“Hey Jude” at 50: The Beatles as band and as brand

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
16 min readDec 21, 2018
Collage by author: center label from 45 single with sheet music

Musically, 2018 marked a multitude of 50th anniversaries. Among the songs that hit big that year were “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hello, I Love You,” “Born to Be Wild,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The best-selling albums included Beggars Banquet, the White Album, Astral Weeks, Electric Ladyland, Music from Big Pink, We’re Only in It for the Money, and Lady Soul. The fact that you probably know most of the recording artists responsible for these works without me naming them says something about that year. At the very least, it says, “Wow!”

The most meaningful 50th anniversary of 2018 for me was the release of “Hey Jude.” As a child I called it “the nah-nah-nah song.” I remember loving it for as long as I was aware of music. It was the first record I ever bought, when I was 12 years old in the early 80’s. It speaks to the immense popularity of the song that it was still readily available in the singles bins over a decade after its release.

I purchased the 45 so I could listen to it anytime. Young people today might find this difficult to imagine, but when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, if you wanted to hear a song, you either bought it in physical form or hoped it would play on the radio. There was no streaming, no downloading–nothing “on demand.” Hearing what you wanted was about luck or commitment, not convenience. Now, get outta my yard!

The song has remained one of my favorites, and it’s arrival at the half century mark precedes my own by less than a year. It was released August 26, 1968, which happened to be five days after my biological parents were married. I was born nine months, one week and four days later. In other words, I might well have been conceived to the song. Certainly, its heavy rotation on the radio virtually guarantees that I heard it many, many times while in the womb. Is this why it has such strong appeal to me?

Perhaps, but it’s also just a damn popular song with a strong appeal for a lot of people. It has sold something like ten million copies worldwide and is still regularly rated as one of the best songs ever by critics and fans alike. It’s the 10th most popular recording of all time on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. Rolling Stone ranks it as the eighth best song ever.

Even before its release, “Hey Jude” was immediately perceived as something special.

As has been oft-related, Paul began writing the lyrics in the car on his way to visit John’s wife, Cynthia, and son, Julian. John had recently left them for Yoko, and Paul wanted to offer some consolation. So the song started as “Hey Jules.” This event was in the summer of 1968, most likely late June.

Paul worked on it during the month of July and presented it to John and Yoko on the 26th. John recognized it as “one of [Paul]’s masterpieces” at once. [1]

“Hey Jude” was recorded in just two days, after two days of rehearsals, from July 29th to August 1st. This was remarkably fast for the band, especially during this period of time, the White Album sessions, which were fraught with difficulty. Earlier, both John’s “Revolution I” and Paul’s “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” for example, had eaten up a week of stressful studio time each without successful completion.

Writes Mark Lewistohn about the first day: “[T]hese were more like rehearsals than attempts at a `best’ recording… But you cannot keep a great melody down. Each was only a little less superb than the final version”[2] [my emphasis].

The second day a TV crew was present, which made tensions. George spent most of that session in the control room where, after rambling on in what one might assume is a Cannabis-infused way, he remarks to George Martin: “one bit of music can be pop, jazz, classic — whatever you want to do to it — it just is” [3]. Martin took home a rough stereo mix of take 25 to compose the orchestral score for the second part of the song.

On the third day, for actual recording, the Beatles convened at Trident Studios because of the eight-track machine available there. EMI only offered a four-track at the time. All four band members played together that day: Paul on piano, Ringo on drums, George on electric guitar and John on acoustic guitar. Of the four takes recorded, the first was the keeper.

On the last day, overdubs were recorded: Paul’s bass and lead vocal, and backing vocals by John, George and Paul. After that, the orchestral parts were added. This happened to necessitate the wiping out of Paul’s bass line to open up a track for the string basses. Such choices are unimaginable with today’s digital recording, where an infinite number of tracks are possible. It’s not only the tape that was crowded: according to George Martin’s assistant, Chris Thomas: “The studio at Trident was long and narrow. When we did the orchestral overdub we had to put the trombones at the very front so that they didn’t poke anyone in the back!”

Over the course of four more days, Aug 2nd, and the 6th-8th, engineers worked on mixing and copying. This process featured the brief return of Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ engineer since the Revolver sessions in 1966, who had stopped working with the band earlier that year due to the increasing acrimony in the studio. But Emerick ended up helping to find a work-around for a vexing technical issue, so ended up making an important contribution to the legendary song. [4]

Altogether, it was a short bit of work; one of those cases where something big comes easy. And isn’t it nice to see that life works that way sometimes?

* * *

“Hey Jude” was released on August 26th, only a month after Paul first played it to John. It debuted at #10 in the US, marking the first time a single made the top ten in its first week, and spent nine weeks at #1 from September 28th to November 23rd. Altogether, it was the best performing single on the US charts between 1959 and 1977. It sold three million copies in the two months after its release. [5]

* * *

As a work of pop music, the song itself is quite unconventional.

