“The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a song written by John Lennon, attributed to Lennon–McCartney as was the custom, and released by the Beatles as a single in May 1969. The song, chronicling the events associated with Lennon’s marriage to Yoko Ono, was the Beatles’ 17th and final UK No. 1 single.
Authored by Lennon while on his honeymoon in Paris, it tells of the events of his marriage, in March 1969, to Ono, and their publicly held honeymoon activities, including their “Bed-In” at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel and their demonstration of “bagism”.
Lennon brought the song to McCartney’s home on 14 April 1969, before recording it that evening. Recalling the controversy engendered by Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark in 1966, McCartney was alarmed at the references to Christ in the new song but agreed to assist Lennon. Ono later said: “Paul knew that people were being nasty to John, and he just wanted to make it well for him. Paul has a very brotherly side to him.”
The song was recorded without George Harrison (who was on holiday) and Ringo Starr (who was filming The Magic Christian). In Barry Miles’ biography, McCartney recalls that Lennon had a sudden inspiration for the song and had suggested that the two of them should record it immediately, without waiting for the other Beatles to return. Reflecting this somewhat unusual situation, the session recordings include the following exchange:
Lennon (on guitar): “Go a bit faster, Ringo!”
McCartney (on drums): “OK, George!”
The session marked the return of Geoff Emerick as recording engineer at a Beatles session after he had quit working with the group during the tense White Album sessions nine months earlier. Commenting in the Beatles Anthology book, Harrison said: “I didn’t mind not being on the record, because it was none of my business … If it had been ‘The Ballad Of John, George And Yoko’, then I would have been on it.”
Backed with Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe”, the single was released in the United Kingdom on 30 May 1969. Lennon and Ono were performing a second Bed-In at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal at the time. The United States release followed on 4 June.
In the UK and Europe, it was the first Beatles single to be released in stereo. It was therefore the first release not given a mono mix.
The song has been included on several compilation albums: Hey Jude (US, 1970), 1967–1970 (1973), 20 Greatest Hits (UK, 1982), Past Masters (1988) and 1 (2000).
An uncredited 20-second sample of the song is used in the title track of Timothy Leary’s 1970 album You Can Be Anyone This Time Around, with Leary’s words: “You can be anyone this time around; John and Yoko this time around” spoken over the sample.
Several US radio stations declined to broadcast the song because of what they saw as sacrilegious use of the words “Christ” and “crucify” in the chorus:
Christ, you know it ain’t easy,
You know how hard it can be,
The way things are going,
They’re gonna crucify me.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” never appeared on the surveys of WLS in Chicago or WABC in New York, two of the largest Top 40 stations in the US.
In 2012, the song was ranked as the 404th best classic rock song of all time by New York’s Q104.3.
The Spanish government under Franco objected to the song because of its statement, “Peter Brown called to say, ‘You can make it OK, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain.'” The status of Gibraltar is a long-running subject of debate between Spain and the United Kingdom.
The single became the Beatles’ 17th and final UK No. 1; it reached No. 8 in the US.
When cartoonist Al Capp visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their 1969 Bed-In for Peace in Montreal, Capp pointedly asked Lennon about the meaning of the lyrics of the song. Their testy exchange later appeared in the 1988 documentary film Imagine: John Lennon. On Capp’s exit, Lennon sang an impromptu version with a slightly revised, but nonetheless prophetic lyric: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy / You know how hard it can be / The way things are goin’ / They’re gonna crucify Capp!”
John Lennon – lead vocal, lead guitars, acoustic guitar, percussion
Paul McCartney – harmony vocal, bass, drums, piano, maracas