This essay on Hey Jude prefaces a series of memories, dreams and reflections on the 50th anniversary of the release of the White Album, also known as “The Beatles”. But first I would like to preface this preface with an anecdote that illustrates an aspect of the Beatles that is largely forgotten these days and seems perhaps incomprehensible in a world where music has been so marginalised.
A few years ago, I was driving back from a studio session in London around midnight listening to the radio and the DJ was playing a track by Fairport Convention. The track ended and he back announced it, talking about music in the late 60’s. Then he told a story of a Russian friend of his who was sitting with his friends in a park in Moscow in 1970. It was a hot summer’s day and there were many groups of people sitting on the grass near the Moscow river. In the warm quietness, somebody played a Beatles record on a portable turntable. He had never heard a Beatles record before, The Beatles being effectively banned in the Soviet Union at that time. As the music filled his consciousness he thought, “This is the Truth and everything else is a lie”. This anecdote moved me deeply as I focused on the road ahead. It resonated with my own experience as an 8-year-old boy sitting in the kitchen of my parents house, my mother doing the washing up, and hearing “Please, Please Me” for the first time. As an eight-year-old I obviously didn’t conceptualise the experience in quite the same way, but it was nevertheless, with hindsight, a consciousness-changing experience. A world opened up that was very different from the world I knew and I wanted to be in that different world.
I was extremely fortunate to grow up with The Beatles, a little young to get the full meaning of what the lyrics meant, but able to understand what the music meant and herein lies an important aspect of the Beatles’ work. The music was the thing and the lyrics were sounds that were part of the music. Their meaning was in a way secondary, so talking about a Beatles song from the point of view of the lyrics is always to be on the wrong path. The “truth” lies in the music.
“Hey Jude” was released on 30th August 1968. Lots of information can be found online about sales and how long it stayed in the charts. The Beatles had reached the zenith of their creative output the year before with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the single “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane”. The sense that, with those records, they were playing Art for Art’s sake was strong and there were those of us who loved it and a broader cross section of people who thought they were losing their way. With “Magical Mystery Tour” they went a step too far, according to the guardians of mainstream acceptability. It contained some of their greatest work in “I Am The Walrus” and “Fool on the Hill”, but I sensed (even at my young age) that they had abused their position as the band that united the generations and, to a certain extent, the class divide in a Britain that was still emerging from the privations of the Second World War. There was a great deal at stake with the release of “Hey Jude”. Could it heal those rifts and put The Beatles back on top?
Mention should be made of “Lady Madonna” which was released as a single in March 1968. The stride piano part is the star of this recording, very similar in sound to “Bad Penny Blues” by Humphrey Lyttleton, but sufficiently different to avoid charges of plagiarism. “Lady Madonna” is a great track that brilliantly extends the harmonic territory of the “Bad Penny” model with some beautiful bass lines but, although it signals a turn away from the complexities of “Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, it is really a pastiche of jazz/blues influences, rather than a fully realised statement and it treads water in terms of the development of the band.
For those of us who were on the journey with The Beatles, “Hey Jude” (once again) broke new territory and felt like a very important work. Their manager, Brian Epstein, was dead, their tether to the “old world” of British showbiz was gone, they had established their creative independence with “Sgt. Pepper” and the two albums that preceded it. Yet there was a sense that those albums, especially “Pepper”, were highly professional products (dreadful word), that George Martin, their producer, together with the production team surrounding them, were there to facilitate every whim. “Hey Jude” was released on their own Apple record label and there was a sense that with this record they were finally themselves. No more mop-tops and matching suits, no more psychedelic artifice. When McCartney sang the opening verse straight into the camera on the David Frost show you felt there was no longer any veil between them and us. “Hey Jude” was The Truth.
