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“Hey Jude,” I Hear It’s Your Birthday

Fifty years ago, The Beatles released a Paul McCartney-penned single that would become the greatest power ballad of all time. A look back on the ambiguous meaning and unambiguous staying power of the Fab Four classic.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is a testament to the awesome power of “Hey Jude”—arguably the single best Beatles song, inarguably among the longest, proudly one of the most joyous Beatles songs, and quietly one of the saddest—that it has inspired me to recommend a segment of “Carpool Karaoke.” Even if you usually find James Corden’s thirsty viral series way too cloying, the Paul McCartney installment, first aired in June and reworked earlier this week into an hour-long special, is a goofy, tear-jerking joybomb. It is McCartney’s job, after all, to find transcendence in the very corniest of notions.

They kick off with “Drive My Car.” They sing “Penny Lane” whilst tooling down Penny Lane. Corden nearly cries during “Let It Be.” They revisit McCartney’s old Liverpool haunts, including his childhood home, where he plays “When I’m Sixty-Four” on the piano. (He is now 76.) They wind up at a local pub; suddenly, the ecstatic opening chord to a “A Hard Day’s Night” rings out, and McCartney’s full band whimsically materializes for a surprise set that includes “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Love Me Do,” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Somehow you can sense a climactic “Hey Jude” coming long before it arrives, but the mass bombast of that blissfully endless Nahhh nah nah nah-nah-nah-nah coda bowls you over anyway, and leaves at least one woman in the pub wiping away tears of her own. The song turns 50 years old on Sunday. It has lost none of its power to conjure pure elation from pure melancholy, and vice versa.

The Beatles released the “Hey Jude” single, with the John Lennon-penned “Revolution” as the B-side, on August 26, 1968 via Apple Records, the label arm of the band’s hilariously utopian boondoggle of a then-new company. Apple Corps Ltd, you see, aimed to revolutionize everything from music to film to electronics to schools to global economics. “Ending war, reshaping capitalism, rescuing artists, reinventing education: There were no limits to the Beatles’ hubris and hope,” writes Peter Doggett early in his 2009 book You Never Give Me Your Money, a history of the band’s epochal breakup and its aftermath, in which the hubris soon overwhelmed the hope entirely.

Indeed, Doggett goes on to spend 300-plus pages chronicling the labyrinthine barrage of toxic contracts and lawsuits and other interpersonal calamities that typified the post-Beatles era, including Apple Corps’ multi-decade battle with that other company named Apple. The last line of the book is, “Their collective genius created something that not even money could destroy,” which, at that point in the story, has gotten very hard to believe.

The McCartney-driven “Hey Jude,” as gargantuan a power ballad as mankind ever devised, will get you believing again. It came out just a few months before the November 1968 release of the The Beatles (White Album), and less than two years before the Beatles’ acrimonious breakup. As has been recounted in dozens if not hundreds of other Beatles books, McCartney started writing the song while driving to visit Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, whom John had recently left for Yoko Ono. On Paul’s mind specifically was the doomed couple’s 5-year-old son, Julian.

”I was going out in my car, just vaguely singing this song, and it was like, ‘Hey, Jules … ‘” McCartney once told Rolling Stone, adding that he’d meant the resulting tune as “a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.’” (Jules became Jude because it sang better: “A bit more country & western for me,” Paul reasoned.) The resulting first verse:

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

But who is her, exactly? The other oft-told half of this origin story is just as vital, even if it’s mistaken. “I always heard it as a song to me,” John Lennon told Playboy in 1980, seizing on the second verse:

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

“If you think about it, Yoko’s just come into the picture,” Lennon explained. “He’s saying, ‘Hey, Jude’—’Hey, John.’ I mean, sorry I’m sounding like one of those fans that’s writing things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me … ‘And go out and get her, and forget everything else.’ So subconsciously, I take it he was saying, ‘Go ahead.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”

In summary, “Hey Jude” is either a tender salve to a young boy who has all but lost his father (Julian and John Lennon had an infamously terrible and distant relationship), or a rousing anthem meant to cheer that father on as he established a new family elsewhere and left his famous band behind. Or both.

Listening to it now—most often on the Beatles’ 1 album, which collected all their no. 1 hits, of which “Hey Jude,” with nine weeks atop the Billboard chart in the U.S., was the biggest—you can hear the fracturing band’s still-evident camaraderie. John Lennon and George Harrison provide reliably heavenly backing vocals; Ringo Starr’s plonking drum fills are very silly and inevitably perfect. (“As in so many Beatles songs, the emotional audacity is unthinkable without Ringo providing the pulse,” Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield wrote in his 2017 book Dreaming the Beatles, “which is why it’s yet another song where even the worthiest cover versions sound embarrassingly Ringo-deficient.”) And John managed a small way to make himself heard lyrically: Despite the ongoing deterioration of the infamously rancorous Lennon-McCartney relationship, the song’s oddest line, “The movement you need is on your shoulder,” is only still in there because Lennon told McCartney it was the song’s best line.

But it’s also tempting to imagine what’s not there on “Hey Jude,” including the call-and-response guitar part Harrison proposed but McCartney emphatically rejected, leaving Harrison further stifled and irritated. That applies even to the song’s glorious, endless nah-nah-nah-nah outro, recorded by Beatles producer George Martin at London’s soon-famous Trident Studios, and requiring the services of a 36-piece orchestra, including, per Martin biographer Kenneth Womack, “10 violinists, three violas, three cellists, two flautists, a bassoon, a contrabassoon, two clarinets, a contrabass clarinet, four trumpets, four trombones, two horns, two string basses, and a percussionist.” All those musicians got double their usual fee to sing and clap along as well, but per Womack and popular Beatles lore, one refused, storming out after declaring, “I’m not going to clap my hands and sing Paul McCartney’s bloody song!”

Strain a little and you can hear that one crabby guy abstaining as clearly as you can hear his 35 colleagues clapping and singing. You can hear what George Harrison might’ve done as clearly as you can hear what Paul McCartney made him do. You can hear all the exquisitely saccharine lines John Lennon probably hated as clearly as that one weird placeholder line he loved. You can hear the encroaching death of the Beatles as the world knew and loved them, and you can hear why that version of the Beatles will never truly die.

The most affecting moment of McCartney’s “Carpool Karaoke” episode actually comes long before his pub performance, when a fan approaches him on the street outside his childhood home. “Love you, Paul,” the awestruck guy says. “My brother’s named after you. And your music got played at my dad’s funeral.” For just a second you get a sense of how many millions of Beatles fans have that intimate and personalized a connection with the band. “Hey Jude” gives you a sense of all those people singing in unison. But it also suggests what each one of those people might sound like individually, chanting along in their own ecstatic private reveries. What anyone thinks the song really means pales in comparison to what it means to them.