Hey Jude is one of the most memorable classic songs McCartney ever wrote, and it’s simultaneously quite commercial and structurally daring, even barrier-breaking.

The birth of Hey Jude, thematically and structurally, comes from different influences and stories from Paul’s personal life. It’s the longest song Paul McCartney ever composed, and the idea came from his fruitful music discussions with John about the new upcoming LP’s of the moment. An example is Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, that with his 6:09 ingenious composition, teased McCartney’s creativity:

“We were cross-pollinating each other. He’d bring out a long record, so we knew it’d be OK to do ‘Hey Jude’ long. ‘What d’you mean, man? “Like a Rolling Stone” is six minutes thirty. Why can’t we have one seven minutes?’ You started breaking boundaries, questioning previous values.” – Du Noyer, Paul. Conversations with McCartney, Hodder & Stoughton.

His previous value was broken with ‘’Like a Rolling Stone’’. Now McCartney felt the desire and need to challenge his music ability.

“Like ‘Hey Jude’. They’re gonna say, ‘It’s rubbish, seven minutes, just going “Na na na nana-na naa” at the end. It’s obviously rubbish.’ And you go, ‘No, it’s pretty good. It’s long, I’ll grant you, but it’s kind of interesting” – Du Noyer, Paul. Conversations with McCartney, Hodder & Stoughton.

The barrier being broken was the one which limited pop singles to about two or three minutes in length, and certainly never more than five:“Hey Jude” went on for just over seven minutes. It’s not exactly a standard love song, but a song of consolation, sympathy, and encouragement, and it was written around the time McCartney’s engagement to Jane Asher broke off and shortly before his relationship with Linda Eastman became serious.

What could have been just another great Beatles ballad became something quite extraordinary at the end of the last verse when the vocals unpredictably repeat the last word in ascending notes, ending in a full-out jubilant scream. That’s the signal for the most elongated Beatles fadeout ever, lasting about four minutes, consisting solely of repeated harmonized “nah nah nah” refrains. What could have very easily been boring is instead hypnotic, because McCartney varies the vocal with some of the greatest scatting ever heard in rock music. The ending melody, repeated at length, was not a song fragment added on but an integral part of the song.

“The end refrain … wasn’t intended to go on that long at the end but I was having such fun ad-libbing over the end when we put down the original track that I went on for a long time. So then we built it with the orchestra.” – Norman Philip, Paul McCartney: The Biography.

In 1980, in one of his last interviews, John praised its lyrics and said he did not contribute to it. But according to Mal Evans, in 1968, this song was collaborative:

“Hey Jude” is a more recent number [than ‘Revolution,’ written in India], based on one of Paul’s ideas, but worked on with much joint effort from both John and Paul before it reached the recording studios… . On Friday, July 26, John and Paul spent most of the day at Paul’s house putting the final touches to their latest composition, “Hey Jude.” – Compton, Todd M.. Who Wrote the Beatle Songs?: A History of Lennon-McCartney.

The rehearsing and recording of the song at Abbey Road wasn’t easy at all, as it caused some disagreements between Paul and George. On 31-Jul-68, in fact, while recording ‘Hey Jude’ Paul rejected George’s idea for a guitar phrase to echo each lyric. An emerging cause of tension seemed to be their different work differences. Paul likes to achieve a loose arrangement of an entire song – then work on ‘details’ later. George preferred to work on those details immediately:

“I had the idea to make it very simple and build towards the end. So I wanted, ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, duh-duh-duh,’ just very simple. George, when we were rehearsing it, was going ‘Hey Jude,’ [big guitar riff] dang-diddle-da-da, ‘don’t make it bad,’ dang-diddle-da-da … ‘George, do us a favour, man. Don’t play it. We’ll have a solo later or something, but don’t answer every phrase, it’s gonna get boring very soon.’ ‘OK. Fuckin’ won’t do it then.’ It was getting like that.” Norman Philip, Paul McCartney: The Biography.

At the minute 2:58, Paul hits the wrong key on the piano and whispers, “F*cking Hell!”. John Lennon suggested that they keep it in the song, so they did, but changed it by dropping it into a lower register.

Thematically, this song reflects the intertwined stories of Paul, John, John’s first wife, Cynthia, their son Julian, and John’s second wife, Yoko. John had met Yoko on November 9, 1966, and gradually developed a serious relationship with her. John went to India with Cynthia from February to April, 1968, but wrote songs for Yoko when he was there. He and Cynthia separated in about May 1968. John was moving out of Kenwood and starting to live with Yoko. It seems that Paul wrote “Hey Jude” after this separation. He had always been good friends with Cynthia and was very fond of Julian, so he drove out to Kenwood to visit them.

