‘Lady Madonna’: a first glimpse inside the studio

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.

The sleeve for the US single – replicating a typical publicity pose from five years earlier

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.

John and Paul in the ‘Lady Madonna’ film. While recording a different tune entirely

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.

Snapshots from the promo film

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.

Still 100% fab – a promotional shot from February 1968

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.

The ‘Lady Madonna’ clip

The Beatles on ‘Parkinson’

My earliest memory of watching a TV interview with one of The Beatles involves Ringo’s appearance on the UK’s Parkinson show, to promote his Stop and Smell the Roses album in December 1981. It’s curious that it stayed in my mind, as I didn’t have much interest in pop music at that time (and Ringo had long since vacated the singles charts by that point); I think it was partly down to the fact that my initial interest in the Fabs had been piqued in the wake of John’s death, and partly down to the screening of the video for ‘Wrack My Brain’. A stroll through a haunted house populated by the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster (albeit cut-price versions) was sure to grab the attention of my 12-year-old self. I’ve occasionally looked online for this clip over years without success, so was thrilled (such is my low threshold for excitement during lockdown) when a friend told me it had recently appeared on YouTube. And that got me thinking about a clutch of interesting Beatle guest spots on the show stretching over more than 30 years.

Paul’s appearance on the show in 2005

Fabs fans outside the UK are probably most aware of Michael Parkinson through his presence on the cover of the Band On The Run album, but in this country he’s most famous as the doyen of chat shows. Certainly in the 1970s, he was the nation’s top celebrity interviewer (though, looking back, I can’t actually remember too many others) and his late-night Saturday slot on BBC-1 was often must-see TV. He regularly bagged conversations with Hollywood legends like James Cagney, Orson Welles, John Wayne and Bette Davis, alongside more contemporary superstars like Muhammad Ali, Raquel Welch and Peter Sellers, and it wasn’t always just about plugging their latest project. Cultivating a  plain-speaking, man-of-the-people persona mixed in with vague aspirations of intellectual sparring, Parky – as he came to be known – was pretty good at teasing out worthwhile answers and meaty stories from his illustrious guests, at least in those days. He struck just the right balance of showing respect without being reverential, of intimating friendliness without being fawning. It was a far cry from the host-as-comedian format of today, with the guests lined up just to push product and supply punchlines for an endless stream of self-serving gags.  While he started to believe his own myth in later years, when it came to thoughtful, headline-grabbing showbiz parleys back then, Parky was the master.

His first stint on the BBC ran for more than a decade, and among the guests during his very first series in 1971 were John and Yoko. Long thought lost (though I’m sure I’ve seen snippets over the years), the full 20-minute segment from this show turned up recently and was broadcast on the UK ‘pop-up’ channel Lennon at 80 last October. It seems the couple were there to promote the reprint of Yoko’s book Grapefruit, and Parky wastes no time in telling her that he finds its contents incomprehensible. It’s a little churlish, but it’s also kind of refreshing (and now very rare) to see a star challenged so directly, and continues when the host goes on to tell John that the pair’s outrageous antics over the previous three years have alienated many people who used to love him. John calmly rebuts this, arguing (not entirely convincingly) that the negativity is all down to skewed media coverage – and he does make a valid point about the press’s treatment of Yoko, in particular. It’s not until the midway point of the interview that The Beatles are brought up, and this triggers one of the highlights of the clip, as John reminds his interrogator of his promise that any Fab Four questions would have to be asked from inside a black bag (one of John and Yoko’s avant garde japes from their early days together). Parky is a good sport about it, and it is laugh-out-loud funny to watch him try to continue the interview while completely covered.

Yoko reads out a poem to John and Parky, 1971

When discussing the break-up of The Beatles, it’s obvious John has nothing but fondness for, and pride in, his former band. Dismissing the suggestion that Yoko caused the split (“nobody could break us up….we broke ourselves up”), he compares his decision to end the group with the story of Japanese holy man who built a golden temple everyone loved; the man could not bear the thought of it falling into decay, so he eventually burned it to the ground. And even though it would’ve been around this time that he was recording his notorious anti-Macca diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’, there is no trace of animosity when he talks about Paul, just disagreement. He even says that after the business stuff is sorted out, they would go back to being friends within a year (and he was pretty much right), though he swats away the inevitable reunion question by saying it would be “like going back to school”. It’s all over far too quickly, but is still a great interview – while some of Yoko’s answers meander, John is relaxed and amusing throughout, and looks very cool. The whole thing hasn’t surfaced on YouTube yet, but hopefully will at some point. And when it does, you’ll be amazed at how John is not only smoking throughout, but also lights up cigarettes for Yoko and Parky so they don’t miss out.

A brief snippet from the John and Yoko interview

A couple of years later, Paul asked Parkinson to be one of his celebrity ‘prison-break’ gang on the cover of Band On The Run. Parky agreed, on condition that Paul would one day appear as a guest on his show. It would prove to be a very long wait. It’s funny, considering that John liked to describe Macca as the world’s greatest PR man, that while Lennon regularly guested on prime time talk shows on either side of the Atlantic during the first half of the 1970s (even co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show in the States for a week), Paul – to the best of my knowledge – didn’t appear on a single one. George kept a similarly low profile during the decade, and Parky wouldn’t get another Beatle on his show until the aforementioned Ringo episode at the end of 1981. By this point, though his show was now something of a British TV institution, the host was looking for pastures new, and the end of the show was in sight (something Ringo mischievously alludes to during the interview).

