Artists haven’t always used music to express themselves. Bob Dylan first began putting his soul into the lyrics he wrote in the early sixties, and, after a few conversations, The Beatles were soon on board with making pop music more personal. It would be a facet that Lennon would carry into all his work — no matter the art at hand, if it was John Lennon’s creation, it would have a hefty dose of the Liverpudlian included. Of course, this was reflecting in the work of The Beatles too.
Some songs were hidden in plain sight, like the band’s ‘Help!’ which, according to Paul McCartney, was Lennon’s thinly veiled cry for help amid the ongoing bumrush of Beatlemania. Some songs, however, more were more obvious in their conception and direction. One such track acted as a perfect wedding memento, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, which, as you may expect, encapsulated the iconic pair’s Gilbratar wedding day.
Many husbands may have commemorated the day with pictures or with a video recording, but for Lennon, who certainly wasn’t your average groom, the only way to truly capture the special day was with a song: “It was very romantic,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 1970. “It’s all in the song, ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ if you want to know how it happened, it’s in there. Gibraltar was like a little sunny dream. I couldn’t find a white suit – I had sort of off-white corduroy trousers and a white jacket. Yoko had all white on.”
“I wrote that in Paris on our honeymoon,” Lennon later confirmed to David Sheff for his famous Playboy article in 1980. “It’s a piece of journalism. It’s a folk song. That’s why I called it ‘The Ballad Of’.” The song may have been conceptualised during his and Yoko’s honeymoon, but it wasn’t until he took it back to his other marriage, the one he shared with Paul McCartney, that he could get the song completed.
He arrived at McCartney’s London home on April 14th 1969, eager to get the song that had been whirling through his head completed and whisked off to the studio. “John was in an impatient mood, so I was happy to help,” recalled McCartney to Barry Miles for his book Many Years From Now. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like The Beatles.”
Though the track was certainly aimed at the romance between John and Yoko, there was one moment in the track that offered a potential point of concern for the band, namely the line: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be/ The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.” Which, following Lennon’s alleged comments that The Beatles were “bigger” than Jesus three years prior, had left Lennon unwilling to take any chances, even sending out a memo which read: “Tony – No pre-publicity on Ballad Of John & Yoko especially the ‘Christ’ bit – so don’t play it round too much or you’ll frighten people – get it pressed first.”
That didn’t stop the song from being looked upon unfavourably. Perhaps because of Lennon’s nod to immortalising himself as Christ, or perhaps because his relationship with Yoko Ono had ruffled some feathers. Either way, the song remained a rich but rarely approached piece of The Beatles canon. However, according to the band’s producer George Martin, in reality, it was the beginning of the Plastic Ono Band and their new way of working.
“I enjoyed working with John and Yoko on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’,” recalled Martin on Anthology. “It was just the two of them with Paul. When you think about it, in a funny kind of way, it was the beginning of their own label, and their own way of recording. It was hardly a Beatle track. It was a kind of thin end of the wedge, as far as they were concerned. John had already mentally left the group anyway, and I think that was just the beginning of it all.”
Banned or not, a true Beatles track or not, it didn’t really matter to Lennon. For him, this song was about capturing the wild romance he had shared with Yoko Ono, as he so neatly put it: “It’s like an old-time ballad. It’s just the story of us getting married, going to Paris, going to Amsterdam, all that. It’s Johnny B Paperback Writer!”