Most of The Beatles’ songs can be traced back to a single root of inspiration. Whether it’s the mammoth tracks like ‘Let It Be’, which relied on Paul McCartney’s lucid dreams, or indeed ‘Across The Universe’, a hit that John Lennon proclaimed possessed him before it was written. However, for the band’s first single release of 1968, ‘Lady Madonna’, the inspiration can be split down the middle between two very different points of influence.
The first one, which will get out the way from the off, is pretty standard fare. The Fab Four may have been the ultimate pop stars, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t influenced by the artists who came before them. One such artist is the beloved singer-songwriter Fats Domino. An artist that each member of the Fab Four admired as a forefather of their sound but whose presence was most obviously seen in Paul McCartney’s writing, ‘Lady Madonna’ is the clearest case.
“‘Lady Madonna’ was me, sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing,” recalled McCartney in 1994 of the song’s conception. “It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression. It took my other voice to a very odd place.” That’s all well and good, but the song’s real nugget of inspiration was a little more difficult to put into words.
Never one to shy away from a grandiose concept, McCartney noted in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now: “The original concept was the Virgin Mary, but it quickly became symbolic of every woman; the Madonna image but as applied to ordinary working class woman. It’s really a tribute to the mother figure, it’s a tribute to women. ‘Your Mother Should Know’ is another.
“I think women are very strong, they put up with a lot of shit,” continued the songwriter. “They put up with the pain of having a child, of raising it, cooking for it, they are basically skivvies a lot of their lives, so I always want to pay a tribute to them.” While the progressive language tails off slightly at the end, the sentiment is certainly clear for all to see. Paul McCartney wrote this song for the Madonna in every woman.
McCartney expanded on the concept when he sat down with National Geographic in 2017. During the interview, he said that ‘Lady Madonna’ was also partly inspired by a singular image he had seen in an article titled ‘American Special Forces in Action in Viet Nam’, featured in a 1965 issue of the magazine. The image, taken by Howard Sochurek, sees a Malayo-Polynesian woman surrounded by three children with one suckling at her breast. It’s a poignant reflection of the humanity behind the war.
“One particular issue I saw in the Sixties had a woman, and she looked very proud and she had a baby,” recalled McCartney. “And I saw that as a kind of Madonna thing, mother and child, and I just… You know, sometimes you see pictures of mothers and you go, ‘She’s a good mother.’ You could just tell there’s a bond and it just affected me, that photo. And so I was inspired to write ‘Lady Madonna’, my song, from that photo.”
While it could be easy for us to dismiss Fats Domino’s contribution to the song as trivial in comparison to the poignant image, the truth is that it likely informed the song just as heavily. The Beatles were never afraid to bring the point of conception to the fore and happily acknowledge that all of their songs were an amalgamation of the person who wrote them. For that reason, ‘Lady Madonna’ may be one of the more sincere views of Paul McCartney’s outlook in the band’s back catalogue.