By the time The Beatles finished work on their final album as a band, they had been recording together for almost seven years. In that time, it seemed as though the world had changed completely. But the Paul McCartney-penned ‘Oh! Darling’, more than any other song on the Abbey Road album, had its roots in a time before the world had even heard of the group.
For The Beatles, 1969 was about looking back as well as forwards.
The Beatles began their final year together first at Twickenham film studios and then at their own Apple studio. The original concept was for the group, who had spent much of 1968 recording the recently released “White Album”, to return to live performance for the first time since 1966. The plan was to film them rehearsing for, and then performing, a live TV special (one of the ideas was to hire a pair of cruise ships that would take the group across the Mediterranean to an ancient amphitheatre in Tunisia), and so they needed to work up a set of songs that could be performed live.
On the second day of what would become known at first as the “Get Back” sessions, which lasted most of January 1969, Paul presented a new song, ‘Oh! Darling’, which was as much of a throwback to the 50s as that duotone shirt. The song was written in the style of a rock’n’roll ballad by The Platters or The Diamonds, whose 1957 hit ‘Little Darlin’’ had featured a spoken-word middle eight, the type that John and Paul can be heard spoofing in early versions of ‘Oh! Darling’, just as on some of their very earliest home recordings as teenagers (listen to ‘You’ll Be Mine’ from Anthology 1). As George Harrison explained, “The chord structure is very nice. It’s typical of a 1955-type song.”
The Beatles returned to ‘Oh! Darling’ many times throughout January (an almost-complete version features on Anthology 3), but when those sessions came to an end to allow Ringo to honour his movie-making commitments, it, like so many of the huge pile of numbers debuted that month, was never recorded to their satisfaction.
It was only a matter of weeks before the group found themselves back in the studio working on more songs. Between February and August 1969, they recorded the tracks included on Abbey Road, an album named after the the location of the studio where so many of their greatest works had been created, and which would see John, Paul, George and Ringo work together for the last time.
At a session on 20 April, The Beatles returned to ‘Oh! Darling’. The final of 26 takes was deemed best and would become the basic backing track, but it was the vocal delivery that Paul believed would make or break the song.
As he recounted in the Barry Miles-penned biography Many Years From Now, “I mainly remember wanting to get the vocal right, wanting to get it good, and I ended up trying each morning as I came into the recording session. I tried it with a hand mic, and I tried it with a standing mic, I tried it every which way, and finally got the vocal I was reasonably happy with. It’s a bit of a belter… It was unusual for me; I would normally try all the goes at a vocal in one day.”
Engineer Geoff Emerick backed up Paul’s version of events: “Every day we’d be treated to a hell of a performance as McCartney put his all into singing the song… with 50s-style tape echo… once and once only, nearly ripping his vocal cords to shreds in the process.”
As the group intensified work on Abbey Road, devoting much of July and August to the project, Paul finally captured that extraordinary vocal we hear on the album on 23 July.
Overdubs continued through August – including sublime backing vocals from John and George. The completed song, while clearly stylistically a tribute to those 50s records The Beatles had all fallen in love with as teenagers, was a no-holds-barred performance that demonstrated quite how far they had come – and from where.
When talking about the song in 1980, John Lennon reflected, “That’s a great song of Paul’s,” before joking, “I always thought I could have done it better – it was more my style than his. He wrote it, so what the hell, he’s going to sing it.”