August 1, 2018

Celebrating 50 Years of “Hey Jude”

They still represent the twentieth century’s greatest romance. — Derek Taylor, introducing The Beatles Anthology 3.

Fifty years ago today the Beatles completed the recording of “Hey Jude” at Trident Studios in St. Anne’s Court off Wardour Street.

I first heard “the Sistine Chapel of Rock and Roll” while driving a ‘62 Chevy Corvair along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge well before the record’s official August 26th release. I’d been about to turn off the radio because the reception was breaking up (no wonder, if you believe Ralph Nader, who declared the Corvair one of the “most dangerous cars in history”) when out of a storm of static comes “Hey Jude” loud and clear, as if by magic, no build-up, no hype, no DJ preamble, just Paul McCartney calling me to attention, for in the shock of the moment, it sounded like “Hey you!” I swerved to the right, parking at a crazy angle in a no-parking zone, listening and listening and listening, three, four, five, six, seven minutes, but who’s counting when McCartney’s riffing in an ecstasy over a 40 piece orchestra and a chorus of thousands right there in my poor defamed Corvair.

It happens that “Hey Jude” actually began in a car. McCartney was driving out to Weybridge to see John Lennon’s estranged wife, Cynthia, and their five-year-old son Julian, who might need a bit of cheering up, thinks Uncle Paul, as he plays around with a tune, “Hey, Jules, don’t feel bad….” something like that. Driving a car is “a good time to get ideas,” says Paul in a 1984 online interview. I like knowing that a song dreamed up in a car came to me in a car. Except Paul was driving an Aston Martin and I was driving a Chevy Corvair.

“Jude” as “Moby Dick”

Forget the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s Fifth, and other such summations of the “Hey Jude” experience, for me it was like reading Moby Dick in seven minutes. My excuse for the hyperbole is that today, August first, is also Herman Melville’s birthday (his 200th is coming up next year), and when you compare how the song works with what happens to most first-time readers of Melville’s masterpiece, the analogy isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Moby Dick opens with jaunty Ishmael calling you on board as if nothing more were in store but a colorfully written whaling adventure. It’s the most inviting beginning in American literature, as casual as a friendly nudge on the shoulder and a jovial “Here we go!” True, there are sinister inklings, shadows, deep organ tones, forebodings, along the way, but it’s not until Chapter XLI, the one titled “Moby Dick,” that you begin to reckon with the depths to come. You can see it happening in the Modern Library edition I read in college. Up to that point my penciled underlinings and asterisks had been like the dutiful markings of  any reasonably attentive student. On page 266, suddenly everything is underlined and the asterisks swarm like shooting stars. On the chapter’s last page I’ve written “In All of Us!!!!” next to the words, “how all this came to be — what the White Whale was to them,” meaning the crew of the Pequod, “or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspectful way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life.” At this point, as if he knows exactly what you’re thinking, Melville adds, “all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go.”

I can still feel the old excitement—it’s as if Ishmael were saying, “Here you are, mate, I’m gone, you’re on your own, God knows what’s next, you’re a member of the crew now.”

An Anthem for Everyone   

“In All of Us!!!” — that sophomoric exclamation also expresses what happens in “Hey Jude” when the orchestra comes massively richly into action around the three minute mark like the shanghaied crew of McCartney’s Pequod as he dives shouting into the nirvana of the coda with what sounds like all the world singing along. Hearing it the first time in the embattled summer of 1968, you feel part of something greater than yourself, a piece of recorded music multitudes are hearing and will be hearing on into the summer of 2018 and beyond. Fifteen years ago thousands sang along as Paul performed at the Colosseum in Rome before playing it for  100,000 Russians singing joyfully along in Red Square on May 24, 2003. The same thing happened when the crowds gathered in December 1980 across from the Dakota Hotel in New York singing “Hey Jude” on the night John Lennon died.

