10
Aug 06

THE BEATLES – “Lady Madonna”

FT + Popular30 comments • 6,844 views

#247, 30th March 1968

A snippy, impatient thing, “Lady Madonna” sounds compressed – not in the modern and technical sense, but everything in the song sounds like it’s squeezed in too tight, chafing against everything else like passengers stuffed onto a rush-hour train (audible relaxation in the last few seconds as the doors open!). This works well with a cryptic lyric about family overcrowding and stress – inasmuch as it’s about anything. You could also hear the Beatles’ own situation in it, if you liked: band members stifled in the ever-tightening knot of Beatledom.

It’s good, but odd: there’s bite here, the detached sympathy of “Eleanor Rigby” switched for irritation and even cruelty – a kind of contempt, which stretches into the song itself, as whatever rocking claims it had are undermined by that mocking kazoo-esque break. That act of self-sabotage works fine, though – the strain that shows through makes “Lady Madonna” is a much more interesting record than the band’s more straightforward attempts to ‘get back’ to their roots.

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Comments

  1. 1
    rosie on 10 Aug 2006 #

    Doesn’t look like anybody has much to say about this one.

    I heard a lot of this on that French Exchange. (I seem to remember hearing a lot over there of The Who’s I Can See For Miles too, also Nights In White Satin, The Days of Pearly Spencer and Judy In Disguise by John Fred and his Playboy Band)

    I didn’t like it much at the time. It seemed trite, as if even I could tell The Beathles were a busted flush by now. I like it much more now. I like its playfulness, which is so characteristically Beatles. The repeated “see how they run” can still raise a chuckle.

    Rosie

  2. 2
    Doctor Casino on 11 Aug 2006 #

    The lack of general comment somehow summarizes my feelings on “Lady Madonna” perfectly. It’s a good song, I guess, but it’s mostly just there. Perhaps charming, perhaps tuneful, but not anybody’s favorite Beatles song. It also feels somehow arbitrary or random as a choice for a single – I don’t really picture them finishing up recording and high-fiving each other and going “There’s our number one!” It would make a great deal more sense as just another White Album track (while The Inner Light, somehow, must always be a B-side in all alternate universes). I wish I could put my finger on this better, but somehow it seems like an exercise more than a performance.

  3. 3
    Doctor Mod on 11 Aug 2006 #

    I’d been a die-hard Beatles fan from the outset–still am, to be honest–but “Lady Madonna” was the first of their singles that I really, really didn’t like. As I recall, I refused to believe it was actually the Beatles! (Hey–I was still a kid and thus prone to fits of irrationality at times.)

    I think Tom has put his finger on the problem–the recording itself projects a sense of irritation. And, yes, there’s something snide about the whole thing–it gives the appearance of making a social commentary, but like most of McCartney’s attempts at social/political statements, it winds up being pretty indefinite or ambiguous. It’s as if to tell a mother on the dole that it’s really just too bad that she’s poor and possibly to imply that it’s her own bloody fault for having all those kids. That’s easy enough to say when one is rich, of course. (“Did you think that money was heaven-sent?” No, did you, Paul?)

    The cynical backing vocals of “Paperback Writer” are back, and can a kazoo–a freaking KAZOO!–be anything but mocking?

    What’s evident in retrospect is the extent to which they all sound so tired–of each other, of being the Beatles. Implosion isn’t pretty.

  4. 4
    Doctor Mod on 11 Aug 2006 #

    Another thought–I recall that at the time it was “explained” that this odd recording was paying homage to Fats Domino. Huh? The Fat Man was never mean-spirited–but, as if propelled by some notion that needed to be validated, Domino did his own cover version soon thereafter. It wasn’t an improvement.

  5. 5
    katstevens on 11 Aug 2006 #

    I like this record, but only due to the “Seeeeee how they ruuuuun” bit. Apparently the kazoo noise was just John and Paul humming through their hands. How disappointing!

  6. 6
    Tom on 11 Aug 2006 #

    I thought it might be a paper and comb.

    It is a strange choice of single I agree – one of those not-quite-finished, lets-get-something-out-then releases (it reminds me weirdly of The Smiths’ “Shakespear’s Sister”, I think because of this slightness).

    But I do really like it! I think it’s good pop, in fact I think the more celebrated records they made after this are all worse.

  7. 7
    Christopher Barbour on 11 Aug 2006 #

    Macca seems to like it as it was one of the first Beatles tunes he played live with Wings in 1976, and on every tour thereafter I believe.

    I’m in agreement with most of the others, this is a bit of a water-treading time-marker for the Fabs. Supposedly based on something called Bad Penny Blues.

    The “will this do” atmosphere is especially odd given that this was recorded after their time in India with the Marharishi when the three principle songwriters supposedly wrote hundreds of new songs between them. (Lennon in particular getting songwriters diahorrea in the midst of two dry spells).

