Written by McCartney for John Lennon's infant son Julian, 'Hey Jude' has become one of the best-loved Beatles songs.
As McCartney tells it, the first fragment of the melody came to him when driving to see Cynthia Lennon, who John had recently dumped in favour of Yoko Ono.
“I started with the idea ‘Hey Jules,’ which was Julian, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better,” McCartney wrote in his memoir Many Years From Now. “Here, try and deal with this terrible thing. I knew it was not going to be easy for him. I always feel sorry for kids in divorces.” Both Cynthia and Julian were touched by McCartney’s gesture in visiting them. “He was just trying to console me and Mum,” Julian Lennon later remembered.
The “Hey, Jules” lyric evolved into the song’s current title. While initially written out of a very specific motivation and for an audience of one, it quickly came to stand for something far more universal; optimism, reassurance and friendship.
Hey Jude, don't be afraid 🎶 pic.twitter.com/HzyL0ccG6l
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) August 26, 2018
When paired with the song’s massive, rousing “Nah-nah-nah-nah” coda, it became a singalong favourite and its easy-to-play, touching melody has long made it a staple for young musicians.
There is an appealing simplicity and directness to the song that has seen its popularity strengthen in the half-century since its release. Interestingly, the song’s one inexplicable lyric (“The movement you need is on your shoulder”) was only intended to be a placeholder by McCartney but Lennon said it was his favourite line in the song, so it stayed.
“Take a sad song, and make it better” – ‘Hey Jude’ has become one of The Beatles’ most cherished songs
By the time ‘Hey Jude’ was released, the band had fallen apart. Ringo had officially left the group days before it went to radio. After The Beatles split, friendships would fray, lawsuits would fly and togetherness would turn to toxicity. But ‘Hey Jude’ stands as one final moment of unity from the group, a poignant reminder of the chemistry the quartet had enjoyed during their dazzling peak.
50 years ago today, one of The Beatles' most successful singles, ‘Hey Jude/Revolution’ was released in the United States. 🎉 pic.twitter.com/6a8UItC1hm
— The Beatles Story (@beatlesstory) August 26, 2018
Producer George Martin liked the song but had misgivings over whether radio would play a song of its sprawling running length. John told him: “They will if it’s us.”
Lennon was right; the song was an instant hit despite a running time of seven minutes, 11 seconds, which made it the longest song to reach number one on the US pop charts. It stayed at number one in the US for nine weeks and sold more than eight million copies. Billboard later named it the 10th biggest single ever.