Why does John Lennon draw breath in the chorus of ‘Girl’ by The Beatles?

By late 1965, The Beatles had conquered the world. They’d done pretty much everything there was to do in the pop stratosphere and so decided to expand their musical horizons even further across the universe.

The result of their change of tack was their sixth album, Rubber Soul, the first that set out their stall as primarily an album band from that point on. The record was revolutionary, introducing new sounds into Western pop and rock music, such as the Indian sitar, and spurring other groups like The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones to make the type of studio recordings that would previously have been beyond their imaginations.

Rubber Soul’s diverse and innovative musical palette, as well as Indian raga, includes elements borrowed from French chanson and German folk ballads. In response to Paul McCartney’s chanson pastiche, ‘Michelle’, John Lennon authentically imitated German two-step folk dance music for his song ‘Girl’.

He combined the music’s Central European bent with polished lyrical verses about puritanical sensibilities towards sex and romance. It was one of the lyrics Lennon was most proud of, given its flawless, tightly ABAB rhyming structure, interspersed with an even tighter middle-eight. It’s one of the few songs he wrote during the period in which Lennon’s masculine presence is entirely subordinate to his female muse.

Beyond the music and lyrics of ‘Girl’, there’s an especially unusual element that sets the song apart from pretty much any other in rock or pop music at the time. Following the one-word, titular chorus line, Lennon takes a sharp, elongated in-breath close to his microphone in a deliberately pronounced way.

As Paul McCartney remembered to Beatles biographer Barry Miles, “John wanted to hear the breathing, wanted it to be very intimate.” He had producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick fit a compressor on his mic to make the breathing sound as loud as possible.

What does the breath signify?
Outwardly, this motif succeeds in conveying the indescribable attraction and unhealthy attachment Lennon feels towards the “girl” of the song, who’s portrayed as something of a femme fatale. “She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry,” he laments in one verse, a sentiment best encapsulated in those two unspoken seconds of air being pulled from in front of the mic.

But there’s another, more illicit meaning to the intake of breath. As Lennon said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, The Beatles “were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period”. The sheer amount of pot the group was taking made him want to get the sound of smoking a joint onto his song since it was all they were doing between takes anyway.

Nevertheless, in his final interview before being murdered, Lennon confirmed that regardless of any references to pot-smoking, it may contain, “Girl is real.” He said he was writing about his dream girl, who turned out to be Yoko Ono. He added poignantly that his latest solo single ‘Woman’, “is the grown-up version of ‘Girl’”.

Whether it arose from pot-smoking, dreaming up a femme fatale or just innovative songwriting, the in-breath on ‘Girl’ is still striking for its unabashed intimacy. John Lennon bared his soul on plenty of Beatles songs and solo recordings. But he bared his

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