  8. 8
    Doctor Casino on 11 Aug 2006 #

    Hmmm, i suppose one would have to check Lewisohn and see – was it simply the first of those songs that they settled down to record? I don’t picture the Beatles at this point as being under constant demands from the label to put out product, but maybe? Or maybe they really did think it was a killer, which still doesn’t quite ring true for me.

  9. 9
    Tom on 11 Aug 2006 #

    It was their last Parlophone single, apparently – so maybe they were saving stuff for Apple? Or there was some contractual nonsense going on?

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 12 Aug 2006 #

    Perhaps he’d had a premonition about Heather…

    According to IMac’s account, the recording was so thrown together that Macca hired a horn section (Brit jazz, old school, Premier League) without bothering to write an arrangement for them. Lead saxman Ronnie Scott ranted at him about being “unprofessional” and then rattled off one of the most audibly pissed-off sax solos on any pop record (rivalled only by the one-note sax solo on Tommy Steele’s “Rock With The Caveman” – also played by Our Ronnie).

    The rhythm track was an acknowledged lift from Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Badpenny Blues,” a top 20 hit from ’57 (produced by Joe Meek).

  11. 11
    Chris Brown on 12 Aug 2006 #

    I’ve just checked Lewisohn: ‘Lady Madonna’ was recorded on the 3rd and 8th of February, which is pre-India (John & George went on the 15th, Paul & Ringo on the 19th). They seem to have made an intentional decision to put out a single while they were away. John wanted ‘Across The Universe’ but they never got a good enough recording for a single.
    And of course they mananged to knock off ‘Hey Bulldog’ while they were shooting the video for this. Perhaps the rush involved here is what we can hear on these two, at least, but the upside is that you can hear more sense of purpose than in anything else they’d done since Sgt. Pepper. Some critics detect a deliberate effort from Paul to try and bring the band back down to earth, hence the deliberate retro stylings here, but it’s still hampered by the fact that they can’t think straight after all the drugs. I think he’s trying to be positive about the mother [influenced by memories of his own?] but it drifts too much.
    Still, the piano playing is good. Apparently they used an old microphone to get the right sound. The version you tend to hear on CD has a ludicrous amount of stereo separation, which is good for appreciating the details at the expense of the whole; of course the original 45 was in mono, and I wonder whether it made any more sense that way.

  12. 12
    Alan Connor on 13 Aug 2006 #

    It’s as if to tell a mother on the dole that it’s really just too bad that she’s poor?

    …I’ve always found this to be, at the least, ambiguous. Not so for the producers of US single-mom sitcom Grace Under Fire, who used Aretha Franklin’s version as a sometime theme. Jools Holland did a version too, so there must be some muso-appeal which escapes me, and others include Tom Jones, Booker T & The MGs, The Crystalites, Caetano Veloso and Kingmaker — as well as Fats and Wings as mentioned above.

    Yes, Kingmaker.

  13. 13
    koganbot on 13 Aug 2006 #

    I refused to believe it was actually the Beatles!

    Well, remember, by this point the CIA had assassinated Paul and replaced him with a double.

  14. 14
    Alan Connor on 14 Aug 2006 #

    Looks like I funked up the HTML in Comment 12: the sitcom is Grace Under Fire.

  15. 15
    wwolfe on 14 Aug 2006 #

    I think the sarcasm in McCartney’s writing and the Beatles’ singing isn’t aimed at the mother, but at the sentimental notion that poverty enobles the poor. The line “Did you think that money was Heaven sent?,” in this reading, isn’t a jab at the mother, but rather at the kind of banal nostrum dispensed in a bored minister’s sermon. And I think Tom is perceptive in saying that the day-to-day slog recounted in the lyrics is informed by the tedium and frustration that had crept into the job of being a Beatle by early 1968.

    In Mojo’s recent listing of the band’s 100 best songs, either Dan Penn or Spooner Oldham noted that a handful of their late recordings managed a surprising mastery of the Southern soul idiom, this being the first to do so. I think this is one aspect of the song that still makes it sound strange as a Beatles single. I remember when it came out that hearing the piano as the lead instrument on a Beatles single was jarring, as well. And, as a nine-year old in a small Ohio town, hearing the word “breast” on Top 40 radio was a shock.

    Nobody’s mentioned it, so I’ll close by saying I’ve always liked Ringo’s drumming on this. Good light swinging feel to it – I don’t know if he played with brushes, but in my memory, that’s how it sounds.

  16. 16
    Brian on 15 Aug 2006 #

    This Macca ditty got me thinking about the Beatles ” character songs ” and the only other Macca one , I can think of, is ” Eleanor Rigby “. And it’s a long stretch from ER to this.

    We also have ” Mean Mr. Mustard” , “Sgt. Pepper”, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds ” and the list goes on , so I am sure not all the remaining were created by Lennon….

    ANd all of that reminded me of a Halloween party that I threw once where everyone had to come as a character from the Beatles. We had all of the above plus ” a barber showing photographs ( of his wife ! )”, a midddle east sheik ( ” Baby Your A Rich Man ” ) , a giant Strawberry ( fields ) , Desmond with His barrow , Mr. Kite etc etc…

    A truly memorable bash , if I could remember it all…it was in the 70′s….

