The “meaningless” song by The Beatles that upset John Lennon
Back in 1967, The Beatles were at their creative peak. Not held back by the pressures of cracking the charts—having consistently done so for the last few years—the Fab Four were given free rein to explore their expression and let the music flow out.
When you’re part of the biggest band on the planet, however, chances are you will have to compromise, even if you did start the group yourself. That was the situation facing John Lennon when he had to settle for his iconic psychedelic masterpiece, ‘I Am The Walrus’ being made a B-side to a song he called “meaningless”.
Arguably, The Beatles’ annus mirabilis, 1967 did bring one sour note, the death of the band’s manager Brian Epstein and the first single to be released following his death was backed with Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’. That single was the Magical Mystery Tour album track, ‘Hello, Goodbye’.
The song has always landed quite heavily with devoted Beatles fans, marking a split in styles between Lennon and McCartney and perhaps highlighting their opposing attitudes to songwriting. Lennon believed in a more poetic vision, allowing music to emanate from your creative mind. Meanwhile, Macca thought music was inherent and had the ability to be moulded and crafted into whatever shape you needed.
On ‘Hello Goodbye’, McCartney took that method to the extreme, almost creating the song as a dare. Brian Epstein’s assistant, Alistair Taylor, remembered a meeting with Macca that may have spawned the track: “Paul marched me into the dining room, where he had a marvellous old hand-carved harmonium. ‘Come and sit at the other end of the harmonium. You hit any note you like on the keyboard. Just hit it and I’ll do the same. Now whenever I shout out a word, you shout the opposite and I’ll make up a tune. You watch, it’ll make music’.
“‘Black,’ he started. ‘White,’ I replied. ‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Bad.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘Goodbye.’ I wonder whether Paul really made up that song as he went along or whether it was running through his head already.”
The simplicity of the construction seemed to please McCartney and he maintained the lyrics’ childlike tone, a fitting sound for the mind-expanding sixties. It saw Macca look to expand on the opposing forces in the world: “‘Hello, Goodbye’ was one of my songs,” he said. “There are Geminian influences here I think— the twins. It’s such a deep theme of the universe, duality— man woman, black white, high low, right wrong, up down, hello goodbye– that it was a very easy song to write.
“It’s just a song of duality, with me advocating the more positive. You say goodbye, I say hello. You say stop, I say go. I was advocating the more positive side of the duality, and I still do to this day.”
Whether or not it was the song’s construction that displeased Lennon or simply the fact his song was bumped down to the B-side but he later described the track as “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions,” scathing words indeed, even for the caustic wit of Lennon.
Speaking with David Sheff in 1980, Lennon once again recalled: “That’s another McCartney. An attempt to write a single. It wasn’t a great piece. The best bit was at the end, which we all ad-libbed in the studio, where I played the piano. Like ‘Ticket To Ride,’ where we just threw something in at the end.”
However dismissive Lennon might be of the song, it’s hard to ignore the poetic irony of the band’s two principal songwriters finding two opposing stances about a song which is centred on the brilliance of duality. Perhaps that’s what McCartney was going for or perhaps Lennon just wanted the A-side. Either way, ‘Hello, Goodbye’ remains a Beatles favourite.