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How Beatles Producer George Martin Recorded ‘Hey Jude’ to Be ‘Hypnotic’ (Exclusive Excerpt)

"I actually said ‘You can’t make a single that long.’ I was shouted down by the boys — not for the first time in my life."

“Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin — The Later Years, 1966 – 2016” (Chicago Review Press) is author Kenneth Womack’s concluding book of his two-volume biography of the life of Sir George Martin. The second volume looks at Martin’s work with the Beatles in their later years with the albums that included “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Beatles (The White Album)” and “Abbey Road,” and on through his work after the Beatles with Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, America, Cheap Trick and America. The book hits the streets Sept. 4. This excerpt looks at the making of the Beatles’ single “Hey Jude.” — Steve Marinucci

For Martin and the Beatles, the studio was dark the next day, as Lennon and McCartney worked at the latter’s Cavendish Avenue home, putting the finishing touches on a new composition titled “Hey Jude.” The bandmates and their producer may have had their trials and tribulations during the summer of 1968, but as Ringo observed years later, nothing excited the group more than working on a great new track. Inspired by Paul’s recent visit with John’s son Julian, “Hey Jude” had single written all over it. On Monday, July 29, with Martin taking a rare night off, McCartney debuted the song in Studio 2 with Ken Scott and new tape operator John Smith working up in the booth. The band recorded six takes of the song during the ensuing rehearsal, with McCartney on piano and lead vocals and Lennon’s acoustic guitar, Harrison’s electric guitar, and Starr’s drums. By the time that Martin joined them at Abbey Road the next evening, “Hey Jude” was quickly taking shape as a Beatles song of inordinate length.

“In the case of ‘Hey Jude,’” George later recalled, “when we were recording the track, I thought that we had made it too long. It was very much a Paul song, and I couldn’t understand what he was on about by just going round and round the same thing. And of course, it does become hypnotic.” But even still, George could see the song’s obvious hit-making potential. The session itself was a muddled affair in spite of the Lennon-McCartney masterwork unfolding in Studio 2. For one thing, there was a film crew present from the National Music Council. They were on hand to film the Beatles for a documentary to be titled Music! As Ken Scott later recalled, “The film crew was supposed to work in such a way that no one would realize they were there, but of course they were getting in everyone’s way and everyone was getting uptight about it.” In the surviving footage, Harrison can be seen up in the booth with Martin and Scott. The quiet Beatle had sought refuge in the control room after McCartney rebuffed his suggestion that his lead guitar part echo McCartney’s lyrics in a call-and-response fashion. For his part, Harrison felt the sting of McCartney’s rejection.

“Personally, I’d found that for the last couple of albums,” Harrison later observed, “the freedom to be able to play as a musician was being curtailed, mainly by Paul.” In situations such as the “Hey Jude” session, said Harrison, “Paul had fixed an idea in his brain as to how to record one of his songs. He wasn’t open to anybody else’s suggestions.” When the session came to an end in the wee hours of the morning, Martin took home a rough stereo mix of “Hey Jude” for the purposes of scoring an orchestral arrangement. By this point, Martin had booked a half orchestra for an August 1 session at Trident Studios, a brand-new, five-month-old facility in London’s St. Anne’s Court.

On the evening of Wednesday, July 31, Martin and the Beatles acclimated themselves to Trident. Working outside of EMI Studios meant that Ken Scott was unable to participate. Barry Sheffield, one of Trident’s co-owners, worked the boards instead. With the tape running, the bandmates remade “Hey Jude” and began working on a carefully layered basic rhythm track featuring McCartney playing the studio’s magnificent Bechstein grand piano and singing a guide vocal, Harrison on electric guitar, Lennon playing his Jumbo acoustic, and Starr on drums. After recording four takes, Martin and the bandmates selected take one as the best before calling it a night. When they reconvened the next afternoon at Trident, the Beatles superimposed a number of overdubs to “Hey Jude,” including McCartney’s lead vocal and bass part, as well as three-part backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. At that point, they were joined by Martin’s thirty-six-piece orchestra, with the players including ten violinists, three violas, three cellists, two flautists, a bassoon, a contra bassoon, two clarinets, a contrabass clarinet, four trumpets, four trombones, two horns, two string basses, and a percussionist.

By this juncture, Martin had come to see his score as an antidote to the song’s extraordinary length, especially given the lengthy play-out chorus that concludes it. As George later recalled, “I realized that by putting an orchestra on you could add lots of weight to the riff by counter chords on the bottom end and bringing in trombones, and strings, and so on until it became a really big tumultuous thing. So that was my only real contribution to that. The real credit goes to Paul for thinking up the song in the first place, and the riff, and the way it extended.” But still, “even when we’d finished, I was terrified because it was so darn long.”

With the orchestra tuned up and ready to play, Martin recorded the session players during an evening session from eight to eleven that night. For the most part, the musicians good-naturedly joined in; as with previous Beatles session players, they were keen on gaining the bragging rights associated with one of the Fab Four’s recordings. But better still, the chance to provide backing vocals on “Hey Jude” doubled their session fees. However, not everyone was thrilled at the opportunity, with one of the players walking out of Trident in a huff, saying, “I’m not going to clap my hands and sing Paul McCartney’s bloody song!”

Over the next several days, George conducted mono and stereo mixing sessions for “Hey Jude” at Trident, with Barry Sheffield assisting. As Martin worked to adjust the track to the Beatles’ specifications, their producer repeated his concerns about the song’s length, which clocked in at more than seven minutes. The bandmates immediately countered with the example of Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park,” which had notched a top-five US and UK hit that June.

But George remained unconvinced, given that “Hey Jude” had a substantial length, for a Beatles track at least, of seven minutes and eleven seconds. “It was a long song,” he later observed. “In fact, after I timed it, I actually said ‘You can’t make a single that long.’ I was shouted down by the boys—not for the first time in my life—and John asked, ‘Why not?’ I couldn’t think of a good answer, really, except the pathetic one that disc jockeys wouldn’t play it.” And that’s when John played his trump card: “They will if it’s us,” he told the producer.

There was also the matter of manufacturing a 45 rpm record with the appropriate fidelity for a song of such length. Clearly, the folks at Harris’s label—ABC Records’ Dunhill subsidiary—had managed to handle the unusual length posed by “MacArthur Park.” But for his part, McCartney wasn’t worried. EMI’s technical team had already overcome a number of manufacturing challenges in the past. “It was longer than any single had been,” Paul observed, “but we had a good bunch of engineers. We asked how long a 45 could be. They said that four minutes was about all you could squeeze into the grooves before it seriously started to lose volume and everyone had to turn the sound up. But they did some very clever stuff, squeezing the bit that didn’t have to be loud, then allowing the rest more room. Somehow, they got seven minutes on there, which was quite an engineering feat.”

Pre-order “Sound Pictures” on Amazon.

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