Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Today is not only the day of a wedding of a really, really awesome friend that I'm very excited for-- it's also the 40th anniversary of the release of a wedding song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko." So clearly this is the day for me to listen to it.

John and Yoko got married on March 20, 1969 in Gibraltar-- which was not their original choice of location, but the only one they could get a marriage license in, due to a prior conviction for hash possession (a trumped-up conviction courtesy of Norman Pilcher, but clearly enough to screw things up for them). Afterwards, they headed to Amsterdam and had a very public honeymoon in the form of a bed-in for peace, then did another one of those in Montreal (where they recorded "Give Peace a Chance"), and at some point went to Vienna to promote bagism. "The Ballad of John and Yoko" is exactly what it says it is: the story of this little adventure in performance-art-as-political-action, against the backdrop of curious reporters and annoying bureaucratic holdups. John later said in an interview that the song is very romantic, but it's hard for me to hear it that way with all this other stuff going on in it.

Which is not to say the song doesn't rock. It totally rocks. John wrote it in a flash of inspiration, and as frequently was the case with him, he wanted to record it right now. George was away on holiday, and Ringo was filming The Magic Christian (notable for possibly being my husband's least favorite movie of all time), so John got together with just Paul, who helped him put the finishing touches on the song before recording it with him at Abbey Road. The whole thing came together in one long frenetic day, and I think you can hear that-- it sounds fresh, like the two of them are having a really killer time. And it's nice that in a song that's so Yoko-centric, that so clearly heralds an impending Beatles breakup, John and Paul are still working here as the musical soulmates that they always were. (John thought that he and Yoko were better musical soulmates, and sometimes talked about Yoko being his new Paul or something, but clearly he was nuts. Which is something that anyone who's listened to both Double Fantasy and, I don't know, A Hard Day's Night, or any other Beatles album, can attest to. I'm not saying the marriage itself wasn't all rainbows and kittens, but history has not been kind to the John and Yoko musical partnership.)

Speaking of the impending Beatles breakup, this song was recorded shortly before work began on Abbey Road, and I've read suggestions that the other Beatles (who were not always Yoko's biggest fans) let this song go out as a single mainly to woo John into actually participating in Abbey Road. It might have been Paul who publicly broke up the Beatles, but all of the others were mentally checked out a bit in 1969, and John, who found sitting in bags and talking about peace in an airy-fairy way to reporters more fascinating than making Beatles albums, was probably the most checked out of all. And while Paul in particular wanted to make sure they released one last fantastic album before they quit the band, John might very well not have cared either way, so soured was he on the Beatles mythology at this point.

(You'll forgive me, by the way, if I seem a little underwhelmed by the post-wedding activism John and Yoko engaged in. It was a campaign very much of its time, I guess, and even though there are probably a lot of more productive ways to bring about peace in the world, well, whatever. I'll say this: a song as good as "The Ballad of John and Yoko"-- or any number of other Beatles songs-- brings about more good and peaceful feelings in me than almost anything else can. Which is fairly powerful. So John, you know, maybe you needn't have been so quick to write off that Beatles mythology. Is all.)

But I keep talking about everything except the song, so, while I have a couple minutes I'll just get there real quick. John is playing lead guitar and acoustic guitar, while Paul handles bass, piano, and drums. And both are playing super awesomely. I actually love Paul's bass here in particular, with its groovy ostinato line. And John's guitar licks are slick and cool as hell. Everything's overdubbed to the point where you might not realize it's only the two of them playing-- in fact, John's playing actually sounds like George's, if that makes sense, particularly on the little guitar coda at the end there. The song is so good and so well-played that it's a shame that, on its release, the song itself was overshadowed by its story line, and by the "they're going to crucify me" line that got the song banned on a ton of radio stations. But Christ, you know it ain't easy. And you know the world tends to get this stuff wrong. I still love to just listen to this thing and bop my head around to it, because whatever else he might have been, John Lennon could play the shit out of a song like this.

"The Ballad of John and Yoko," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "Old Brown Shoe," May 30, 1969; in the U.S. June 4, 1969.


  1. Thank you. :) -- you know who

  2. Megan ... you wrote: "You'll forgive me, by the way, if I seem a little underwhelmed by the post-wedding activism John and Yoko engaged in. It was a campaign very much of its time, I guess." Very much of it's time, true, but one that underwhelmed people then, too. Having lived through all that as a teen, i remember my friends and i thinking it was all quite a bit of John over-the-top, and wishing he would just make music. Regarding Ballad, i was not aware that John and Paul recorded the song by themselves. Fascinating! And the song still sounds great.

  3. Yeah, the song does a good job of sounding very much like a true Beatles song. Unlike a lot of White Album tracks, where you can kind of hear that it's just a couple of them, the sound on this one sounds very full and awesome and full-band like, I think.