In the studio

One of the luxuries of EMI owning Abbey Road was that The Beatles were able to work at their own pace. In the case of Sgt Pepper this had meant they could block-book the studios for weeks at a time, with the luxury of experimentation and unhampered by time constraints. It also meant they could record at short notice.

Under the working title ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko (They’re Gonna Crucify Me)’, the song was recorded by John Lennon and Paul McCartney at Abbey Road’s Studio Three on 14 April 1969, in a session beginning at 2.30pm and ending at 9pm.

It was then mixed for stereo, and was finished and ready for release by 11pm. According to George Martin, Yoko Ono was present in the studio, although she appears to have played no part in the recording.

I enjoyed working with John and Yoko on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’. It was just the two of them with Paul. When you think about it, in a funny kind of way it was the beginning of their own label, and their own way of recording. It was hardly a Beatle track. It was a kind of thin end of the wedge, as far as they were concerned. John had already mentally left the group anyway, and I think that was just the beginning of it all.
George Martin
Anthology

Following his reduced role in the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ was once again produced by George Martin. Also returning to the Abbey Road control room was Geoff Emerick, who had stopped working with The Beatles during the White Album sessions.

‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ was a very fast session. It was a really good record too, helped by Paul’s great drumming and the speed in which they did it all.
Geoff Emerick
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The success of the session may have contributed to the positivity that surrounded the recording of Abbey Road, which began shortly afterwards. It appears to have particularly helped ease relations between Lennon and McCartney, who at the time were locked in a legal battle over the management of the group.

At the time Ringo Starr was filming The Magic Christian, and George Harrison was on holiday. In their places, Lennon and McCartney played all the instruments on the song.

‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ only had Paul – of the other Beatles – on it but that was OK. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ was just Paul and me, and it went out as a Beatle track too. We had no problems with that. There’s good drums on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, too.
Ringo Starr
Anthology

Lennon and McCartney recorded 11 takes of the basic rhythm track, with Lennon’s acoustic guitar on track two of the eight-track tape, McCartney’s drums on track three, and Lennon’s vocals on four.

Five of the takes broke down immediately before the line “Made a lightning trip to Vienna”, when McCartney mistakenly added an extra snare drum beat.

Take two broke down because, as John explained, ‘Un string avec kaput, Mal!’ And there was one lovely moment, before take four, where John said to the drumming Paul, ‘Go a bit faster, Ringo!’ and Paul replied to the guitar-wielding John, ‘OK, George!’
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Take seven from the session was released in 2019 on the super deluxe 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road.

The 11th take was recorded in a higher key – G instead of E. Lennon and McCartney then decided that take 10 was the best, and it became the basis of the final version.

The first overdub was McCartney’s bass guitar on track one, followed by Lennon’s electric guitar on track five. He then added more electric guitar to track six, with McCartney simultaneously adding a piano part on the same track.

Track seven was filled with McCartney’s backing vocals, and the song was completed with McCartney’s maracas and Lennon making percussive sounds – made by slapping the back of an acoustic guitar – on track eight.

Chart success

‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ was released in the UK on 30 May 1969. It was rush-released just six weeks after it was recorded, while ‘Get Back’ was still at number one in the UK charts.

It topped the UK charts for three weeks, but only managed to reach number eight in America. The b-side in both countries was George Harrison’s ‘Old Brown Shoe’.