An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
For years and years, “Hey Jude” was regarded by many as The Beatles‘ crowning achievement among singles, the fabbest of the fab, the toppermost of the poppermost. No, wait–neither fab nor poppermost, for “Hey Jude” was far more mature and accomplished than that earlier yeah-yeah-yeah hold my hand stuff. It had depth! It had meaning! It had purpose! It had a big room full of people swayin’ and singin’ Na-na-na-NA-na-na-na!, as if they’d lost their way and forgotten the precise words to “The Batman Theme!”
And I loved it. Wholeheartedly.
“Hey Jude” was released in the summer of 1968, a double-barreled 45 with the raucous “Revolution” as its flip. The Beatles promoted it via a video clip aired by British TV host David Frost and subsequently in the U.S. on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I missed all of this, and I don’t remember hearing it on the radio or anywhere until the early ’70s. That’s when I finally heard “Hey Jude,” as I was visiting my brother Rob in Albany, and listening intently to an oldies radio countdown of the all-time greatest songs. “Hey Jude” came in second, falling just short of the unstoppable juggernaut that was “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. Or maybe it was the other around, but no matter. I adored both songs immediately.
There was never a time where I didn’t like The Beatles, at least no such time after Beatlemania hit the States in ’64, when I was mere lad of four. But the early ’70s was a huge period of discovery and rediscovery for me in terms of your John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I listened to the Beatles records I knew, sought out the Beatles records I didn’t know, saw the Beatles films I hadn’t seen, and re-watched the one I knew–A Hard Day’s Night–whenever it turned up on TV. The Beatley Badfinger was my favorite current group on the radio, and the Beatley Raspberries later became my favorite current group on the radio; in the period between Badfinger and The Raspberries, Paul McCartney & Wings was likely my favorite current group on the radio. But my all-time favorite group? There was never, ever any question about who that was. There still isn’t.
Granted, the onslaught of punk in the late ’70s prompted me to re-examine my ongoing allegiance to The Beatles. My newfound devotion to The Ramones rivaled my Beatlemania, but certainly didn’t replace it. I did grow tired of the solo careers of the former Beatles by that time, and even started writing a song urging them to never get back to where they once belonged (‘Cause you got a good reason/For staying apart just as long as you can/You got a good reason/All things must pass, you can’t do that again). I developed a distinct preference for The Beatles’ pre-1967 recordings, before they got too serious with the Sgt. Pepper and the “All You Need Is Love” and the goo goo ga joob. On the other hand: Revolver? Rubber Soul? Beatles VI and Beatles ’65 and Meet The Beatles and the American mix of “Thank You, Girl” on The Beatles’ Second Album? Yeah, yeah, a thousand times yeah!
In my 1980s Beatles milieu, “Hey Jude” was not here, nor there, nor everywhere. I still liked it, but it was no longer in my Top 100, not even close. Hell, when a rummage-sale dive at a church basement in Buffalo netted me an Atlantic 45 of Wilson Pickett testifyin’ his own take on “Hey Jude,” the Wicked, Wicked Pickett’s rendition instantly became the version in my mind. That remained the case for decades thereafter. And seeing Paul (now Sir Paul) haul the song out again and again for seemingly every TV appearance honoring The Beatles’ legacy eventually caused “Hey Jude” to grate on me. Na-na-na-NA-na-na-na. No. No-no-NO-no-no-no.
There was an exception to this recently. I don’t remember what show it was, what specific honor or accolade or day-in-the-life matter was at hand. But there was Paul McCartney, on my little 32″ TV screen, once again recommending that we take a sad song and make it better. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. But after years of indifference, even disdain for this song…
…Well, all of a sudden “Hey Jude” clicked with me, for the first time in years. I may have even joined in with the na-na-nas, as I sat on my couch and remembered how large this song once loomed in my legend.
It would be difficult to name one track as the definitive Beatles track. I usually regard “Rain” as The Greatest Record Ever Made, but that doesn’t make it the definitive Beatles track. “Yesterday” is underrated in spite of its ubiquity, but it’s three Beatles shy of even being a Beatles record, let alone the definitive example. One could argue on behalf of the moptopped frenzy of “She Loves You” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the mind-expansion of “A Day In The Life” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “I Am The Walrus,” the pathos of “Eleanor Rigby,” the elegance of “Penny Lane,” the sheer beauty of “We Can Work It Out,” the Utopian promise of “All You Need Is Love.”
But if it’s gotta be just one, it’s “Hey Jude.” “Hey Jude” is the definitive Beatles track. It captures one moment among many, just another snippet of time when The Beatles ruled the world. It captures it perfectly, the movement we need right there on our shoulders. It’s The Beatles still playing as a band, the fractures in that foundation still bonded together in a way only four specific people would ever truly understand. It’s The Beatles with nothing to prove, already reigning o’er their domain by divine right, the four kings of EMI sitting stately on the floor. It’s The Beatles proving it anyway, because they’re the goddamn Beatles.
So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin. You were made to go out and get her. Tonight, I will see Paul McCartney in concert for the first time. He’ll play some songs I know and love, representing a body of work I cherish above all others. He’ll sing “Yesterday.” He’ll command us to “Let It Be.” He’ll channel James Bond with “Live And Let Die,” a license to thrill. And a splendid time will be guaranteed for all.
And he will sing “Hey Jude.” Where once I dreaded that notion, I now embrace it and anticipate it as a highlight. And I will sing along, full voice, with over 30,000 of my fabbest friends. Na-na-na-NA-na-na-na. For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder. Better, better, better, AH!