“Hey Jude” and the Death of Sixties British Pop
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the post below he looks at the end of 60′s Brit-Pop.
Tucked into a tight lane off busy Wardour Street in London’s Soho district, the Beatles gathered on 31 July 1968 to begin something they had done only a few times previously: record outside the safe confines of EMI’s Recording Studios in Abbey Road. They had grown increasingly dissatisfied with EMI’s reluctance to invest in competitive equipment, while bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who had been recording in American studios for years. These bands flocked to Los Angeles both because of the recording culture and because of technology that EMI had postponed installing: eight-track recording decks instead of the four-track decks common in British studios. When the Beatles arrived at Soho’s Trident Studios for “Hey Jude,” they intended to add vocals to their EMI four-track recording of the musical backing. However, when they heard playback on the eight-track Ampex decks through Trident’s sound system, they immediately relegated the first tape as rehearsal and began working anew.
Trident had its problems. Principally, the owners, the Sheffield Brothers, had simply plugged American machines that ran on an alternating current of sixty-cycles into the British fifty-cycle system, resulting in slower playback at a lower pitch. Any pitched overdubs that the Beatles would have tried over their original EMI recording would have been hopelessly out-of-tune. But over the next few days, the Beatles would re-record the backing track to “Hey Jude,” add vocals, and play with musical possibilities that eight tracks allowed. The new environment may have expanded their musical options, but it also amplified personality quirks and irritated old wounds. In particular, Paul McCartney antagonized his old friends through his preoccupation with perfection and his predilection for prodding his colleagues to improve their product. The first casualty was Ringo Starr who quit the band on 22 August, returning only in early September after tempers had cooled.
The London recording and music industries were beginning to evolve under the combined influences of their relatively sudden international success and the growth of independent studios like Trident. In September of 1968, as “Hey Jude” rose to the top of British and American record charts, the infrastructure that had grown to produce hundreds of British pop recordings underwent a sudden revolution. The session musicians, music directors, producers, songwriters, and engineers who had generated the diverse array of British pop, rock, and blues recordings under the cover of touring bands like Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, Them, and the Yardbirds felt the system shudder.
“Hey Jude” describes the break-up of John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia and its effects on their son Julian. Moreover, the inordinately long recording (over seven minutes) reflects McCartney’s interest in hymn-like musical structures (e.g., “Let It Be”) and serves as a requiem for the musical world that the Beatles had helped to define. Just as “Hey Jude” rose in international sales charts, a London trade paper, the New Musical Express, reported that two longstanding London session musicians had formed the “New Yardbirds.” Jimmy Page had established himself as a free-lance producer and John Paul Jones had demonstrated his skills as a music director. But, as technology and its availability transformed the industry, they saw their opportunity to leave the safety of session life. Thus, in the waning months of 1968, British recording engineers left for America, session musicians and music directors went on tours, and the old studios scrambled to stay competitive. The New Yardbirds, who soon renamed themselves Led Zeppelin, launched their mystical macho imperative into the seventies while the Beatles celebrated the end of sixties British pop by making a sad song sound better.