The Beatles, known affectionately as the Fab Four, have always had John Lennon and Paul McCartney as the beating core of the group. That’s not to diminish the work of George Harrison or Ringo Starr, but merely to highlight the impressive talent held between the songwriting partnership.
The duo began their career being able to write pop tunes with a flick of the wrist. Later, as they matured, Lennon-McCartney delivered texturally rich and lyrically deep songs that beguile and delight their audiences. What’s more, they were capable of writing them pretty damn quickly too.
One song that got some speedy treatment was ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ which saw Lennon-McCartney finish writing and recording the song in just one day, leaving George Harrison and Ringo Starr at home. “It doesn’t mean anything. It just so happened that there were only two of us there,” said Lennon in 1969.
“George was abroad and Ringo was on the film and he couldn’t come that night. Because of that, it was a choice of either re-mixing or doing a new song — and you always go for doing a new one instead of fiddling about with an old one. So we did and it turned out well.”
With EMI owning Abbey Road studios, it allowed the band to block out the studio for weeks at a time, leaving the opportunity for spontaneous sessions glaring for any Beatle who wanted it. It meant the duo were able to get all the tracks down for the song, with Macca taking on drum duties as well as his usual bass.
Ringo remembered in the Beatles’ Anthology, “‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ only had Paul — of the other Beatles — on it but that was OK. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ was just Paul and me, and it went out as a Beatle track too. We had no problems with that. There’s good drums on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, too.”
The song has gone down as a Fab Four favourite among their fans with the colloquial folk tone of the track offered up a warm glowing image of the group’s personal lives. “It’s something I wrote, and it’s like an old-time ballad,” said Lennon in the same 1969 interview. “It’s the story of us going along getting married, going to Paris, going to Amsterdam, all that. It’s ‘Johnny B. Paperback Writer.'”
The track goes on to provide a key insight into the life of Lennon, the band’s mercurial leader. “I wrote that in Paris on our honeymoon,” said Lennon speaking with David Sheff in 1980. “It’s a piece of journalism. It’s a folk song. That’s why I called it, ‘The Ballad Of…'” A simple folk song is inoffensive enough, right? Well, Lennon was still keen to keep a bit of controversy in the track.
Since Lennon had compared The Beatles to Jesus, saying: “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity”, the band’s popularity had dwindled in the southern states of America as well as south-east Asia. Still, Lennon found space in the chorus to sing “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.”
It was a deliberately provocative angle, “John came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this song about our wedding and it’s called The Ballad Of John And Yoko, Christ They’re Gonna Crucify Me,” remembers McCartney back in 1988. “I said ‘Jesus Christ, you’re kidding, aren’t you? Someone really is going to get upset about it.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, but let’s do it.’ I was a little worried for him because of the lyric but he was going through alot of terrible things.”
Lennon was clearly aware of the offence it could cause and sent a memo to Apple Records’ plugged, Tony Bramwell saying: “Tony – No pre-publicity on Ballad Of John & Yoko especially the ‘Christ’ bit – so don’t play it round too much or you’ll frighten people – get it pressed first.” Still, the song was duly banned by some radio stations in the US and the UK, with some just opting to bleep out the word “Christ”.
Looking back now and the controversy can feel a little bit silly. It’s clear that Lennon was trying to spread a message about his own life, trying to express his own frustrations and the foreshadowing he saw. It’s a powerful piece and one that works within the duality of life. It also allowed one of the final times Lennon and McCartney truly collaborated on a song.
‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ will forever remain a love song but it’s roots are deeply buried in their friendship.