John’s in the Song

Writing in the Los Angeles Times shortly after Lennon was killed, the late great rock visionary Lester Bangs says of the crowd singing “Hey Jude” outside the Dakota: “What do you think the real — cynical, sneeringly sarcastic, witheringly witty iconoclastic — John Lennon would have said about that?” True, John was all those things, but he was also devoted to the idea that he played a pivotal role in the writing of the song that he considered McCartrney’s best. Well aware of the often quoted back story, that “Hey Jude” was written for his son Julian as a way to help him deal with the breakup of his parents’ marriage, Lennon told Playboy: “I always heard it as a song to me…Yoko’s just come into the picture. He’s saying, ‘Hey Jude’ — ’Hey John.’ I know I’m sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me. The words ‘go out and get her’ — subconsciously he was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying , ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”

In fact, if any one individual deserves credit for inspiring the iconoclastic audacity of that sublime rave-up at the end it was John. Whenever McCartney felt himself getting “too-pretty” to suit John, he’d give vent to his rock and roll demon in songs like “Helter Skelter” and “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” both also recorded in the summer of ‘68.

The fragile but formidable Paul-John dynamic is evident in what was the writing-on-the-wall year for the Beatles. You can hear it in John’s joyously unhinged rocker “Hey Bulldog,” recorded that February, and while there’s no evidence that the “Hey” in “Hey Jude” is meant to echo that raucous done-in-a-day session, Paul is said to have inspired the title change from “Hey Bullfrog” by barking during the chorus. You can hear it all happening on the record, two old friends kicking around a riff, jiving and jousting. Better yet you can see it online in the video, Paul and John singing howling laughing face to face and side by side, having a ball. If you want to see the raw power that made the Beatles a sensation, there it is. Yes, it’s John’s song, just as “Jude” is Paul’s, but the essence of it is in the sharing.

John’s “Hey Jude”

“Hey Bulldog” was the last record the Beatles made before their sojurn with the Maharishi in India, which is where Lennon wrote a song with a motive similar to the one behind “Hey Jude.” If Paul’s song was meant to lift Julian’s spirits, John’s song for Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, was intended to gently coax her out of self-imposed seclusion in Rishikesh, where she was “trying to find God quicker than anyone else,” as Lennon told Playboy. You can see why the song is one of Julian Lennon’s favorites; in it he likely heard the sort of inspirational message he always wanted from his father, which is why Paul knew to write a caring song for him. “Dear Prudence” was recorded on August 28, 1968, two days before “Hey Jude” was released as a single. Though the lyric sounds greeting-card insipid (“the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you”), John’s peerless singing and the way the arrangement builds and builds to an emotional crescendo (Paul was on drums that day) results in something ultimately even more moving than the extravagant coda that ends “Hey Jude.”

Hardy’s Jude

The studio run through of “Hey Jude” in Volume 3 of The Beatles Anthology begins with a brief piano intro of the sort that might preface a radio melodrama, John announcing, “From the heart of the black country,” with Paul jubilantly picking it up, as in the punchline of a private joke, “When I was a robber in Boston Place,” which is followed by a little tuneful musing (“You gathered round me with your fond embrace”) and then, all the more astonishing to be coming out of this whimsical esoterica, Paul simply straightforwardly sings “Hey Jude.”

Derek Taylor’s liner notes attempt a translation: the Black Country is “the name of the old smoke-stack industrial region in the middle of England” while Boston Place is the small London street where the Beatles’ company Apple had just installed an electronics laboratory. More important, “the Beatles had been running along Boston Place for the title sequence of A Hard Day’s Night.” 

What strikes me about this hint of a kind of ongoing compositional narrative between the two is knowing that they grew up sharing, aware of, absorbed by, the narrative of England. This is why English majors like myself instinctively connect the song’s Jude to the beaten-down, class-crucified Thomas Hardy character, Jude Fawley. Although McCartney’s biographer Philip Norman notes the “echo of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, Jude the Obscure,” Paul usually claims the change from Julian’s nickname “Jules” to “Jude” came about because it worked better with the lyric.

The greatness of the song is reflected in the various heightened responses of listeners going all out to do it justice. I’ve never been able to track down the Rolling Stone reviewer who compared “Hey Jude” with headphones to the Sistine Chapel, but for one British friend of mine, “the song is 100 percent Thomas Hardy.” He and his wife had been reading the novels in the late sixties while “hitching across Wessex during the harvest in a mood of Hardyesque angst made more bitter by the golden apocalypse all around. The song was everywhere on the wireless at the time.”

Princeton’s Garden Theatre is presenting a special showing of Yellow Submarine at 7:30 on Tuesday, August 7. I first heard the amazing song “Hey Bulldog” on the Yellow Submarine album. There’s a sequence in the 1999 rerelease of the film in which the song is set loose on the Blue Meanie bulldogs. I assume that’s the one the Garden will be showing.