This review is by Amy Hughes
In the Beatles canon, there is one composition, one performance that stands up and takes notice of the world. Since 1968, that song has been ‘Hey Jude.’
Author James Campion elongates the timeline from then to now with Take A Sad Song: The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude” (Backbeat Books, 2022). If one questions why this song has come to define how we feel – deeply – about ourselves and globally, each other, he details those passages to great effect and empathy.
Campion brings together several noted musicologists, journalists, and musicians whose love for and knowledge of The Beatles helps to describe the far-flung reasons and reactions that bind ‘Hey Jude’ to our collective DNA and the shared elements of the individual who miraculously brought it all together.
Paul McCartney’s childhood is well documented with the loss of his mother to cancer and the hardships that followed. The ensuing years saw the rise of The Beatles with not only their popularity as a band, but as songwriters, Lennon and McCartney ascended to the top of the charts with their catchy memorable tunes and distinctive sound.
But what really happened went far deeper. While the struggle to maintain a normal life was in fact an everyday occurrence for those involved, McCartney processed his soul into a song. As early-to-mid 1968 has shown, his personal life started to unravel: the trip to Rishikesh proved insightful but fractured his relationship with Lennon, and his longtime girlfriend Jane Asher broke off their engagement. What else could he do but pour all this into an elegy?
Campion’s book is not so much a studious laundry list of how ‘Hey Jude’ came to be and where it went. The uniqueness of the times, as many interviewees noted, demanded to be heard and then have it propelled forward. The mechanics of the composition are unmatchable. McCartney – as has been noted in a previous blog entry – was surrounded and imbibed with music. His mind was constantly spinning, never slowing down in absorbing breath and emotion coming from his environment. Whether he intended to construct what has become an epic, relatable anthem is only up for reflection by McCartney himself.
The frequently told and legendary story surrounding ‘Hey Jude’ is not hard to fathom: as Lennon became involved with Yoko Ono and left behind his wife Cynthia and young son Julian, McCartney traveled out to see them. During the car trip, the germination of the song came to him and while the conversation with Cynthia was lighthearted, he knew immediately the sense of loss and abandonment that was coming soon, especially for a boy whose circumstances mirrored his own.
Instead, the implied autobiographical details infused in ‘Hey Jude’ elicited personal empathy from Lennon. While also losing his mother months after McCartney’s mother’s passing, Lennon refused to live with the scenario that she was gone. Hence his blocked emotion at explicitly revealing this in song… until ‘Hey Jude.’ It was his comment to McCartney about leaving in the placeholder sentence ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’ that gave his junior partner the confidence that this song was relatable to not only him… but anyone.
Two areas that are especially interesting are the recording of the song and the filming of the video. While noting that the band switched over to the then-new Trident Studios (with the intention of using their 8-track recording system), once completed and taken back to EMI Studios, the dissimilar operational logistics and control settings between the two seemed insurmountable. Campion explains those defeating circumstances and the fixes utilized by the team at EMI (including the brief return of engineer Geoff Emerick) to the great relief of everyone who had believed it was a lost cause.
With humor, the story behind the filming of the video is decidedly more intriguing. In fact, there are two filmings that Campion covers. The first was the rehearsals of the song at EMI. Filmed by the National Music Council of Great Britain for the documentary ‘Music!,’ this footage is notable for the fact of George Harrison’s presence in the control room with George Martin and Ken Scott. McCartney’s specific demands led to a spat and Harrison exited the studio below. The bassist’s attitude toward perfection was an open secret that would lead to further friction in the coming months.
Another surprising revelation (to this reviewer) was the Michael Lindsay-Hogg-directed version of ‘Hey Jude.’ As presented to the UK public, one surmised it was specifically done for exclusivity for David Frost – hence his introduction. However, Campion unearths the hysterical reasons why Frost shouldn’t have been there and then delves into the unspoken visual nuances of the performance, the band’s interaction with the invited audience, and the “cosmic kinship’ as described by Campion between Lennon and McCartney.
But what really drives this narrative along are the numerous observations from Campion’s interviewees and his own personal examination of the crucial four-plus minute coda. Initially, told that ‘it just wasn’t done,’ what does one think if you’re The Beatles? You go ahead – and do it.
Na… na… na… na na na na will in fact, become more than an ending to a long song. At the time, it is a rule-breaking, non-conformist leader that disrupts the leftover hippy-dippy AM sounds of summer and reaches out in a soul-searching, personal call-to-arms as 1968 explodes in domestic and worldwide chaos. Several scholars note that where McCartney succeeded was reaching back from childhood and leaning on the Christian hymn ‘Te Deum.’ And to add: a fourth-century canticle that he subconsciously meshed with The Drifters’ 1962 soulful ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ (a Beatle favorite) is not an unreal possibility.
As Campion notes several times (and with the comments and remarks from his respondents), ‘Hey Jude’ is not just about Paul McCartney inheriting a character (one of his songwriting traits) and offering a manufactured tale. This was a Paul McCartney who passionately cared that this creation succeeds on the ‘everyman’ level: from a TV audience in 1968 to the countless world tours to young non-English speaking musicians such as Korean pop band BTS who when asked what their favorite Beatles song was, jumped up and began Na… na… na… na na na na.
The impact of ‘Hey Jude’ from a song to an event is incalculable. By definition or perhaps default, this milestone in music has come to define the personal and professional attainments one feels – whether it be a comforting lyric in a time of mourning or a place that thousands of artists aspire to reach every time they compose. Campion has fashioned a unique testament to the power of one song to countless individuals.
This book rates 4 out of 4 beetles.