First, obviously, is its duration. At just over seven minutes, it is twice as long as a typical radio release of the time (or currently, for that matter). When producer George Martin worried that stations might not play it, John famously replied, “They will if it’s us.” [6] Which, obviously, they did.

Also without precedent was its four minute coda, the “nah nah nah nah” chorus, during which the syllable, “nah,” is sung/shouted 240 times. This section has been described as “both mesmerizing and ecstatic” [7] and as having “an astonishingly transcendental effect” [8]. I agree on both accounts.

Additionally, I feel that the “na na na na” chorus was inspired — consciously or not — by the time they had recently spent in India. It is their pop musical take on the form of an Indian mantra. At once repetitious and hypnotic but also undeniably rollicking, it is both evocative of the eternal and catchy as hell. To my synesthetic mind’s eye, the gradual fade-out creates a tunnel that lengthens as the bright circle of the band’s sound slowly shrinks, eventually disappearing into a pinprick.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the first part of the song breaks with the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure so prevalent in most pop music of the time, including their own. A listener might not notice at first, but the structure of “Hey Jude” is actually verse-verse-bridge-verse-bridge-verse-coda. There’s no chorus at all!

Yet it doesn’t sound strange at all. Perhaps that’s because of the way it builds, adding instruments and voices with each new section, which is so commonplace in European music. Additionally, the tune strongly echoes “Te Deum laudamus,” a liturgical work by John Ireland; if nothing else, what this says is that “Hey Jude” is firmly anchored to the pews and would not jar a churchy ear. So, though bizarre in structure — that is, lacking a chorus — it is not at all avant garde or inaccessible; is legitimately “classical” in its own way [9].

Therefore, by adding the mantra-like coda, “Hey Jude!” fuses two traditional forms, one Western, one Eastern, and the result is both ordinary and extraordinary, almost preternaturally familiar but totally contemporary. And it remains so to this day. There’s still no other song like it.

What genre, exactly, is “Hey Jude?” Sure, it’s a pop song, but is it rock and roll? Psychedelia? It’s not country, blues or folk. Some people call it a ballad, but I don’t agree. The vocal harmonies owe a debt to the 50’s crooners the Beatles enjoyed as youngsters, but are not hardly derivative. Paul’s vocal stylings in the coda are the sounds of an English white boy playing on American R&B singers, but “play” is the operative word here. He’s not too serious about it, which is especially obvious when you watch film of the recording. If you can scream with your tongue in your cheek, maybe that describes what Paul’s doing.

Given the hindsight of five decades, it’s clear that there’s only one way to answer the question, “What genre is ‘Hey Jude?’” It’s “The Beatles!”

* * *

With “Hey Jude,” the Beatles produced an accomplishment that only they could achieve. and which would remain forever unrepeatable. Even as the song shattered rules, it set no precedents. It did not mark a new path for others to follow; it was a door flung open to reveal a singular prize, but that provided no entrance. Though the song was a breakthrough, it was a culmination, not a commencement. The stylistic/artistic/creative road to “Hey Jude,” long and winding as it might have been, was a road that ended with “Hey Jude.”

What I am describing here is also the nature of a pinnacle. Once summited, the only way forward is down. Perhaps other high places will be climbed later, but they will be reached only by descending first and then setting forth on another trail. Some artists, of course, scale only one pinnacle in their careers, and most none at all. In August 1968, the Beatles had been tracing a route along a ridge of multiple peaks, but I would argue that “Hey Jude” was not only their highest, but their final pinnacle.

I will go so far as to say that if the band had broken up after “Hey Jude,” we wouldn’t’ve missed much.

* * *

Lennon was asked in May 1970 at what point he thought the Beatles had broken up, and he responded, “The Beatles’ White Album. Listen — all you experts listen, none of you can hear. Every track is an individual track — there isn’t any Beatles music on it. I just say, listen to the White Album. It was John and the Band, Paul and the Band, George and the Band.” [10]

“Personally, I’d found that for the last couple of albums,” Harrison later observed [about the 1968 White Album sessions], “the freedom to be able to play as a musician was being curtailed, mainly by Paul.” [11]

As a band — that is, as a collaborative musical quartet — the Beatles peaked with 1966’s Revolver. That was their final album that was not led by either John, as was the White Album, or by Paul, as were Sgt. Pepper, Let it Be and Abbey Road.

One measure of Revolver’s relative democracy was the inclusion of three George Harrison songs, a higher number per side than any other Beatles album (except for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, which doesn’t count as a proper album). Another is that the album starts with a George tune, “Taxman.”

