Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

The Beatles (White Album) artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 3-5, 8, 9, 11, 15 July 1968
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

Released: 22 November 1968 (UK), 25 November 1968 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, bass, handclaps
John Lennon: backing vocals, piano, handclaps
George Harrison: backing vocals, acoustic guitar, handclaps
Ringo Starr: drums, bongos, percussion, handclaps
Uncredited: three saxophones

Available on:
The Beatles (White Album)
Anthology 3

Written by Paul McCartney in India, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was an attempt at a ska-influenced recording, although the title phrase came from a Nigerian friend.

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We went to a cinema show in a village where a guy put up a mobile screen and all the villagers came along and loved it. I remember walking down a little jungle path with my guitar to get to the village from the camp. I was playing ‘Desmond has a barrow in the market place…’
Paul McCartney
Anthology

‘Ob la di, ob la da’ was a phrase McCartney had heard from a friend called Jimmy Anonmuogharan Scott Emuakpor (known as Jimmy Scott), who he met in the Bag O’ Nails club in Soho, London. The phrase was said to be Yoruba for ‘Life goes on’.

I had a friend called Jimmy Scott who was a Nigerian conga player, who I used to meet in the clubs in London. He had a few expressions, one of which was, ‘Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra’. I used to love this expression… He sounded like a philosopher to me. He was a great guy anyway and I said to him, ‘I really like that expression and I’m thinking of using it,’ and I sent him a cheque in recognition of that fact later because even though I had written the whole song and he didn’t help me, it was his expression.

It’s a very me song, in as much as it’s a fantasy about a couple of people who don’t really exist, Desmond and Molly. I’m keen on names too. Desmond is a very Caribbean name.

Paul McCartney
Anthology

John Lennon, by this point infatuated by Yoko Ono and addicted to heroin, hated working on Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. He described the song as “Paul’s granny shit”.

I might have given him a couple of lyrics, but it’s his song, his lyric.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

McCartney’s insistence in re-recording the song a number of times with different arrangements didn’t help matters, and the process contributed to the fraught atmosphere that dominated many of the White Album sessions; balance engineer Geoff Emerick quit the sessions the day after Ob-La-Di was completed.

McCartney’s hope was for the song to become a Beatles single, although this was vetoed by the others. Instead the Scottish group Marmalade took it to the top of the UK chart at Christmas 1968.

If the recording process was fractious, The Beatles’ version sounds unusually high-spirited. The line “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face” was sung accidentally by McCartney and left in.

The backing vocals were also full of fun asides: listen out for Lennon and Harrison singing “Arm!” and “Leg!” after the line “Desmond lets the children lend a hand”. Harrison can also be heard saying the word “Foot” in the final verse, after McCartney sings “Molly lets the children lend a hand”.

In the studio

The Beatles spent around 42 hours completing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Recording began on Wednesday 3 July 1968, though the song was subsequently remade twice.

On the first day the rhythm track was recorded, with McCartney on acoustic guitar and Starr on drums. McCartney overdubbed vocals and more guitar onto take seven, before deciding take four was better and adding guitar to that too.

The next day he added lead vocals onto take four, together with backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison. McCartney then recorded an additional lead vocal part.

More overdubs followed on 5 July. Three saxophones were taped, along with bongos played by Jimmy Scott. A piccolo flute was also recorded, although this was wiped during the session and replaced by another guitar part by McCartney – deliberately recorded at a high level so it distorted and sounded like a bass.

This version of Ob-La-Di can be heard on Anthology 3. On 8 July, however, The Beatles scrapped the recordings to date and began a remake. A dozen takes were recorded, with the group playing live. The line up was McCartney on fuzz bass, Lennon on piano, Harrison on acoustic guitar and Starr on drums.

By this point Lennon had grown tired of recording the song. He reportedly came into the studio under the influence of drugs, sat down at the piano and banged out the introduction on the keys.

John Lennon came to the session really stoned, totally out of it on something or other, and he said, ‘All right, we’re gonna do Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. He went straight to the piano and smashed the keys with an almighty amount of volume, twice the speed of how they’d done it before, and said, ‘This is it! Come on!’ He was really aggravated. That was the version they ended up using.
Richard Lush, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The 8 July session saw the group record 12 takes of the song, after which lead and backing vocals and percussion instruments were overdubbed onto the final attempt.

The next day Paul McCartney began yet another remake, but after two attempts this was scrapped and work resumed on the first remake. The lead and backing vocals recorded the previous night were redone, along with assorted sound effects, handclaps, ho-ho-hos and what Mark Lewisohn describes as “vocal percussion”.

On 11 July three saxophones were recorded together with a bass part. The sax players’ names are not known. Four days later McCartney re-recorded his lead vocals, and the song was finally complete.

19 responses on “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

  1. brian

    For all the aggravation that took place recording it, The Beatles sound like they’re having a great time! My best memory of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was December 1968 when I was eight years old that a local radio station (in Hartford, Connecticut) where I lived played the song every three hours and I never missed listening to it I enjoyed it so much!

