In the studio29 July 1968. That first session was more of a rehearsal than a proper session: The Beatles knew it would be their next single, and dedicated the time to perfecting the arrangement.
Paul McCartney sang and played piano, John Lennon was on acoustic guitar, George Harrison played electric guitar and Ringo Starr was on drums. They recorded six takes, only three of which were complete, and each notably shorter than the final version.
Take one was released in 2018 on the super deluxe 50th anniversary reissue of the White Album. Take three had been issued in 1996 on Anthology 3.
On Hey Jude, when we first sat down and I sang ‘Hey Jude…’, George went ‘nanu nanu’ on his guitar. I continued, ‘Don’t make it bad…’ and he replied ‘nanu nanu’. He was answering every line – and I said, ‘Whoa! Wait a minute, now. I don’t think we want that. Maybe you’d come in with answering lines later. For now I think I should start it simply first.’ He was going, ‘Oh yeah, OK, fine, fine.’ But it was getting a bit like that. He wasn’t into what I was saying…
I did want to insist that there shouldn’t be an answering guitar phrase in Hey Jude – and that was important to me – but of course if you tell a guitarist that, and he’s not as keen on the idea as you are, it looks as if you’re knocking him out of the picture. I think George felt that: it was like, ‘Since when are you going to tell me what to play? I’m in The Beatles too.’ So I can see his point of view.
The next evening The Beatles continued working on the track, recording takes 7-23. George Harrison played guitar on some early takes, but spent much of the session in the studio control room. The recording was filmed for a documentary by the National Music Council of Great Britain, who captured the group playing and chatting for a short colour film called Music!
Hey Jude has become a classic. It felt good recording it. We put it down a couple of times – trying to get it right – and, like everything else, it just clicked. That’s how it should be.
On 31 July The Beatles decamped to Trident, a studio in London’s Wardour Street, which had eight-track recording facilities. They began re-recording Hey Jude, laying down four takes of the song’s rhythm track.
There is an amusing story about recording it. We were at Trident Studios in Soho, and Ringo walked out to go to the toilet and I hadn’t noticed. The toilet was only a few yards from his drum booth, but he’d gone past my back and I still thought he was in his drum booth. I started what was the actual take, and Hey Jude goes on for hours before the drums come in and while I was doing it I suddenly felt Ringo tiptoeing past my back rather quickly, trying to get to his drums. And just as he got to his drums, boom boom boom, his timing was absolutely impeccable. So I think when those things happen, you have a little laugh and a light bulb goes off in your head and you think, This is the take! And you put a little more into it. You think, oh, fuck! This has got to be the take, what just happened was so magic! So we did that and we made a pretty good record.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The song was completed the next day. McCartney added his bass and lead vocals, and the other Beatles contributed backing vocals. Then the 36-strong orchestra added backing for Hey Jude’s lengthy four-chord coda The classical musicians were also offered a double fee for clapping and singing along to the ‘nah nah nah’ chant.
Most of the musicians were happy to oblige, especially as it meant a doubled fee, but there was one dissenter who reportedly walked out, saying “I’m not going to clap my hands and sing Paul McCartney’s bloody song!”
Hey Jude contains an unedited expletive, which is often played by radio stations to this day. In the final verse, John Lennon sang “Let her into” instead of “Let her under your skin”. His cry of “Oh!”, followed by “Fucking hell”, remains in the final mix.
I was told about it at the time but could never hear it. But once I had it pointed out I can’t miss it now. I have a sneaking suspicion they knew all along, as it was a track that should have been pulled out in the mix. I would imagine it was one of those things that happened – it was a mistake, they listened to it and thought, ‘doesn’t matter, it’s fine’.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn