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.
“Hey Jude” remains the Beatles’ biggest-ever hit, the one that stayed at #1 for the longest. It’s also a document of the moment that the band finally started coming apart for good. And from at least one perspective, it’s a song about that fracture — one band member wishing a warm and only slightly premature farewell to his greatest collaborator.
In the spring of 1968, John Lennon separated from his wife Cynthia, leaving her for Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney felt bad for Julian, John’s five-year-old son. He went to visit Cynthia and Julian, to check in on them. And when he was on that trip, he came up with the idea for “Hey Jude,” thinking of it as “Hey Jules” at first. (He ultimately liked the name “Jude” better.) Julian didn’t learn until he was a teenager that the song was about him, but he also has memories of being closer with McCartney than he was with his own father.
So McCartney, by most accounts, wrote “Hey Jude” to comfort Julian. But John Lennon heard something else in the song. Years later in interviews, Lennon said that he thought the song was about him — that it was Paul giving him his blessing to go off with Ono and to leave the band behind him. For that matter, Paul McCartney had only just broken up with his longtime girlfriend Jane Asher and taken up instead with his future wife Linda Eastman. So maybe he was singing the song to himself.
In any case, the Beatles were not in the best shape when they recorded “Hey Jude.” McCartney and George Harrison got into a bitter argument over what Harrison’s guitar should be doing on the song. (McCartney won, probably fortunately.) Four days after the single was released, Ringo Starr quit the band, only coming back after his bandmates tracked him down on Peter Sellers’ yacht in the Mediterranean and convinced him to return. Producer George Martin, who always indulged the band’s whims, was uncomfortable with the idea of a seven-minute Beatles single, worrying that radio wouldn’t play it. Lennon correctly told him, “They will if it’s us.” (To be fair, Richard Harris had hit #2 earlier that year with the even-longer “MacArthur Park,” which would’ve been a 6.)
But even though the Beatles were coming apart when they made “Hey Jude,” even though they only had about a year left, they sound like an indestructible unit on the record. They recorded the song during their White Album sessions, and they were confident enough in their abilities to follow McCartney on his big idea, to play that song with conviction. McCartney’s piano is warm and soulful. The backing harmonies are soft and angelic in an intimate sort of way. My favorite thing about the song might be Ringo Starr’s drumming, which has a light and effortless sense of syncopation. Starr doesn’t come in until near the song’s one-minute mark. They’d started that take without realizing he was in the bathroom, and thus the cliché of the drumless power-ballad intro was born.
So “Hey Jude” is the Beatles at the top of their game. It’s a song that instantly conjures massive singalongs, one that echoes down through history. It’s a song that millions upon millions of people love. I am jealous of those people. I am not one of them.
Look: “Hey Jude” is a good song. Clearly. It’s got a great central melody. It’s got that piano, and those backing vocals, and those drums. It’s got a refrain that we can basically sing the moment we’re born, one that’s imprinted on us. It artfully deploys its orchestra, finding a new grandeur with those gorgeous horn drones at the end. And yet there are things about “Hey Jude” that just bug the shit out of me.
Every last entry in this column is fully subjective, and I don’t expect you to agree with it. That’s my disclaimer for saying that I really, really hate the way McCartney yells “Jude Judy Judy Juday aaoow-wow!” at the 3:59 mark. That’s a pure nitpick, but I wince every time I hear it. McCartney’s imitated Little Richard exhortations are stiff and forced, and they do nothing to help this song that he’s written. (I probably would’ve rated this thing one point higher without them.)
And does the song need to be seven minutes? When it launches into that na-na-na outro, it’s a stunning goosebump moment, but then they keep hitting it over and over for another four minutes. They do things to keep it interesting, little compositional tricks that keep it changing throughout. Depending on my mood, I can get swept up in that endless refrain. Usually, though, by the time the song ends, I’m restless and numb. I shouldn’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my fault that I feel that way. But that’s why I’ve never fallen completely for the song the way so many others have.
BONUS BEATS: Wilson Pickett’s raw, nasty Southern soul cover of “Hey Jude” came out later in 1968 and had an absolutely molten pre-Allman Brothers Duane Allman on lead guitar. It peaked at #23, and I like it better than the original. Here it is:
(Wilson Pickett’s highest-charting song was “Land Of 1,000 Dances,” which peaked at #6 in 1966. It would’ve been a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The most I’ve ever enjoyed “Hey Jude” was when I saw Wes Anderson’s 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums in the theater. During the intro, narrator Alec Baldwin is giving the backstories of all three Tenenbaum kids while Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzika Orchestra cover of “Hey Jude” plays on the soundtrack. At the climactic moment where the na-na-na bit kicks in, Richie Tenenbaum sends his pet falcon flying through New York, and it’s just beautiful. Here’s that moment:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Mary Hopkin’s Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were The Days,” a cover of a Russian folk song, peaked at #2 behind “Hey Jude.” (In the UK, it was a bigger hit than “Hey Jude.”) It would’ve been an 8. Here it is:
The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s freaked-out shock-rocker “Fire” also peaked at #2 behind “Hey Jude.” I don’t know if I would’ve rated it any higher than 7, but I’m glad it exists. Here it is: