The Beatles Song John Lennon Said Featured the Band’s 1st Crack at Jamaican Music
If you wanted to hear The Beatles experiment with exotic musical styles, you got your wish on Revolver (1966). On that record, George Harrison worked with Indian musicians and a few Beatles on the recording of “Love You To,” which Harrison wrote in the classical Indian style.
Listeners got more of the same from the Quiet One the following year, when his only Sgt. Pepper’s track was the very Eastern “Within You Without You.” When The White Album hit record stores in ’68, fans heard Paul McCartney mining sounds from the other side of the world for “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
That track, which John Lennon definitely didn’t hate, featured The Beatles working with a slow ska (more like rocksteady) beat. But it wasn’t the first time someone in the band turned his ears toward Jamaica. As John Lennon pointed out in the ’70s, the Fab Four went there first on the The Beatles’ Second Album (1964).
John Lennon pointed to a ska section The Beatles play on ‘I Call Your Name’
By 1964, the sounds of mento, calypso, and ska were reaching the U.K. on the London-based Blue Beat label. The Beatles were listening. When the band was working on songs for A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon pulled out “I Call Your Name,” an old song he’d finished the year before.
In ’63, he’d given the track to Billy J. Kramer, who recorded it and released it as a B-side. But Lennon thought it was time for The Beatles to do their own version of the tune. And the band recorded it for the Long Tall Sally EP. (It went out in the U.S. on the band’s second Capitol LP.)
While no one would confuse the voice of Kramer with that of John Lennon, The Beatles further differentiated their version of the song when they broke into a ska beat in the middle eight bars. It had to catch its share of listeners off-guard at the time.
Speaking with New York DJ Dennis Elsas for a 1974 interview on WNEW-FM, John drew listeners’ attention to the unusual middle eight of “I Call Your Name.” “We did ska [there],” he told Elsas.”This is our first attempt at sort of Jamaican [music].”
Lennon started writing ‘I Call Your Name’ before The Beatles existed
After mentioning the ska middle eight, Lennon walked listeners through a few twists in the evolution of Jamaican music. “It was Blue Beat, it was a bit like rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It went through different periods: It was Blue Beat, then it was ska, then it became reggae.”
By the time Lennon wrote the middle eight (with McCartney’s help) in ’63, the track had hung around at least six years. “That was my song when there was no Beatles and no group,” he told David Sheff in the 1980 Playboy interviews that became All We Are Saying.
Lennon said he started it as a blues number in the beginning. “Then I wrote the middle eight just to stick it in the album when it came out years later,” he told Sheff. But before it made the record Lennon and his bandmates gave it that ska infusion.