US picture sleeve
|Single by the Beatles|
|B-side||"The Inner Light"|
|Released||15 March 1968|
|Recorded||3 and 6 February 1968|
|Studio||EMI Studios, London|
|The Beatles singles chronology|
"Lady Madonna" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles, written by Paul McCartney and credited to Lennon–McCartney. In March 1968, it was released as a mono single, backed with "The Inner Light". The song was recorded on 3 and 6 February 1968 before the Beatles left for India, and its rhythm and blues-inspired style signalled a "back to basics" approach to writing and recording for the group following the psychedelic experimentation of the previous two years.
This single was the last release by the band on Parlophone in the United Kingdom, where it reached number 1 for the two weeks beginning 27 March, and Capitol Records in the United States, where it debuted at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending 23 March and reached number 4 from the week ending 20 April through the week ending 4 May. All subsequent releases, starting with "Hey Jude" in August 1968, were released on their own label, Apple Records, under EMI distribution, until the late 1970s, when Capitol and Parlophone re-released old material. The song's first album appearance in stereo was on the 1970 collection Hey Jude.
In the description of musicologist Walter Everett, "Lady Madonna" is a "raucous rock and roll" song. As such, it heralded the Beatles' return to a more standard form of songwriting after their recent psychedelic productions, a back-to-basics approach that many other artists pursued throughout 1968. According to one of Paul McCartney's neighbours at his farm in Scotland, McCartney previewed the song on a piano during a visit he and Jane Asher made from London in early December 1967. Author Jonathan Gould views the timing as propitious, since the British music press in early 1968 "[began] to tout the idea of a 'rock-and-roll revival' as a corrective to the excesses of psychedelia".
McCartney based his piano part for the song on Humphrey Lyttelton's trad jazz rendition of "Bad Penny Blues", which was released on the Parlophone record label in 1956, soon after George Martin, the Beatles' producer, had taken over as head of the label. McCartney recalled: "'Lady Madonna' was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing ... It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression. It took my other voice to a very odd place." Domino's 1956 hit "Blue Monday" conveys the plight of a working man through each day of the week, while "Lady Madonna" does the same from a female perspective.
John Lennon helped write the lyrics, which give an account of an overworked, exhausted (possibly single) mother, facing a new problem each day of the week. McCartney explained the song by saying: "'Lady Madonna' started off as the Virgin Mary, then it was a working-class woman, of which obviously there's millions in Liverpool. There are a lot of Catholics in Liverpool because of the Irish connection." The lyrics include each day of the week except Saturday, which McCartney only noticed many years later: "I was writing the words out to learn it for an American TV show and I realised I missed out Saturday ... So I figured it must have been a real night out." McCartney said his inspiration for the song came after seeing a photograph in National Geographic magazine of a woman breastfeeding, titled "Mountain Madonna".
Speaking later about "Lady Madonna", Lennon said, "Good piano lick, but the song never really went anywhere", adding: "Maybe I helped him on some of the lyrics, but I'm not proud of them either way." Author Howard Sounes identifies both a relevance to McCartney's Catholic upbringing, and an autobiographical quality that belies the song's upbeat melody and delivery. He writes: "the lyric is also tender and personal, evoking the image of Mary McCartney as midwife, tending mothers and their babies in Liverpool as she had during Paul's childhood. The phrase 'Lady Madonna' also has a clear Christian meaning, of course, conflating Paul's memory of his mother with the Virgin Mary in what is a boogie-woogie hymn."
"Lady Madonna" was chosen as the A-side of the Beatles' first single of 1968. The release was intended to cover their absence while they attended a Transcendental Meditation course in India under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The song was selected over Lennon's "Across the Universe", which Lennon also withdrew from contention as the B-side, since he was dissatisfied with the musical arrangement. As a result, George Harrison gained his first Beatles B-side as a songwriter, with "The Inner Light", the backing track of which he had recorded with several Indian classical musicians in Bombay, in January.
The sessions for "Lady Madonna" took place on 3 and 6 February at EMI Studios (subsequently Abbey Road Studios) in London. Although the song was a return to the Beatles' musical roots, this aesthetic was not carried over to the band taping the basic track as an ensemble. McCartney first recorded his piano part, using EMI's "Mrs Mills" Steinway Vertegrand upright, accompanied by Ringo Starr playing a snare drum with brushes. Starr recalled that when recording the track the Beatles consulted Martin on how to re-create the sound that Lyttelton had achieved on "Bad Penny Blues".[nb 1] Harrison and Lennon added the song's distorted guitar riffs, playing identical lines through the same amplifier; McCartney overdubbed bass guitar and Starr added more drums, played on a full drum kit. McCartney sang his lead vocal in a style that author Ian MacDonald terms Presleyesque, while Lennon, McCartney and Harrison contributed backing vocals, part of which consisted of the singers imitating brass instruments over the song's instrumental break. Music journalist John Harris highlights the significance of McCartney's "salute" to Elvis Presley, who would make his comeback later in 1968 with a return to his formative, rock 'n' roll style. Harris also identifies the influence of the Mills Brothers, whose act included the four singers mimicking brass instruments, in the Beatles' "scat harmonies" on "Lady Madonna". Early mixes of the song indicate that Mellotron and tambourine were cut from the completed track, along with extraneous vocals and dialogue that reveal the band in high spirits during the sessions.
