The Beatles went to number 1 for the 15th time with the back-to-basics sound of Lady Madonna. Still smarting from the poor reception of the Magical Mystery Tour film, which went over the heads of the average television viewer on Boxing Day 1967, the Fab Four began 1968 by filming their cameo appearance at the end of the animated movie Yellow Submarine, released six months later.
Despite the relative failure of Magical Mystery Tour, they were still ruling the charts with Hello, Goodbye when Paul McCartney first unveiled Lady Madonna to some friends he had visited with girlfriend Jane Asher around Christmas time. As usual, The Beatles were ahead of the curve by sensing that psychedelia could soon be in danger of becoming predictable. Now even The Rolling Stones were ripping off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Why not replace studio trickery with a blast from the past?
Lady Madonna was McCartney returning to the boogie-woogie rock’n’roll of his youth. The piano lick was inspired (I’d say stolen) from jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues. The single, released on Parlophone in 1956, had been the first jazz song to reach the UK top 20, and was produced by Joe Meek. Playing around with his voice, McCartney also found his new song reminiscent of Fats Domino, and so he would make his voice deeper and bluesier by way of tribute. There was a further link back to 1956 here – Domino had a hit in 1956 with a version of Blue Monday (not the New Order classic), in which he sang of the plight of the working man, taking it a day at a time.
McCartney chose a similar lyrical approach, only he chose to do it from a working class, possibly single, mother’s perspective. John Lennon helped out with the lyrics, but it was mainly all McCartney, who years later said the title of the song was inspired by a photograph he saw in National Geographic of a woman breastfeeding, entitled ‘Mountain Madonna’. One lyric however, is unmistakably Lennon – ‘See how they run’ was lifted from I Am the Walrus. The Beatles were going through a phase of referencing earlier songs in newer material, something which would help inspire the ‘Paul Is Dead’ conspiracy. A clever way of using your back catalogue, or a sign of the creative well beginning to dry? Possibly a bit of both.
With little in the way of new material, The Beatles decided they needed to release a single as a stop-gap in the spring, while they attended a Trancendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Lady Madonna’s only competition at the time was Lennon’s whistful Across the Universe. This beautiful version would eventually surface with animal noises overdubbed in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s compilation No One’s Gonna Change Our World. Often Lennon would put up a fight for his own material to be the A-side, but this time he knew Lady Madonna was a stronger commercial track, even though he felt it didn’t really go anywhere, and he even relented from taking the B-side, giving George Harrison the slot for the first time with the mystic The Inner Light.
The single was completed fast, with John, Paul, George and Ringo finishing up in just two sessions on 3 and 6 February. At the first session McCartney laid down the piano, with advice from producer George Martin on how to replicate the Bad Penny Blues sound, and Starr accompanied him on snare drum, playing with brushes. Lennon and Harrison then added identical distorted guitar riffs. Then, McCartney overdubbed his bass, with Starr on full drumkit, plus McCartney recorded his vocal and Lennon and Harrison joined him on backing vocals. Studio experimentation hadn’t been completely abandoned – for the instrumental break, they decided to impersonate The Mills Brothers, who would replicate brass instruments with their voices, and simply blew into their cupped hands.
The second session was organised at short notice after The Beatles realised they needed something extra. They quickly assembled a four-piece horn section, which included famous jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophone. So hastily arranged was the session, the band neglected to tell the horn section what to play, which explains why Scott’s solo in the break sounds so pissed off.
Lady Madonna is unlikely to rank as anyone’s favourite Beatles single, but it does have vim and vigour. Starr is in fine fettle, laying down a simple but effectively thunderous beat. Lennon had a point in saying it didn’t really go anywhere, and the lyrics seem rather tossed off, and even, when McCartney sings ‘Did you think that money was heaven sent?’, rather patronising. Perhaps it wasn’t the point McCartney was trying to make, as he sounds sympathetic on the whole, but there is an element of ‘will this do?’ again about the lyrics. Whether that’s because Lennon was still too high to be bothered to contribute much and/or rein in Macca’s excesses, or it’s a sign that they were starting to care less about the band, we’ll never know.
Luckily, McCartney still had a bloody good ear for a melody, and Lady Madonna is very easy to enjoy when you hear it. But how often do you deliberately choose to listen to it? I’m not sure I ever have.
Two promos were filmed for Lady Madonna, with Tony Bramwell joining them at Abbey Road on 11 February to record them miming to the track. There was a change of plan though, and instead they were filmed while they recorded Lennon’s bluesy rocker Hey Bulldog, which ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.
Despite the relative lack of care given to Lady Madonna, their final single for Parlophone quickly climbed to the top within a few weeks of its release in March. However, it didn’t go to number 1 in the US, signalling that perhaps their influence was declining somewhat. Or maybe not – once again, The Beatles were at the forefront of popular culture, and other high-profile acts like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley all deciding a return to their musical roots was the way forward.
Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 March-9 April)
Cricketer Nasser Hussain – 28 March
Television presenter Jenny Powell – 8 April
Scottish race car driver Jim Clark – 7 April (see below)
April Fool’s Day: Berkshire Constabulary, Buckingham Constabulary, Oxford City Police, Oxford Constabulary and Reading Borough Police amalgamated into Thames Valley Police.
7 April: Scottish Formula One driver Jim Clark shocked the racing world when he was killed in an accident in Hockenheim, West Germany. Still considered one of the greatest drivers in F1, Clark was only 32 when he died.