  2. Matt

    This a great song. I don’t understand why some people hate it. A Times poll in the UK said it was the worst song of all time! The worst songs of all time are by rubbish bands nobody knows. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is far too upbeat and fun-sounding to be anywhere near the worst song in the world.

  3. Von Bontee

    Yeah, I’ve loved this one since I was a child too! I’ve always suspected John & George wouldn’t have hated it so much if Paul hadn’t stubbornly insisted upon recording take after take/remake after remake.

    1. Kelvin

      I personally understand why people like the song but I detest the song
      Von Bontee I think Harrison at least wouldn’t hated it if they didn’t spend day after day on it

  4. Mike

    It’s simply a great song. I think Paul can be a bit too silly, while John can be a bit too serious. However, it’s interesting to note that Lennon pushed the final upbeat tempo stealing away from the reggae and turning it into um-pa music.

    Which makes me think about how John & Paul worked together with irritation sometimes that sparked genius. It seems that Paul pushed John’s Revolution to a single hard rock tune not in the original concept of Lennon. Ob La Di Ob La Da and Revolution are probably two of my most favorite songs. The history is very interesting.

      1. Mike

        That’s an interesting question. Actually, the “floating fills” don’t really seem that complicated. While Martin certainly played along and influenced at the same time the musicians seemed to learn on the fly.

        Also the boys had played all day gigs. It wasn’t all rock and roll either. One Beatles’ documentary contends that their musical influence was very wide in such that although not having formal training they still possessed and played formal music. In one sense you can say that Martin helped put the pieces of their musical puzzles together they already had.

        Then again we don’t know who the sax players are nor every detail of this great song. Anything was possible.

        1. EltonJohnLennon

          Those fills are as simple as it’s possible. Just two arpeggiated chords. I read that Paul added this part on July 11th. But it wouldn’t be a surprise for me if john was responsible for that.

  5. Schminking of gin

    I love the Beatles and most of Paul’s “granny shit” like Honey Pie and maxwell’s silver hammer but this might be the most skipped Beatles song in the catalogue for me. I absolutely see how John went nuts recording a hundred takes of this song and just started losing it.

    Its ironic the song is so damn cheery given how much damage it did to the group dynamic

  6. Ver

    I think this song is too colorful to be called one of the worst songs ever. Its actually fun, colorful, tells a story and its the Beatles’ attempt to SKA or Reggae related stuff back then.

    But I heard the Anthology version of this song and it sounds better to me than their released version cause it sounds more colorful and the vocals and guitars sound breezy and refreshing to me in this Anthology version. So I think this song would have been better if they released the Anthology version instead. Here’s a Youtube link.

    In the comments, a lot of people have said that they liked it better than the released version.

  7. obalola Kasa

    Obladi, oblada, has nothing to do with the Yoruba culture or language. Secondly, the guy’s name is not of Yoruba origin even though he might have grew up amongst the Yorubas. It’s possible the guy had actually said a yoruba phrase that meant something else but, the hearer perceived it as such and decided to write it out as it sounded phonetically. On of such is a common phrase heard from the mouths of the colonial masters in Nigeria when they wanted their workers or slaves to lift heavy stuffs, and they yell out, “Eh sho bey,” while unbeknownst to their slaves at that time and to so many till this day who still spit it out of their mouths as a way to garner support and inner power to lift a heavy object, was derogatory and a nasty reference to the color, shape of their skin etc. The actual english phrase was ” Apes Obey” and they in turn yell back with a heave, hey, until the work gets done. Hopefully, we can all agree that the song for what it meant was just an understanding of one man about what he perceived and the eventual translation of it into a money maker. All power to the Beatles.

  8. Egroeg Evoli

    I’ll have to listen for “Arm” and “Leg” and “Foot.” And also, I didn’t know that the reversing of Desmond and Molly in the last verse was accidental. I thought it was a clever twist planned by Paul.

  9. beatleKen

    there are reports now on some sites that Nicky Hopkins overdubbed quite a few Beatles piano parts. anyone know anymore bout this?? I know he did Revolution

  10. Leonard Meyer

    I like this song a lot and surprised to hear that this was considered one of the worst songs of all time. It is a fun, life-affirming song. I find it much better than The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. According to Wikipedia, Ob La Di Ob La Da was a number one hit in Australia, Austria, Switzerland, and Japan as well as the cover version by Marmalade in the UK. It was the theme song for the highly regarded TV show Life Goes On in the late 80s/early 90′s.

  11. Chinghis

    I’ve listened to this song for over 45 years, and never once thought “reggae” or “ska” (not that I knew what either of those were when I was 8, but, now I do, and I still don’t hear it). Maybe it’s more apparent in the alternate version? I had also heard that at one point Paul was sued by a gay Montreal (?) night-club owner who said that the song referred to him and his partner, especially the last, flipped line. But I’d never heard that that was mistake and they left it in, and now I can’t find any reference to the nightclub owner (probably read it in some book back in the 70s).

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