"Hey Jude" seems like a simple song: It's just three chords and some run-of-the-mill advice about seizing happiness.
In fact, the only thing close to innovative or unusual about it might be the four-minute fade-out, which is practically a song in itself, and proof that even "na na na na" can be musically compelling.
But let's not overstate the point. The song may start with a lone piano, but by the time the epic "na na" bit has run its course, a 36-piece orchestra is fleshing out the sound. And Paul McCartney caps off a string of "better, better, better, better, better, better" with the best "Aaaaaah" in rock and roll history.
Even for all its simplicity, the song was a huge hit, the Beatles' biggest to date in a remarkable string of chart success. "Hey Jude" sold more than three million copies in two months, and it sat on top of the American Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks. Nor did the critics find it too simple for enduring recognition. In 2001, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame; in 2011, Rolling Stone declared it the eighth greatest song of all time.
The backstory of "Hey Jude" seems simple, as well. Writer McCartney said that he wrote the song for John Lennon's son Julian. John abandoned the five-year old and his mother, Cynthia, when Yoko Ono entered the picture. And McCartney, knowing that things were hard for John's former wife and son, decided to pay a visit. On the way there, he wrote a little song intended to cheer up the young Julian:
Hey Jules, don't make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
But this version of the story simply doesn't satisfy an entire contingent of listeners. They know a drug song when they hear one, they insist, and this is definitely a song about drugs—specifically, about heroin.
Let's look at the evidence.
"Judas" is slang for heroin, and Julian was supposedly used for misdirection once before, in the story behind the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (initials: LSD), which is said to be based on a picture he painted. People point to the lyrics for further proof:
Remember to let her into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better
The minute you let her under your skin,
Then you begin to make it better
Not convinced? Yeah, we're not really convinced either.
Granted, McCartney's description of the song's origins does invite some skepticism. If it was written for Julian (Jules), how did it become "Hey Jude" in the end? McCartney says it simply sounded better. And if it were written for a five-year old, what's with all the adult-oriented advice? At that age, Julian probably thought girls had cooties.
Even Julian's father John was confused. In fact, he thought the song was written for him, as a sort of carpe diem recommendation that he pursue the new love of his life, Yoko Ono. McCartney eventually told him he had it wrong, and even suggested that "Hey Jude" was really about McCartney's own life, which led Lennon to believe that the song was about Paul's collapsing relationship with Jane Asher, or perhaps his need to leave the now-tension-filled group.
And of course, McCartney was definitely not above slipping in a drug reference or two. He acknowledged, for example, that "Got to Get You Into My Life" was about marijuana. (The song has a line that goes, "I was alone, I took a ride... Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there.") He also said that "Day Tripper," a song he co-wrote with John Lennon, was about LSD. Moreover, McCartney was fairly candid in admitting his own use of drugs.
Yet despite McCartney's fuzzy explanations and willingness to publicly admit and endorse the use of drugs, his description of the song's innocent inspiration somehow still seems the most believable. He was candid about other songs, so why would he lie here?
And as for the song's thematic meandering (it confusingly drifts from "cheer-up Julian" to "hey John/Paul, you have a right to move on with your life"), well, McCartney was never the most sophisticated of lyricists. Even Lennon eventually mocked his old partner's creations as "granny music."
Which leads us to the real question: Why are people so interested in finding a needle in this musical haystack? And how do you explain the unholy alliance of Beatles fans and Beatles haters in this obsession with uncovering the secret meaning of every song?
It wasn't always this way. In the beginning, the Beatles' critics simply dismissed the British band. When the Fab Four first came to America in 1964, the establishment press passed them off as untalented and irrelevant. One paper described them as "a haunting combination of rock 'n' roll, the shimmy, a hungry cat riot, and Fidel Castro on a harangue" (source).
Newsweek was the most elaborate in dismissing the British invaders. They said, "Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified Edwardian beatnik suits and great pudding-bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of yeah, yeah, yeah!) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of valentine-card romantic sentiments." (Source)
But when the band endured, some people began to worry about the influence they and other bands wielded over their impressionable fans. And as their young fans built a more elaborate culture of their own, filled with unconventional behaviors, adult critics moved from simply dismissing their musical idols to fearing their power.
To a certain extent, other bands took heavier hits from the cultural doomsday-ers worried about the threat rock and roll posed to morality and decency, but even the comparatively fresh-faced boys from Liverpool suffered some harsh criticism.
After television personality Art Linkletter lost a daughter in 1969 to what he believed was drug-induced suicide, he denounced the youth culture that he blamed for her death. And he singled out the Beatles as the "leading missionaries of the acid society" (source).
Not everyone over 30 embraced Linkletter's message. People with a more balanced perspective tried to argue that the youth culture and its music were more complex. Sure, bands like the Beatles made allusions to drugs. But they also endorsed some positive, traditional values—you know, things like peace and love.
Rock and roll isn't all bad, right?