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Sep 06

THE BEATLES – “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”

FT + Popular55 comments • 4,356 views

#272, 14th June 1969

The Beatles’ last number one is a rum do. Knocked out quickly with half the band absent it’s a postcard from Lennon and Ono’s ’68-’69 peace tour, turning on the repeated chorus suggestion that “the way things are going / They’re gonna crucify me”.

The background to this imminent martyrdom includes:

  • Honeymoon in Paris
  • Marriage in Gibraltar (“near Spain”!!)
  • Staying in bed for a week
  • Pillow-talk with new wife on spiritual matters
  • Stopover in Vienna to eat cake
  • Warm reception on return from British press

Set against this we have a certain amount of interested cynicism from other pressmen and some difficulty getting a boat in verse one. Even so it’s fair to say Jesus had a harder time of it.

It’s very hard to know whether to take “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” at face value. On the one hand, his Plastic Ono Band work around this time suggests Lennon was taking himself very seriously indeed. On the other, the verse-chorus discrepancy on “Ballad” is so ridiculous that it’s difficult not to see some last bit of impishness at work.

In the end it doesn’t really matter: the track rattles along fiercely enough, and its modicum of verve and venom probably make it a better back-to-Beatle-basics contender than “Get Back”, but there’s nothing – especially 35 years later – to pull a listener back to a glorified MySpace posting. The fact that it got to No.1 at all probably underlined Lennon’s point that the Beatles were something he (and the others) needed to break away from.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Tom on 21 Sep 2006 #

    My list of background info is entirely taken from the song lyrics!

  2. 27

    ballad = rec.14 april rel.30 may — v.fast session v.fast release

    however i think life w.the lions (which documents the miscarriage) = rec.AFTER ballad yet rel.before (=2 may), in which case an even faster release (the point being that the “unfinished” LPs were uncrafted verite snapshots or something)

    i have to say that — while lennon-ono material veers v.wildly across the quality spectrum (as ditto work by the others) — i still find the entire break-up era more fascinating than failure… ie i somewhat buy into the concept-art idea of “emotional map”, esp.the way it punches across from chartpop and protoprog into a fairly celebral array of good and bad art and music avant-gardes… except to read it well you have to look at EVERYTHING (which obv Popular is not well set-up to do)

    my teen interest in this stuff is certainly a major route into WIRE for me, and what i wanted to do with it

  3. 28
    Marcello Carlin on 21 Sep 2006 #

    i’m not sure if i ever heard the free jazz jam on side one of “life w.the lions” f.john stevens and john tchicai — but i bet marcello has! is it any good?

    Sort of Britpop Sonny & Linda Sharrock for the first twenty minutes or so (i.e. Lulu to Sharrock’s Aretha) then Stevens and Tchicai storm in towards the end and, er, wipe the floor with the other two.

  4. 29
    Erithian on 21 Sep 2006 #

    LOL at the bit about Jesus having had a harder time of it. The first analysis I ever read of this period of the Beatles’ career, before I’d even heard this song, was that “Lennon looked like becoming the first superstar to be destroyed by public ridicule” – i.e. not a scandal, not a drugs bust, but looking like two gurus in drag was going to bring him down.

    Anyway, to return to Tom’s first sentence above, this is “the Beatles’ last number one”. It’s worth stepping back a moment here to look around and see just how enormously different the pop music landscape was at this point to the way it was seven years earlier on the eve of their first release. Music had gone in so many directions unimaginable in 1962, and almost every act in the chart in 1969 had been in some way inspired or influenced by the Beatles. As someone who just missed out on experiencing that era, I’m amazed by the fact there were only, say, three years between “From Me To You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, just a few years between Dylan’s first album and “Like a Rolling Stone”, between the Grease era and the hippy era, between the Shadows and Black Sabbath. Has pop or any other form of music ever developed so radically and so quickly at any other time? And what was behind it – did the drugs work, or was it the complex Sixties social development of which music was just a part? Listening to something as modern-sounding as the Pretty Things or Them developing from the blues in 1964-65, and leading on to US garage rock, would all this have happened anyway without the Beat Boom or did the Beatles influence the whole thing?

  5. 30
    Marcello Carlin on 21 Sep 2006 #

    On the other hand, marvel at the alacrity with which the likes of Tommy Roe, Rolf Harris and Elvis returned to the upper echelons of the charts in post-Beatles ’69 as though they had never happened.

