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A song that’s so familiar and over-exposed that it’s possible to forget how truly magnificent it is. Lennon put it succinctly in one of his last interviews in 1980: “One of Paul’s masterpieces”. Remember when you heard it for the first time? I was just a little kid when it was everywhere in the summer of ’68, wafting out of every open window, pouring out of every transistor radio, while it held down the Billboard #1 for nine straight weeks, its poignant melody an old friend almost from the outset, the rousing “ten mile fadeout” on everybody’s lips. The attached video captures that initial rush of delighted discovery, as the lads debuted the tune to the world, and turned the David Frost show into a virtual festival of communal high spirits, surrounded by a racially diverse crowd composed of the old and young, male and female, all singing along and clapping in time, creating one of the most indelible tableaux of the Sixties. Such a pity that we old folks can never live that moment again, but younger ones can, and it’s possible, via YouTube, to watch their faces when they do, and re-experience just a bit of that first feeling of astonishment and joy; it turns out there’s a whole genre of videos in which listeners don the headphones and hear Hey Jude for the first time:

It’s always emotional. Jude, whoever you are, thank you for inspiring this song says Joy-Jean, the second listener above, as the coda fades down to silence. There must be a back story to this.

Of course there is, and every Beatles fan knows it – when she said that I rushed immediately to the comments section to make sure that somebody had filled her in – and it’s emblematic of that particularly magic moment in songwriting history when McCartney was at his unassailable peak, and spun out such music continually and spontaneously, off the top of his head, and sometimes even in his dreams. Its beautiful message occurred to Paul in a moment of compassion, as he was driving his Aston Martin to Kenwood, Lennon’s massive house in tony Weybridge, where he’d been thousands of times back when he and John were writing things “one on one, eyeball to eyeball”, as John once put it. This time, though, John wasn’t there. He’d taken off with Yoko Ono, utterly in the thrall of the odd and unconventional avant-garde artiste, leaving wife Cynthia and son Julian high and dry, and Paul, who was especially fond of the child, reckoned that he’d best go over and see how they were holding up, and offer what moral support he could. Still smarting from his own falling out with the exquisite Jane Asher (his own damned fault, regrettably), he was at that point especially sensitive to the sadness and anxiety of break-ups, and he wanted them to know that John might abandon them, but he wasn’t going to. Typically, he began to think of a way to raise Julian’s spirits, and by the time he was there the song was almost fully formed. “Hey Jules,” he sang to himself as he drove, “take a sad song and make it better”. Easier said than done, but Cynthia was moved, saying later “I was touched by his obvious concern for our welfare … On the journey down he composed ‘Hey Jude’ in the car. I will never forget Paul’s gesture of care and concern in coming to see us.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Julian told an interviewer at the Sunday Times that he still gets goosebumps whenever he hears the song that the man he still calls “Uncle Paul” wrote while travelling to console a sad little boy.

Ever the diplomat, Paul changed the title to Hey Jude before presenting it to John, who loved it – from his comments over the years, it’s evident that this was his favourite among Paul’s compositions – and, being John, figured it was about him, and his love affair with Yoko, exclaiming Ah, it’s me! McCartney wasn’t about to tell him that no, it’s about the dear child you left all alone like a cad and a bounder, and replied that actually it was about his own situation, to which John responded “check, we’re going through the same bit”. One assumes he found out eventually, but if so it never soured him on the song, of which he spoke fondly even at the height of their acrimony in the immediate aftermath of the band’s dissolution. He was particularly taken with the lyrics, about which Paul was unusually (and to John unaccountably) bashful, apologizing for the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder”, describing it as a place-holder until he could change it to something better. “It’s stupid” said Paul. “It sounds like a parrot”. Lennon wouldn’t hear of it: “You won’t, you know. It’s the best line!” When he performs it these days, you can sometimes see a certain emotion flicker across Paul’s face when he sings the lyric that his partner made him keep.

The four minute coda is structured around the plagal cadences (or in this case, more accurately, double plagal progressions, it says here) that Paul always favoured – a musical device also known as the “dying fall”, or “Amen”, once almost unheard of in rock and roll, being a feature of medieval music and the Anglican hymns Paul absorbed as a choirboy*. It wasn’t supposed to stretch on for four minutes, but in the studio they got into such a groove that they just kept going, almost mesmerized by its mantra-like quality. Getting into the spirit of things, Paul damn near shredded his larynx, improvising throughout, thus capping off one of pop music’s most extraordinary vocal performances, and completing the emotional journey from the sweet and soothing sentiments of the beginning to the ecstatic self-affirmation of the joyous conclusion. It’s a hoot, when watching the attached videos, to see everybody’s eyes widen at Paul’s James Brown/Little Richard-inspired howling. His range, from start to finish, is amazing. Beneath the vocal, powerful heft is added layer by layer by a 36 piece orchestra, the members of which were paid extra to also record an overdub of all of them clapping and singing (incredible though it seems from this vantage point, one grumpy player refused, declaring that any such thing was beneath him).

At the end of the recording session, George Martin opined that it was all well and good, but AM radio DJs, accustomed to two and three minute tracks, would never play a seven minute song. “They will if it’s us” replied John.

Arrogant, and right. It topped the charts everywhere. Australia, Japan, Belgium, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, everywhere. For a few weeks of that high summer of 1968, the whole world was singing in unison, and boy, did we need to. 1968 was a horrible year, full of calamities, wars, assassinations, and massive civil unrest, as if everything was on the cusp of falling apart, from the burning jungles of Vietnam to the Soviet-repressed streets of Prague, and seemingly all points in between. It seemed only the Beatles could soothe us. Only they could lift our spirits and draw us into the global chorus, millions chanting na na na na, Hey Jude, and for just a little while doing like the song said, making it better.

You can’t help but sing along. It’s simply irresistible – trust me, I’ve been swept up in it myself, and I’m nobody’s idea of a joiner. It was when I was part of a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands, made as always of the old and young, black and white, male and female, while Paul performed Hey Jude to what looked to be the entire city of Halifax, an ocean of people packing the vast Commons and flowing up the sides of Citadel Hill and on to all of the balconies of the surrounding apartment buildings, maybe 60,000 of us, maybe more, all singing together and experiencing a blissful catharsis that I’ll never forget. Everyone was on their feet. Everyone was belting it out. The guy next to me had tears streaming down his cheeks, and so did lots of other folks, all of us genuinely grateful for the opportunity to be there and live in that moment. I choked up too, a little bit.

O.K., a lot-a-bit.

A couple of years ago, Stephen Colbert was interviewing BTS, the hugely popular K-Pop boy band, and asked them if they knew any songs by the Beatles, the only other group to have scored three #1 albums in a single year. Maybe he thought they were too young, or that nobody in a place like South Korea would know anything about the Beatles these days, especially not the young hot shots who were now top of the pops. Well…

*Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home, Let it Be, and many others conclude with plagal cadences.

One comment on “Song of the Day: The Beatles – Hey Jude

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