The Funky Beatles Song John Lennon Wanted as a Single Instead of ‘Lady Madonna’
By early 1968, The Beatles had already made most of their explorations into psychedelic music. Though Yellow Submarine was still to come, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “I Am the Walrus” were in the past.
After the Magical Mystery Tour film flopped, The Beatles had an urge to get to back to their rock ‘n’ roll roots. The music that would come on The White Album definitely reflects that change in direction. That album, heavy on guitars and piano, featured songs mostly written in India.
From mid-February through March of ’68, all four Beatles spent time practicing transcendental meditation with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. But before they left England, they recorded a single to tide over their fans. That song, written by Paul McCartney, was “Lady Madonna.”
When the band went to record a promotional film (i.e., a video) for “Lady Madonna,” they decided to record a new song by John Lennon instead. That track turned out so well John campaigned for it to go out as the single rather than “Lady Madonna.”
John’s ‘Hey Bulldog’ came out of nowhere but sounded like a hit.
Since the band would normally lip-sync and pretend to play their instruments for a promotional film, Paul told John they should work on a new song instead. Though he didn’t have much time, John pulled together something he had at home.
That track, which became “Hey Bulldog,” turned out to be an energetic jam the Beatles laid down in a single session. Geoff Emerick, the recording engineer on much of the band’s’ late-’60s classics, described the scene that day in his book Here, There and Everywhere.
“The Beatles were in an exceptionally good mood because they knew they’d be heading to India in a matter of days,” Emerick wrote. “Everyone’s performance was excellent on that track: Paul’s bass line was probably the most inventive he’d done since Pepper.”
Emerick was also impressed by George Harrison’s work that — something that was rare for him. “Harrison’s solo was sparking, too — one of the few times he nailed it right away. He used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream.”
The song was so good John began pushing to have “Hey Bulldog” bump “Lady Madonna” off the A side of the single. But it wasn’t to be.
John had to settle for ‘Hey Bulldog’ getting banished to ‘Yellow Submarine.’
The Beatles wanted almost nothing to do with the Yellow Submarine film. Hence the lack of new material on the album. George’s “Only a Northern Song” got stuck there after the band decided it wasn’t good enough for Sgt. Pepper.
Otherwise, you found songs already recorded (like “All You Need Is Love” and “It’s All Too Much”) and even one released three years earlier as a single (the title track). So “Hey Bulldog” took a big step down by ending up on the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine.
Nonetheless, the song is a blast. You can hear — and see in the film — how much fun The Beatles had making it. When they returned from India, things got much darker. To Emerick, “Hey Bulldog” represented “the final time all four Beatles were happy being together in the studio.”