True, two songs feature only one Beatle each — “Eleanor Rigby” is just Paul with strings and “Love You To” is only George with a group of Indian musicians — but this, too, is an expression of the group’s collective respect for individual contributions.

In part because of its mix of styles, but also for its obvious team effort, Revolver is a model of the perfect pop record.

The sessions for Sgt. Pepper, which followed it, were remembered by Ringo as when he learned to play chess, because there was so little for him to do for so much of the time. Led by Paul, Pepper was ostensibly high concept, but perhaps the stress belongs on “high” (and I cast no aspersions by saying that). As a record, it is truly amazing, but compared to their previous output, is less a product of the band as a whole. George has only one song on the album, “Within You, Without You,” and none of the other Beatles play on it.

After the Magical Mystery Tour project that followed Sgt. Pepper, two big things happened that set the four members on diverging paths: the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, and their trip to India. Epstein had been the glue and India was a wedge.

The White Album sessions that followed their return to England were famously fractious and the resulting double album is widely acknowledged as their most non-collaborative. All four Beatles play on only 16 of the record’s 30 tracks. On two songs, Harrison’s “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle,” John is not present and EMI producer Chris Thomas is the one you hear playing keyboards. Have you even ever heard of “Chris Thomas” before? I had not, until researching this article, yet he was “the fourth Beatle,” so to speak, on two songs and is the one playing harpsichord on “Piggies” [12].

I enjoy most of the music on the White Album — and in fact, it has one of my top five favorite Beatles songs, “Helter Skelter” — but I can also assess it with some distance and ask whether anyone would have considered it a good album if it hadn’t been the Beatles. I mean, it’s only a classic because of who made it, right? And how it fits — ironically or idiosyncratically or whatever — in their canon? Because overall, as an album of music from that period of time, it’s kinda sloppy and half-assed. Sound-wise, it’s often quite muddy, and I find myself wondering if that was intentional or if it was just poorly recorded. Recall that Geoff Emerick, their engineer, left in the middle, and that George Martin was denied much of a role. Mostly it was Paul and John doing their own things in their own corners. And fighting about it. Nothing wrong with any of that, per se, but it’s not the healthy behavior of a functional band.

From the White Album onward, “the Beatles” were much less a band than a brand. That brand had — and has — a lot of fans, me among them. But the significant fact remains that “the Beatles” weren’t the same thing anymore, and this shift in the form of their collaboration inevitably shaped their musical productions.

The Get Back sessions of 1969 were notoriously conflicted. George called them “the low of all-time” and John described them as “hell… the most miserable sessions on earth.” They were so bad that the Beatles couldn’t even finish the album and just shelved the material. Let it Be, the movie made from these sessions documents a band on the rocks. The accompanying album of the same name has some truly great songs (“I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “Dig a Pony”) but also some abysmally terrible elements (Phil Spector’s production).

That leaves Abbey Road, which many fans consider the apex achievement of the Beatles, especially the medley on side two, or Side Two, as fans say. But: “Lennon never liked the “pop opera,” as he called it; he was rightly dissatisfied because “none of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together” [13].

When I was younger, I was an Abbey Road apex-ist, and when I heard that John didn’t like Side Two, I was flabbergasted. How could he? It’s so classic! What the heck? Then, one evening, while listening to it under special circumstance, I saw exactly what he meant. Where before the transitions between the different sections had seemed like perfect, inspired alignments, now they were jarring, abrasive. It was suddenly so obvious to me that the different parts were recorded on different days and that the band had been in totally different moods on those days. The studio product suddenly rang starkly artificial to me. Paul and Martin were trying to force something that wasn’t there. The material was too disparate, the band members too separate. There’s not the magic there that people want there to be — not on a close listen. Just some good studio trickery by some talented hands (mostly Paul’s and Martin’s).

During my most recent listen of Abbey Road, a couple months ago, I also realized that John has only one complete song, meaning a full structure with multiple verses, etc., and that’s “Come Together,” the first track. After that, you don’t hear from him again until the end of the first side, with the amazing but primitive, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy).” On Side Two, he has the brief “Because” and the fragments, “Here Comes the Sun King,” “Polythene Pam,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.” The last two were originally written in India, but never grew significantly past their initial sketches. Overall, this set of offerings doesn’t compare well to any of their previous albums.

George’s contributions to Abbey Road, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” might be the two best songs he wrote while with the Beatles. But John doesn’t perform on “Here Comes the Sun” at all and on “Something,” though he is credited with piano, I don’t hear that instrument anywhere except briefly, in the bridge. If “the Beatles,” a band, is Paul, John, George and Ringo, then “Here Comes the Sun” isn’t a Beatles song and “Something” barely qualifies. If “the Beatles” is just a brand, then sure, whatever.

