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.