After the confusion, frustration and lack of direction that ended the previous year, the band started 1968 with a few concrete plans in the works: they would agree to film a cameo on 25 January for the Yellow Submarine movie that would be released that summer (though the soundtrack would not be release well until January of 1969); they would take a few months off to head to India for vacation and Transcendental Meditation; and they would also, on their own, work on various personal projects.
The year started off with George flying over to EMI’s studio in India for five days to continue working on abbreviated ragas for the movie Wonderwall. The movie itself is an extremely trippy film by director Joe Massot about an extremely eccentric British scientist who meets and becomes infatuated by his new neighbor, a flighty model aptly named Penny Lane. It’s definitely of its time, filled with the barest of plots, corny British slapstick humor, and a hell of a lot of psychedelic visuals (you can find it uploaded in parts on YouTube). It’s extremely dated and nonsensical, but it’s also fascinating in that the entire score was written by George. It’s been said that he only composed the music and was not on the album itself, though that’s been up to question, as some of the music credits are pseudonyms (Eddie Clayton = Eric Clapton, Richie Snare = Ringo Starr) and some performers, supposedly including Monkee Peter Tork, are on the album but uncredited. Unlike Paul’s The Family Way score which he only wrote, Wonderwall Music is considered the first Beatles solo album, as he had produced the Indian ragas personally. The rock tracks are relatively inconsequential, though there are a few songs in there (such as the mellotron-heavy ballad “Wonderwall to Be Here” and the flanger-heavy “Party Seacombe”) hint at songs George would have written at the time. At the start of the year, however, he was focusing solely on the Indian ragas for the album, and while there he had come up with the idea for “The Inner Light”. Most of the backing track for that track would be recorded at that time, with more work done on it later.
Given that their planned group trip to India had been postponed a number of times and finally penciled in for March, they found themselves with a bit of extra time, and chose to work on a few new songs. These four songs could not have been more different from each other: the piano boogie “Lady Madonna”, the electric “Hey Bulldog”, the dreamy acoustic “Across the Universe” and the raga-esque “The Inner Light”. Putting these side by side shows just how differing each member’s writing had become. Paul’s “Madonna” was a continuation of his love for American R&B; John’s “Bulldog” is an infectiously groovy rock track; his “Universe” hinted at his burgeoning interest in spirituality; and George’s “Light” was a fast-paced Indian track and is nearly a solo track, only featuring John and Paul singing harmony on one line. Perhaps this was a sign of things to come; by the time they returned from India, they had a laundry list of new songs that felt more like solo tracks rather than band compositions. Perhaps in their attempt to remain optimistic, they may have viewed this is maturing into their own. In a way it did foster more serious attempts at songwriting–especially for George–and in the process they were able to see themselves as individuals rather than a four-man unit. This ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword; on the one hand, during 1968 and 1969 they wrote some of their most memorable songs…but it also caused them to drift further apart from each other.
Despite the troubles on the horizon, the band kept one thing in mind throughout: they were still recording musicians, and it was important that they keep that as top priority.
* * *
Single: “Lady Madonna”/”The Inner Light”
Released: 15 March 1968
With the India trip looming, it was decided that they would release two of these new songs as their latest single. “Hey Bulldog” was out of the running, as it had been written specifically for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, and George’s “The Inner Light” would be the b-side. That left it up to “Madonna” or “Universe”–a Paul song or a John song. After much argument and debate, Paul’s track was considered more radio-friendly and upbeat, and therefore chosen for the A side. “Universe” would be held until a later time.
Side A: Lady Madonna
Paul’s piano boogie was inspired musically by Humphrey Lyttelton’s “Bad Penny Blues” (the single of which, interestingly enough, was produced by George Martin) as well as by Fats Domino. The lyrics themselves are straightforward: a week in the life of a frazzled, overburdened and possibly single mother trying to make ends meet. It’s not a sad lament like “Eleanor Rigby”, however…this is a celebration of perseverance. Despite Paul’s daily list of things going wrong (papers not coming, socks needing mending, exhaustion of a never-ending day), the mother is strong and carries on the best she can.