    Brian in Canada

  17. 17
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 15 Aug 2006 #

    michelle
    polythene pam
    bungalow bill
    the fool on the hill
    nowhere man (ok ok)
    her majesty

  18. 18
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 15 Aug 2006 #

    lovely rita meter maid

  19. 19
    Chris Brown on 15 Aug 2006 #

    ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Fool On The Hill’, ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Rocky Raccoon’, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ are all Paul’s songs. So is ‘Michelle’ actually, but I’m not sure that counts as a character song just because it’s got somebody’s name in it.

    ‘Dr. Robert’ is John, though.

  20. 20
    Brian on 16 Aug 2006 #

    Can we add ” Mother Superior ( aka ) Jump-the Gun ”

    And thanks ,Chris, for the additional Paul songs/characters… I knew there were more.

  21. 21
    the pinefox on 16 Aug 2006 #

    Well done, Tom Ewing!

  22. 22
    Dan R on 8 Sep 2009 #

    I read … somewhere … that Paul was consciously doing his Elvis impression on this and with that thought in mind some of his phrasing and attitude makes a lot more sense. McCartney’s tenor voice is a rather harsh and honking instrument, hence the compression on the voice and perhaps the tight feeling of the whole recording. I think this is a fun, rollicking, blokeish rock ‘n’ roll song, perhaps a conscious counterweight to the froth of Hello Goodbye (still froth, but richer froth…).

    Speaking of froth, the horn section was nicked rather gloriously by Betty Boo for ‘I’m On My Way’ off her magnificent and underrated second album, Grrr! But you mix with Apple at your peril and the Beatles’ lawyers demanded a co-writing credit. Sadly, she used her real name in the publishing, because I had been looking forward to seeing the unique song credit ‘Lennon/McCartney/Boo’.

    Paul’s Elvis impression comes back to mind if you listen to Elvis’s own stumble through this song in the studio, where he half-remembers the words and slurs vaguely through it, seeming therefore to do a parody of himself doing an impression and someone doing an impression of him. Impressive.

  23. 23
    Izzy on 8 Sep 2009 #

    #10 – I was at Ronnie Scott’s last weekend and the house trio played a rather sweet arrangement of this, introduced with the story of Ronnie being grabbed from the stage on the spur of the moment to record the solo at 3am, the Beatles having so enjoyed a night out at the club following a hard day at Abbey Road. The pianist said it was unconfirmed, so I’m glad to see corroboration (of sorts!) on this thread.

  24. 24
    Waldo on 6 Nov 2009 #

    I actually consider this one of their best singles and have very fond memories of chiming out “See how they run!” as a seven year-old. The whole package from the jolly arrangement through to Macca’s strangled vocal and ambiguous lyric is and remains a fun day out in Beatles Land. This is a very pleasant musical ditty and all the alleged/substantiated inconvenience suffered by Ronnie Scott in the wee small hours is an interesting byline but nothing more.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 29 Jan 2010 #

    The version of Across The Universe deemed not good enough came out on a World Wildlife Fund album later in ’68 and is gorgeous – I wonder who thought it didn’t cut it as an A-side? Also recently recorded was George Harrison’s It’s All Too Much, which would have made for a spectacular single, with its feedback-ridden/cuss word (?) intro. The fact that bossy Paul wrote all the A-sides bar two from now until the end of the Beatles’ career goes some way to explaining their hissy split. Lady Madonna is fine and fun, Fars meets Humph down the Rovers Return, but – like Hello Goodbye – pretty thin compared to some of the stuff his bandmates were writing

  26. 26
    Lena on 5 Dec 2011 #

    It’s worse than that – she’s dead: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/12/death-becomes-him-tom-jones-delilah.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  27. 27
    mapman132 on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Strange that for a Fats Domino retro-homage, this actually sounds like one of the Beatles’ more modern recordings to me. It must be either the speed of it, or some sort of confused piano -> keyboards -> synthesizers progression in my mind. Whatever it is, I’ve always liked it. Too bad it only reached #4 in the US. 8/10 sounds right.

  28. 28
    lonepilgrim on 17 Feb 2014 #

    @Mapman: check out Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Badpenny Blues” (mentioned by Marcello at 10) for a precursor of the Lady Madonna sound

  29. 29
    mapman132 on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #28 Good suggestion. A bit more brass than “Lady Madonna” but I still hear the resemblance. Goes to show how some sounds, like well done jazz, continue to hold up over time, but others, like many of the number ones of 1952-55…not so much.

  30. 30
    hectorthebat on 8 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs (2010) 86
    Stephen Spignesi and Michael Lewis (USA) – The 100 Best Beatles Songs (2004) 41
    Mojo (UK) – The 101 Greatest Tracks by The Beatles (2006) 64
    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)

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