As The Beatles moved out of their pop megastardom of the early 1960s, new styles and approaches called for a change in their traditional setup. George Harrison had long been employed as the band’s lead guitarist, a designation that saved him from assuming bass duties when Stuart Sutcliffe left the group in 1961. But when the group realized the advantages of spending extended periods in the studio, soon everybody wanted to play lead guitar.
John Lennon had contributed lead lines and solos to ‘You Can’t Do That’ from A Hard Day’s Night but mostly stuck to rhythm throughout the band’s early years. For his part, Paul McCartney didn’t even get to play guitar on a Beatles record until 1964’s Beatles for Sale, which featured McCartney playing acoustic guitar on ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’.
But on one raucous early cover, Harrison and Lennon both got a chance to let a guitar solo rip. That was on ‘Long Tall Sally’, the Little Richard song that was a long-time live favourite of the band. ‘Long Tall Sally’ would be the final song that The Beatles played at their final official show in 1966, but before that, it was simply a vehicle for all four members to let loose and have some fun.
“Little Richard was one of the all-time greats” Lennon gushed about the singer. “The first time I heard him a friend of mine had been to Holland and brought back a 78 with ‘Long Tall Sally’ on one side, and ‘Slippin’ And Slidin” on the other. It blew our heads – we’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives and all those saxes playing like crazy.”
The Beatles decided to record an official cover of ‘Long Tall Sally’ during the sessions for A Hard Day’s Night. They employed their producer, George Martin, to leave the control booth and contribute piano to the recording. Intent on capturing the intensity of their live shows, the quintet of musicians only recorded a single take of the song, deeming the first try adequate enough to keep. The band had been playing it for years at that point, so there was no need to give it a second shot.
Uncharacteristically for a Beatles recording, the first solo spot goes to Lennon instead of Harrison. Lennon’s playing is ragged and primal, with a ferocious attack that Harrison’s more precise style lacked. Mostly chord-based and frenetic, Lennon’s solo is pure rock and roll energy. When Harrison takes the second solo break, his playing represents a more well-thought-out lead line, including an ascending pattern that all of the musicians accent and add to. The two solos are fascinating looks at the similarities and differences between the two guitarists who worked so well off each other.
Although it was a rare one-off, ‘Long Tall Sally’ actually managed to set a precedent for shared guitar lines and solos in The Beatles’ work. Soon, McCartney would join the militia of guitarists, adding lead lines to the likes of ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Taxman’. During the recording of their final album, Abbey Road, the trio of guitarists revisited the form of ‘Long Tall Sally’ and its trading solos for a series of round-robin lead guitar lines on ‘The End’.