Recorded: October 12 and 21, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single
"Norwegian Wood" had a timeless rock & roll inspiration: sex. As Lennon put it bluntly, "I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair. I was writing from my experiences, girls' flats, things like that." Graced by Harrison's sitar, "Norwegian Wood" was a huge step forward for the Beatles, continuing their move into more introspective songwriting influenced by Bob Dylan.
Lennon begins with a couplet that flips the usual rock & roll bravado: "I once had a girl/Or should I say, she once had me." He recounts a late-night fling with a worldly urban woman, one who lives in her own pad, has her own career and invites gentlemen up for wine. She is very different from the love interests in early Beatles' songs.
As McCartney later explained, it was popular for Swinging London girls to decorate their homes with Norwegian pine. "So it was a little parody really on those kinds of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood," he told biographer Barry Miles. "It was pine really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, 'Cheap Pine,' baby."
Even if it's a tale of a fling with a mod groupie, it's a strikingly adult one, from the London milieu to the way Lennon spends the night at her place (and wakes up in the bathtub). Lennon is the one who gets pursued and seduced, sitting nervously on her rug until she announces, "It's time for bed." Given all the oblique wordplay, Cynthia Lennon was hardly the only listener puzzled. When he wakes up alone the next morning, he lights a fire — does that mean he burns the girl's house down? Lennon never revealed the solution to this mystery; McCartney has endorsed the arson theory.
Although Lennon claimed in 1980 that "Norwegian Wood" was "my song completely," he told Rolling Stone a decade earlier that "Paul helped with the middle eight, to give credit where it's due." According to McCartney, Lennon came to him with just a first verse: "That was all he had, no title, no nothing."
Harrison's sitar debut was the song's most distinctive feature — yet it came from a moment of spontaneous studio experimentation. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, "George had just got the sitar, and I said, 'Could you play this piece?' . . . He was not sure whether he could play it yet, because he hadn't done much on the sitar, but he was willing to have a go."
Harrison first spotted the sitar on the set of the band's second movie, Help!, where Indian musicians were playing Beatles covers in a restaurant scene. Intrigued, he bought a sitar and "messed around" with it, eventually studying with sitar master Ravi Shankar. Harrison also became interested in Eastern religion and philosophy, which would become a lifelong pursuit.
Looking back in the 1990s, Harrison described the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" as "very rudimentary. I didn't know how to tune it properly, and it was a very cheap sitar to begin with." But "that was the environment in the band," he pointed out, "everybody was very open to bringing in new ideas. We were listening to all sorts of things — Stockhausen, avant-garde — and most of it made its way onto our records."
"Norwegian Wood" was swiftly recognized as a creative breakthrough. Brian Jones paid tribute with his sitar riff in the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black," and Dylan did a sly parody on Blonde on Blonde, "4th Time Around," which he played for Lennon in person. "I was very paranoid about that," Lennon confessed to Rolling Stone in 1968. He was already sensitive because the other Beatles were "taking the mickey out of him" for copying Dylan, and he was afraid Dylan was ridiculing him with "4th Time Around." "He said, 'What do you think?' I said I didn't like it." Although Lennon said he later appreciated the song, he did stop wearing his peaked "Dylan cap."
Appears On: Rubber Soul
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
• Photos: Rolling Stone Readers Pick the Top 10 Beatles Albums
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Rubber Soul'