By the time The Beatles made The White Album, the cracks were beginning to show. Having spent much of their young lives joined at the hip, it’s no wonder John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were keen to develop a sense of individuality and to pull away from the homogenising forces that had lumped them together as ‘The Fab Four’. The Beatles reacted to this pervading sense of disassociation in a variety of ways, one of which was to retreat to India, where the group stayed with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and engaged in a course of transcendental meditation.
However, no amount of om chanting could stop the ever-widening rifts between Lennon and McCartney, who, after Sgt. Pepper’s, had started to move away from their traditional songwriting partnership. Keen to retain authorial control over their respective songs, the pair began to demonstrate a territorial approach. The new sense of individuality within Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting gave them greater freedom to explore but increasingly led to confrontations and disagreements. Take McCartney’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, for example.
Paul originally wrote the 1968 track to replicate the vibrancy of ska music. The title phrase, in fact, is something that McCartney’s friend Jimmy Anonmuogharan Scott Emuakpor used to say. It was said that the phrase was Urhobo for ‘life goes on’, but in reality, it was just a family saying. “I had a friend called Jimmy Scott who was a Nigerian conga player, who I used to meet in the clubs in London,” McCartney recounted in Anthology.
Adding: “He had a few expressions, one of which was, ‘Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra’. I used to love this expression… He sounded like a philosopher to me. He was a great guy anyway and I said to him, ‘I really like that expression and I’m thinking of using it,’ and I sent him a cheque in recognition of that fact later because even though I had written the whole song and he didn’t help me, it was his expression.”
But while the song was intended to capture a sense of devil-may-care optimism, when The Beatles took it to the studio it became a source of intense conflict between McCartney and Lennon. According to studio engineer Geoff Emerick, the pair nearly came to blows after John started referring to the song as “more of Paul’s granny music shit”. Unperturbed, McCartney extended the recording session for several more days. However, by the fourth day, Lennon had had enough and “went ballistic” while “ranting and raving” about the song as he exited the studio in a blaze of fury.
When Lennon came back, as studio engineer Richard Lush remembers, he was incredibly stoned and itching for a fight. “I am more stoned than you have ever been,” John began shouting. “In fact, I am more stoned than you will ever be! And this is how the fucking song should go.” And with that, Lennon smashed the piano keys at twice the speed Paul had intended.
According to Emerick, “A very upset Paul got right in Lennon’s face. For a moment I thought fists might fly.” Somehow, the pair managed to cool down, and eventually, Paul even decided to use Lennon’s sped-up take of the track for the final recording.