THE STORY OF HEY JUDE
In late July 1968, with work on the White Album well underway, Paul McCartney sidetracked The Beatles with the recording of what he intended to be the band’s next single. Written the previous month while driving to Surrey to visit freshly estranged Cynthia Lennon, the song was inspired by Paul’s sudden feelings of sympathy for the children of divorce, more specifically by the plight of his songwriting partner’s five-year-old son, Julian. McCartney later switched ‘Jules’ for ‘Jude’, because it “sounded a bit better”, but other than that the song arrived with all its basic elements in situ.
In the month between writing and recording, with the song in need of just a little refinement, McCartney opted to test his latest composition on anyone too polite to refuse. And that meant everyone.
The Bonzos recall Paul bashing through Hey Jude when he should have been hard at work producing I’m The Urban Spaceman. “He was just enjoying singing and playing it, like you do when you first write a song,” recalls Neil Innes. “You want to go through it in public to see if there might be something else in there. It was at that demo stage.” The Barron Knights, too, remember the Beatle interrupting their session at Abbey Road: “He said, ‘I’ve just written this song, would you like to hear it, it’s hopefully going to be our next single’,” says Pete Langford. “He actually forgot the words too.” Apple Films head Dennis O’Dell was pulled aside after a party to hear it, while Badfinger were treated to a performance just the day after they signed to Apple as The Iveys. “Paul walked over to the grand piano and said ‘Hey lads, have a listen’,” remembered bass player Ron Griffith. “He sat down and gave us a full concert rendition of Hey Jude. We were gobsmacked.”
With his ad hoc market research complete and the recording just a weekend away, McCartney spent a day polishing the song with Lennon, whose enthusiasm for the lyric far outweighed Paul’s own uncertainties. After a two-day test run at Abbey Road, The Beatles relocated to the eight-track luxury of the independent Trident Studios. With the basic rolling rhythm track nailed in just four takes, a 36-piece orchestra was ordered to flesh-out McCartney’s grand vision, the musicians not only asked to play their simple scored parts, but to down instruments and contribute to the singalong extended coda - clapping too, if they would be so kind. For a double fee all but one happily obliged.
EMI studio engineer Ken Scott had worked on the song’s initial workout at Abbey Road but hadn’t heard it again until the mix. In the thoroughly modern surrounds of Trident, through the loudest monitoring system he had experienced, Scott was “absolutely blown away”. But back at Abbey Road, while observing the tapes being transferred to acetate, something began to trouble him. “There was no high end on it, the sound muddy,” he thought, confiding as much to George Martin. Minutes later, the first Beatle arrived. “Ken thinks it sounds like shit,” was Martin’s greeting. After a few tense moments The Beatles concurred and the remainder of the session was spent fixing the track to everyone’s satisfaction. Except, of course, for a pretty obvious expletive – “fucking hell” – uttered by Lennon and hidden in the bridge to the extended ending, but completely audible if you had the ears to spot it.
“I was told about it at the time but could never hear it,” says Ken Scott. “But once I’d had it pointed out I can’t miss it now. I have a sneaking suspicion they knew all along, as it was a track that should have been pulled out in the mix. I would imagine it was one of those things that happened – it was a mistake, they listened to it and thought, ‘doesn’t matter, it’s fine’.”
Lennon, not always the first to praise a McCartney tune, pronounced it the best song his partner had ever written. His judgement may well have been coloured by the fact he mistook the lyric for McCartney’s tacit approval of his relationship with Yoko Ono, but he still didn’t plan to let the song get in the way of a prize much coveted – the A-side of the first release on Apple.
Despite its epic proportions, McCartney had always viewed Hey Jude as a single, but it still had to pass The Beatles’ stringent in-house quality control test, to be rated worthy of release by the remaining Fabs. Lennon was doggedly fighting the corner of Revolution, but with Harrison, Starr and George Martin siding with the more obvious commercial appeal of Hey Jude, the McCartney song got the nod.
Hey Jude went on to become The Beatles’ biggest-selling single, topping the charts in 11 countries and selling 7.5 million copies. But while the world has spent decades celebrating the reassuring emotional clarity of this monumentally uplifting song, it wasn’t until 1987 that Julian and Paul, after a chance meeting in a New York hotel, discussed it for the first time. “He told me that he’d been thinking about my circumstances all those years ago, about what I was going through,” says Julian. “Paul and I used to hang out a bit – more than dad and I did. We had a great friendship going and there seem to be far more pictures of me and Paul playing together at that age than there are pictures of me and dad.”
Indeed, when McCartney’s scribbled recording notes for the song came up for auction in 1996, it transpired that Julian Lennon was the anonymous bidder who paid £25,000 to secure what, along with some of his father’s former possessions, he described as “family heirlooms”. McCartney, too, has never forgotten the inspiration for the Beatles most successful single. “Every birthday and every Christmas, he sends a card,” says Julian. “He’s never missed. I find that amazing.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007