'Hey Jude': why Paul's crowd-pleaser is still a classic
The biggest-selling single by The Beatles was released 50 years ago this week. Paul McCartney composed the song while driving to visit John Lennon's estranged wife Cynthia and son Julian
In the early summer of 1968, Paul McCartney took a drive from his home in London to the town of Weybridge in Surrey. It was there that John Lennon's newly estranged wife, Cynthia, was living with their five-year-old son, Julian, and McCartney wanted to pay a friendly visit.
Cynthia had been part of the Beatles' social and familial make-up since the band's infancy, and had married Lennon in 1962, but she had felt left out on the cold after John moved out of the family home shortly after starting an affair with future wife Yoko Ono and now divorce proceedings were underway.
On the drive there, McCartney thought about Julian and how a marital separation can be so tough on a small child and he composed the bones of what would become one of The Beatles' most beloved songs behind the wheel of his Aston Martin.
'Hey Jude' was released 50 years ago this week and has become arguably the best-known of the 236 original compositions released by The Beatles. It's one of their later songs that has never dulled in the affections of the public and touches new generations in a way that few other singles from the time manage to achieve.
It is the biggest-selling Beatles single of them all - spending nine weeks at the top of the US charts - as well as being the best-selling song released between 1959 and 1977. When their entire catalogue belatedly became available on streaming services on Christmas Eve 2015, the song immediately became one of the top three Beatles songs streamed. Today, it remains the most streamed of all Beatles tracks on Apple Music and the third most popular on Spotify, behind 'Let It Be' and 'Come Together'.
Although McCartney wrote it ostensibly to comfort Julian Lennon - to "take a sad song and make it better" - John sometimes thought it was partly inspired by his own relationship with Paul. With Ono now very much in the picture, was Paul's song giving tactic approval to Lennon to go off and write his own songs?
Others have suggested that it was also a commentary on Lennon's love for Ono, and 'permission' from his old friend to pursue the relationship despite the pain caused to Cynthia and Julian. "You have found her," McCartney sings, "now go and get her."
And Paul himself quipped that it was at least in part about his own life at the time. His engagement to Jane Asher had broken down and he wrote 'Hey Jude' shortly after beginning a relationship with Linda Eastman, soon to become his wife and life partner until her death in 1998.
As several critics have pointed out, the genesis of the song - written on that short car journey to Surrey rather than sitting at a piano or strumming a guitar - has ensured that the structure is comparatively simple and its lengthy coda hugely repetitive: there are 240 'nahs' chanted throughout. Yet, it's a sign of McCartney's great gifts at the time that it would resonate very powerfully with those who heard it then - and ever since.
Few would call it the best Beatles song: 'Penny Lane' and its double A-side 'Strawberry Fields' are far superior, and 'A Day in the Life' might be the ultimate example of Lennon-McCartney's song-writing greatness, but 'Hey Jude' captivates from the off - and who can resist the anthemic, communal finale that finds itself sung everywhere from school halls to football terraces. It's the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Even the line about taking a sad song and making it better could be applied to 'Hey Jude' itself. It starts as a sparse, melancholy ballad before dissolving into a euphoric mass-sing-along. Incidentally, the 36-piece orchestra that The Beatles assembled for the song were encouraged by McCartney to clap and sing along too - and they were paid a double fee for their trouble.
That peerless Beatles critic, the late Ian MacDonald, considered the song to be "a pop/rock hybrid drawing on the best of both idioms". In his book Revolution in the Head - which accesses every Beatles recording and is a must for anyone serious about the group - he wrote that "'Hey Jude' strikes a universal note, touching on the archetypal moment in male sexual psychology with a gentle wisdom one might properly call inspired".
Lennon later described it as a masterpiece and the best song that McCartney had ever written. It wouldn't be until much later that Julian himself discovered that it was about him (or at least inspired by him). It's original working title was 'Hey Jules' but McCartney thought it sounded better retitled.
Despite its subsequent success, Lennon wanted to release one of his own compositions, 'Revolution', as a single with 'Hey Jude' as its B-side but McCartney fought hard for his composition to get first billing.
Incidentally, when McCartney first demoed the song, he expressed embarrassment to Lennon about one particular line - "the movement you need is on your shoulder" - but his friend dismissed his concerns, calling it the best line in the song.
Like so much of The Beatles' lyrics, this one has been poured over exhaustively - with some suggesting it's about a father's touch for his son - although Paul later claimed that it was just a filler line that he intended to fix. Now, when he sings the song, he says that that's the line that makes him think about Lennon and how close they once were.
The recording took place during the sessions for The Beatles, popularly known as 'The White Album' and like many of the band's best singles it wouldn't be included on a studio album.
Many fans, including leading US critic Robert Christgau, reckon it had been a mistake to leave the song off, especially as the uneven 'White Album' includes several tracks that fail to catch fire. It was the first single to be released on the Beatles' own Apple label and, remarkably, it was succeeded as number one in both the Irish and UK charts by another Apple release, Mary Hopkin's 'Those Were the Days'. McCartney had provided production on that single.
'Hey Jude' spent three weeks atop the Irish chart in September 1968. It was usurped after a week by the Bee Gees' 'Got to Get A Message to You', before returning to the summit for a further fortnight.
If 1968 was a tempestuous year with unrest throughout Europe, the worsening of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, 'Hey Jude' was a song that seemed to provide succour and hope for a better future.
It has been a staple in McCartney's live repertoire over the past half-century. I remember an especially fine version delivered at the RDS Dublin in 2003 as part of a very special marathon show he put on that night.
It was also the song he chose to play out with in an engaging - and surprisingly moving - recent edition of Carpool Karaoke, the mega-popular segment of James Corden's Late Late Show. If you haven't seen it, it's on YouTube - where it's been viewed more than 30m times - so do yourself a favour and set aside 20 minutes to watch McCartney back in his old Merseyside stomping ground.
Here's to another 50 years of 'Hey Jude' - and beyond.