"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" is a song by The Beatles which first appeared on the 1965 album Rubber Soul. While credited to Lennon/McCartney, it was primarily written by John Lennon, though Paul McCartney contributed to the middle eight section. It is notable as one of the first Western pop songs with an Indian musical instrument — John Lennon's guitar is accompanied by George Harrison on the sitar. The song is a lilting acoustic ballad featuring Lennon's lead vocal and signature Beatle harmonies in the middle eight.
"Norwegian Wood" was one of several songs on Rubber Soul in which the singer faces an antagonistic relationship with a woman. In direct contrast to earlier Beatles songs such as "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the songs on Rubber Soul were considerably darker in their outlook towards romantic relationships.
The exotic instrumentation and oblique lyric represented one of the first indications to fans of the expanding musical vocabulary and experimental approach that the group was rapidly adopting.
It was Harrison, who would later be strongly influenced by transcendental meditation
and eventually become a Hindu
for the remainder of his life, who decided on using a sitar when the Beatles recorded the song on the 12th
of October, 1965
. As he recounted later:
- We were waiting to shoot the restaurant scene [in Help! the movie] ... where the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, "This is a funny sound." It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar's name.... So I went and bought a Ravi record; put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can't explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. It just called on me.... I bought a cheap sitar from a shop called India Craft in London. I hadn't really figured out what to do with it. But when we were working on "Norwegian Wood" it just needed something. It was quite spontaneous ... I just picked it up and found the notes and just played it. We miked it up and put it on and it just seemed to hit the spot. The Beatles Anthology
The song is written in E major. Although the motif for the melody, the first six notes, sounds as if it is directly lifted from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, they are in fact drawn from the antarã [upper-octave variation] of a well-known gat [fixed composition set to a rhythmic accompaniment] of the late-night rāga Bageshree, in Hindustani classical music.
The lyrics of the song sketch an encounter between the singer and an unnamed girl. They drink wine in her room and talk into the night. However, at 2 A.M. the unnamed girl ceases their flirtation, which the speaker may have been hoping to end in consummation, declaring "it's time for bed", leaving him to crawl off to "sleep in the bath" alone.
"Norwegian Wood" refers to the cheap pinewood that often finished the interiors of working class British flats. The last verse states that the singer lights a fire, the implication being that the singer in fact sets fire to the girl's flat, presumably as revenge for not sleeping with the singer.
McCartney himself states the final line of the song indicates that the singer burned the home of the girl. As he explained:
- Peter Asher [brother of McCartney's then-girlfriend Jane Asher] had just done his room out in wood, and a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine, really, just cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, is it, "Cheap Pine"? It was a little parody, really, on those kind of girls who, when you'd get back to their flat, there would be a lot of Norwegian wood. It was completely imaginary from my point of view, but not from John's. It was based on an affair he had. She made him sleep in the bath and then, finally, in the last verse, I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as a revenge. She led him on and said, "You'd better sleep in the bath." And in our world, that meant the guy having some sort of revenge, so it meant burning the place down....
This exchange took place in a press conference in Los Angeles:
- Reporter: I'd like to direct this question to messrs. Lennon and McCartney. In a recent article, Time magazine put down pop music. And they referred to "Day Tripper" as being about a prostitute...
- Paul: Oh yeah.
- Reporter: ...and "Norwegian Wood" as being about a lesbian.
- Paul: Oh yeah.
- Reporter: I just wanted to know what your intent was when you wrote it, and what your feeling is about the Time magazine criticism of the music that is being written today.
- Paul: We were just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians, that's all.
Inspiration from infidelity
The song was apparently inspired by Lennon's extramarital flings. Ironically, he wrote it while he was on a holiday with his wife, Cynthia
, at St. Moritz
in the Swiss Alps
. They were joined by the Beatles' producer George Martin
, who had injured himself early in the holiday, and his wife. Martin recalled:
- 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".
When asked what the lyrics were about, Martin answered:
- My wife is going to give me a hard time for saying this. It was one of John's indiscretions. I remember we were sitting at the veranda outside our hotel rooms in St. Moritz and John was playing at his guitar and working out the text: "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." He felt that Cynthia had tricked him to marry her.
Martin referred to the words as "a very bitter little story".
Lennon said of the song: "I was trying to write about an affair, so it was very gobbledegooky. I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was having one. I was sort of writing from my experiences ... girls' flats, things like that." He also said:
- "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 on, 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.
Lennon's friend Pete Shotton speculated that the woman in question was a journalist of their acquaintance (possibly Maureen Cleave). Many also believed that Norwegian Wood was a play on the phrase "knowing she would" which gives more to the story of the affair or a one night stand.
Lennon acknowledged being strongly influenced by Bob Dylan
during this time period, and the rather opaque lyrics of "Norwegian Wood" seem to reflect this. Dylan responded with "4th Time Around
", a song with a similar melody, subject matter and lyrical delivery. Rock journalists and even Lennon himself felt it to be a rather pointed parody of "Wood" (some even went as far as to think the song's closing line—"And I, I never took much/I never asked for your crutch/Now don't ask for mine"—was directed toward Lennon), though Lennon later told his biographer that he considered Dylan's effort to be more a playful homage.
"Norwegian Wood" has been covered many times by such artists as Waylon Jennings, Alanis Morissette, The Fiery Furnaces, Jan and Dean (whose "surf"-style version was intended to showcase the new style of production Jan Berry envisioned for the group, until Berry was nearly killed in a car accident before the song was released), Acker Bilk, Buddy Rich, Herbie Hancock, P. M. Dawn, Colin Hay, Victor Wooten (who uses it as a solo spot live), Mia Doi Todd, Milton Nascimento, Sérgio Mendes and Cornershop; Cornershop's version, from their album When I Was Born for the 7th Time, is entirely in Punjabi. It was played live during U2's Vertigo Tour. Artist Frank Zappa recorded a version satirising the sex scandal involving Jimmy Swaggart, but it is only available on bootleg recordings. The Alan Copeland Singers' recording of the lyrics of "Norwegian Wood" to the tune of the Mission: Impossible theme song won a 1969 Grammy for "Best Contemporary Pop Performance, Chorus". Neil Young used the guitar lick of Norwegian Wood in live performances of Cinnamon Girl.
The song has had impact outside musical circles as well. For instance, Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a novel entitled Norwegian Wood, a reference to the song. Norwegian-American presidential nominee Walter Mondale was nicknamed "Norwegian Wood" during the 1984 presidential election.
Rolling Stone ranked it #83 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
The Norwegian music festival Norwegian Wood, which takes place in Oslo, is named after the song.
The Norwegian Beatle fan club is named "Norwegian Wood" after this song.
Dave Matthews often includes the lyric "I once had a girl Or should I say, she once had me She showed me her room Isn't it good Norwegian wood?" in his song Recently.
Avant-Garde cover band Taedium Vitae recorded a version of this song in 2007 which was released on their "Grand Theft Audio" album.
- John Lennon – double tracked lead vocal, 6 & 12 string acoustic rhythm guitars
- Paul McCartney – harmony vocal and bass
- George Harrison – doubletracked sitar
- Ringo Starr – finger cymbals.
- Credits per Ian MacDonald