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Sep 06

THE BEATLES – “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”

FT + Popular56 comments • 5,393 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. 1
    Oh No It's Dadaismus on 17 Sep 2006 #

    “Get Back” is a about a million times better than this pedestrian pub-rock shuffle, this is like a crap Kinks’ b-side FROM THE SEVENTIES. And yes, I’d like to believe Lennon’s tongue was in his cheek but, sadly, I doubt it was.

  2. 2
    rosie on 17 Sep 2006 #

    This was the moment when we knew that the game was up for the Beatles.

  3. 3
    Tom on 17 Sep 2006 #

    I’m not saying it’s better than “Get Back” (it got a lower score for one thing), I’m saying it sounds more like a spontaneous, back-to-basics ‘rocker’ than GB does: not necessarily a good thing.

  4. 4
    Doctor Casino on 17 Sep 2006 #

    Listening to it recently I was shocked at how utterly without invention the backing track is – the bass really does just bounce through the chord progression in the same pattern the entire way through, and the drumming once again reminds us how the Beatles really really did need Ringo. It’s probably the most rote backing track they ever put out on record – nothing on “Please Please Me” is nearly as repetitious.

    I think it’s to Lennon and McCartney’s great credit as performers here that they manage to disguise all this through sheer enthusiasm; not only does this, more than “Get Back,” sound like it was knocked out in an afternoon, it sounds much more like it was a fun afternoon. And of course, there’s that final “CHRIST! you know it ain’t easy” – a last reminder of how great a rock and roll singer John Lennon could be, rolling the entire song’s frustration and self-deprecation into one perfect outburst. By no means a deserving #1, but as oddities and one-offs in the Beatles canon go, it beats “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” and manages to excite me more than “Lady Madonna” at this point.

  5. 5
    Mark Gamon on 17 Sep 2006 #

    Blimey, Tom – I can’t keep up. You been overdoing the coffee?

  6. 6
    blount on 17 Sep 2006 #

    the ‘without me’ of 1969! i’ve always liked it – decidedly minor, tossed off, faster than ‘get back’ (which helps alot), the closest they came to ‘the devil went down to georgia’, and i think decidedly ‘impish’ – even at the height of self-righteousness lennon maintained a mocking tone (cf. remarks re: ‘cold turkey’ when returning obe), the ‘christ’ chorus less than 3 years after ‘bigger than jesus’ had to be deliberately chosen. as imposition of will it seems more lampshade on head than ‘everybody at the party stop talking – i’ve an eight hour song to play for you’ a la ‘hey jude’. ‘old brown shoe’>>>’tbojy’>’lady madonna’!

  7. 7
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Sep 2006 #

    If the one fact I know about this is right, why is it Paul McCartney playing drums on a record about John and Yoko?

  8. 8
    Doctor Casino on 18 Sep 2006 #

    You’d have preferred it be Yoko?

  9. 9
    Doctor Mod on 18 Sep 2006 #

    The song’s embarrassing–but it has a great beat and a great hook.

    Still, Rosie’s right. This made it pretty clear it was all over.

    Andrew Farrell has a point, though. I’ve always thought that for someone who really, really didn’t like Yoko, Paul really puts in an enthusiastic backing vocal (in addition to the drums) in support of this tale of the Ono-Lennon’s travails, especially considering the mudslinging that ensued.

  10. 10
    Tom on 18 Sep 2006 #

    Macca playing drums on it is the most interesting thing about it in a way – obviously it’s a spurious game trying to get inside someone’s headspace but a combination of “let’s make music like the old days” plus “i know i SHOULD be happy for my best mate” plus “has he even been my best mate for ages anyway?” plus “i hate that woman” (if indeed he did) would all give impetus to the performance.

    (and even inside the “i hate that woman” stuff would have been envy not just of Y’s position in J’s life but of Y’s position as a radical modern artist, this being a scene which PM had been hanging round the fringes of for ages – in fact I wonder if the whole let’s get back ‘thing’ was born out of a sadness that JL had so comprehensively leapfrogged him in those stakes, actually going round and living the Fluxus life on honeymoon!)

  11. 11
    intothefireuk on 18 Sep 2006 #

    Oh look there’s some paint drying…tedious telling of a story no one wants to hear (well at least not this listener) and no musical spark at all = the worst Beatles single (not sure this should actually qualify anyway – basically John with Paul as session man).
    Next…

  12. 12
    katstevens on 18 Sep 2006 #

    I don’t really rate any of the Beatles songs where it sounds like they’re singing underwater.

  13. 13
    Pete Baran on 18 Sep 2006 #

    What about Yellow Submarine?

  14. 14
    katstevens on 18 Sep 2006 #

    OK, Beatles songs that sound like they’re singing underwater when they actually aren’t.

  15. 15
    Doctor Mod on 18 Sep 2006 #

    Tom–Compelling insights on some very probable motives behind the-scenes. Perhaps the saddest and most bitter divorce in all of this was that between John and Paul. I think, too, that the entrance of Linda in the midst of this (a great photographer but hardly avante-garde and certainly no musical talent) was part of a curious attempt create a scenario that strangely parallelled J&Y. (P+L = J+Y lite)

    And, oh yes, this recording really should make one appreciate how much George and Ringo really did contribute to making the group as a whole.

  16. 16
    Mark Gamon on 19 Sep 2006 #

    Weird. Has someone been doctoring these comments? I SWEAR I never typed ‘shiver me timbers, and dinna spare the whip’.

  17. 17
    intothefireuk on 19 Sep 2006 #

    Seems to be the whole site thats been infected by a pirate virus.

