Written by Paul McCartney in India in 1968, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ was an attempt at a ska-influenced recording, although the title phrase came from a Nigerian friend.
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…’
‘Ob la di, ob la da’ was a phrase McCartney had heard from a friend called Jimmy Anonmuogharan Scott Emuakpor (known as Jimmy Scott), whom he met in the Bag O’Nails club in Soho, London. The title was said to be Urhobo for ‘Life goes on’, but was actually just a family phrase.
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.
I might have given him a couple of lyrics, but it’s his song, his lyric.
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 George 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, although the song was subsequently remade twice.
On the first day the rhythm track was recorded, with Paul McCartney on acoustic guitar and Ringo Starr on drums. McCartney overdubbed vocals and more guitar onto take seven, before deciding take four was better and adding guitar to that too.
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. That version of ‘Ob-La-Di’ can be heard on Anthology 3.
There were a lot of primitive things that we used to use in the Beatles — prehistoric machines. One of my theories about sound nowadays is that the machines back then were more fuck-upable. I’m not sure if that’s in the dictionary. But they were more destructible. You could actually make a desk [recording console] overload, whereas now they’re all made so that no matter what idiot gets on them, they won’t overload. Most of the old equipment we used, you could get to really surprise you. Now a brand-new desk is built for idiots like us to trample on. We used to do a great trick with acoustic guitars, like on ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’. I played acoustic on that, an octave above the bass line. It gave a great sound — like when you have two singers singing in octaves, it really reinforces the bass line. We got them to record the acoustic guitars in the red. The recording engineers said, ‘Oh my God! This is going to be terrible!’ We said, ‘Well, just try it.’ We had heard mistakes that happened before that and said, ‘We love that sound. What’s happening?’ And they said, ‘That’s because it’s in the red.’ So we recorded slammin’ it in the red. And these old boards would distort just enough, and compress and suck. So instead of going [imitates staccato ‘Ob La Di’ riff] dink dink dink dink, it just flowed. So, a new fuzz box just won’t go as crazy as an old one would. And it does make it all a little bit cleaner, which I’m not wild on, actually. I’m a big fan of blues records and stuff, where there’s never a clean moment. Nothing was ever clean. It was always one old, ropey mike stuck somewhere near the guitar player, and you could hear his foot more than some things.
Guitar Player, July 1990
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, with the session taking place after the band attended a press screening of Yellow Submarine.
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.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The 8 July session saw the group record 12 takes of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, 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 ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ was finally complete.