Ah, the Beatles. Bringing some sense and stability to the top of the UK singles charts, after a few months of wackiness. But actually, even this, a famous hit record from the most famous band in the world, stands out. It’s nowhere as weird as we’ve heard this year, but it’s still different…
Lady Madonna, by The Beatles (their 14th of seventeen #1s)
2 weeks, from 27th March – 10th April 1968
For a start, ‘Lady Madonna’ is a piano driven song, which is pretty rare for a Beatles’ single. It’s well-known as a tribute to Fats Domino, which means it’s already the second 1968 #1 to reference the famous pianist, after Georgie Fame’s ‘Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’. Fats scored his biggest hit for a while by releasing his own version later in the year. Incidentally, I just discovered that he only ever had one (!) UK Top 10, which for a founding pillar of rock ‘n’ roll seems scandalous…
Anyway, as good as the piano riff is here, I love it when McCartney’s bass kicks, and even better when the main guitar kicks in for the second verse, growling like a pit-bull. And then comes the saxophone, another instrument that The Fab Four didn’t often use. It’s a song with a swagger and a swing to it. Anyone attempting it at karaoke would have to finish their performance with a mic toss.
In the back of my mind, I know what the song’s about. I’ve read, somewhere and sometime, just who Lady Madonna was. But before I Google and confirm, here’s my interpretation after listening to it for the first time in ages. She’s poor (Wonder how you manage to make ends meet…) with kids (Baby at your breast…), lots of kids (Wonders how you manage to feed the rest…). She’d like to escape (Lady Madonna, Lying on the bed, Listen to the music playing in your head…) but is trapped in a life of drudgery (Thursday night your stockings needed mending…)
It’s a kind of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ part II, and again Lennon and McCartney – though by this point they were largely writing separately, this being a Paul composition – prove themselves able to go way beyond the regular confines of pop music. ‘Madonna’ gives the woman in the song saintly connotations and – yes, I remembered correctly! – McCartney was inspired to write the song by a picture of a breastfeeding tribeswoman in a copy of National Geographic. The music here might be back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll, but the lyrics are some of The Beatles most cutting. See how they run… What’s ‘running’? The kids? The years? The people that see this poor mother in the street…?
On a far more frivolous note, the use of ‘Madonna’ in the title also opens up a fascinating sub-genre: #1 hits that reference other chart-topping artists! Obviously, they weren’t referencing Madonna Ciccone, who was a good fifteen years away from releasing anything, but still… To be honest, I’m struggling to think of others… ‘Moves Like Jagger’ never quite made it to the top. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, maybe, as had the charts been around in the 1700s Mozart would have done alright… In ‘Return of the Mack’ Mark Morrison was singing about himself… Let me know if you can think of any other. It’s fascinating, but completely pointless. Anyway.
Anyway, anyway, anyway… All of a sudden, we are approaching the end of The Beatles’ chart-topping careers. This was their fourteenth #1, and there are only three more to go! Luckily, two of them are stone-cold classics. The other is, well… We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.