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 Paul McCartney on piano and Ringo Starr playing the drums with brushes.
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, on 6 February 1968. McCartney added his second vocal part 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 of course 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 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 Anthology 2. 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 1968.