  6. 31
    Doctor Casino on 21 Sep 2006 #

    Wonderful posts, pink lord. A minor thread I’d like to pick up: combining your point about Lennon’s inside-joke tendency as a lyricist with Tom’s point about the glorified MySpace posting, and Blount ends up being OTM regarding Eminem”>Eminem – in the 30+ years between this song and the string of “Real Slim Shady,” “Stan,” and “Without Me,” was there ever another #1 so dependent on a knowledge of the performer’s biography? “John and Yoko” and “Without Me” may be catchy, yes (“Without Me” certainly moreso), but lyrically, they are deeply self-involved pieces to which it seems rather difficult to relate. (Or, as I put it in the old paper I just linked: “What exactly is the appeal of riding down the highway and singing along to someone repeating ‘Hi! My name is… Slim Shady!’ if one’s name does not happen to, in fact, be Slim Shady?”)

    This kind of thing can only happen when the performer has truly crossed the line into being a superstar, an omnipresent cultural figure. In Eminem’s case he pulled this off partly by it being his goal from day one – since all of his produced work was explicitly about him, you could get caught up on the main biographical talking points pretty fast. But for “John and Yoko” to make any sense, it has to be literally true: the men from the press were following them around, and the listening public was hanging on every printed word. In other words, “John and Yoko” going #1 may be a final, astounding testament to just how fucking big the Beatles were. Not in the sense that their fanbase was so huge that it would send anything they put out to the top of the charts (see “Strawberry Fields”) – but in the sense that they were so inescapable as celebrities that a song cleverly (?) restating recent facts about one of their members would be something relevant and pleasurable.

    And I may be verging into really obvious territory here, but I think this all plays up how the perceived role and place of a rock star had changed in the wake of the Beatle era. Can you imagine Brian Epstein or any other proper business type letting this sort of lyric (even without the swear) through in 1964? The Beatles weren’t even supposed to let on that they were married, let alone the details of their sordid romps around Europe. (“Oh, where do you go to, my Yoko…?”) It’s easy to point to “Help!” or “Nowhere Man” and repeat the tired cliche that here, here is the spot where pop first entered the nascent stages of being “confessional” – but you need “John and Yoko” at the other end of the story, the proof that there actually was a change afoot, and probably not for the better. Again, how much did this big shift matter, chartwise, if it takes three decades for anybody to again enchant the public with a bouncy recapitulation of well-known factoids?

    (Plastic Ono Band aside, McCartney ends up coming off much better for sticking to the original plan of writing charming songs that don’t Mean much to the singer or his fans…. )

  7. 32
    Doctor Casino on 21 Sep 2006 #

    Hmm, that link should be to http://www.ummagurau.com/writing/academic/eminem.htm , I seem to have bungled my A HREF tag…

  8. 33
    Marcello Carlin on 21 Sep 2006 #

    Again, how much did this big shift matter, chartwise, if it takes three decades for anybody to again enchant the public with a bouncy recapitulation of well-known factoids?

    In the case of British number one singles, less than a year (“Back Home”).

  9. 34
    Tom on 21 Sep 2006 #

    wrt Eminem – he had this big thing going on with “Slim Shady” as a character/archetype (“looks like there’s a Slim Shady in all of us”) and Eminem and Marshall as different characters, blah blah, it all got very circituitous and kind of boring eventually but it’s partly the answer to your question.

  10. 35
    Erithian on 21 Sep 2006 #

    Records which are essentially about the artists themselves – interesting category. Much of Robbie Williams’ output for several years can be interpreted as “funny how things work out, eh Gary?” Many a rap record is a bulletin from the rapper’s life (and death, in the case of “I’ll Be Missing You”, which stands as a mawkish number in itself but becomes truly nauseating when you think of how much money the singer made out of the subject). And I suppose “I Will Survive” benefits from a knowledge of the singer’s story.

  11. 36
    Erithian on 21 Sep 2006 #

    And we shouldn’t forget (it wasn’t a number one but predated “John and Yoko” by a couple of years) the Mamas and the Papas’ wonderful “Creeque Alley”.

  12. 37
    blount on 21 Sep 2006 #

    haha tom plz not to undermine my otmness! ‘instant karma’ = ‘sing for the moment’, ‘give peace a chance’ = ‘the real slim shady’ (edge to lennon on BOTH COUNTS there!)(that’s right BOTH counts!)

  13. 38
    Doctor Casino on 21 Sep 2006 #

    “Creque Alley” is an excellent point, Erithian – VERY similar to “John and Yoko” in being a jaunty recounting of their story. However, I do think there’s still a difference, in that I suspect many more of those consuming the later song were already familiar with the story, whereas “Creque Alley” is an intro course. I could be wrong, though.

