Released in 1970 as a stopgap between Abbey Road and Let It Be, Hey Jude is a collection of singles that manages to reach as far back as “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better.” The album’s compiler, Allan Steckler of the Beatles’ own Apple Records, chose not to include any songs that had been released on album in the U.S. by Capitol Records, thus limiting the possibilities–there are only a handful of “eligible” tracks that could have made the cut that Steckler chose not to include here, most notably “A Hard Day’s Night” (which Capitol released as a single and whose titular LP was put out by United Artists) and “The Inner Light,” which was the b-side to “Lady Madonna.”
All of that historical jargon is, believe it or not, relevant to the experience of listening to Hey Jude. Despite the limitations that Steckler and Apple imposed on the project, it manages to hang together beautifully, and highlights the fact that, for whatever reason, the Beatles tended to keep their raw, guitar-driven work off of their grand statements. With the exception of the two early tracks, which sound a little too cute in this context (and this context only), Hey Jude is a punchy record, full of overdriven guitars and driving rhythms. The album suggests an alternate history for the band, one that, oddly enough, positions the middle period as a trifling wander through the psychedelic woods. If you’ve been reading along for a while now, it will not surprise you to know that I very much prefer this version of the Beatles.
That’s largely because I prefer Fats Domino to Ravi Shankar (or to anyone, really), and Lennon and McCartney were never shy about their creative debts. McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” is a straightaway tribute to the Fat Man, with those barreling piano runs and doubled-over guitar lines. Accordingly, Domino would record his own version a few years later, and while the music is undeniably his, there’s something distinctly British, or at least distinctly McCartney, about lines like “Sunday morning creeping like a nun” that make them sound wrong when filtered through Domino’s Ninth Ward warble (still, it’s nice to hear him coo “See how they ron” in that chorus). That’s no small matter. That “Lady Madonna,” “Hey Jude,” and “Revolution” are brilliant pop-rock songs isn’t up for argument, but Domino’s inability to pull off a cover of a song that was written in his personal style suggests that these songs’ success are more deeply connected to their composers and their composers’ performances than it might seem. Put differently, it’s never sounded right for anyone but John Lennon to advise you on whether or not to hang on to a wallet-sized portrait of Mao.
“Hey Jude,” on the other hand, is such a massive song, and stamped so deeply with the Beatles DNA, that I can’t imagine anyone else trying anything like it. Sure, there are other sprawling, multi-part singalongs (CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” comes to mind), but for all its ambition, “Hey Jude” doesn’t really make a show of itself the way other songs might. At an architectural level, it’s just a simple rock ‘n’ soul song with an extended coda, but its expression is something much larger. Laugh about McCartney’s “Jude-jude-a-judy-judy-judy-judy-wow!” all you want–seriously, do–but it’s hard to deny the way the song builds itself around upwards and outwards, ensconcing the many voices on the record and the many more that would assuredly be singing along at home. What’s striking to me is that nobody tries to this kind of thing anymore. We might argue in favor of “We Are the World” and other charity singles whose “power,” if they have any at all, relies on their superficial resemblance to the “Hey Jude” coda, but this song is the work of just a few people, and their goal is only to cheer up one of their sons. That’s what really gets me about “Hey Jude,” the way that it rallies around its subject, the way it suggests the power of community and the feeling of empowerment that comes with it.
Yes, but also the fact that the song is domestic, that it doesn’t use this power to fight for an issue (important though that may be) but to support a human being through a very human trial. This is what I mean when I say that nobody writes songs like this anymore. What we might call our “inspirational” mainstream pop songs are about individuals overcoming societal odds or personal failures. “You” in pop songs is almost always sung with the load of vitriol or lust, which are both powerful emotions, but are also both largely the provenance of the individual. Rarely is the singer singing for someone anymore. And when they are, they keep their songs in the minor key or glop them down with a sentiment that almost seems to extol their personal mire; a song like “Bad Day” is more a romanticization of being bummed out than it is any kind of encouragement. Meanwhile, our alternative artists are largely scared off by anything so earnest, or else their aesthetics limit the size of their tent. The triumphal bump of Animal Collective’s “Brothersport” comes to mind, punctuated as it is with those celebratory cries of “Matt!” in support of Lennox’s brother after their father’s death. But even “Brothersport,” which was the most popular song on a critically adored album, played to a limited audience.
Perhaps it’s a quirk of history. For reasons that are better explained elsewhere, we’ll never have a band like the Beatles again, which makes the possibility of a song like “Hey Jude” very limited. Which is fine, I guess. The power inherent in “Hey Jude” has shifted now into television, where we see figures of authority fight for the dignity of others with regularity–think of Coach and Tami in Friday Night Lights, or of President Bartlet in The West Wing, and the way they lay down their authority to guarantee the survival (whether emotional or otherwise) of some vulnerable person. Still, it’s hard to sing along to a TV show, and so it’s hard to insert yourself into the situation, to add your voice to the choir. I guess these things just have to happen in real life now.