On Aug. 26, 1968, the Democratic National Convention opened, exposing an America split in two as antiwar demonstrators clashed with police in the streets of Chicago. On that same day, The Beatles released a song split in two that, unlike the convention, brought people together with a message of reassurance and consolation.
Four and a half years after they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and charmed boomers with innocent cries of "yeah yeah yeah," the band came out with the anthem "Hey Jude," a more revolutionary and mature number--even if it uttered the word "nah" 240 times.
By 1968, Beatlemania had molted. The mop tops and Edwardian suits were long gone, as was the notion that they were a flavor-of-the-month act. The Beatles ditched live concerts to experiment in the studio, and while they didn't have a stranglehold on the Billboard charts as they did in 1964 (when at one point they had the top five hits), their music remained wildly popular.
Tim Riley, an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College and the author of several Beatles books, marks the transformation by comparing "Hey Jude" to one of those 1964 hits, "She Loves You"--both of which he calls "triangle" songs featuring a lyrical dialogue involving three people. "She Loves You" had been released on a small record label in the U.S. The Beatles performed it on their first Sullivan visit in a tidy 2:15, using just four instruments. "Hey Jude," meanwhile, was the first single from the band's own Apple Records label; The Beatles bypassed Sullivan for the hipper Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for the song's U.S. television premiere; and it clocked in at 7:11, this time with the benefit of a 36-piece orchestra.
"Hey Jude," like "She Loves You," is the story of a friend offering advice, but the world as well as the music had grown more complex. Paul McCartney has said he wrote it to cheer up Julian Lennon, John's five-year-old son, when Lennon was divorcing his first wife. The narrator realizes that things may not be good now, but with a little work he can find his true love "and make it better."
The message couldn't have been better timed. When the convention opened, "any of that balmy, '67 Summer of Love is gone," says Kenneth Womack, a professor of English and Integrative Arts at Penn State University in Altoona, where he teaches courses on their music. The summer of '68 "was the summer of hate and despair."
"Hey Jude" was completely different. It was essentially two songs in one, with a coda longer than the song proper. "It's weirdly imbalanced," Riley says. "It's as if Beethoven wrote a concerto and the cadenza went on longer than the sonata."
Against that backdrop came what Riley calls "a song about a communal experience"--as much about friendship as about love. That "had kind of a magnetic hold on people, and people couldn't get enough of it," he says.