Lady Madonna

August 29, 2013 • 12:13 pm

I’ve realized, as I think about my favorite Beatles songs, that I tend to choose ballads over hard rockers. But I’ll rectify that today with another of my favorites, “Lady Madonna,” recorded in 1968 (between Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road), and released as a single. (It was later put on the “Past Masters” album, which I’ve never heard). It comes in at #82 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs. A rocking melody is combined with a poignant lament about the plight of an overworked Catholic woman, and the song is littered with clever references.

Wikipedia gives some background:

Lady Madonna” is a raucous rock and roll song.Paul McCartney based his piano part for the song on Humphrey Lyttelton’s 1956 trad jazz recording “Bad Penny Blues”, which George Martin produced.  McCartney said of writing the song in a 1994 interview, “‘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 voice to a very odd place.” Domino himself covered the song later in 1968.

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. In a 1992 interview, McCartney, who only realised the omission many years later, half-jokingly suggested that, given the difficulties of the other six days, the woman in the song likely went out and had a good time that day.

Speaking later about the lyrics, Lennon said: “Maybe I helped him on some of the lyrics, but I’m not proud of them either way.”

Well, I  think the lyrics are pretty good. The article adds:

The tenor saxophone solo was played by British jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott. The mix used in the single had removed much of Scott’s saxophone, but the versions on Anthology 2 and Love feature a more prominent use of his solo, at the end of the song. In a BBC documentary, Timewatch, McCartney explained the decision behind this. At the time Scott had not been impressed that his music had been hidden behind the “imitation brass vocals” by McCartney, Lennon and Harrison, so McCartney had decided to fix it with the most recent mix.

Finally, a bit from the Rolling Stone piece:

Musically, “Lady Madonna” has an earthier inspiration: the New Orleans piano boogie of Fats Domino. McCartney called it “a Fats Domino impression,” composed while trying to play something bluesy on the piano. The recorded version is a full-on tribute to the New Orleans R&B sound, with tootling saxophones. Domino must have taken it as a compliment. A few months after the song came out, he released his own cover version, which became the last Top 100 hit of his career.

You can hear Fats Domino’s version here. It’s okay, but McCartney’s is far better; Domino’s isn’t a reinterpretation but a simple imitation.

33 thoughts on “Lady Madonna

    1. It’s also interesting to hear the Fats Domino version (which I hadn’t heard before). Paul really did sound like he was imitating him. But he really sounds better! 🙂

  1. One of my favorite Beatles songs for some reason is “Oh Darling.” Perhaps I just like the way McCartney screams out the lyrics at the end for emphasis, always seemed cool to me.

    1. Maybe because at the time they were considering releasing Lennon’s Hey Bulldog or Across the Universe as a single instead, but later settled on Lady Madonna? Lennon and McCartney were keenly competitive, and quite aware of how many singles came from each of them. The three songs were recorded in that same time period before the trip to India. For my money, Hey Bulldog holds up better and is more interesting than Lady Madonna, possibly because of its almost sinister undercurrent with the simple riff.

      1. I seem to remember reading that John thought Hey Bulldog was a throwaway. I think it’s great too though!

      2. In the video embedded by Jerry above the filming is of the Beatles performing “Hey Bulldog”

        The video was butchered & a new soundtrack added to make it seem like they are playing “Lady Madonna” because Apple decided it was going to be the new single and the footage of the recording of “Hey Bulldog” was used in the video to promote it.

        THIS SHORT VIDEO proves the point

        Perhaps this pissed Lennon off?

    2. I’m pretty sure John just hated talking about the Beatles and wasn’t too crazy about Paul during most of the 70’s. If he had lived, he might have re-evaluated at some point.

  2. ‘Lady Madonna’ started off as the Virgin Mary, then it was a working-class woman…

    I’d always assumed it was about a prostitute, i.e “lying on the bed” is “how you manage to make ends meet.” But if Paul says no, I guess I’ll take his word for it.

    1. Of course, Gregory, it’s about a prostitute; as you and I both suspect, that’s McCartney trying to be arty and mysterious about his er…art.

      Same goes for The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” for those who don’t think it’s about adolescent onanism.

      All pop lyrics are about their most sordid interpretation!

  3. Lennon dismissed much of the Beatles music but also referred to himself and McCartney as ‘geniuses’ while giving Harrison faint praise. Typical of his contrary nature. This was the period when McCartney could churn out songs as good as this on a routine basis. I don’t think it’s near to his best.

  4. Interesting choice. I wouldn’t have predicted this song to be in anyone’s top ten (or twenty) Beatles songs – which is good because predictable is boring. It’s a great song, though. A similar type of song, which is one of my favorites, is Lovely Rita. I especially love the intro to that one.

