By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What was the longest UK hit single of 1968? Although ‘Hey Jude’ comes close to achieving that accolade, this 7-minute epic wasn’t even the longest song to make the UK charts in that year. But the song is vast, and its lyrics have attracted considerable speculation since ‘Hey Jude’ was released.
So who is the ‘Jude’ of the song’s title? Or, to put it another way, who is the song about? If you’re tempted to answer ‘Julian Lennon’, then bear with me. For the true subject of ‘Hey Jude’ is far stranger than that. Let’s delve into the song’s meaning by looking more closely at the lyrics.
‘Hey Jude’: song meaning
The song is principally a McCartney composition, but it has an important link to John Lennon, and not just because the two of them finished composing it together. Paul McCartney was inspired to write the song to cheer up Julian Lennon, John’s young son, during the breakup of John and his wife, Cynthia.
Paul was driving to Lennon’s house, Kenwood, at Weybridge in Surrey to visit Cynthia and Julian at their home, and composed much of the song on his way there.
According to William J. Dowlding in his Beatlesongs, McCartney began singing ‘Hey Jules’ rather than ‘Hey Jude’, but thought ‘Jude’ sounded more ‘country and western’, so he changed it. Dowlding also notes that the Drifters’ song ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ was an important influence on the song.
Lennon described ‘Hey Jude’ as McCartney’s ‘best song’ in a 1972 interview with Hit Parade. And in a famous September 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon gave McCartney full credit for the lyrics to ‘Hey Jude’, which he described as having ‘a damn good set of lyrics’. But what is the meaning of those lyrics?
The general message of the song, of course, is universal: the lyrics encourage ‘Jude’ to adopt a positive approach to an unhappy situation, and to seize any opportunities of finding true love. It’s a song of hope and reassurance, offered during a dark time.
The four-minute ‘na na na nananana, nannanas’ which conclude the song make it anthemic: a song to inspire and to invigorate. We move from one voice (one of McCartney’s finest vocal performances, tender yet with a distinctively steely edge) to a whole chorus (literally) of voices.
It’s almost a collective act of catharsis, where we move beyond words into meaningless chanting that feels good rather than merely expressing the importance of feeling good. The song becomes exactly what it intends to promote.
Indeed, the meaning of the song can be given an extra twist: the lyrics essentially reassure us that it’s okay to move on with our lives.
We can clearly see how such a message relates to the song’s origins: McCartney is telling Julian Lennon to try to find the positives in the unhappy situation that is his parents’ divorce. He is also trying to encourage the young boy not to give up on love just because his parents haven’t been able to make it work together.
But although McCartney may have begun with the intention of composing an upbeat song to cheer up Julian Lennon, songs – like poems – have a habit of outgrowing their origins and cannibalising other relationships and other emotional states that surround the life of the songwriter (or poet).
Indeed, as Jon Kutney and Spencer Leigh observe in their endlessly informative 1000 UK Number One Hits, the song is ‘probably not about Julian’ but about another J. Lennon: John.
‘I always heard it as a song to me,’ Lennon – John Lennon, that is – said in that 1980 Playboy interview. Even while he acknowledged that he was doing the very thing that Beatles fans do of saying ‘this song is really all about me’, Lennon directed listeners to the phrase ‘go out and get her’, interpreting it as McCartney’s approval of Lennon’s new relationship with Yoko Ono.
Lennon went on to observe that McCartney didn’t consciously want him to go off with Ono, but the ‘angel in him’ was giving Lennon his blessing, if being with Ono brought him happiness and love.
So, the song is not about Julian Lennon, but is still about a Lennon. That, surely resolves the issue.
Except it doesn’t: not quite. For as Kutner and Leigh go on to note, McCartney wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Many Years from Now, that the song was really about himself. What he meant by this, he didn’t explain, but perhaps the key lies in the song’s movement from lone voice to collective chant.
In trying to cheer others up, we often succeed in cheering ourselves up; through reassuring others, we can sometimes reassure ourselves. For Julian Lennon was not the only person close to John who was affected by his new relationship with Yoko Ono: McCartney, too, was dealing with this change.
This may seem a bit of a stretch, as interpretations go; until we recall that the second line of the song makes far more sense if we apply it to McCartney himself. He, not Julian, was the one taking a sad song and making it better.
‘Hey Jude’: facts
‘Hey Jude’ was released in the UK on 26 August 1968, and topped the charts two weeks later, remaining at number one for three weeks. In the US, it remained at number one for a whopping nine weeks throughout much of the autumn of 1968. Indeed, ‘Hey Jude’ became the band’s most successful single, topping the charts in ten other countries around the world.
But as I remarked at the beginning of this article, ‘Hey Jude’ wasn’t even the longest single of 1968. That honour goes to ‘McCarthur Park’, which is 10 seconds longer than ‘Hey Jude’, standing at 7 minutes 21 seconds to the Beatles’ 7 minutes 11 seconds. Between them, they were the longest UK chart singles up until that point by a considerable margin.