John Lennon’s ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ is a near-perfect encapsulation of where The Beatles were at following the Let It Be sessions in 1969. Written in a single day by Paul McCartney and John Lennon – who at that time had a fractious relationship, to say the least – the track tells the story of John’s marriage to Yoko in Gibraltar.
While John and Yoko chose to have a private ceremony away from the rest of The Beatles, Lennon doesn’t seem to have any qualms with detailing the ins and outs of the day on record. Speaking to Rolling Stone about the wedding, Lennon said: “It was very romantic. 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”.
Swept up in the wave of love, Lennon wrote ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ in the days following the wedding, penned a piece of autobiographical songwriting that follows the wedding itself, but also John and Yoko’s history of hitting the headlines. “Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton,” Lennon sings in the fourth verse, “Talking in our beds for a week / The newspapers said, ‘Say what you doing in bed?’/ I said, ‘We’re only trying to get us some peace'”.
The track would go on to cause almost as much controversy as the infamous ‘bed-in’ to which it refers. But before that, he needed the help of his old songwriting partner, Paul McCartney. On the 14th of April, 1968, Lennon drove to McCartney’s London home to work on the unfinished song. Despite the sour atmosphere surrounding the Let It Be sessions, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ saw the pair work quickly and efficiently to tie the song together, collaborating on equal terms and showing a renewed sense of enthusiasm.
With the song finished, Lennon and McCartney drove to Abbey Road to start recording; it was here that the problems started. The recording went as smoothly as could be expected, but once the mix had been mastered and pinned down for release, Apple started furrowing its collective brow. Back in 1966, John Lennon had made a controversial comment in which he famously claimed that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus“. He chose to allude to this episode in the chorus of ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, in which he sings: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.”
Lennon was perfectly aware that the lyric had the potential to reopen old wounds, so he ensured the single was hidden from the media prior to release. As Lennon wrote in a memo to Apple plugger Tony Bramwell: “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.” But despite his best efforts, on release, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ was banned by radio stations in the US and in the UK, with many of the stations that didn’t ban it outright bleeping out the word ‘Christ’.