Melodically it’s a step up from some of Paul’s previous tracks from Magical Mystery Tour, as if he’d given this track extra life. The melody never stays in one place; even though its home key is A (a note which Paul hits repeatedly on the piano), it shuffles everywhere, blues-like, as if to underscore the constant rush of the song’s subject. It’s played quick and tight with just two guitars, piano, bass, and brush-played drums; the only extra is a sax solo played by jazz musician Ronnie Scott.
There were two versions of a promotional film made for this track, filmed on 11 February at Abbey Road. This was actually the day they were in the studio to record “Hey Bulldog”, so in 1999 when the Yellow Submarine Songtrack compilation was released, the footage for the “Lady Madonna” video was re-edited to match “Bulldog”, creating a new video in the process.
Side B: The Inner Light
George’s new song was the last of his raga-inspired Beatles tracks and is more in the South Indian Karnatak style rather than the North Indian style, thus the lighter sound and the absence of sitar and tamboura (a lot of the tracks from the Wonderwall Music soundtrack are similar in sound, if not in pace). The lyrics were inspired by a suggestion from Sanskrit scholar Juan Mascaro in a letter to George that he might try writing a song based on the words found in the Tao Te Ching. The end result is an almost word-for-word quoting from the “Viewing the Distant” passage (Chapter 47 or 48, depending on which version), a meditation on transcending the physical in order to know the ways of heaven. George took this short passage and repeats it twice–changing the pronoun in the second verse from “I” to “you”, thus including the listener. It’s a simple track melodically and lyrically, but it’s a beautiful piece of work, especially considering that so few English musicians (let alone rock musicians) were recording this kind of music at the time.
* * *
This is a curious single, placed neatly between the psychedelia of the Pepper and MMT-era songs and the darker rock of The Beatles. It’s more straight ahead than the former, and much more upbeat than the latter. It could also be seen as a companion piece of their next single, as both were stopgaps between two epic albums. But ultimately it was seen as a stripping away of the imagery that had permeated the band and their music in 1966 and 1967. This was a band fully in rock band territory, without the frills and without the pretension.
* * *
Single: “Hey Jude”/”Revolution”
Released: 30 August 1968
The next single was recorded about halfway through the sessions for their next album, The Beatles, and an unprecedented release on multiple levels. They’d already worked on nearly a single album’s worth of tracks by late July (having started the sessions on 30 May) when Paul had written (assisted by John) one of his most popular and widely loved songs ever. On the flip side was a relentless and overtly political rant by John that was essentially a complete musical overhaul of a much more peaceful earlier version. It was also one of the very first releases on the band’s new label, Apple Records. Both tracks broke multiple rules as well: the A side was an astonishing seven minutes long, almost unheard of for a pop single, and the B side’s guitars were recorded directly into the mixing board and pushed so far forward the needles were constantly in the red, also unheard of (and deeply frowned upon by EMI). It would become one of their best-selling singles ever.
Side A: Hey Jude
Hey Jude was written by Paul about John’s son Julian, who at that time was stuck in the middle of the disintegrating marriage of John and Cynthia. Paul had become somewhat of a de facto uncle to the boy, looking out for him and being there for him when things were getting bad. It’s a tender and simple ballad of caring, telling Julian that things might be bad, but would eventually get better. John was somewhat aware of this, though he had interpreted the lyrics in a slightly different way as well: he knew his relationship with Cynthia had been a miserable mistake, and his new and budding relationship with Yoko Ono was the right thing. John had also read the lyrics to mean that Paul was giving him the go-ahead.
The recording history of the song is about as long as the song itself; it was started on 29 July at Abbey Road, with twenty-three takes between that day and the next. However, these takes were purposely rehearsals. They had already planned on a few days’ worth of recording at Trident Studios for recording proper. The reason for this was that Abbey Road was still functioning on four tracks at this point, and the band was itching to record on more than the limiting four tracks. EMI had in fact purchased an eight-track board a short time earlier, but in its infinite wisdom (or more to the point, its stodginess and not wanting rock bands to play with it just yet) had not set it up. So from 31 July to 2 August they worked at Trident Studios to lay down the finished product. The end result took a surprisingly short amount of time–the basic tracks were laid down on 31 July in one take, with three successive “takes” being overdubs of additional instruments on the first take. Additional overdubs and the orchestral score were added on 1 August. [NOTE: An interesting overdub at 2:59 is due to Paul hitting a bum note on the piano; it’s very faint, but you can hear him say “Oh! Fucking hell…” The band decided to keep it in to see if anyone would notice!] A stereo mix was finished by 2 August.