    As for Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall, etc – yeah, that “different characters” thing was getting pushed, but in my experience it was mostly offered as a defense for offensive comments or what have you (“Oh, I’m in character as Slim Shady…”) – certainly not something that connected the audience more strongly to the audience.

  14. 39
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2006 #

    When I first heard “Instant Karma” I was sure it was a Beatles song; when I first heard “Ballad of John & Yoko” I had no idea it was a Beatles song. (Of course, when I first heard Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” I thought it was the Beatles too, so I’m not a reliable witness.)

  15. 40
    Mark Grout on 27 Sep 2006 #

    Produced by BEATLES

  16. 41
    adam on 21 Mar 2007 #

    you all know fuck-all. Ballad and Yellow Submarine are what the Beatles were all about. Get Back is too wanky to be considered a good song

  17. 42
    Waldo on 6 Apr 2007 #

    Eloquently put there, Adam, but I disagree. “Ballad” for me underpins the very phonyness of Lennon on his own. It dovetailed, of course, into the dreadful “Imagine”, in which John warbled on about no possessions, whilst seated at a grand piano on his estate in Surrey. A working class zero, methinks.

    No excuse for shooting the bugger, though.

  18. 43
    Simon on 17 Apr 2007 #

    Hi Lucy! Photo I received! Thanks!

  19. 44
    Green on 25 Apr 2007 #

    Hi Sam! Photos i send on e-mail.
    Green

  20. 45
    Moe on 17 Mar 2008 #

    I liked this. The list was great. I still love Lennon, though I generally agree with most of what was said in this article. I also got a laugh reading the one regarding the Plastic Ono Band’s record. “Like, whoa, that’s deep”.
    I also thought that the use of the word “voyeurism” was clever and interesting.

  21. 46
    Paulito on 31 Dec 2009 #

    Whatever about “Hey Jude”, this one probably deserves its “4″ rating. While on the one hand it’s a competent Chuck Berry pastiche, it stands out much more as an unprepossessing piece of self-congratulatory Ono-nism. I suspect that Paul agreed to its release as a Beatles single solely in the hope that a bit of pandering to John’s sorely-swelled ego might persuade him not to leave the band.

  22. 47
    GuiltyFeat on 11 Aug 2010 #

    I was born when The Beatles had their last No. 1. I’ve always thought it significant. Of course by the time I found this out, John was already dead. Christ, you know that ain’t easy.

  23. 48
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Donald Sutherland,actor(2000).

  24. 49
    Lena on 19 Feb 2012 #

    Another take on Christ altogether: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2012/02/in-his-hands-edwin-hawkins-singers-oh.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  25. 50
    Rory on 7 Dec 2012 #

    This astonishing find completely changes the interpretation of the lyrics of this song. It’s another Mr Kite.

  26. 51
    Rory on 7 Dec 2012 #

    Although now I’m suspicious. The reference to Mr P. Brown seems far too coincidental. This could either be fan art from right now, or a mock poster made by a friend of Lennon’s at the time and based on the song. Still, it’s fun to imagine the lyrics as a hybrid of Victorian poster + bed peace.

  27. 52
    Rory on 7 Dec 2012 #

    TinEye turns up a book cover with the key image, so it just looks like a Twitter hoax. (And after following the Twitter trail… of course it is. Gah. Need more coffee.)

    Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Carry on…

  28. 53
    Mark G on 7 Dec 2012 #

    Fan art, but very good though..

  29. 54
    DanH on 18 May 2014 #

    This did not deserve to reach #1 in the U.K., nor did it deserve to reach #8 here in the U.S. And I say this as a Beatles nut. Tom called it a MySpace posting of sorts, which makes total sense for the year this entry was written (2006). With the age of Twitter, the song is even more prescient. Each verse could be its own tweet:

    @johnlennon Made it to Paris, we can get married in Gibraltar! #christyouknowitainteasy #wedding

    @johnlennon Honeymooning in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton, meeting the press #bagism #hatersgonnahate

  30. 55
    DanH on 18 May 2014 #

    #2 watch: “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Also made #4 in the U.S., could have been an unlikely gospel #1 in the Age of Hair. And the first use of the “My Sweet Lord” chords…soon to be a mini-’70s trope (e.g. “I Saw The Light” by Rundgren, “Bad Time” by GFR, and the ’70s throwback “You Never Know” by Wilco)

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