Of course, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a Beatles’ song which is instantly recognisable from the very first note. In short, this is a track on the “White Album”. However, “take 5” of this song is available on their 1996 “Anthology 3” album.
Recorded: 8th, 9th, 11th, and 15th July, 1968
Studio: EMI Studios, London
Genre: Pop, ska
Track Duration: 3:07
Record Label: Apple
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Paul McCartney: vocal, electric bass, acoustic bass, handclaps, vocal percussion
John Lennon: piano, backing vocal, handclaps, spoken word, vocal percussion
George Harrison: acoustic guitar, backing vocal, handclaps, spoken word, vocal percussion
Ringo Starr: drums, bongos, maracas, other percussion, handclaps, vocal percussion
George Martin: horns arrangement
Paul McCartney began writing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” while in India, but credit obviously goes to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership. During 1968, McCartney recognised that reggae was beginning to come more popular in the UK. Therefore, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is McCartney’s attempt to add the Jamaican ska influence in a Beatles’ pop song.
“I had a friend called Jimmy Scott who was a Nigerian conga player, who I used to meet in the clubs in London. He had a few expressions, one of which was, ‘Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra’. I used to love this expression… He sounded like a philosopher to me.
He was a great guy anyway and I said to him, ‘I really like that expression and I’m thinking of using it,’ and I sent him a cheque in recognition of that fact later because even though I had written the whole song and he didn’t help me, it was his expression.
It’s a very me song, in as much as it’s a fantasy about a couple of people who don’t really exist, Desmond and Molly [Jones]. I’m keen on names too. Desmond is a very Caribbean name”.
Reggae singer, Desmond Dekker, recently toured the UK and it was he that give rise to the character in the song.
While some critics spent time knocking the song, it was inspirational for most people. It is a great uplifting sing-along tune and people can’t stop joining in with it when it’s playing. Paul McCartney knows this of course, and he continues to sing it onstage to this day.
John Lennon Discord
On the face of it, John Lennon didn’t appear to like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” saying it is [more of Paul’s] “granny music shit” according to engineer, Geoff Emerick. However, Emerick says that, at times, Lennon would be enthusiastic about the song by “acting the fool and doing his fake Jamaican patois”.
This was 1968 at a time when The Beatles were recording the “White Album” and cracks were showing within the band. John Lennon, was on drugs and had an intense relationship with Yoko Ono.
While Paul McCartney was trying to perfect the song, Lennon got sick of continually working at it.
“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. 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, [but] that was the version they ended up using”.
Richard Lush, engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The tensions between the band members during the recording of this song spilled over to the other staff. Paul McCartney was a perfectionist and knew what he wanted out of a song, but frustrations were creeping in with this one due to the discord in the band.
Sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, quit working for The Beatles after a heated argument between Paul McCartney and George Martin. This was a very unusual occurrence, but these were unusual times!
Martin offered McCartney some suggestions for the vocal parts in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” but McCartney said, “Well you come down and sing it”. Surprisingly, Martin shouted back, “Then bloody sing it again! I give up. I just don’t know any better how to help you”. Emerick walked out the following day due to that exchange and the bad atmosphere in general.
On their return from India, The Beatles recorded 27 demos in George Harrison’s home during May, 1968. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was one of those demos with Paul McCartney recording it as a guitar solo.
Proper recording took place at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios and it took around 42 hours of recording time before Paul McCartney was happy with the track.
Studio Recording 1
On the 3rd July, 1968, in Studio Two, during the 8.00pm-3.15am session there was 7 takes.
Take 3 is now on The Beatles’ (“White Album”) 50th Anniversary Box Set, while Take 5 appears on the Anthology 3 album.
Overdubbing continued over many hours on the 4th and 5th of July. Then Paul McCartney decided to scrap those recordings.
Studio Recording 2
The remake began on the 8th July, again, in Studio Two, but this time there were 12 takes with the last one being suitable for overdubbing. These recordings took place during the 5.00pm-3.00am sessions.
This was when John Lennon, under the influence of marijuana, had his outburst on the piano. The loud piano piece was in a “mock music-hall” style. Lennon insisted that the song should sound that way and it did indeed end up this way.
By now though, frustration and tensions were high. Even Paul McCartney was suffering because at that stage he didn’t think it was sounding right. He was aware of the disenchantment, but still decided to remake the song. The next day, on the 9th July, there were two further remakes but they were no good either. So, they concentrated on rhythm track on take 12 from the previous day but recorded the vocals again.
Futher overdubbing occurred on the 11th July with bass and saxophones. However, it wasn’t until the 15th of July, with the addition of new lead vocals from McCartney, that the song was complete.
Although John Lennon said he didn’t like the song, his input helped to give us the classic we have now. In reality, we may never know if he only said that because of the discord running through the band at the time or whether he truly disliked the song.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” certainly has drama and in more ways than the lyrics suggest!
The professionalism shown from Paul McCartney to get the song right, despite upsetting others along the way, shows what a genius he is. It graces the self-titled “White Album”, of course.
This song wasn’t a single in the UK or the US but it was in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, West Germany and Japan. In fact, it reached number one in those countries.
In the UK, Marmalade decided to make a cover version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and it was their version of the song that got to number one here. Indeed, this is the most successful cover of any Beatles’ song!
Other artists who sang cover versions are, Jimmy Cliff, Herb Alpert and The Bedrocks as well as many others. But it has been the inspiration behind numerous other songs.