Well then. For one last time, for the 17th time in just over six years, for the 67th, 68th and 69th weeks in total… The Beatles top the UK singles chart.
The Ballad of John and Yoko, by The Beatles (their 17th and final #1)
3 weeks, from 11th June – 2nd July 1969
Coming so hot on the heels of ‘Get Back’ – only 1 week of Tommy Roe splits them – ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ sounds like an off-cut from the same recording session. It’s a bit rough and ready, there are the same squiggly guitars that we heard on ‘Get Back’, the same country-rock feel… Famously it features only John and Paul, no George or Ringo. I know it didn’t happen like this, but I do like to imagine the pair – the most famous song writing partners in British rock history – waiting behind after all the others had gone home for the day, putting their ever-growing differences aside and recording one last smash hit in a semi-lit studio.
As the title suggests, this is the story of John and his new wife Yoko, and the story of their marriage. They tried to get married in Paris, managed to do it in Gibraltar, and honeymooned in Amsterdam, in the face of some stiff opposition. All told over a simple riff, with Lennon’s vocals growing ever angrier as the verses rattle on.
I get about half the references… Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton, Talkin’ in our beds for a week… = the pair’s ‘Bed-In’ against the Vietnam War. The newspapers said, She’s gone to his head, They look just like two gurus in drag… = Lennon’s feelings of victimisation around his divorce and his new, foreign wife. The way things are goin’, They’re gonna crucify me… A cheeky reference to Lennon’s remarks from a few years earlier, about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.
Other references are more obscure. The trip to Vienna, eating chocolate cake in a bag is a reference to their ‘bagism’ phase, where they wore bags over their heads in a statement against racial prejudice (everyone looks the same in a bag, right?) The fifty acorns tied in a sack? That took some digging, but is apparently about a pair of acorn trees that John and Yoko planted in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral.
And then there’s the blasphemy. The Christ! that kicks off every chorus – I always enjoyed shouting it out in the car as a kid – with the final one being particularly venomous. Perhaps predictably, this caused a big kerfuffle in the States, with several radio stations at best bleeping the word out or, at worst, refusing to play the record at all. The BBC avoided it, too. 1969 is truly becoming the year in which swearing makes it to the top of the charts, after Peter Sarstedt’s ‘damn’ in ‘Where Do You Go To…’ Meanwhile, in Spain, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ caused controversy not because of the Christ!s but because of the references to Gibraltar being ‘near’ Spain. As far as Franco was concerned, Gibraltar was very much part of Spain, muchas gracias…
Is it slightly disappointing that this song is the final Beatle’s record we get to hear in this countdown? Before writing, I would have said yes; but the more I listen and the more I find out about this record, I’m not so sure. It’s John at his spikiest, it’s Lennon and McCartney reunited, it’s quite funny in places… Sure it doesn’t sound much like The Beatles, but what Beatles #1 since 1966 has? Plus, the riff that closes out ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, the final notes of their final number one, is lifted from an old rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘Lonesome Tears in My Eyes’, by Johnny Burnette, which The Beatles, or The Quarrymen, used to play way back in the early days. Which is lovely.
I was going to rank all The Beatles 17 #1s in order of preference, but to be honest I can’t face it. I’d need a spare half-day to decide… Of course, this isn’t their final hit single. ‘Come Together’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all still to come. Abbey Road hasn’t been released yet. But, the limitations of this blog are clear: if it doesn’t get to #1 then it doesn’t get a look-in.
And, of course, John, Paul and George will pop up many, many more times in this countdown as solo stars, as part of new bands, in re-releases and in amongst charity singles, well into the 2000s. There is only one man we need to bid farewell to here, then. Ringo. He will go on to achieve great things without bothering over the trifling business of topping the pop charts; namely narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, and becoming the most influential voice of my pre-school days… (apologies to my parents.)