'Hey Jude' by The Beatles: The making of Paul McCartney's soaring epic

26 June 2024, 11:23

The Beatles prepping for Magical Mystery Tour
The Beatles prepping for Magical Mystery Tour. Picture: Getty Images

By Mayer Nissim

Nah, nah, nah, nah nah nah nah! Nah nah nah nah!

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When it comes to signature songs, The Beatles simply do not have one.

They released too many important songs, too many incredibly popular songs, and too many greatest-of-all-time songs to have their back catalogue reduced to one, two or even a dozen standouts.

Instead, it feels like we get an endless, glorious conveyor belt of Beatles songs that resurface once in a while to have their moment before another one grabs its place in the spotlight.

One of those songs is of course 'Hey Jude', the standalone masterpiece that soared to the top of the charts in 1968.

But who wrote the song, who is "Jude", and what's it really about? Read on for all you need to know.

Who wrote 'Hey Jude'?

Paul McCartney - Hey Jude - Live At London 2012 | Music Monday

As you'll know, nearly all Beatles songs come under the headings Lennon/McCartney, Harrison or "cover".

'Hey Jude' was one of the 180-odd Beatles songs with Lennon/McCartney on the label, but as all Beatles fans know, that doesn't mean that Paul McCartney and John Lennon sat down and wrote it together.

In fact, 'Hey Jude' was very much a Paul McCartney song, being written by Macca in a car journey to visit John's estranged wife Cynthia Lennon and then 5-year-old son Julian out at their Kenwood in Weybridge.

Who is "Jude" anyway and what is 'Hey Jude' all about?

Hey Jude (Remastered 2015)

The "official" identity of "Jude" isn't much of a secret. Paul wrote the song on his way to visit Cynthia and Julian, and its working title was 'Hey Jules'.

"I started with the idea 'Hey Jules', which was Julian, don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better," McCartney said in Barry Miles's wondrous Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now.

"Hey, try and deal with this terrible thing. I knew it was not going to be easy for him. I always feel sorry for kids in divorces."

The title shifted to 'Hey Jude' not necessarily to anonymise the song, but because Paul decided that Jude just sounded better.

Paul McCartney and Julian Lennon
Paul McCartney and Julian Lennon. Picture: Getty Images

Paul has also said that the name was inspired by the character of "Jud" in Oklahoma.

It probably didn't hurt that the name "Jude" has a load of interesting connotations. There's Jude the Apostle, plus Judas Iscariot, plus Thomas Hardy's classic novel Jude the Obscure.

The name change did cause some problems when they decided to advertise its imminent release by scratching it in whitewash in the now-vacant Apple shop.

Less than 30 years after the rise of the Nazis in Germany, it wasn't the best idea to have JUDE there written in glass on your shop front, given the unintentional connotations, and apparently someone put a brick through the window as a result.

John and Julian Lennon In Liverpool.
John and Julian Lennon In Liverpool. Picture: Getty Images

But while "It's about Julian Lennon" is a neat and easy "explanation", art is always open to interpretation and re-interpretation, whatever its most crucial creator says, frankly.

"He thinks all the songs are about him," said Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher of his brother Liam. "He even thinks 'Wonderwall' is about him."

Well, it seems as though Liam has more in common with John Lennon than he even thinks, for John actually suggested that despite the name of the song and Paul's freely given explanation, 'Hey Jude' is about... him.

"Yoko's just come into the picture," Lennon said in his last major interview. "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.

Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics to 'Hey Jude'
Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics to 'Hey Jude'. Picture: Getty Images

"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."

In response, McCartney apparently suggested that if there was any subconscious projection going on, then perhaps Jude was himself.

At the time that he wrote the song, he was engaged to Jane Asher, but also later started a fling with Linda Eastman.

Whoever the song is "really" about, Paul clearly knew right away that he'd come up with something very special indeed.

Friends, collaborators, and probably even the gasman. He apparently played it to anyone who'd listen, before eventually letting John have a blast of it in July 1968.

What on earth does "the movement you need is on your shoulder" mean?

"It sounds like a parrot..."
"It sounds like a parrot...". Picture: Getty Images

Well, your guess is as good as ours.

McCartney revealed that when he first played the work-in-progress 'Hey Jude' to John, he pledged to "fix" that bit.

