'Hey Jude' was one of the few Beatles compositions to be written directly about, and for, a personal associate. Paul McCartney wrote the song to John Lennon's son, Julian, when John was about to divorce his first wife (and Julian's mother), Cynthia.
Paul and Julian had always been close - perhaps closer than the father and son had been - and he knew that John's new relationship with Yoko Ono had to be hitting Julian, then aged 6, pretty hard. Paul wrote the melody and lyrics to the song on the way to Cynthia's home in Weybridge during June of 1968. When he returned home that day, he recoded a demo version on his piano. The song was originally titled 'Hey Jules', but McCartney thought "Jude" would be easier to sing.
When Paul presented the song to the rest of the Beatles, John immediately pronounced it the best thing Paul had ever written and fought to get it on the a-side of the group's next single, allowing his own 'Revolution' to move to the b-side.
Paul originally intended many of the lyrics, especially the line "the movement you need is on your shoulder," as placeholders to be replaced later, but John insisted they were perfect just as they were, and there they stayed.
The band recorded a rehearsal of the song at Abbey Road on July 29 and 30, 1968, as part of a planned single session right in the middle of sessions for their next LP, eventually known as 'The White Album', but were soon convinced to re-record the whole thing at Trident Studios across town; Trident, which the band learned had fully functional eight-track recording.
The basic track was recorded on July 31, the orchestra overdubs, clapping, and "na-na-na"s of the lengthy coda recorded on August 1. Four takes were recorded, but the first was deemed best and used for the overdubbing.
During recording, Paul and George's famous argument over the arrangement of the song began: George wanted to echo each of Paul's lines in the verse with an accompanying guitar flourish, as John had done in the rehearsal. Paul didn't see the song this way, and told George so, leaving the guitarist with a chip on his shoulder that would last through the rest of his days as a Beatle. In the end, George's contribution to 'Hey Jude' is heard mainly in phrases on the bridge.
The song was the first to be released by Apple Records, the record label owned by the Beatles. It was released on 26th August, 1968, and soon became the top-selling single of 1968 in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada.
Watch the video above to see the band performing the song live on 6th October 1968.