  18. 18
    Oh No It's Dadaismus on 19 Sep 2006 #

    Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrr, Tom lad, what be a-goin’ on?

  19. 19
    Tom on 19 Sep 2006 #

    http://www.talklikeapirate.com/

    It be talk like a Pirate Day.

    However, me hearties, the trickery that Peg-Leg Alan do have visited upon the site be playin’ merry hell with our RSS feeds. So we might be belayin’ it soon.

  20. 20
    Admin on 19 Sep 2006 #

    i have banished thems scurvy rss demons to davy jones’s locker, so i have

  21. 21
    wwolfe on 20 Sep 2006 #

    I wonder what young kids make of this. The early boy/girl Beatle songs are as close to a universal language as pop music has; this, by contrast, with its ragged production and cryptic description of an insular world, must be baffling to a kid just starting to listen to the band.

    Was this the first use of the bathroom echo effect on John’s voice? If so, it is an occasion to be mourned, since it managed to make nearly unlistenable my favorite rock and roll voice. (When he started imitating David Bowie’s phrasing a few years later, that didn’t help, either.)

    The annoying production effect aside, my favorite aspect of this single is the harmony singing of John and Paul. The Beatles did so many things so very well, it’s easy to overlook how wonderful their harmonies were, almost without fail. Paul’s re-introduction of his “Lady Madonna” voice, pitched at an odd harmonic interval to John’s melody, and with Paul’s own touch of impishness in his delivery – all of that adds up to what is probably the most enjoyable part of the record for me at this late date.

    On the down side, apart from what others have mentioned, I’d point out John’s lead guitar. I enjoy what he did on “Get Back,” but here he sounds an awful lot like the lead guitar player on the Bonzo’s “Canyons of Your Mind.” (They *meant* to be funny, of course – I don’t think John did.)

    Having said all that, I’d still choose “The Long and Winding Road” (a.k.a., “The Long and Lawrence Welk”) as the band’s weakest #1, had that single done as well in the UK as it did in the States. Drippy melody, bombastic production, and lyrics that don’t make sense leave me grasping for anything to recommend on that one.

  22. 22
    Chris Brown on 20 Sep 2006 #

    I can well imagine that ‘Long And Winding Road’ might have been a Number One in the UK, had it ever been issued as a single here. Although it might not have. I’d put down ‘All You Need Is Love’ as their worst chart-topper, personally.
    As I’ve said ad nauseam when the Beatles have cropped up here, I was a kid when I got to know this via cassette. I thought this was a jolly little song, but didn’t pay a lot of attention to the lyrical content, not that I’d have understood it anyway. It was several years before I even knew what it was called.

    Without working through the whole discography, I can’t recall offhand an earlier use of heavy echo on John’s vocal – but it’s really just a continuation of John’s fondness for concealing his voice which he’d been doing since about 1966, be it through multi-tracking, phasing or just mixing. I can grant you one piece of production trivia though; this was their first stereo 45 in Britain.

  23. 23

    i’m not sure of the dates exactly — i mean i could look em up except I’M ON THE NET so that’s YOUR JOB — but somewhere soon lennon conducted his legendary interview with jann wenner in which he repudiated the beatles and established the idea (and a lot of the content) of the ROCK CANON: which seems (to him) to have meant casting aside fun throwaway tunefulness and embracing sour meaningful “bluesiness” (and rock-crit and counter-cultural orthodoxy mostly tumbled after him in this) (BUBBLEGUM GUILT as a growing-up moment for a generation — and in the long run a v.bad thing, tho at the time probably unavoidable) (he also hammers sgt pepper and epstein’s managerial control — in both cases i think very disingenuously, casting himself as the victim i seriously doubt he was)

    the problem being that he (not to mention rock) needed “fun throwaway tunefulness” as a mode to get his own best songs ambivalent enough (i think there’s actually more jokiness in his solo work than comes across — but very often it’s kind of a private joke at the expense of the listener, which gets very tired very quickly)*; he can still write very pretty melodies eg i’m fond of “oh yoko” and “oh my love”, but the content and intent of both is fairly yucky if you listen to words (which i mostly don’t luckily)

    also there’s something interestingly pathological and contradictory about someone rejecting the conventions of effective popcraft in the name of bluesy rawness and truth, at the same time he’s so relentlessly machine-processing his own natural voice — and plus insisting on working with SPECTOR

    (yoko’s gallery and conceptual artwork is way more deft [and just funny] around this date than lennon’s, tho it too gets increasingly infected by lennon’s sense of political [or let’s say pseudo-political] inadequacy — haha he was always the hippie to her protopunk)

  24. 24

    remembers asterisk — i haven’t explained this very well i don’t think; how the private joke works is that various conceptual art moves (adopted from new york via yoko) allow the artist to treat the documentation of ANYTHING however random as “valid” (cf “unfinished music no.1 — two virgins”) ; so that pop = avant-garde = found sound = high art symphony = some tossed-off bit of bad political rock — none less “valid” than another, bcz even the “bad political rock” is an emotional map of “where the lennons are at” (cf “unfinished music no.2 — life with the lions”, which is exactly contemporaneous w.”ballad of john and yoko”)

    anyway the private joke aspect is that john is if anything even MORE judgmental about what’s good and what’s not in this era: bcz of course “it’s valid” doesn’t mean “it’s good”, but to prejudge based on the apparent form was to be a “hung-up square” (or “rockist” as it is now known)

    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?

  25. 25

    also worth adding to tom’s list of background info: yoko had had a miscarriage :(

  26. 26
    Tom on 21 Sep 2006 #

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

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 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.

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