There’s not much about The Beatles seminal hit from 1968, ‘Hey Jude’, that you won’t already know. The song has become a universal anthem that has gone a long way to unify entire swathes of a generation. Though there is a little doubt about who the song was actually written for, there is no uncertainty that the track remains one of the Fab Four’s undying legacies. Written by Paul McCartney for the band’s single release of that year, the song was backed ‘Revolution’ and received huge radio airplay, which, considering two vital imperfections in the song, make it truly revolutionary.
“That’s his best song,” Lennon once remarked of the track. “It started off as a song about my son Julian because Paul was going to see him. Then he turned it into ‘Hey Jude’. I always thought it was about me and Yoko, but he said it was about him and his.” McCartney has always maintained the track is about Julian, claiming it was written to help Lennon’s son get over his parents’ divorce. However, Lennon always felt the track was actually written about him.
During his famous 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon offered another theory to the song’s inception: “He said it was written about Julian. He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian then,” he said. “He was driving to see Julian to say hello. He had been like an uncle. And he came up with ‘Hey Jude.’ But I always heard it as a song to me.
“Now I’m sounding like one of those fans reading things into it… Think about it: Yoko had just come into the picture. He is saying. ‘Hey, Jude’—’Hey, John.’ Subconsciously, he was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”
The direct target of McCartney’s anthemic and downright astounding song is likely to be a combination of both of these sentiments. Whether it was for Julian as a moment of friendship, a hand on the shoulder of his friend’s son, and a knowing, guiding smile to what life could be like. Or indeed whether it was a letter to John to try and connect with him as they had done before. The truth is that the song, like any great song does, can be moved and repositioned to fit whatever the audience may need at the time.
That said, it could have very nearly never reached that audience through the radio for two standout reasons. Firstly, breaking all the radio rules, the song has an expletive hidden within the track that is almost always uncensored during radio plays. Lennon sings “Let her into” instead of “Let her under your skin” to which the singer casually replies “Oh! Fucking hell!”. It remains in the final mix of the track to this day, despite some of the band’s closest engineers being unable to detect it. Ken Scott said of the swear, “I was told about it at the time but could never hear it. But once I had it pointed out I can’t miss it now.”
It’s not the first time the band have tried to do such a thing, often hiding onomatopoeic swear in songs. Scott agrees: “I have a sneaking suspicion they knew all along, as it was a track that should have been pulled out in the mix. I would imagine it was one of those things that happened – it was a mistake, they listened to it and thought, ‘doesn’t matter, it’s fine’.”
Aside from that naughty moment, the song is also a stonking seven minutes long, which in the world of the 1960s when radio was king, this simply wouldn’t do. You were dreaming if you tried to get some airplay on a song over three minutes long. But for the Fab Four, doors just opened. “We recorded ‘Hey Jude’ in Trident Studios,” recalled George Martin. “It was a long song. In fact, after I timed it, I actually said, ‘You can’t make a single that long.’ I was shouted down by the boys – not for the first time in my life – and John asked: ‘Why not?’ I couldn’t think of a good answer, really – except the pathetic one that disc jockeys wouldn’t play it. He said, ‘They will if it’s us.’ And, of course, he was absolutely right.”
The track has gone down in history as one of their greatest ever feats and the fact that it defied convention to reach those heights is another testament to the subversive nature of the biggest pop band of all time.