I wrote last year how I’ve long felt ‘I Feel Fine’ has become a little overlooked in The Beatles’ early run of hit singles. By the same token, it strikes me that 1968’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was perhaps the least celebrated of their later 45rpm blockbusters, certainly in years past (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ is perhaps less valued or recognised these days). This was probably due to its relatively modest success by Fab Four standards – it sold ‘just’ 250,000 or so copies in the UK, making #1 for ‘only’ two weeks. In the US, it peaked at a measly #4 (though was still another million-seller). But I think it’s also partly down to the fact that it didn’t ‘fit’ in any particular part of their oeuvre; not just a standalone single, it was divorced from any wider album sessions (unusual in the second half of their career) and while it was trumpeted in the music press at the time as the band getting back to their rock ‘n’ roll roots, it didn’t really herald any new direction for them. While it was a definite shift away from the layered psychedelia of their 1967 output, it bore little resemblance to anything recorded for the White Album later that year. Rather – as was their wont – they simply tried on a new style, had fun playing around with it, and then immediately discarded it to move onto something else.
That’s not to say that ‘Lady Madonna’ is not utterly brilliant, because it was and remains so. A lot is made in some circles of the fact that Paul borrowed the initial piano lick from a 1950s trad jazz hit called ‘Bad Penny Blues’ by Humphrey Lyttelton – you know, like The Beatles never ever nicked something from a tune they liked as a start point for a new song. In fact, it’s real inspiration – as Macca happily admitted – was New Orleans rocker Fats Domino, one of the band’s original rock ‘n’ roll heroes. But, as with the Chuck Berry homage ‘Back in the USSR’ cut a short while later, their verve and imagination elevated the song onto an altogether different plain than their idol would ever have been capable of. Paul’s boogie-woogie, ‘walking’ piano and deliriously dynamic bass line, supported by Ringo’s artful mixture of deft brushes and pounding, low-end drums, move the number along at a rollicking, irresistible lick. On top of that, you’ve got Macca’s deep, deep vocal (I thought it was Ringo singing when I first heard it), harmonised with John on the ‘see how they run’ bit, and some snaking, distorted guitar parts from John and George. And then you’ve got a battery of saxophones to reinforce the jazzy feel (including a silky solo by British jazz stalwart Ronnie Scott), as well as a typically impish, slightly satirical bit of scat singing from John, Paul and George imitating the horn players. And did I mention the powerful kitchen-sink lyric eulogising motherhood? It all seems so effortless, and comes and goes within a ridiculously economical two minutes and 16 seconds.
Another noteworthy aspect of this release was that its accompanying promotional film gave us the first real glimpse of the band at work in the studio. Okay, the ‘All You Need is Love’ global TV satellite clip was broadcast from Abbey Road the previous year, but it was a semi-live performance, with much of the backing track already laid down. They were just showcasing their latest single in the recording studio, rather than on a TV set or concert stage. And while the film for ‘A Day in the Life’ captures (in rather hallucinogenic fashion) the famed orchestral overdub session in February 1967, I don’t think this was seen by the wider public until many years later. So ‘Lady Madonna’ represents the first real footage of The Beatles in their Studio 2 home actually recording a new song. Perversely, it just doesn’t happen to be the one that’s on the soundtrack.
The band had cut ‘Lady Madonna’ in early February 1968 as something to keep things ticking over during their extended trip to see the Maharishi in India, starting later that month. Realising they would need a promo film to sell it in their absence, they decided to return to Abbey Road on 11 February to perform it for the cameras. Somewhere along the line, though, they opted to use the time more productively and were instead filmed recording a new Lennon composition, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (coincidentally, another terrific ensemble piece built around a heavy piano riff). So what we finished up with was a snapshot of The Beatles recording in 1968, which just happened to have ‘Lady Madonna’ as its soundtrack. But, oh, what a snapshot it is. We have so little film of them like this (before the Let It Be sessions, at any rate), that it’s just priceless. And it’s in colour!
So we get Ringo, rock solid as ever, on drums; Paul lost in the creative zone as he figures out his bass line; a solemn George, characteristically precise and studious on his guitar; and John, showing off some outrageous lamb chop sideburns, larking about on the piano and at the microphone. There’s marvellous film of Lennon and McCartney having a whale of a time together at the mic, sometimes split into four, as if to give us a bug’s eye view (it must’ve been a ‘60s thing, I guess). In fact, the best bits are when you see two or more of them playing or singing in tandem – there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of John and George on guitars backed by Paul on drums – giving us a rare glimpse of them literally making the magic happen. For some reason, the clip also incorporates a bit of footage (notably during the last 20 seconds) from Paul’s recording session with Cilla Black when they worked on her single ‘Step Inside Love’ in November 1967.
Compared to their multi-coloured dandy attire of the Summer of Love just a few months earlier, the Fabs are neatly, soberly dressed and – John’s sideburns aside – clean shaven. In fact, this may have been the last time the public ever saw them as something resembling the loveable moptops that they had cherished for the past five years or so. The band even plays up to that image with the smiley promotional photos taken to promote the track, with music press ads (and the US picture sleeve for the single) mimicking a pose used to publicise the ‘Please Please Me’ single from February 1963. The film may also capture the last time they were so fully cohesive, all pulling in the same direction and joyously bouncing off each other as in days of yore – before the trip to India (which biographer Mark Lewisohn pinpoints as the key turning point in their story), before John’s infatuation with Yoko and subsequent descent into heroin, before the business chaos of Apple. Sure, they recovered that vibe of brotherhood many times afterwards, but it was always under pressure from outside forces and distractions, and was more difficult to sustain. They were rarely as carefree and so totally focussed on one another again.
When I first became a Fabs fan in the mid ‘80s, sightings of this film were rare. I first came across a bit of it on the 1982 The Compleat Beatles documentary, though I had no idea what it was (bizarrely, it was played over audio of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ in the section about Sgt Pepper). I think I first saw a grainy copy of the full clip at some Beatles convention, possibly the annual Liverpool one in 1990. It was still rare enough to make me very excited when it was included in the Anthology TV series in 1995 and the home video releases a year later. The picture changed significantly in 1999, though, when Apple – eager to find something new to promote the re-release of the Yellow Submarine film – had the footage recut to match the song the group was actually recording that day, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (which features on the Submarine soundtrack, of course). While it was thrilling to have the film and music finally synched properly, it does mean the ‘Lady Madonna’ clip has lost some of its shine as a result. When you’ve heard what they are actually performing, it seems odd to have a different song layered on top.
Nonethless, it was good to have the original film included, in pristine quality, on The Beatles 1 DVD promo film collection in 2015. Over time, I think ‘Lady Madonna’ has acquired much of the prominence it deserves as part of the golden run of Beatles singles – helped, no doubt, by its inclusion on the best-selling 1967-70 and 1 compilation albums. The fact it has become a mainstay of Paul’s concert set lists since 1993 has also helped its cause, I reckon, as it always goes down a storm with audiences. And rightly so. If this doesn’t get you up on your feet and grooving, nothing will. The fact they can make you dance, sing, feel happy and think about the world around you, all at the same time, is one facet of what makes The Beatles so special. And another reason I’m fond of this song is that I’ve tinkled the ivories that Paul plays on it. But I’ll save that story for another time.