Ringo appeared alongside his then-new bride Barbara Bach, lyricist Tim Rice and Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck (who went to primary school with John Lennon and had met Ringo during their days at the Butlins holiday camps in the early ‘60s). The Starr man seems quite, ahem, well-oiled (and he appropriates a glass of wine from Tarbuck soon after arriving on stage), but is on fine form. Maybe tries to cram in too many gags, but enough of them land, so it’s not an issue. The questions touch on his acting career, his early attempts at songwriting (with the familiar story of him presenting tunes to the other Fabs which they instantly spotted as re-writes of old songs) and the beginnings of his solo career with Sentimental Journey – leading to some nice banter with Tarbuck about old-fashioned Liverpool parties. There’s even a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of the British weather, while Barbara owns up to a complete lack of musicality and a poor sense of rhythm (Ringo: “I’ve seen a fly with more time.”) Curiously, there are no questions about The Beatles or John’s death just a year earlier (it probably wouldn’t have fitted with the jovial nature of the show), though Ringo does keep winking at the camera at one point, inferring it’s an in-joke with Paul and George. The programme ends with Parky and guests performing the ‘50s hit ‘Singing The Blues’ (later to be covered by Paul on Unplugged). It’s great to see Ringo on drums for this, though when he steps out front to take the mic he cheerfully admits he doesn’t know the words. Classic.

Ringo and Barbara on the show, 1981

Parkinson came to an end in April 1982, with the host going off to – among other things – present a similar show in Australia (you can see Ringo’s appearance on that, later that year, on YouTube). Nonetheless, Parky remained a prominent figure in British showbiz in the years that followed, even hosting his own show on BBC Radio 2, on which Macca guested in 1997. But it wasn’t until 1998, after some bright spark at the BBC thought it might be a good idea to revive his original Saturday night chat show, that he returned to what many felt was his rightful place, with considerable fanfare. However, the celeb interview format had changed a great deal in the intervening years, and so had he. There was a much softer, more chummy feel to the show; it was more of a glossy love-in. Parky’s professional Yorkshireman schtick quickly grew tiresome, and led to one critic memorably describing him as a “self-regarding old bore”. Ouch. There were guests who seemed to appear on the show every other week (Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, etc.) and while he still pulled in big names, they didn’t seem as big as they used to be. Perhaps because they often appeared on lots of other talk-fests at the same time

There was still the occasional show-stopping, high profile edition, though, and one such was an entire show dedicated to Paul in December 1999, as Macca finally fulfilled the promise he made 26 years earlier. I was visiting my parents when it was screened and – taking them as the barometer of Joe Public – they seemed very interested in the occasion. It was the first big TV interview he had given since Linda’s death the previous year, and the opening questions tackle that head-on. Paul seems quite composed in his answers, and you get the feeling he had thought them through in advance to help navigate what must still have been very raw feelings.

After that, Parky runs through the usual tropes in chronological order – asking him about his childhood, meeting John (“What was he really like?”), forming The Beatles, Beatlemania, songwriting, Wings (“By 1976 we were a shit-hot little band”) and so on. It’s all pretty predictable fare, but Paul’s charisma is on full power and he manages, for the umpteenth time, to breathe new life into some very old, oft-told stories. What’s really interesting about the show, however, is the amount of music it features – some of which is quite unusual. Sure, when he’s strumming on an acoustic guitar we get ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and the inevitable ‘Yesterday’, but he also illustrates how he wrote the melody for ‘When The Wind is Blowing’, a tune which didn’t get an official release until the Ram Archive reissue in 2012. Likewise, when he moves to the piano, he sings not only ‘The Long and Winding Road’, but also the (then) recently composed ‘Your Loving Flame’, which didn’t come out for another two years on Driving Rain, the Frank Sinatra reject ‘Suicide’ (finally issued in 2011) and the cabaret-style ‘The New York Song’, which remains unreleased to this day. He also performs raucous versions of ‘Honey Hush’ and ‘All Shook Up’ with his band from Run Devil Run (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), and even finds time to squeeze in a clip of ‘My Love’ from his latest classical music venture, Working Classical. What a pro!

The rehearsals for the 1999 Macca special, followed by the full show

In 2004, Parky and the show were lured lock, stock and barrel to commerical network ITV, serving only to diminish their prestige even further. It was now just another chat show, and a rather quaint one at that. But there was time for one last Beatle appearance, when Paul returned for a headline 20-minute slot in December 2005 (bizarrely, scheduled directly against his Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road special on BBC-2 at exactly the same time). It is another multi-plugging tour de force, with Macca managing to promote Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his new live DVD The Space Within Us and self-penned children’s book High in the Clouds. In general, though, it’s a pretty unremarkable interview, with Paul seeming a little subdued by his standards. We now know that his marriage to Heather Mills was floundering by this point, which may have had something to do with it (though he still drops in a plug for her website when discussing animal cruelty in China!). There is a nice moment when he demonstrates how a little guitar piece he and George Harrison played as kids eventually evolved into ‘Blackbird’, but – as he was doing that during every show he appeared on that year – even that feels a little rote. His hair is tidier than on his previous Parkinson appearance, although he was well into his bad hair dyes by this point.

The 2005 Macca guest spot

Parky brought the curtain down on the show in 2007, with a final edition bringing together some of his favourite guests (yes, Judi Dench and Billy Connolly were there). I presume Paul was dyeing his hair that night. The programme was well past its sell-by date by then, but in earlier times it did give us some fun, charming Beatle chats which are well worth checking out.