    Also, the band Sublime had a hit song (“What I Got”) that was basically just Lady Madonna with different lyrics in the mid-90’s.

  5. The difficulty I have with Lady Madonna is precisely that it’s Macca doing a singing impression of A.N. Other – it’s not his natural voice; that may have been Lennon’s beef.

    Why should the biggest band in the world do a vocal pastiche of anyone? It might have been fair enough doing a copy of Little Richard in 1964, but what was the point in 1968?

    Macca had a tendency to sing as if he were someone else in 68-9: Get Back (chorus), Oh, Darlin’ (a sort of balladic Little Richard, up to which he wasn’t), Helter Skelter (a bloody good effort against character), cod-Jamaican accent in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

    Then again, Lady Madonna quotes themselves – “…stockings needed mending, See how they run.” A good joke, but isn’t it a bit up your own fundament to use “I am the Walrus” as a literary source?

    It’s as if the Fabs are beginning to reference their own œuvre; as if they are History, part of The Canon.

      1. Marella,

        ‘Lady Madonna’ references ‘I am the Walrus’ 3 months after the latter’s release; that to me is more than a little grandiose.

    1. One might as well groan at Haydn’s worst symphonic jokes, or Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. In some eras music takes itself extremely seriously; in others it takes a look at itself and laughs. Perhaps not so oddly, the self-referential jokes work best when the genres are fresh and the innovators are laughing at their friends and themselves.

      1. I suppose I might agree if music as an art-form lent itself easily to humour; it doesn’t. You will never laugh out loud to a piece of music like you would to a good joke or story.

        Self-referential vibes can be amusing, intriguing, an in-joke and therefore excluding. You can get the intellectual joke in homages, but laugh? I nearly did.

        1. I literally, not figuratively, laughed out loud the first time I heard The Unbegun Sympnony. At the point where Brahms turns into ‘Ta Ra Ra BOOM de-ay’ on the trumpet.

        2. I have laughed out loud at concerts when someone pulled out a particularly unexpected riff, or threw in a playful reference. And I was not alone in doing so. Nor is this an unusual experience.

          There are also recording artists such as P.D.Q. Bach, Tom Lehrer, and Weird Al Yankovic who make careers out of musical humor.

          So I think you’re off base with your idea that music doesn’t lend itself to humor, and simply wrong in claiming that no one ever laughs at it.

          1. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” always makes me chuckle. George Martin’s pre-Beatles career was comedy/novelty records – including the Goons and Rolf Harris (better not say too much about Rolf).

          2. Gregory, I think you’re arguing against something I didn’t say; perhaps, in trying to be succinct, I didn’t express myself clearly enough.

            Take Tom Lehrer; you can appreciate the lyrical jokes, marvel at his felicity in matching the stress of the spoken word to the stress inherent in the music (btw. The Beatles also did that effortlessly – a lot of teeny-pop occasionally mangles the natural intonation of the lyrics for the sake of the melody, producing the impression that they are not actually thinking about what the words mean). Now you can laugh to yourself about some particular TL bon mot, elbow your mates in mutual recognition, maybe even let slip a giggle, a titter, a chuckle or a chortle.

            Someone tells you the funniest story ever: your physiology goes bonkers; you expectorate involuntarily the most revolting contents of your ear, nose and throat over your erstwhile friend; you lose control, you laugh so much it hurts, your friends start thinking that you’re going to have a seizure, you hold your sides, you get the stitch, it’s so funny it hurts, tears stream down your face, you double up, you belly-laugh, you crack up, you roar, you howl, you guffaw (a punishable offence in Essene theology, I kid you not).

            Only One Direction can make me laugh like that – that’s more to do with ‘at’ than ‘with’.


  6. “…stockings needed mending, See how they run.”

    I assumed this was a pun about runs in worn-out stockings.

    1. I’m sure you’re right. It’s also a reference, I think, to the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice”, which has the refrain “See how they run.” But clearly it’s a pun about the stockings.

      1. Which is an essential part of the Beatles’ appeal, the ease with which they would glide from the earthy to the serene to the surreal to the silly, rock & roll to jazz, classical to music hall. (I like the sly humor of “Baby at your breast/Wonders how you manage to feed the rest.”)

        Thanks to them, some of the best send-ups of the genre are part of the canon, like Rocky Raccoon and Back to the U.S.S.R.

  7. If you’d like a cover of “Lady Madonna” that comes closer to reinterpretation than simple imitation, Elvis came close. He was goofing off in the studio and sang a half-remembered piece of the song; enough to make you wish the producer had made him to do a complete run-though:

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