The healthy song-writing one-upmanship in The Beatles meant that after Paul McCartney had presented the others with the music hall-by-way-of-Fats Domino Lady Madonna and had it committed forever to tape, John Lennon sat himself at the piano to compose a worthy response.
The result was Hey Bulldog, a driving barrelhouse blues rocker, with ascending, augmented chords in the chorus and some epoch-defining stinging lead guitar throughout.
The Beatles – Hey Bulldog
It’s truly fab four in execution; Lennon pounding away at the ivories, his sandpaper-roughed and double-tracked vocals just on the right side of raw, McCartney playing melodic lead bass, a whole tune within the tune, and harmonising the key lines from start to finish, Ringo going tribal for the song’s intro then jangling heavy rhythmic tambourine to keep the beat from thereon in and George, quiet George, brilliantly colouring the whole thing with some rasping fretboard fireworks, minimum fuss but maximum fury.
For years I’d believed the solo to be played by McCartney – in tone and technique it’s very him – but research points to George and his Gibson SG, so the cap is duly doffed. There’s a tiny wee lick he throws away towards the end of that stinging solo upon which Badfinger, Jellyfish and countless others have based entire careers. If you know, you know.
With the Lady Madonna session wrapping up quicker than expected, and Abbey Road’s Studio 3 still booked for use, the plan was to use the time to film The Beatles working in the studio so that the footage could be used in a promotional film to promote Lady Madonna around the world. Such is the speed of things in Beatleworld though, that by the time the cameras were rolling, The Beatles were already beating and barking Lennon’s brand new tune into shape. The footage that duly accompanied the Lady Madonna promo is actually film of them recording a handful of the ten takes it took to nail down Hey Bulldog.
The Beatles – Hey Bulldog – isolated McCartney bassline
Amazingly, incredibly, written on the spot and played no more than ten times – how many times did YOU go away and learn your part before daring to step into a recording studio? – Paul’s muted palmed and woody thunk is the constituent part that drives the whole track. 98% flatwound Rickenbacker snap and 2% forgivable slop, McCartney’s bass playing in this phase of The Beatles is never anything less than peerless, inspired and beautiful. You knew that already though.
In the pantheon of indispensable Beatles lists, it’s only in recent years that Hey Bulldog has crawled its way on there, finally recognised as one of the band’s great tracks.
A sampler’s nightmare – pinch a portion of Beatles and you’d better have a good lawyer at the ready, it’s for that very reason you rarely encounter a Beatles sample. Yes, you can point to The Sounds Of Science on Paul’s Boutique, cut ‘n pasted together in the last century, way back when waters were murkier, but since then, there’s not been much. Cypress Hill took McCartney’s cooing opening bars to Your Mother Should Know and looped them into hip hop heaven on a track (a remix perhaps) that I can no longer locate. Jay Z’s official/unofficial Grey Album dismantled the White Album with varying degrees of brilliance, and that’s about it.
The Roots – switched on that they are – appropriated the Hey Bulldog riff into their own Thoughts At Work, a track that appeared only on original vinyl copies of Phrenology then, following a hard rap (ba-dum tish) at the door from suited and booted legal heavies, never again.
The Roots – Thoughts At Work (orig. vinyl-only release)
Welded to a beat created from the oft-sampled Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache, it’s a sweary blast that’ll make you want to drive the Fiat Punto slowly down the High Street, Detroit leaning with the windows down, like the hep cat you secretly always wished you could be. A pretender, a nearly-was, much like the track that rides on the coat tails of the sample it stole.