Late in 1965, at the tail end of a year in which they had already recorded an album, made a film and toured the world, the Beatles holed up in Abbey Road to record their customary second long-player of the year. Spread over four weeks, the sessions ought to have felt leisurely compared to the meager time they had been granted for recording in the past. But Lennon and McCartney were struggling to come up with new material to fill the record, and sessions began to extend long into the night as the group were forced to rehearse and arrange their increasingly complex new songs on the spot. And somewhere in the midst of it all, they needed to tape a Christmas message for the members of their official fan club, which had to ship out on flexidisk in time for the holiday.

Thus it was on November 8 that the Beatles — or John, Paul and George at any rate — gathered around a microphone to practice and then record vocal harmonies on George’s song “Think for Yourself.” George Martin had the idea that if the tapes were left rolling between takes, the reliably witty Beatles might come up with something funny enough to serve for the holiday record, and that the overworked group might kill two birds with one stone. It didn’t work, but what Martin did capture was much more valuable and revealing. The “Think for Yourself” tape offers not simply the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the Beatles horsing around at work, but an illustration of the chemistry that helped the group to remain productive in the face of immense pressure — and that eventually soured and led to their falling apart.

The harmonies the Beatles worked up for “Think for Yourself” were among the most demanding they had attempted, and from the outset, John Lennon has difficulty executing his part. (“You’ll just have to bear with me, or have me shot,” he warns after an early rehearsal.) His struggles to sing his line correctly give the session an escalating dramatic tension, as his embarrassment mounts and Paul McCartney grows more perturbed. The two diffuse the fraught atmosphere through humor, as in this exchange:

John: Why did you keep pointing up there every time?
Paul [in smarmy voice]: I was doing it as a joke because every time we came to there, you pointed it out.
John: Well you know, that was the first time that I went wrong when you started doing that, and ever since then, we’ve had trouble —
Paul: DO YOU WANNA FIGHT?
John: No.
Paul: OK!

“Do you wanna fight?”

The conversation reads much more serious than it sounds, and in fact most of the banter exchanged by the Beatles at this session is, at least on the surface, pretty funny. Perhaps it’s unwise to read too much into a couple of old friends needling each other. On the other hand, the Rubber Soul sessions are cited by some as the point at which the Lennon-McCartney partnership showed the first signs of its eventual breakdown. Interviewed in Recording the Beatles, engineer Norman Smith (who quit working with the group after this album) observed:

The Rubber Soul album was the most difficult one for me. It was much less enjoyable. I can’t remember how long the gap was between Help! and Rubber Soul, but there certainly had been one hell of a change between the boys — mainly between John and Paul. … The clash between [them] was becoming obvious. Also, George was having to put up with an awful lot from Paul. … That was the beginning of the end, really. That’s when it started.

Underlying this change was a dynamic within the Beatles that became more and more pronounced as time went on. Smith again:

Paul was a very great influence in terms of the production. … It was almost like we had one producer up in the control room and another producer down in the studio. [There] is no doubt at all that Paul was the main musical force.

Of all the Beatles, Paul McCartney had the best production and arrangement instincts; was the most fluent singer and instrumentalist; and had the patience to noodle for hours with George Martin and the studio engineers in order to achieve the effects he had in mind. As a songwriter, John matched Paul and frequently exceeded him. In Abbey Road, the insecure Lennon was grudgingly subordinate to a partner much more technically adept than he was, and whose humor and cajolery could hide a smoldering impatience. Small wonder that as the session goes on, John’s self-consciousness gets the better of him:

John: I’m sorry, sometimes I feel less than useless at these sessions. I really do.
Paul: Hmm.
John: ‘Course Cynthia understands, I often talk to her about it when we get home.
Paul: Hmm.
John: I say, “Sometime you know Cynthia, I just can’t get the note.”
Paul: Yee-ah. Well …

“Less than useless at these sessions”

What I find most telling in that exchange is that Paul doesn’t attempt to encourage John or play along with him; he just agrees to what he’s saying. Yep, you can’t get the note alright.

Things finally come to a head, if that is the word, with this:

Paul: What is wro-ong?
John: Oh, I’m so sorry, I feel so stupid, I don’t know what to do
Paul (posh accent): Look, Terrance! If you wanted to resign from the Amateur Dramatics, do!
John (posh accent): It’s not that, I put a lot of money and thought into the whole thing!
Paul: Yeah, but let’s face it, you’re crap! [laughter] Aren’t you?
John: Well all right, all right.
Paul: I mean, you’re only doing walk-ons —
John: Whose father was it got the hall in the first place, eh?!
Paul: Yes, you’re only doing walk-ons, and you’re farting those up!

“Look, Terrance!”

Paul’s frustration is understandable, provided you can imagine having such a surfeit of talent and inspiration that John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr could all appear intolerably slow and incapable to you. But then imagine putting up with thinly veiled condescension like this and ask yourself how long it would take before you finally had your fill of it. If we take Smith at his word, this session falls at or near the point when hostility and resentment became unavoidable components of the Beatles’ once-freewheeling camaraderie. Masked none too convincingly with humor in late 1965, Paul’s impatience with the limitations of his bandmates (and their simultaneous need for the “producer down in the studio” role he filled) would become one of the key factors in their breakup. As unlikely as it seems, you really are hearing, as Smith says, the beginning of the end.

Next month: how “Dylanesque” were the Beatles?