The Meaning Behind “Getting Better” by The Beatles and How it Showed off the Lennon/McCartney Songwriting Partnership

News The Meaning Behind “Getting Better” by The Beatles and How it Showed off the Lennon/McCartney Songwriting Partnership

Don’t get too carried away by the costumes, the clever cover, or the in-album callbacks. The songs are what ultimately make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stand out as one of the greatest albums of all time. “Getting Better” sneaks under the radar somewhat, but it shows how The Beatles could take a simple slice of life and turn it into something wondrous.

What is the song about? What fill-in member of the group helped inspire the title? And how did John Lennon balance out Paul McCartney during the writing process? Let’s take a look back at what brought “Getting Better” to life.

The Stand-In’s Lasting Contribution

By the middle of 1964, The Beatles has graduated far beyond England and were worldwide sensations. A world tour was scheduled to begin in June, but Ringo Starr had to skip several dates at the start to get his tonsils out. Hence, session drummer Jimmie Nicol was called on to fill in until Starr recovered. He played several shows with the band until Starr was well enough to return.

By all accounts, Nicol did a fine job in Starr’s stead. But his more lasting contribution came thanks to a phrase he often used, When the press would bombard him with questions about how the tour was going, he would say some variation of It’s getting better, which started to amuse the other members of the group after he said it enough times.

Flash forward to 1967, when Paul McCartney was walking his dog one day with a friend. McCartney mentioned how the weather was getting better, and it immediately sparked memories of Nicol’s phrase. And it also sparked a song idea.

The Optimist and the Pessimist

McCartney brought the bones of “Getting Better” to John Lennon and the two began working up the song together, imagining in the verses some of the frustrations that might have once bedeviled the narrator before he overcame them. Lennon later admitted the lines about poor behavior to women were based on his own misdeeds as a younger man.

“Getting Better” received a bright, sunny arrangement to match the song’s outlook. Subtle touches like Starr’s bongos and George Harrison’s tambura lent the song a little bit of a psychedelic edge as a contrast. But the biggest contrast was provided by Lennon, as McCartney explained in the book Many Years from Now:

“I was just sitting there doing ‘Getting better all the time’ and John just said in his laconic way, ‘It couldn’t get no worse,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, brilliant!’ This is exactly why I love writing with John. … It was one of the ways we’d write. I’d have the song quite mapped out and he’d come in with a counter-melody, so it was a simple ordinary song.”

What Does “Getting Better” Mean?

“Getting Better” wouldn’t have succeeded if it were all just rosy proclamations. The way Lennon and McCartney provided examples of what this narrator had faced in the past, as well as his poor reactions to it, make his eventual change of outlook and heart even that much more triumphant.

In the first verse, McCartney sings of mistreatment at the hands of school teachers: You’re holding me down. turning me ’round / Filling me up with your rules. In the second verse, he admits that he retreated from the world at times: Me used to be angry young man / Me hiding me head in the sand. As mentioned before, the third verse makes the harsh admission about the abuse of women, which takes the song down a dark corner.

But it doesn’t stay there long because the chorus, with those gleaming harmonies, keeps coming around to brighten the day. The dueling sensibilities of John Lennon and Paul McCartney made “Getting Better” a pop song with an edge, and a perfect addition to the masterpiece that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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