Put another way, the Beatles “brand” actively manufactured new musical products from 1962 to 1970 and has kept hocking merch to the present day. The Beatles “band,” though, was mostly spent by the end of 1967, with a few reprises, “Hey Jude” being the biggest.

Why does it matter? Well of course, in the context of the world’s issues, it doesn’t, directly. But I would venture to say this: What I am distinguishing here is “relationship” as expressed by the health of its collaboration vs. “relationship” as defined by economics and legalities. The former grows from honesty, the latter is about producing an image (and an income). These days, we commonly conflate image with honesty, to our detriment. Going forward, as our culture is made up of increasingly virtual realities, it’s in our best self-interest to see the difference.

Fortunately for us, as an example of authenticity, it’s hard to beat “Hey Jude.”

* * *

NOTES & ADDENDA:

What to listen to:
As with all of the Beatles’ recording prior to the Abbey Road album in 1969, “Hey Jude” was originally mixed and released in mono, not stereo. To hear the song in the form closest to how it was produced in 1968, I recommend the 2009 mono remaster. (Of course, first choice would be the original British vinyl, which was in mono, but that’s much harder to come by.)

Second choice would be the 2009 stereo remaster over the 2015 stereo remaster. As can be seen in these wave forms, the fade-out is nearly twice as long in the 2009 version, which I believe more accurately reflects the duration of the fade-out on the US American pressings that were so familiar (and loved) during the 70’s, 80’s and beyond. Intriguingly, if the 2009 mono remaster is any indication, the 2015 remaster’s shorter fade-out is more accurate, but because it’s not what we’re used to, it somehow sounds less faithful.

Video:
Totally worth watching, not only for its different sound, but for the fun spirit of the time it conveys is a filmed performance from October 1968: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_MjCqQoLLA

Fun snippets from the recording sessions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6MJH-rdSQU

Music Theory:
For a detailed and technical measure-by-measure analysis of “Hey Jude,” check out Alan W. Pollack.

Lyrics:
The lyrics have always been the least interesting part of “Hey Jude” to me. That their cadence and rhymes go well with the tune has always been enough. But if you’re interested in that kind of exegesis, blogger Kim S. does a good job.

* * *

The White Album as solo albums:

I find it fascinating to reimagine the White Album as three solo albums, with the former bandmates playing on each other’s records for fun as well as bringing in outside musicians (which they were already doing; besides Thomas on four songs, there was Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). Also, other songs were floating around at the time that didn’t make it onto the White Album, but could’ve been developed for solo records. Here’s some fun sketches:

McCartney’s record:
Side 1:
“Back in the USSR”
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
“Martha My Dear”
“Honey Pie”
“Junk”
“Rocky Raccoon”
“I Will”
Side 2:
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“Mother Nature’s Son”
“Helter Skelter”
“Blackbird”
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”
“Let it Be”
“Wild Honey Pie”

Lennon’s record:
Side 1:
“Revolution 1”
“Happiness is a Warm Gun”
“Glass Onion”
“I’m So Tired”
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
“Across the Universe”
“Revolution 9”
Side 2:
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”
“Yer Blues”
“Cry Baby Cry”
“Child of Nature”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“Dear Prudence”
“Sexy Sadie”
“Polythene Pam”
“Julia”
“What’s the New Mary Jane”
“Good Night”

Harrison’s record:
(needs at least one more song!)
“Not Guilty”
“Savoy Truffle”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

“Piggies”
“Long Long Long”
“Sour Milk Sea”
“Circles”

* * *

Endnotes:

[1] Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians, Revolver through the Anthology (New York City: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 192
[2] Lewistohn, Mark. Beatles Recording Sessions (New York City: Harmony Books, 1988), pp. 145.
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6MJH-rdSQU
[4] All recording details are from: Lewistohn’s Beatles Recording Sessions, pp. 145–147.
[5] Everett, p. 195.
[6] Sheffield, Rob: “‘Hey Jude’ at 50: Celebrating the Beatles’ Most Open-Hearted Masterpiece” (Rolling Stone, August 26, 2018).
[7] George, Alice: “At 50, ‘Hey Jude’ Still Makes Everything ‘Better, Better, Better’” (Smithsonian, August 15, 2018).
[8] Pollack, Allan W. “Notes on ‘Hey Jude.’”
[9] Everett, p. 192.
[10] Everett, p. 165
[11] Variety Staff. “How Beatles Producer George Martin Recorded ‘Hey Jude’ to Be ‘Hypnotic’” (Variety, July 18, 2018).
[12] Wikipedia: Chris Thomas.
[13] Everett, p. 257 (quoting Golson, G. Barry, ed. “John Lennon: His final words on the Beatles’ music,” Playboy, 28 April 1981).

--

--