“I happened to be driving out to see Cynthia Lennon. I think it was just after John and she had broken up, and I was quite mates with Julian. He’s a nice kid, Julian. And I was going out in my car just vaguely singing this song, and it was like “Hey Jules.” I don’t know why, “Hey Jules.” It was just this thing, you know, “Don’t make it bad/ Take a sad song …” And then I just thought a better name was Jude.” – Paul, The rolling stone Interview, 1974.

Julian has no recollection of his parents’ divorce, not even of Paul McCartney writing “Hey Jude” for him on that somber occasion. McCartney, he says, is the only ex-Beatle who has kept in touch over the years.

“I remember rolling about on the floor, wrestling with Paul, when I was a kid. He always sends me telegrams on my birthday, which is nice, and he sent me one about the record a couple of days ago: ‘Good luck, old fruit.‘” “It surprises me when I hear it”, he says. “It’s strange to think someone has written a song about you. It still touches me.”  – The Rolling Stone magazine.

The recording notes of “Hey Jude” were bought at an auction by Julian in 1996 for £25,000.

The handwritten lyrics of ‘Hey Jude’

In a video interview with GQ magazine shared last year, Paul was discussing the origins and history of many of the Beatles’s most famous songs. Hey Jude, he confessed, was originally going to be called Hey Jules, for John Lennon’s son Julian. But later, McCartney decided he preferred the name Jude instead.

“I didn’t realize it meant Jewish. Actually I nearly got into trouble, because we put it up on a window of our shop… so that people going by on the buses would see.1Gq Magazine

McCartney was referring to the Apple Boutique, a short lived business venture the Beatles opened in London in 1967. But one day in 1968, McCartney said,

 “I got this furious phone call from this guy, Mr. Leon, who was Jewish, he said: ‘What are you doing, how dare you do this.’” In Hitler’s day, in the Nazi thing, ‘Juden raus’ meant Jews out. And I didn’t connect.”

Paul confessed the song’s name made some people angry when it was released, and he had no idea anybody would associate the now iconic Beatles song “Hey Jude” with Jewish people. That was, until he got that very angry phone call. The man, McCartney said, was very angry, and threatened to send his son round “to beat you up.”. But the Beatles legend assured him that “no, no, no, wait a minute, I swear to you it’s nothing like that… cool it down, it has nothing to do with that, you’ll hear when you hear the record. It’s just a name in a song.” McCartney said that while he calmed Mr. Leon down, “suddenly I was alerted to the fact that it would have caused him a lot of problems, because his family will have experienced that firsthand probably.”

According to several books about the history of the Beatles, many others in London’s Jewish community were unhappy with the words “Hey Jude” on the storefront of the Apple Boutique. Controversy aside, in 1980 John Lennon talked about this song referring to his song Julian, and confessing that despite the song was written for Julian, he always felt it as a song for him:

“He said it was written about Julian, my child. He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian. He was driving over to say hi to Julian. He’d been like an uncle to him. You know, Paul was always good with kids. And so he came up with Hey Jude. But I always heard it as a song to me. If you think about it… Yoko’s just come into the picture. He’s saying, ‘Hey, Jude – hey, John.’ I know I’m sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me. The words ‘go out and get her’ – subconsciously he was saying, Go ahead, leave me. On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all because he didn’t want to lose his partner.” – John Lennon, All we are saying by David Sheff.

John’s revelation opened up a pandora box, unveiling new interesting interpretations of the song. In fact, when Paul played this song to John for the first time he took it very personally, and John confessed the song was written for him long before his final interview, right after the song’s release, in 1968.

Paul McCartney during the recording of ‘Hey Jude.

“Oh, yeah. Well when Paul first sang “Hey, Jude” to me – or played me the little tape he’d made of it – I took it very personally. Ah, it’s me! I said. It’s me. He says, no it’s me.” – John, The Rolling Stone interview, 1968.

For Adam Thomas, the Beatles scholar, the song, in fact, was only ‘seemingly’ written for Julian, but had lyrics clearly pointed at John:

“Although apparently written for John’s son Julian, the lyrics of Paul’s 1968 song Hey Jude are encouraging someone to ‘go for it’ and be with the girl he has waited so long to meet. John felt that, with this sentiment, Paul was unconsciously telling him it was OK for him to leave him with Paul and be with Yoko. John said ‘On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying “bless you”. The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner’. In Glass Onion, John’s lyrics describe his strong feelings of affection for ‘the walrus’, before revealing that he’s actually talking about his devotion for Paul.” — Lennon vs. McCartney by Adam Thomas

For Adam Thomas, that song was John’s response to Paul’s sentiments in Hey Jude. McCartney said that John contributed to the lyrics by keeping him from changing the line, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.” and when he played the song for John and Yoko:

“I turned round to John and said: ‘I’ll fix that if you want.’ And he said: ‘You won’t, you know, that’s a fucking great line, that’s the best line in it.” – Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stone interview.

So it stayed. In years to come, playing it alone to seas of rapturous faces, the memory of that moment would always bring a lump to his throat.