The dynamics of the song are subtle but fascinating. It harkens back to their simple pop songs of the early sixties in a I-V-IV chord structure with a bridge containing a descending chord progression. The song slowly builds in anticipation and life, starting only with Paul accompanying himself on the piano. Ringo’s entrance is a simple fill in an unexpected place–not until the first bridge–and was apparently due to him being late in returning to his kit, but it works because it adds to the gradual sonic ascension of the track. This section of the song lasts for roughly three minutes and ends on a spirited “better, better” crescendo, and switching to the now-famous four minute “nah nah nah, Hey Jude” coda. The ending is one long musical celebration of spirit and emotion, simple in melody but deeply heartfelt, underscoring the whole uplifting theme.
A promotional film was made for this, again directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. It was a low-key live-with-tape performance with a crowd of well-behaved fans surrounding them, shot at Twickenham Film Studios. The video link above contains the film in addition to an introduction by British tv host David Frost.
[This is of course one of my top favorite Beatles songs for that reason alone–out of all the songs the band recorded, there were few that were as emotionally moving as this. I happened to see Paul live in 2002 (and will be seeing him at Outside Lands this coming weekend), and I can safely say that hearing an entire audience sing along to the last half of this song is one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced.]
Side B: Revolution
John’s song has an equally storied background. The original was a much slower and more metaphorical version recorded on 30 May (which has its own story, which I’ll touch upon when I cover Side Three of The Beatles). John’s lyrics were his first overtly political words put to tape, though at that point he was still attempting to find his way. Though he was now following his love for avant garde art, he hadn’t quite become the anti-establishment person he became later. Thus the original was more hesitant, more about finding a peaceful answer to his antiwar beliefs. By 10 July, however, he’d become more aware of how he felt about not just the war, but politics and revolution in general. This single version was more confrontational and emotionally raw–it was now an accusation against those who chose to revolt against the establishment: he understood their reasoning, but did they really have a backup plan to replace the old regime? He thought not, and in true vindictive Lennon fashion, he chose to call them out on it.
The band used the original slower version as a template, as both are melodically exactly the same. The difference is that it’s now turned into a no-holds-barred rocker, and the indecisive “count me out/in” of the album version is now the pointed “count me out”. Musically it’s played as loudly and as fiercely as possible, in effect one of the loudest songs the band had ever recorded to date. Two heavily distorted guitars (created via two preamped guitars plugged directly into the mixing console and pushed as high as possible) saturate the entire song along with Ringo’s thunderous drumming, also mixed high and heavy. The result is a wild outburst of anger and raw feeling, and a sign of things to come for the band, both together and solo.
A promotional film was made for this track the same day and location as the “Hey Jude” clip; it’s a simple performance of the four singing along to tape, though there are a few embellishments, such as Paul and George singing the “shoo-be-doo-wah” of the album version, and John once again using the indecisive “count me out/in” lyric.
* * *
Both singles could be seen as an introduction to the band’s new organic sound that would be heard on The Beatles, but more to the point, they could also be seen as the beginning of a new stylistic direction in their songwriting. They had tried many different songwriting styles, from the pop of their early tracks to the folk of 1964-1965, to the eclectic pop/rock of 1966, and into the psychedelic sounds of 1967. By 1968, they had decided to return to a pure rock sound, and given their expanding musical knowledge they were able to create their own unique brand in the process. There were hints of old-school influences in the songs again, but they were new interpretations rather than straight imitations.
Recording for The Beatles would continue until 14 October–by far the longest stretch of sessions for one Beatles album. There were thirty-two songs recorded, all but two making it to the final release, with even more songs from the India trip left unrecorded until Abbey Road, or even further on to their solo albums. The sessions were alternately tumultuous and free-spirited; the songs were alternately brilliant and half-baked. Critics and fans alike weren’t quite sure what to make of it, but over time it became a highly regarded (if flawed) masterpiece.
Next Up: The Beatles, Side 1
[As mentioned, since the album is thirty tracks long, I will cover the release in four installments, covering one side at a time.]