In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It must’ve been disorienting, knowing that you could do pretty much anything and still hit #1. That’s basically what “Hello, Goodbye” is. The Beatles had been having a hell of a year. During the early summer, they’d released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that more or less forced the entire culturally literate world to view them as high artists. But a few months after that, Brian Epstein, the manager who had discovered them and taught them how to be stars, died of an apparently accidental overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. Epstein was just 32 when he died. “Hello, Goodbye” was the Beatles’ first release after Epstein’s death, and maybe its simplistic babbling was the only rational response imaginable to the members of this band, seeing that their public lives had spun out of control.
“Hello, Goodbye” came out of a word game. One night, Paul McCartney sat at a piano and sang a few words, asking Epstein’s assistant Alistair Taylor to call out the opposite of what he was saying. McCartney then turned it into a song. It wasn’t about anything, though that hasn’t stopped people from theorizing about it. It’s prettily orchestrated nothingness — a numb word-salad nothing with a maddeningly repetitive chorus and no real reason for existing beyond the idea that someone decided the Beatles needed to come out with another single.
John Lennon predictably hated “Hello, Goodbye,” calling it “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions.” He especially hated that McCartney and producer George Martin had made “Hello, Goodbye” — a song that screams B-side from the very core of its being — into the single’s A-side, while relegating his own “I Am The Walrus” to the B-side. “I Am The Walrus” wasn’t the best Beatles song either, but it’s a hell of a lot better than “Hello, Goodbye.” George Harrison, meanwhile, reportedly got pissed that McCartney removed his guitar solo and replaced it with his own vocals. “Hello, Goodbye” didn’t do anybody any favors.
“Hello, Goodbye” has a widespread rep for being the worst of the Beatles’ #1 singles. I get that, but I don’t think that’s what it is. “All You Need Is Love” is, after all, just as meaningless and repetitive as “Hello, Goodbye.” “Hello, Goodbye” at least gives Ringo Starr a chance to wild out on the drums a little bit, and the wordless-singalong chorus from the outro, which the band improvised in the studio, is a moment of lightweight-but-genuine beauty. So really, “Hello, Goodbye” is only the second-worst of the Beatles’ #1 singles.
BONUS BEATS: In 2014, the Cure covered “Hello, Goodbye” for the McCartney tribute album The Art Of McCartney, with McCartney’s son James helping out. Here’s video of them doing that version: