Released: 15 March 1968 (UK), 18 March 1968 (US)
Paul McCartney: vocals, piano, bass, handclaps
John Lennon: backing vocals, lead guitar, handclaps
George Harrison: backing vocals, lead guitar, handclaps
Ringo Starr: drums, handclaps
Ronnie Scott, Bill Povey: tenor saxophones
Harry Klein, Bill Jackman: baritone saxophones
Lady Madonna, The Beatles’ first release of 1968, was a bluesy number written by Paul McCartney, and recorded just prior to the group’s trip to India to study meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
It was also their final release on Parlophone/Capitol. From Hey Jude onwards, The Beatles released all their subsequent singles and albums on their own Apple Records label.
The original concept was the Virgin Mary but it quickly became symbolic of every woman; the Madonna image but as applied to ordinary working class woman. It’s really a tribute to the mother figure, it’s a tribute to women. Your Mother Should Know is another. I think women are very strong, they put up with a lot of shit, they put up with the pain of having a child, of raising it, cooking for it, they are basically skivvies a lot of their lives, so I always want to pay a tribute to them.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Although the gritty subject matter was a departure from the LSD-based fantasies that dominated much of The Beatles’ 1967 output, the lyrics in Lady Madonna’s middle eight contain the words “See how they run,” an echo of Lennon’s I Am The Walrus.
I was writing the words out to learn it for an American TV show and I realised I missed out Saturday; I did every other day of the week, but I missed out Saturday. So I figured it must have been a real night out.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The music, too, was notably a throwback from the mind-expanding psychedelia of Sgt Pepper. The intro bears a resemblence to that of Humphrey Lyttelton’s 1956 hit Bad Penny Blues (released on Parlophone, whose head of A&R was George Martin), and McCartney’s left handed, bass-led piano playing was inspired by blues pianist Fats Domino, who covered the song in 1968.
Lady Madonna was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing. I got my left hand doing an arpeggio thing with the chord, an ascending boogie-woogie left hand, then a descending right hand. I always liked that, the juxtaposition of a line going down meeting a line going up. That was basically what it was. It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression. It took my voice to a very odd place.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In the studio
The Beatles began recording Lady Madonna on 3 February 1968. They began by recording three takes of the basic rhythm track, with McCartney on piano and Starr playing the drums with brushes.
McCartney added a bass part that evening, and Lennon and Harrison both played fuzz-toned guitars through the same amplifier. Starr also added another drum track.
During the same session McCartney added his vocals, which were later double tracked, and Lennon and Harrison provided backing vocals.
Good piano lick, but the song never really went anywhere. Maybe I helped him on some of the lyrics, but I’m not proud of them either way.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The Beatles returned to the song three days later. McCartney added his second vocal and another piano track, and all Beatles contributed handclaps. McCartney, Lennon and Harrison also recorded their “See how they run” vocals, and the vocalised imitation brass during the middle eight.
That evening four sax players were contacted to complete the song. They were called in at the last minute, without any prepared music, and their lines were largely improvised.
Paul went through the song on the piano and we were each given a scrap of manuscript paper and a pencil to write out some notes. Had there been music we would have been in and out in about 10 minutes. As it was, it took most of the evening, recording it in A major pitch with the rhythm track playing in our headphones.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The saxophone solo was played by Ronnie Scott, although much of it was removed or buried in the mix. Scott was reportedly unhappy about this, but The Beatles and George Martin were free to do as they pleased.
The Beatles briefly and informally returned to Lady Madonna at Abbey Road on 5 September 1968, while working on the arrangement for George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Only available on bootlegs, this off-the-cuff version mainly featured Paul McCartney on organ and vocals, with minimal input from the other Beatles.
The group performed Lady Madonna once more – on 31 January 1969, the final day of recording for the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. It was a somewhat shambolic rendition which contained the improvised lines “Lord and Lady Docker, in your private yacht, all the people wonder why you have such a lot.”
A new edit of Lady Madonna, comprising elements from takes three, four and five, was included on the Anthology 2 album. It restored the extended sax break from Ronnie Scott, and an extra solo flourish from him at the close of the song.
A remixed version of Lady Madonna was included on the 2006 album Love. Notable features were a drums and percussion introduction, the sax solo heard on Anthology 2, a segue into the riff from Hey Bulldog for the guitar solo, and Hammond organ from I Want You (She’s So Heavy). The drum introduction was taken from Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, and the guitar solo by Eric Clapton was from While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
The Beatles filmed two promotional sequences for Lady Madonna on 11 February 1968, both for worldwide syndication to television companies. The single was to be released while the group was in Rishikesh, India, so they would be unable to make any personal appearances to promote it, should they have wished to.
Possibly to avoid the Musicians’ Union issues with miming which meant the films for Hello, Goodbye went largely unseen in the UK, the Lady Madonna promos merely consisted of shots of The Beatles recording in Abbey Road.
The Beatles made little attempt to perform Lady Madonna during the filming; instead, they used the studio time to record a new song, Hey Bulldog. In 1999 Apple re-edited the footage to create, for the first time, a promo film for Hey Bulldog synced to the group’s performance.
I spent a few days coming up with ideas for Lady Madonna, [but] when The Beatles wanted to get on with recording Hey Bulldog, all that went out the window!
NEMS Enterprises distributed the two clips to British and US television stations. The BBC broadcast one of the clips on four occasions, in black and white and on BBC. In America the first showing for one of the clips was in colour, on ABC’s The Hollywood Palace on 30 March.
Lady Madonna was released in the UK on 15 March 1968, with Harrison’s The Inner Light as the b-side. It entered the charts at number five on 20 March, and a week later climbed to the top. It remained there for a second week, and spent eight weeks altogether in the chart.
In the US it was released on 18 March. It fared less well, peaking at number four on 23 March.