The White Album Song That Nearly Tore the Beatles Apart
The Beatles reconvened at George Harrison's home in the spring of 1968 upon their return from Rishikesh, India. It was time to get to work.
They recorded 26 rough demos — five from Harrison, 14 from John Lennon and seven from Paul McCartney. The next step was to take the tapes to the studio for refinement and recording, but one song among the McCartney contributions did not jibe with the others.
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" had begun to take form while the Beatles were still in India expanding their spiritual horizons and embracing the practice of meditation. One day, author and fellow meditation student Paul Saltzman witnessed McCartney and Lennon begin to work out the structure of the song.
"I looked over and under Paul's toe, under his sandal, was a little torn piece of paper," Saltzman wrote in his 2018 book, The Beatles in India. "And I look over, and in his handwriting it's 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, bra/La-La how the life goes on.' And I'm sitting beside Ringo [Starr] — maybe five feet away from Paul — and they start singing it and really working with it. Only those words — only John and Paul. Ringo was just quietly listening."
It was McCartney's ode to ska and reggae, genres that had become increasingly popular in Great Britain as the '60s went on, and the song incorporated some tangible inspirations. The protagonist's name, Desmond, referred to reggae singer Desmond Dekker, who'd recently toured the U.K. and had moved to England that same year. The tag line itself - "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on" - came straight from the mouth of Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, an acquaintance of McCartney's who would often use the expression.
Then came a series of grueling sessions. In all, the Beatles spent around 42 hours on this single track. That's more than four times as long as they took making their entire debut album. By the time it was over, the mood around "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" had changed.
The first official recording, put together over three long days in July 1968, included an abundance of percussion and trio of saxophones, but McCartney was unhappy with the sound. They tried again a few days later, but not everyone agreed on the arrangements — or even the basis of the track. In his 2006 book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music, engineer Geoff Emerick said Lennon "openly and vocally detested" the song, deeming it "more of Paul's granny-music shit."
Emerick also began to grow weary of McCartney's perfectionism as the hours wore on. Producer George Martin felt the strain, too. At one point, according to Emerick, McCartney dismissed some vocal suggestions by Martin, who (rather uncharacteristically) blurted back: "Then bloody sing it again! I give up. I just don't know any better how to help you."
Harrison poked mild fun at the situation in one of his own White Album compositions, "Savoy Truffle," singing, "We all know ob-la-di-bla-aa, but can you show me where you are?" Emerick reportedly cited mounting tensions when he quit working with the Beatles following the sessions. But some good came of it all: Lennon's frustration ultimately led to one of the most recognizable intros to a Beatles song.
"After about four or five nights doing 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,' John Lennon came to the session really stoned, totally out of it on something or other, and he said ‘All right, we’re gonna do 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’" Emerick recalled in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. "He went straight to the piano and smashed the keys with an almighty amount of volume, twice the speed of how they’d done it before, and said, ‘This is it! Come on!’ He was really aggravated. That was the version they ended up using."
Listen to the Beatles' 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'
McCartney was convinced the song would make a good single, but the others weren't. A compromise was reached in which "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" was released in countries such as Australia, France, Switzerland, New Zealand and Belgium, where it performed well on the charts, but not in larger markets. (It was not released as a single in the U.K. and U.S. until 1976, years after the Beatles broke up.)
Mixed reviews followed its release as part of the White Album on Nov. 22, 1968. The New York Times writer Nik Cohn described "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" specifically as "mock West-Indies. ... None of it works," he argued, "It all loses out to the originals. It all sounds stale."
Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone heard it differently. "It’s not just a calypso, but a rock 'n' roll calypso with electric bass and drums," he wrote. "Fun music for a fun song about fun. Who needs answers? Not Molly or Desmond Jones, they’re married with a diamond ring and kids and a little 'Obladi Oblada. All you need is Obladi Oblada."
Scott later sought a writer's credit for the use of his catchphrase. A year later in 1969, he found himself in a London prison for failing to make support payments to his ex-wife. He requested the police contact the Beatles' office and ask if McCartney would cover his legal fees. McCartney agreed, in exchange for dropping the songwriting credit case.
"He got annoyed when I did a song of it, 'cuz he wanted a cut," McCartney told Playboy in 1984. "I said, 'Come on, Jimmy, it's just an expression. If you'd written the song, you could have had a cut.' He also used to say, 'Nothin's too much; just outta sight.' He was just one of those guys who had great expressions, you know."
While the original version never hit No. 1, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" reached the top of the charts in 1968 with the help of a Glasgow pop-rock group. Marmalade "rush-recorded it in the middle of the night during a week of cabaret in the northeast," bassist Graham Knight said in 2005's 1000 U.K. #1 Hits. "Our manager, who was in America at the time, kept sending us telegrams not to do it. He didn't think we should record a Beatles song.
"We expected it to do well, but we didn't think it would go to No. 1. We got no feedback from the Beatles at all. There had been so many covers by that time that I shouldn't think they'd have been very interested."
Listen to Marmalade's Version of 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'
"Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" went unperformed by any member of the Beatles for decades. McCartney finally played it on Dec. 2, 2009, on the first night of a European tour that kicked off in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles first honed their sound.
The song remained in McCartney's set list for years.
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