Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Take Five: Underappreciated Aspects of “Hey Jude”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 8, 2008

Take a boring children’s song and make it better

Unlike most of my favorite bands, I have no strong, obvious candidate as a choice for my favorite Beatles song. This is, I imagine, true for many, however, I’m generally the sort of person that rolls my eyes so hard I give myself migraines when people say “Oh, I couldn’t choose just one” about pretty much anything. But I’m definitely a hypocrite for this one, because when discussing the best Beatles song, I never know quite where to turn. The visceral chug of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? The loopy psychedelia of “Tomorrow Never Knows”? The rock-operatic ambitions of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? The tearjerking, gutteral emotion of “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)“? There are probably at least a dozen Beatles songs I’ve referred to as my favorite at one point in my life, and considering the Beatles’ songbook is at least twice as wide as 95% of my other favorite artists, I’d say it’s safe to predict I’ll have another dozen to call best before I’m through.

One song that has absolutely never been my favorite, however, and in all likelihood never will be, is “Hey Jude.” Groundbreaking upon its 1967 release for its seven-minute length, the majority of which is just a one-line chant, the song has gone on to be arguably the band’s most famous and well-loved song, thus automatically qualifying it for the shortlist of the most famous and well-loved songs of the rock era. And though I’ve always begrudgingly acknowledged its deserved status as one of rock’s great anthems, the song has been a reflexive channel-flipper for me for quite some time–it’s amazing how anthemic can transform to unbearably dull after the first 200 listens to a song. Plus, the single’s b-side (“Revolution”)  was way more exciting, and sonically, the song never really grabbed me the way some of the headier stuff they were doing around this time (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” even the super-underrated “Blue Jay Way“) did.

All that said, I heard the song yesterday (on a “Magical Mystery Tour” of Liverpool, appropriately), and it was one of those all-too-rare moments in music listening where you hear a song that you’ve heard countless times before, but it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. The song begins to feel strangely context-less, as you shed all of the associations and memories you have tied to the song, and you’re able to notice nooks and crannies that you never had before. And while I still don’t consider “Jude” among my Fab Four favs, and I’ll probably still change the channel next time it’s on the radio, I do have a certain newfound appreciation for its subtleties:

  • The First Few Seconds. Something to be said for a song that announces its arrival instantly, and there’s probably not a serious music listener in the world that couldn’t identify “Hey Jude” within about two milliseconds (even if it wasn’t the title that McCartney was singing, nautrally). Macca’s voice is one of the most recognizable, comfortable and reassuring in rock, and though I generally prefer songs that don’t waste their title so early in the lyrics, I’m aware that playing games isn’t  something a song as universal as “Hey Jude” has on its agenda, and rightly so. Even before the song’s thundering piano riff–the real hook to the song’s first verse–kicks in, it’s already a lighter-waver.
  • Ringo’s Drum Fills. Ringo doesn’t get a whole lot of opportunities to really shine over the course of the Beatles’ catalogue, but outside of Abbey Road‘s “The End,” his best chance to really get loose is probably in “Hey Jude.” His numerous fills here are the glue that ties the song’s verses and choruses together, ensuring the listener that, despite the numerous times when “Jude” sounds like it might be winding to an early close, it actually isn’t anywhere near to losing steam. I kind of wish he had gotten as wild as Paul does in the outro too–wouldn’t it be awesome to hear the Stark One unleashing his inner Gene Krupa under Paul’s senseless caterwauling?
  • TAMBOURINE. OK, it might not have the ironist cachet that the cowbell does, and that’s fair enough, but you still really can’t undervalue the power of a good tambourine part. The key to the pre-“na” section of “Jude” is the way the song keeps steadily building without being too obvious about it, so that by the time it explodes into full-on pub chant, you’re primed, but still unexpecting. By adding a few sparse on-beat tambourine hits in the second half of the song’s first verse, and then evolving it into a proper regular shake in the second, the song is able to achieve that under-the-radar upping of the ante. One person who took this lesson perhaps too much to heart would be John Lennon, whose own “Give Peace a Chance” surely must rank on any list of the All-Time Top Over-Uses of Tambourine in Rock.
  • Third-Verse Harmonies. By the time of the song’s third verse, you know something’s up. The song’s stopped and started a handful of times, it’s started to repeat verses, and now both John and Paul are singing on the verse. I don’t know how rare this is exactly, but I feel like around this time,  the two weren’t singing nearly as much together as they had in the early days–possibly because the individual Beatles’ ideologies had started to diverge so much that no two could agree on a song being good enough for both to lend their voices to it. Once they lock horns vocally in “Jude,” though, the song’s epicness practically becomes an inevitability. Unless, of course, it’s actually just a double-tracked Paul singing with himself, in which case forget I said anything. (By the way, did anyone know that John says “fucking hell” at 2:58 in the song? Never would’ve noticed, but it’s there, sure enough. Thanks, Wikipedia!)
  • Horns in the Outro. Once you’ve reached the fourth or fifth section of “Na”s in the “Jude” outro (I tried to count how many there were total in the song’s full edit, but I lost count–think it was around 15 or 16), there are no real surprises to be had. All you really have keeping your interest is wondering what madman exhortations Macca’s going to pull out of his bag of tricks, and listening to the increasing majesty of those blaring horns. After all, it’s not a true epic until you get the orchestra involved, and though it sounds like all the strings were in the studio over working on “I Am the Walrus” or something, you’ve still got the horns to signify the importance of the “Jude” outro–blessedly low-key enough not to overpower the song, but just enough to add that touch of class guaranteed to send the song into classic territory.

Maybe up next, why it turns out that “Like a Rolling Stone” is actually worth listening to past the organ intro?

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