The easiest way to know if a Beatles song really does cut the mustard is when John Lennon told you so. Never too far from throwing his bandmates under the bus, Lennon was known to have a razor-sharp tongue when it came to critiquing the Fab Four’s song but there were a few that he absolutely adored.
Famously, Paul McCartney claims that Lennon only ever complimented his songwriting once, saying: “That’s a good song that lad” about the iconic track ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ but that’s far from the truth. In interviews across post-Beatles years, there were a lot of songs that Lennon thought were worthy of top billing. One of those songs, Lennon believed to have a secret message.
John Lennon loved the song ‘Hey Jude’, telling David Sheff in 1980 of the track, “‘Hey Jude’ is a damn good set of lyrics and I made no contribution to that.” The first song to be released on the band’s own Apple Records, the song has stood the test of time and is as capable of turning a bunch of strangers into a magnificent choir as it always was. Many people will know the song’s origination but Lennon always thought it held a hidden secret.
The story goes that while Lennon and his first wife Cynthia were acknowledging the deterioration of their relationship and John had begun to move out of the family unit that Paul McCartney got in his car and drove to see Cynthia and her son Julian. On the journey he considered their situation and how different their lives would now be, Macca told the Beatles Anthology, “I thought, as a friend of the family, I would motor out to Weybridge and tell them that everything was all right: to try and cheer them up, basically, and see how they were,” he said.
“I had about an hour’s drive. I would always turn the radio off and try and make up songs, just in case… I started singing: ‘Hey Jules – don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it better…’ It was optimistic, a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.’ I eventually changed ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’.”
Dealing with the personal lives of someone else is always a difficult thing to broach in songwriting, knowing that you would have to play it for them must’ve been beyond nerve-wracking. “I was in the music room upstairs when John and Yoko came to visit and they were right behind me over my right shoulder, standing up, listening to it as I played it to them,” remembers McCartney in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now.
“When I got to the line, ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder,’ I looked over my shoulder and I said, ‘I’ll change that, it’s a bit crummy. I was just blocking it out,’ and John said, ‘You won’t, you know. That’s the best line in it!’ That’s collaboration.”
It was a way of working that had benefitted the songwriting duo thus far, “When someone’s that firm about a line that you’re going to junk, and he said, ‘No, keep it in.’ So, of course, you love that line twice as much because it’s a little stray, it’s a little mutt that you were about to put down and it was reprieved and so it’s more beautiful than ever,” he said. “I love those words now… Time lends a little credence to things. You can’t knock it, it just did so well. But when I’m singing it, that is when I think of John, when I hear myself singing that line; it’s an emotional point in the song.”
McCartney’s remembering of John at that point in the song is a touching tribute but the bespectacled Beatle always thought the entire song wasn’t really a message to his son Julian but McCartney trying to deal with his own sense of abandonment as Lennon spent all his time with Yoko Ono. “He said it was written about Julian, my child,” Lennon told Sheff in 1980. “He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian. He was driving over to say hi to Julian. He’d been like an uncle to him. You know, Paul was always good with kids. And so he came up with ‘Hey Jude’.”
Lennon continued, laying out his theory, “But I always heard it as a song to me. If you think about it… Yoko’s just come into the picture. 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. 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. 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.”
Whichever theory you think fits the bill, one thing cannot be denied, Paul McCartney’s classic Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’ is right up there with some of their best work. Don’t believe us? Just remember that John Lennon said so.