The overdubbing session for the four-piece horn section was held on 6 February. The tenor saxophone solo on the track was played by British jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott. Harry Klein, who played baritone saxophone on the track, recalled that the session was organised at the last minute, while Bill Povey, the second tenor saxophonist, said that no music had been written out for the musicians to follow and McCartney offered them only vague instructions. In his book Revolution in the Head, MacDonald writes that Scott's "audibly exasperated" solo was prompted by McCartney's "unprofessional" failure to provide the players with a proper horn arrangement.
Two promotional films were made for "Lady Madonna", which were syndicated to television broadcasting companies. The material was shot on 11 February 1968 at EMI Studios and was distributed by NEMS Enterprises to US and UK TV stations. The films were directed by Tony Bramwell.
Although the intention had been to show the Beatles miming to the single, the band decided they wanted to use the time to record a new song. The footage therefore consisted of the Beatles recording Lennon's "Hey Bulldog", which became the last of the four new songs they supplied United Artists for use in the Yellow Submarine animated film. Little attempt was made to marry up the footage of the Beatles' playing and singing with the audio of "Lady Madonna"; in the second of the two clips, Harrison is shown eating a plate of beans, while both clips show Starr listening to a playback and the Beatles playing alternative instruments from those heard on the song. The promos also included footage of McCartney at Chappell Studios in November 1967, from a session he produced for Cilla Black's single "Step Inside Love".
A new edit of this footage, together with footage from the band's July 1968 rehearsals of "Hey Jude", was assembled for "Lady Madonna"'s segment in The Beatles Anthology in 1995. In 1999, the material was re-edited by Apple to create a new clip for "Hey Bulldog", to help promote the reissue of the Yellow Submarine film.
Release and reception
– Ringo Starr, 1968
In Britain, Parlophone issued "Lady Madonna" backed by "The Inner Light" on 15 March 1968, with the catalogue number R 5675. The single was released three days later in the United States, as Capitol 2138. One of the promo clips was aired by the BBC on the 14 March edition of Top of the Pops and then on Alan Freeman's All Systems Freeman the following day, and in the US on ABC-TV's The Hollywood Palace on 30 March. In Everett's description, the single was "at the forefront of a spring–summer 1968 rock-and-roll revival in the United Kingdom", which included UK-exclusive reissues of singles by Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Little Richard.
Among contemporary reviews of the single, Billboard magazine described "Lady Madonna" as a "powerful blues rocker" while Cash Box's reviewer wrote: "Take one step back, the Beatles ease their progressive pace with this knocking rhythm side that features Ringo Starr in a rare vocal showing with hard-rock and kazoo orking and lyrics that view working class hardship with a pinch of salt."[nb 2] Chris Welch of Melody Maker expressed doubts about the song, saying: "Best bit is the piano intro, then you can have fun wondering why Paul['s singing] sounds like Ringo … then go out and buy another record." Welch concluded: "I can't really see this being a hit, not when there's competition from the likes of Four Jacks and a Jill and Kay Starr." Time magazine recognised the Beatles as the leaders of an "upsurge" of renewed interest in 1950s rock 'n' roll and said that the band had re-engaged with the "simple hard-driving style they left behind in Liverpool". Author Bernard Gendron, paraphrasing a contention of the Time writers – who he says were ahead of the US rock press in recognising this trend – writes that by preceding the Rolling Stones' "similarly retrospective 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'", "Lady Madonna" was possibly "the first single by an elite rock band to signal the 'return to roots'".
"Lady Madonna" topped the Record Retailer chart (subsequently adopted as the UK Singles Chart) for two weeks, although on the national chart compiled by Melody Maker it peaked at number 2. It was the first single by the Beatles not to make number 1 on Melody Maker's chart since the band's 1962 debut, "Love Me Do".[nb 3] In America, "Lady Madonna" peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first Beatles single not to top that chart since "Eleanor Rigby" in 1966, and number 2 on the Cash Box Top 100. Ian MacDonald considers this relative lack of success to be significant, and he described the song as "a moderately entertaining let-down after the psychedelic heights of early 1967". In Jonathan Gould's opinion, the song is a "witty, powerful, yet willfully inconsequential track" with "all the makings of a classic Beatle B-side", whereas ideally the lead side of the single should have been a Lennon composition.[nb 4] Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone considers that, at this stage in their career, "the Beatles didn't need to push – they could have hit #1 with a tape of themselves blowing their noses", which, he suggests, "would have been catchier" than "Lady Madonna" and the band's previous single, "Hello, Goodbye". Music critic Tim Riley has similarly dismissed the song as a "trifle" and "something they could do with their left hand".
