The Beatles song ‘Baby’s In Black’ is the ultimate encapsulation of ‘Saudade’, a Portuguese word that, in English, translates as bittersweet or happy-sad. Behind the beat-era jangle and waltzing rhythm, the lyrics speak of profound sadness, mourning, and melancholia. In this way, the song – taken from the group’s fourth studio album Beatles for Sale – is the perfect reflection of the burgeoning sadness and isolation that was beginning to distance John Lennon and Paul McCartney from one another during this period. However, as you will discover, it also acted as the antidote to both of those things.
By 1964, Lennon and McCartney had begun to write alone. In the early days, The Beatles setlists were almost entirely made up of songs Paul and John had written together, tracks that had been meticulously crafted from opposite sides of hotel beds and cramped tour buses. But with success came greater pressure and, by the time they started work on Beatles For Sale, the songwriting duo were only helping each other complete songs when the need arose. ‘Baby’s In Black’, however, is one of the rare songs of that period that was entirely a joint effort. It was written, as Lennon once recalled, “Together, in the same room”.
“It was very much co-written and we both sang it,” Lennon said. “Sometimes the harmony that I was writing in sympathy to John’s melody would take over and become a stronger melody. Suddenly a piebald rabbit came out of the hat! When people wrote out the music score they would ask, ‘Which one is the melody?’ because it was so co-written that you could actually take either. We rather liked this one. It was not so much a work job, there was a bit more cred about this one. It’s got a good middle.”
On release, listeners were struck by the depth of the lyrics of the song, which seemed to convey a new, surprisingly maudlin side to The Beatles. “I better explain what John and I meant by this title hadn’t I?” Paul once said. “The story is about a girl who’s wearing black because the bloke she loves has gone away forever. The feller singing the song fancies her, too, but he’s getting nowhere. We wrote it originally in a waltz style, but it finished as a mixture of waltz and beat”.
It’s likely the woman Paul was talking about was Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer and artist whom The Beatles met and befriended during one of their Hamburg residencies. At this time, she began dating Stuart Sutcliffe, The Beatles original bassist, to whom she later became engaged. Tragically, however, Sutcliffe died of a brain haemorrhage in April 1962, leaving Kirchherr in a state of suspended animation, unsure of how to proceed, or how to mourn.
For Lennon and McCartney, this image of Kirchherr became the focus of a surprisingly dark song. “Oh dear, what can I do?/baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue/ tell me, oh what can I do?” Lennon sings, urging Kircherr to escape the grief that has come to define her. Perhaps that’s why the upbeat 3/4 rhythm of ‘Babys In Black’ works so well. It’s almost as if Lennon and McCartney are attempting to bring a ray of light into a place almost entirely cloaked in darkness.
As McCartney later recalled: “‘Baby’s In Black’ we did because we like waltz time – we used to do ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’, a cool 3/4 blues thing. And other bands would notice that and say, ‘Shit man, you’re doing something in 3/4.’ So we’d got known for that. And I think also John and I wanted to do something bluesy, a bit darker, more grown-up, rather than just straight pop. It was more ‘Baby’s In Black’ as in mourning. Our favourite colour was black, as well.”