How 'Hey Jude' Marked a Change for the Beatles, America, and Music

When the song arrived 45 years ago, it offered a hopeful message during a summer of national despair.

Paul McCartney, who wrote the song, and John Lennon, credited as a writer, at a press conference in 1968, the year "Hey Jude" was released. (AP)

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."

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.

But the Beatles weren't looking to explicitly tap the zeitgeist. Their rock and pop peers, following Dylan's path, weren't bashful about singing about the changing times they were in: Another hit in the fall of '68 was Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John," which mourned the loss of slain leaders, including two--Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy--who had been assassinated in recent months. "Hey Jude's" appeal, on the other hand, is that it addresses universal human emotions. Though they led a cultural revolution through much of the 1960s, The Beatles rarely got political--even though one exception, "Revolution," was "Hey Jude's" B-side.

"This is The Beatles' greatest thing," Riley says. "They did not do many topical songs. The huge majority of Beatles songs are not tied to any specific moment in the '60s."

The song marked yet another kind of rebirth for the band. They had ended 1967 with "Magical Mystery Tour," a British TV special that, a few memorable songs aside, was widely dismissed as junk. The band retreated to India in 1968 and began work on the White Album. In the meantime they had one hit single, "Lady Madonna," which Riley calls "a trifle and something they could do with their left hand."

"Hey Jude" was completely different. It was essentially two songs in one, with a coda longer than the song proper. "'Hey Jude,' on paper, should not work," Riley says. "It's weirdly imbalanced. It's as if Beethoven wrote a concerto and the cadenza went on longer than the sonata." But The Beatles, and especially McCartney, made it work. The fadeout "is a new melody," but "he's Baryshnikov at the end, dancing all over the place. It's a tour de force. He goes from extreme intimacy to ecstatic shouting--wild euphoria--all in the span of a single track. The range is what separates it from every other vocal display."

The Beatles offered the classically trained orchestra players double pay to sing and clap along to the coda. All but one player agreed, recalls Norman Sheffield, co-owner of Trident Studios in London, where "Hey Jude" was recorded. "He was told to go home," Sheffield says. "McCartney said, 'If you don't want to do it, fuck off.'"

Because of its length, the song "was a beast to get on a 7-inch record," says Sheffield. He was convinced that radio disc jockeys would "chop it or play excerpts or little tricks with it." John Lennon was sure that they'd play the song in its entirety, and he was right.

"I knew it'd make a good record," Sheffield says, but "nobody said, 'This is a monster.' We didn't literally say, 'This is the best thing they have ever done.'"

"Hey Jude" was the longest song to enter the charts in the Top 10. By September, it hit No. 1 in the U.S., where it would remain for nine weeks, longer than any other Beatles song. Its power was such that, on its descent into the Top 30 in January 1969, it crossed paths with a rising hit: Wilson Pickett's cover of "Hey Jude."