'I've used the word 'shoulder' once already, and anyway, it's a stupid expression," Paul said. "It sounds like a parrot. I'll change it."

Lennon replied: "You won't you know. That's the best line in the song. I know what it means – it's great."

And so it stayed.

Exactly how long is 'Hey Jude' and did that scare the band off releasing it as a single?

George Martin and John Lennon in the studio
George Martin and John Lennon in the studio. Picture: Getty Images

There are epics and there are epics.

'Hey Jude' clocks in at a whopping seven minutes and 12 seconds. At the time it was the longest-ever song to top the UK singles charts.

"It was a long song," producer George Martin was quoted in Anthology as saying. "In fact, after I timed it I actually said, 'You can't make a single that long'."

It was an argument he lost. He said that DJs wouldn't play it. John said, "They will if it's us." As Martin conceded: "And, of course, he was absolutely right."

It was a bit of a technical feat to fit all seven minutes on one side of a 7" record and not make it unlistenable.

"They did some very clever stuff," McCartney remembered. "Squeezing the bit that didn't have to be loud, then allowing the rest more room."

Who plays what on 'Hey Jude'?

The Beatles laying down some tracks at Abbey Road
The Beatles laying down some tracks at Abbey Road. Picture: Getty Images

While The Beatles were increasingly recording separately around the time of The Beatles (aka The White Album), with a number of songs not featuring all four members, 'Hey Jude' features all the Fab Four doing their thing.

That's Paul McCartney on lead vocals, of course, as well as piano and bass. John Lennon on acoustic guitar, George Harrison on electric guitar, and Ringo Starr on drums and tambourine.

There are backing vocals from John, George and Ringo, and handclaps from all.

Rounding out the sound is a 36-piece orchestra, who also pitched in on those nah nah nahs and handclaps too.

When was 'Hey Jude' released and where did it get in the charts?

The Beatles: Hey Jude and Revolution
The Beatles: Hey Jude and Revolution. Picture: Alamy

Having been recorded on July 31 and August 1, 1968, 'Hey Jude' was rush-released on August 26, 1968, with 'Revolution' on the B-side.

Lennon lobbied for 'Revolution' to be an A-side, but lost the vote.

It went all the way to number one in both the UK and the US. In America, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record-tying nine weeks.

It's gone Platinum in the UK, quadruple Platinum in the US, and has sold an estimated eight million copies.

Who made the 'Hey Jude' music video?

The Beatles - Hey Jude

Did you know that 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was the first ever music video Long before Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody', long before MTV, there were music videos in the 1960s, and The Beatles were one of the many artists leading the way.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who you might remember from his memorable appearance in the Get Back series, was a music video pioneer, with his films for 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain' blazing a trail.

After the success of those promo clips, the band enlisted ML-H to make videos for 'Hey Jude' and 'Revolution'.

The Beatles - Revolution

They had a live orchestra and sang the vocals to a backing track, with the film being shot at Twickenham Film Studios on September 4, 1968.

The 'Hey Jude' video marks a vital bit of Beatles history, and not just because it came together so well.

It actually was the first time Ringo Starr had returned to the band after walking out following a feud with Macca during the recording of 'Back in the USSR' on The Beatles.

Without MTV or YouTube existing, the video had to find its audience in more trad ways. It was shown on Frost on Sunday in the UK and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the US.

Who has covered 'Hey Jude'?

Hey Jude

'Hey Jude' isn't quite 'Yesterday', but it's still been covered many, many, MANY times.

Before the 1960s were out, we had Wilson Pickett, Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, José Feliciano, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Bing Crosby and Bill Medley giving it a go.

Since then we've had everyone from Elvis Presley, Tony Christie, Bobby Darin, The Grateful Dead, Marillion, The Guess Who, Take That, Roberta Flack, the cast of Glee, Leo Sayer and Howard Jones.

Hey Jude | adidas

It doesn't really count as a "cover", but 'Hey Jude' has been a regular in Paul McCartney's live sets as a solo star, with tallies putting it as his second-most performed song after only 'Let It Be'.

Also not a cover, but we should also mention the spare re-arrangement of the song for an Adidas advert in support of the England football team and their talisman Jude Bellingham at Euro 2024.