This song is one of the reasons I see “Revolver” (1966) as the best Beatles album ever. “For No One” is number 40 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs. It’s clearly pure McCartney, although of course the writing credits are “Lennon-McCartney.” It’s short—only a tad over two minutes long—but complete, and the famous French horn solo (suggested, of course, by George Martin) is a fantastic touch. In fact, it makes the song.
I may be wrong, but the Beatles may have been the first rock group to use classical instruments and arrangements as a major part of their music. (There were of course earlier attempts: I’m thinking of “True Love Ways” with Buddy Holly, one of my favorite songs, and one that uses not only a full orchestra but some jazz saxophone licks.)
Rolling Stone gives some musical details:
The intimacy of the production and performance — a kind of exhausted acceptance — stand out amid the accelerated experimentation everywhere else on Revolver. McCartney and Starr were the only Beatles present at the session; they cut the backing track — McCartney’s piano and Starr’s minimalist percussion, plus overdubbed clavichord — in a single night. George Martin later suggested a dash of brass, so they called in Alan Civil of the London Philharmonia, who played the song’s brief, moving French-horn interjections. Civil was paid about 50 pounds for his efforts, but got something more valuable: a rare Beatles-album credit on Revolver‘s original back cover.
Wikipedia describes the song’s genesis:
McCartney recalls writing “For No One” in the bathroom of a ski resort in the Swiss Alps while on holiday with his then girlfriend Jane Asher. He said, “I suspect it was about another argument.” The lyrics end enigmatically with “. . . a love that should have lasted years…” The song’s working title was “Why Did It Die?” It is built upon a descending scale progression with a refrain that modulates to the supertonic minor.
The song was recorded on 9, 16 and 19 May 1966. McCartney sang and played clavichord (rented from George Martin’s AIR company), piano and bass guitar, while Ringo Starr played drums and tambourine. John Lennon and George Harrison did not contribute to the recording.
The French horn solo was by Alan Civil, a British horn player described by recording engineer Geoff Emerick as the “best horn player in London”. During the session, McCartney pushed Civil to play a note that was beyond the usual range of the instrument. According to Emerick, the result was the “performance of his life.” Civil said that the song was “recorded in rather bad musical style, in that it was ‘in the cracks’ neither B-flat nor B-major. This posed a certain difficulty in tuning my instrument.”
Jane Asher has had a distinguished career as author and actress, but—along with 50 gazillion teenagers—I’ll always remember her as The Girl Who Got Paul. And, according to Wikipedia, she dumped him:
In 1963, Asher interviewed the Beatles and began a five-year relationship with Paul McCartney, to whom she became engaged in 1967. She accompanied McCartney to India in February 1968 to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After discovering McCartney in bed with Francie Schwartz she ended the relationship on 20 July 1968.
The reference for the last sentence is McCartney’s biography, Many Years From Now. Since the book was approved by the Paul (and includes a lot of his own words), the description above is surely accurate.