Writing in 1988, Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn described "Lady Madonna" as a "terrific" single that was "curiously overlooked today by those analysing the group's output". In his song review for AllMusic, Richie Unterberger attributes its standing as one of the band's less-celebrated singles partly to its failure to match the chart success usually associated with the Beatles, but he considers it an "excellent song". He adds that the lyrics, in their implication of the protagonist as a prostitute, are "more intriguing than anything Fats Domino was likely to come up with", while the Beatles' imitation of brass instruments was done "effectively and wittily". Writing for Mojo in 2003, John Harris bemoaned that the song was overlooked as a key recording in the Beatles' development and "one of the foundation stones" for the late 1960s "roots-rock revival". He identified it as the precedent for the Rolling Stones' return to form on Beggars Banquet, for Eric Clapton to exchange Cream's "virtuoso head-rock" for a musical path that resulted in the formation of Derek and the Dominos, and for Chuck Berry and Little Richard to assume "the rarified pedestals where the British Invasion groups had originally placed them".[nb 5] In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked "Lady Madonna" at number 86 on its list of "The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs".
The Beatles' version of "Lady Madonna" has appeared on the following compilation albums, released by Apple Records: Hey Jude (1970), 1967–1970 (1973), 20 Greatest Hits (1982), Past Masters, Volume Two (1988), Anthology 2 (1996; takes 3 and 4 of the song), 1 (2000) and Love (2006). The mix used in the 1968 single had obscured much of Ronnie Scott's saxophone; the versions subsequently issued on Anthology 2 and Love feature a more prominent use of his solo, at the end of the song. In the BBC documentary Timewatch, McCartney explained that Scott had not been impressed that his playing had been hidden behind the "imitation brass vocals" performed by McCartney, Lennon and Harrison, so McCartney had decided to fix it with the most recent mix.
A remixed version of "Lady Madonna" was featured in the Cirque du Soleil show Love. In this form, the saxophone solo is played almost un-accompanied at the very beginning of the song. The drum intro to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" can be heard at the beginning and vocal percussion from "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" can be heard during the song. After the first two verses, it changes to the riff from "Hey Bulldog" in A minor, with a remixed version of Billy Preston's Hammond organ solo from "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and parts of Eric Clapton's guitar solo from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It then returns to the original form of the song, and at the very end the final Ronnie Scott saxophone solo (not heard on the final master) is played.
Having been averse to performing compositions from the Beatles era following the band's break-up in 1970, McCartney included "Lady Madonna" in the set list for his and Wings' 1975–76 world tour. He continued to feature the song on many of his subsequent tours. Live versions appear on the albums Wings over America, Paul Is Live, Back in the U.S., Back in the World and Good Evening New York City. A variation of the song can be heard on his Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road DVD, where McCartney calls it "an old lady in new clothes".
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- Fats Domino covered the song on his 1968 album Fats Is Back. McCartney says he may have told record producer Richard Perry that the song was "based on Fats", leading to Domino's version. Also released as a single, Domino's recording peaked at number 100 on the Billboard 100 in September 1968, giving the singer his 77th and final US chart hit.
- Cal Tjader performed this song on the album Cal Tjader Plugs In (1969) with a jazz approach.
- Elvis Presley covered the song in 1971. Presley's version was an impromptu studio jam that was not available until the release of his 1995 box set Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Harris writes that, just as Domino's cover "confirm[ed] Lady Madonna's rock 'n' roll credentials", Presley's performance served as "the greatest accolade".
- A cover version of the song performed by Aretha Franklin was used as the theme song for the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire from 1993 until 1998.
- Romanian band Phoenix performed this song on their first EP, Vremuri ("Old times", 1968), because the Electrecord studios did not trust the sales success of the band's own songs ("Vremuri" and "Canarul"). This was a common practice in communist countries and the predominant way western music was reaching there officially.
According to Ian MacDonald:
- The Beatles
- Paul McCartney – lead vocal, piano, bass guitar, handclaps
- John Lennon – backing vocal, lead guitar, handclaps
- George Harrison – backing vocal, lead guitar, handclaps
- Ringo Starr – drums, drums (with brushes), handclaps
- Additional musicians and production
- Ronnie Scott – tenor saxophone
- Bill Povey – tenor saxophone
- Harry Klein – baritone saxophone
- Bill Jackman – baritone saxophone
- George Martin – production
- Ken Scott – engineering
- Geoff Emerick – engineering
Charts and certifications
- "Bad Penny Blues" was produced by Joe Meek rather than Martin, who had clashed with Lyttelton at a session in the early 1950s.
- Many listeners mistook McCartney's Presley-style vocal for Starr. On his return from India, Starr commented: "Yes, a lot of people did. It didn't sound like me to me."
- The song topped the NME's Top 30 on 27 March, its second week on that chart.
- Referring to his song "Glass Onion", which he began writing in India, Lennon said that the line "The walrus was Paul" was intended to acknowledge McCartney for his efforts in "holding us together". Among its references to several past Beatles songs, the lyrics mention "Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet".
- Walter Everett writes that in addition to inaugurating pop music's "rock and roll revival", "Lady Madonna" anticipated the Beatles' formal attempt to re-engage with their teenage influences – namely, their January 1969 Get Back rehearsals.
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