“So those are the little moments I refer to and think, ‘Is it one of those lines or is it rubbish.’ But both of us had this sardonic streak that we could bring to each other’s things. I’m writing, ‘It’s getting better all the time’ and he chips in with, ‘Couldn’t get much worse’. And the song keeps moving ahead because of that. But he was a very warm guy actually, John. His reputation, ’cause of things like that, has gone a bit the other way.”  – Gq Magazine.

‘Hey Jude’ was paired with John’s ‘Revolution’ and marketed as the A-side for pragmatic commercial reasons, not least its greater acceptability to America, where real revolution seemed very close.

Paul has stated that the song was written for Julian, but the lyrics tell a different story. They encourage someone to “start to make it better.” and “you have found her, now go and get her” because he’s “waiting for someone to perform with.”.

Beatles critic Tim Riley discusses the autobiographical nature of McCartney’s lyrics in his book ‘Tell Me Why’: 

“Hey Jude began as an improvised song of encouragement to Julian Lennon, John’s son Cynthia, as Paul was driving him home one day. The Lennons were getting a divorce, and Paul’s compassion was directed toward the child who found himself caught in the middle.”  – ‘Tell Me Why’, Tim Riley.

For Miles Raymer, in “How to Analyze the Music of Paul McCartney” this approach still analyzes the biographical nature of McCartney’s lyrics, but it isn’t specific to his romantic life. For Rymer, McCartney’s songs during his time in the Beatles developed from specific events that happened during his life. The specific event in that case was John’s divorce with Cynthia, that apparently shocked Paul so much to write a song about it and their son Julian. Unless deep inside, Paul was worried not just about John’s upcoming divorce with his long-time Liverpool wife, but his new partnership with Yoko, both romantically and musically.

When Paul played the song to John and Yoko for the first time, John called it “one of his masterpieces”. John was convinced that the song was written for him, as subtle encouragement to leave the band and his songwriting partner, and pursue his new life with Yoko. Paul, on the contrary, explained that he’d actually written it with himself in mind. But it didn’t matter: John always felt that this song wasn’t really about Julian, but about him, and what began as a consolation to Lennon’s son, Julian, during John and Cynthia’s divorce, it has endured as one of the Beatles’ best love songs, written for John. As the Beatles neared its end, the song references became increasingly somber, because if the song is really about Julian, then the lyrics quite don’t fit with Paul’s statement.

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad

Take a sad song and make it better

Remember to let her into your heart

Then you can start to make it better 

These lines can work for a young kid who has just discovered that his dad and mother are going through a divorce, just like this part:

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain

Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool

By making his world a little colder.

But later things get a little complex to decipher if we think Paul is talking about Julian, because:

Hey Jude, don’t let me down

You have found her, now go and get her 

Remember to let her into your heart

Then you can start to make it better

“You have found her, now go and get her”. Who should Julian find? No one, because here Paul is talking to John, encouraging, unconsciously or not, to ‘go and get her’.

So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin

You’re waiting for someone to perform with 

Same complex interpretation for these lyrics: it’s hard to believe Julian, a five year old kid, was waiting for someone to perform with. What started as a song for a little kid, soon became a song for John, because it was Lennon who found someone else in late 1967, an artist who can replace Paul and whom he can perform with. So if the initial idea for Paul was to write a song for Julian, unconsciously he was talking to John.

It was 1968, Yoko had just stepped in Abbey Road, coming to the studios every day, never once leaving John alone, slowly taking Paul’s place in John’s life. When John needed a place to live with Yoko, Paul threw open the doors to Cavendish and invited them to move right in. It’d be just like old times, wouldn’t it? Except it wasn’t, now that John was so consumed by Yoko, their friendship started collapsing because of John’s new life and ideas he now shared with Yoko, and no more with Paul.

And while Paul was sincerely sorry for Cynthia, the bigger pain was to realize that somebody else was replacing him, that the music marriage was getting to an end.

In 1968 the group unveiled ‘Hey Jude’ with a world premiere for David Frost’s programme to a large studio audience. According to Philip Norman, for the song broadcast, to palpable general relief, Yoko was nowhere in sight, and even John chose to an atypically low profile2Philip Norman “Paul McCartney: The Biography”.

Though actually pre-recorded, it was still The Beatles first public recital since 1966 and as such attracted a colossal viewership.

Paul’s close up at the piano in red velvet unveiled an alleged song of apology for his long-time close friend Cynthia and her baby, Julian. But behind the heartbroken brown eyes above the mic, Paul was now worried more than ever about the blurred, uncertain future that was coming up, realizing for the very first time that Yoko was replacing him too. Another divorce was around the corner: his relationship with John. Hidden by the first lines for Julian and carried out with the singalong power of that four-minute long ‘na-na-na-nanana-na’ coda, the song is now at the 8th place of the greatest songs ever written3The Rolling Stone magazine.