Forty years of “Hey Jude”

hey-jude1It was 40 years ago this week that the finest pop song of the late, lamented rock and roll era was finishing its run at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. We had just started high school when “Hey Jude” hit the Top 40 in September 1968, and we remember it well.

That was the summer we become addicted to hit radio and started our collection of 45 rpm records with “Mrs. Robinson,” “Turn Around, Look at Me,” “Classical Gas,” “Lady Willpower,” and “Macarthur Park.” “Hey Jude” was our first Beatles record.

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

So this was what the Beatles were like! (This teenager, a veritable rock-and-roll virgin in September 1968, hadn’t yet heard “Please Please Me,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” or “Ticket to Ride.”) If this was the music that older people seemed to dislike so much, we didn’t see what the fuss was about!

paul-mccartney-2“Hey Jude” wasn’t a noisy record (at least, for the first three and a half minutes) — it was just a guy at a piano who just starts singing, without an introduction.

Yes, the piano!  That was our instrument!  We sat down at the ivories and played the song ourselves, over and over, till our mother told us to stop and play something else.  Only later did we realize the oddity: the biggest hit of the world’s best-known guitar band was based on a piano accompaniment.

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

What did the lyrics mean? We weren’t quite sure: advice about girls, apparently. Jude had been unfortunate in love; that much was clear. Paul McCartney’s advice? Mellow out, get back in the game.

In school, the kids all talked about top 40 music, and they all listened to the local AM radio stations, not to their iPods. And we remember that they were of two minds about “Hey Jude.” Some of them claimed to hate the Beatles; others complained that the radio stations “overplayed” “Hey Jude.”

Well, it was true that you were guaranteed to hear “Hey Jude” every evening, week after week, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. on our local station’s request-and-dedication show. But if the kids hadn’t kept requesting it, they wouldn’t have kept playing it. On the national charts, it was number one for nine weeks; it was in rotation on the radio for only about four months, far less than the full year (all of 2000) during which Faith Hill’s “Breathe” stayed on the radio.  (And how quickly can you bring that tune to mind?  We bet you don’t.)

And any time 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 the thing was, “Hey Jude” wasn’t just on the top 40 radio stations in the fall of 1968; it was on all the stations, even on KDKA radio, which followed what would today be called an “adult contemporary” format. (Nearly a hundred miles from Pittsburgh, we still pulled in KDKA pretty well.) On KDKA you’d expect to hear Andy Williams sing “Happy Heart,” Petula Clark singing “Downtown,” Harpers Bizarre singing “Feelin’ Groovy,” and the Fifth Dimension singing “Up, Up and Away.”  But not the Stones, the Doors, or, ordinarily, the Beatles.

But KDKA played “Hey Jude.”  In fact, with “Hey Jude,” the grown-ups, by and large, exhaled and gave up the struggle against rock and roll.  This was music they could live with, after all.

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

It’s seven minutes and eleven seconds of pop music perfection.  Overplayed or not – and we’ve surely heard it hundreds of times over the last forty years – “Hey Jude” still sounds fresh and original.

Published in: on November 17, 2008 at 2:16 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s the thing, you CAN’T overplay “Hey Jude”, or any Beatle tune for that matter.

  2. But you know, don’t you, that “Hey Jude” was one of McCartney’s songs? Lennon wrote “Revolution,” which was the B-side of “Hey Jude,” and he always thought that “Revolution” should have been the A-side.

  3. Just after I finished ordering the new John Lennon biography by Philip Norman, I saw your post! Weird…

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