber Soul.[101][nb 9]

“If I Needed Someone” was the first Harrison composition to become a chart hit, as a result of the Hollies’ cover.[48][103] Their version peaked at number 20 in Britain,[104] but by their standards at the time, it was one of their least successful singles.[98][105] Many listeners perceived the song as the Hollies attempting to align themselves with the Beatles.[101] In one of his articles covering the Beatles’ concurrent UK tour, Alan Smith of the NME quoted Harrison as saying that the Hollies’ version was “rubbish”[106] and that “the way they do their records, they sound like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before. Technically good, yes. But that’s all.”[107] Lennon also criticised their treatment of the song,[98] having long disliked the Hollies’ sound.[94][108] These comments incensed Nash,[109][110] who responded by saying that he was tired of Lennon’s continual insults and would “back any of us boys against the Beatles musically any time”.[93] In January 1966, at a press conference following his and Boyd’s wedding, Harrison laughed off a reporter’s question as to whether he had invited the Hollies to the ceremony, adding that the issue had “just got out of hand”.[93][111]

Although he and Harrison later became “great friends”,[103] Nash attributed the single’s relatively low chart position to Harrison’s derision of the group’s performance.[102][109] Author Ian Inglis writes that the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash – comprising Crosby from the Byrds, Nash from the Hollies, and ex-Buffalo Springfield guitarist Stephen Stills – brought the connections behind “If I Needed Someone” “full circle”.[47][nb 10] Everett comments that the three-part parallel harmony singing, for which Crosby, Stills & Nash were “revered”, suggests the influence of “If I Needed Someone”.[113]

George Harrison – double-tracked lead vocal, lead guitar
John Lennon – harmony vocal, rhythm guitar
Paul McCartney – harmony vocal, bass guitar
Ringo Starr – drums, tambourine
George Martin – harmonium