While we are getting closer to the edge with our backing bonanza, there is one group that we love here at WMMCM , but since practically everybody else does too, we just don’t spend a lot of time on them. I’m talking about The Beatles.
The Beatles and backing vocals are inseparable, and for good reason. From the earliest songs to the last, the four boys from Liverpool always had great-sounding harmonies. All those long hours onstage in Hamburg and back home in the U.K. before they became “The Beatles” gave them a terrific sense of harmony and melody that served them well throughout their various careers.
It would be impossible to pick a “best” Beatles harmony as there are so many great examples. Could you say that “Things We Said Today” is much better than “If I Fell”? Or is “Paperback Writer” better than “Two of Us”? I certainly have an opinion about this, and no doubt our loyal Cheese Metalers have their own opinion as well - but does it matter?
The Beatles covered so much ground musically and creatively that distinctions like that really don’t have much weight beyond personal preference. Can you really put “Three Cool Cats” next to “Let It Be” in a comparison that really means something beyond preference?
So, what I’m going to do is put one of The Beatles most loved songs up here and see where it goes….
“Hey Jude” came nearly at the end of The Beatles’ surprisingly short time together as the biggest band in history. Recorded both at the legendary Abbey Road Studio and nearby Trident Studios in July of 1968, it would also become the first single released by The Beatles’ new record company, Apple Records, and – of course – promptly went to number one on the charts.
Leaving aside any thoughts on the story behind “Hey Jude” or the tensions in the band at the time — that has all been well documented at length elsewhere — I’m just interested in the backing vocals today.
Paul McCartney sings the lead solo for the first verse and a half until a three-part harmony appears for the last two lines of the second verse.
With the next part things get quite interesting.
And any time you feel the pain,
Hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know
That it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
There is now a multi-layered harmony that shifts up and down, centered around McCartney’s lead. Take a good listen. It’s actually quite complex, with a line that starts up high shifting to a lower part and a lower part moving up above everything else. The way the voices shift in and out of the harmony is mesmerizing.
For the next verse it changes all over again with a more conventional backing for a moment, and it’s just a moment before John Lennon is clearly heard with a distinctive high part that sets things up to go back to the marvelous layers of undulating harmony once more.
Even the “na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, yeah” is filled with several voices subtly supporting McCartney’s lead.
For the last verse, Lennon joins in with a sweetly supporting harmony line.
Hey Jude don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
In the middle of the next line Lennon is joined by more voices setting the stage for McCartney – and “Hey Jude” – to all but fly away in a moment of passion.
Then you’ll begin to make it better
Better, better, better, better, better, Ohhh! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
At first listen it sounds like a room full of folks singing “na-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey Jude” for about five minutes after Paul McCartney is done with the verses. There’s actually a lot more to this then is first apparent.
George Martin’s always powerful orchestration fills “Hey Jude” with an intense energy as the backing vocals get all but orchestral themselves with rounds of “na-na-nas” and “hey, Judes.” All the while a fascinating shift is occurring.
For the next nearly four minutes the backing vocals have become the lead vocals as McCartney just goes free-form. He jumps in with wild abandon; ad-lib screams, yowls, howls and pretty much anything else his emotions could release at the moment.
Those minutes go by in a sudden flash of frenzied passion and release from any convention. The Beatles at their best!
“Hey Jude” is a McCartney song of course. But it was also one of the last times all four members really worked together to create something wonderful that stands out over forty years later. And – no doubt – will stand out for a very long time to come.