For a really thorough analysis of the music and lyrics of “Hey Jude” go to Alan W. Pollack’s “Notes on Hey Jude”. I agree with everything he says – the structuring of a seven minute pop single with clear form and simple ingredients, the underlying “Golden Section” proportions – everything! Particularly his intuition that there is something profound about “Hey Jude”, but how to articulate it…
“Hey Jude” is in the key of F major. There are relatively few Beatles songs in F major. “Yesterday” is one, “Fixing A Hole” another. F major is not a guitar player’s key as the root chord is uncomfortable to play. So the song was composed on piano and this is how the recording is presented in the first verse. “Hey Jude” divides into two broad sections – the “song” and the long na na-na nana-na-na section which I will call the Outro. The “song” is melodically interesting, but fairly unremarkable. It’s AABABA structure is very readable and if it finished at that point you would think it was a good, but not a great, Beatles song. The interesting thing about the “song” is that it slowly accumulates instruments and layers as it goes along and somehow transmits that, this is all great, but something incredible is about to happen. The lyrics have a conversational tone and seem to be about giving advice to someone to be kind to someone else – a sort of grown up version of “She Loves You” in the sense that it is about a third person, rather than a personal outpouring. The harmony in the “song” is diatonic – harmony you would find in an English Hymn book in the A sections, a little more adventurous in the B section, but still fairly predictable, although the phrase lengths would throw you off balance if you were trying to play along with it. (Uneven phrase lengths that sound totally complete in themselves are a hallmark of great songwriting, effectively letting the vocal phrase control the harmonic pace.)
The pivotal point is the phrase that ends the “song” and begins the Outro – “Better, better, better better, better, better woooooh…. “.
Alan Pollack says,
“Macca’s performance of that flourish, by the way, is quite a tour de force. It’s an appoggiatura’d arpeggio covering just over two octaves from E below middle C all the way up to high F, eleven notes above middle C – real soprano territory – and he does it without having to fully overflow his voice into falsetto. Though he was sufficiently insecure about his performance to have double tracked it here… “
– in other words, this is the only part of the song that sounds “produced” – the rest is very naturalistic. This is an illusion of course because there is considerable “production” going on in the Outro, but it all manages to sound spontaneous, expansive and uncontrived.
That flourish takes us over the threshold into another world, a world where the harmony is modal and closer to Indian ragas and the trance music of emerging bands like Pink Floyd than to the English Hymnal that just slipped through your fingers and went overboard. The music of the “song” is piano-based harmony. On piano you move your fingers stepwise and harmony moves in a linear fashion. It is “Classical” and slightly staid; the lyrics tell you a story that sounds interesting, but is hard to grasp. The Outro is guitar-based harmony. On guitar the chords move in blocks, vertically and strings resonate over chords to create naturally complex harmonies that are hard to account for in Classical harmony, but work beautifully in a language derived from the Blues, Rock ’n’ Roll and English Folk Music. When the Outro begins the promise that something incredible is about to happen is fulfilled. That “something” is a transcendent journey where Rock music, an orchestral backdrop of sustained harmony, a raga-like sustained F, hypnotic repetition, Little Richard-style whoops and childish petulant screams combine and we are all invited to sing along – at last, we are all together in one transcendental moment! It is an incredible achievement. Also, the conceit of taking the “fade”, a device that was a way of quickly ending a pop song so that it would fit into a two-and-a-half minute radio format, and extending the fade so that it becomes a feature of the longest pop single yet produced – the fade becomes a piece of Art effectively – that is a stroke of genius.
McCartney has written that George Harrison wanted to put a guitar solo through the Outro, answering the vocal phrases. Macca refused the idea. How many lesser bands would have done just that? So the Outro retains it’s unique identity. Various commentators have been critical of McCartney’s vocal improvisations, even Ian McDonald, author of “Revolution in the Head”, one of the definitive books on The Beatles and the 60’s. I personally think the vocal interjections hit a consistency such that they are all indispensable, etched fragments of melody, each as important as the melodies of the “song” itself.
“Hey Jude” is an important work in the Beatles’ output, coupled as it was with “Revolution” as a B-side, a track that marked the beginning of them speaking out about politics, however reticent John was to get off the fence. A defiant statement negating the idea that they had said all there was to say with “Sgt. Pepper” and acting as a prelude to what was regarded at the time as their crowning achievement – The White Album.