272. The Beatles – The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)

Midsummer, 1969: Burmese the horse was ridden by the Queen for the first time at Trooping the Colour on 14 June, a role she held until 1986. It was a busy time for the Royal family – a week later, BBC One transmitted a fly-on-the-wall documentary devoted to them. The Royal Family had been made by the BBC and ITV to celebrate the investiture of Prince Charles on 1 July, and gave an insight into the Windsors that could only have been imagined previously. Viewing figures topped 30,600,500, but some worried that the overexposure could damage the throne, and the Queen pulled it off air in 1972. Only clips have been seen on TV since then.

Earlier that day, Patrick Troughton made his last regular appearance in Doctor Who. Banished to Earth by the Time Lords in the final episode of The War Games, it was also the final black and white episode of the sci-fi series.

After the referendum in Rhodesia had voted in favour of becoming a Republic, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, left Government House on 24 June. This severed the last diplomatic relationship with the UK.

All these events have one momentous historical event in common: they took place when the Beatles were at number 1 for the 17th and final time, with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko. It was a sure a sign as any that the Fab Four were about to split up, and yet it proved that Lennon and McCartney were still able to put aside their differences and work together.

Lennon and Yoko Ono had married in Gibraltar, Spain on 20 March that year. Soon after Lennon wrote The Ballad of John and Yoko as a kind of travelogue set to a Chuck Berry sound, covering the wedding, the honeymoon in Paris, and their first bed-in a few days later at the Amsterdam Hilton.

An excited and impatient Lennon visited McCartney at home on 14 April, three days after Get Back had been released, in the hope of getting the song finished. Surprisingly, not only did they finish writing it, they went to Abbey Road that afternoon with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (for the first time since he’d walked out of sessions for The Beatles) and recorded it, without George Harrison (who was on holiday) or Ringo Starr (he was filming The Magic Christian). The Ballad of John and Yoko was done and dusted by 9.30pm. Lennon sang lead, played lead and rhythm guitar, and made percussion sounds by slapping the back of an acoustic guitar. McCartney provided some excellent harmony vocals, bass, drums, piano and maracas. Appreciating the irony of being the only two band members involved, Barry Miles noted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (1997) the following exchange: Lennon (on guitar): ‘Go a bit faster, Ringo!’ McCartney (on drums): ‘OK, George!’

After months of torturous misery during the Get Back sessions, how come the duo were able to knock up a single so quickly? The fact they were two down simplified matters obviously, but McCartney was probably so relieved that Lennon was enthusiastic for the first time in a fair while, he was bound to jump at the chance, even if the lyrics made it plain that Lennon was growing apart from the Beatles. He may also have known that Lennon was likely to go ahead and record it anyway with somebody else, and he was determined to keep the band together despite the tensions.

The Ballad of John and Yoko is a real oddity in the Beatles catalogue. With it’s self-centered lyrics, you could easily call this the start of Lennon’s solo career really. I find it a real shame that, after all my blogs on such classic material, this is the final Beatles song I get to write about for this blog. I mean, it’s only half the band! Let It Be would have been a far more appropriate way to end the number 1s of the greatest band of all time.

Unlike many though, I’m not here to bury it. It’s not a bad song, and it’s not my least favourite Beatles single. I think I prefer it to Get Back, because it has more energy. Ironically, it’s McCartney who shines here. His rhythm track has real punch to it, and I’ve always enjoyed his drumming (I’m certainly not knocking Starr though). And I really like the final verse when he joins Lennon to sing. I admire the chutzpah of Lennon to write a chorus which mocks the whole ‘Bigger than Jesus’ scandal of 1966 too. It showed how far music had come in three years, and the Beatles led the way for most of that time (having said that, many radio stations would either censor the song or refuse to even play it).

Maybe in a way it is an appropriate song to end on, with the Fab Four’s chief songwriters working together so closely again. Those days had been few and far between for some time, and sadly, there weren’t any more to come.

This single, backed with George Harrison’s superior Old Brown Shoe, was rush-released on 30 May, and was their first single to be in stereo only. Due to Lennon wanting the song to be topical, this meant the unusual approach of releasing it while previous single Get Back was still at number 1. Tommy Roe’s Dizzy knocked that from the top, but was only there for a week before The Ballad of John and Yoko hit number 1.

And here’s where the story of the world’s greatest band ends. Except obviously, it wasn’t over yet. The group had already agreed on McCartney’s suggestion to make another album, and sessions were under way. The Ballad of John and Yoko‘s success proved there was still fuel in the tank, and George Martin was glad to be back on board providing they went back to earlier methods of recording. In other words, stop the bickering of the past year. And they all got on much better… for a while, anyway. McCartney and Martin were keen on a long medley and Lennon wasn’t. Lennon didn’t bother turning up for sessions for Harrison songs either.

Before Abbey Road had been completed he released his first ‘solo’ single (as the Plastic Ono Band), the famous anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance. Nothing was ever said, but there was a general feeling among all involved that Abbey Road would be their final work together.

McCartney had become the odd man out earlier that year after the other three had voted tough American businessman Allen Klein as their new manager, which put a huge strain on the band in addition to their other issues. On 20 September, six days before the release of one of their best albums, Lennon announced he was leaving and John, Paul, George and Ringo never recorded as a unit again.

Something/Come Together would have been a perfect number 1 single in October, but demand had been so high for its parent album, it missed out. One last song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was completed minus Lennon in January 1970. This was done to make it part of the salvaged Get Back sessions, now to feature in a film and LP called Let It Be. Klein handed over the tapes to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Instant Karma! for Lennon. Smothering many of the songs with lush orchestral sounds, including Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, McCartney was not amused, and beat Lennon to the punch by publicly announcing he had quit, the week before the release of McCartney, his first solo album, on 10 April.

The full story of the demise of the Beatles makes for a riveting but depressing read, and I recommend Pete Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles (2009) if you want to know more.

Despite many highly lucrative offers over the years, the Beatles never did reform. It’s likely they would have had Lennon not been murdered in 1980, with relations between he and McCartney thawing. The closest we got was the Anthology project of the mid-90s, and the singles Free As a Bird (1995) and Real Love (1996), where the remaining trio worked on Lennon demos provided by Ono. Although not up to the standard of their previous work, they’re decent enough tunes, and I still can’t believe neither made it to number 1. I guess the world had moved on. A bit.

A new romantic comedy, Yesterday, imagines a world in which they never existed. Pop would probably still have moved on from the doldrums of the early-60s, but it could never have become quite so innovative, so witty, so joyous and so magical without them. Nobody had, has, or ever will have the alchemy of the Fab Four.

The Beatles. 17 number 1 singles. They changed everything.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (11 June-1 July)

Births:

Graphic artist Simon Taylor – 22 June

One thought on “272. The Beatles – The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)

  1. Pingback: Every 60s Number 1 | Every UK Number 1

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