George Martin used to quibble over whether “The Ballad of John and Yoko” was even a Beatles song. “It was hardly a Beatle track,” Martin said in Anthology. “It was a kind of thin end of the wedge, as far as they were concerned. John [Lennon] had already mentally left the group anyway, and I think that was just the beginning of it all.”
Something happened on April 14, 1969, however, as Lennon and Paul McCartney worked feverishly to complete this new track: The scars from their most recent sessions began to heal. Martin was back at the helm, though he’d ultimately step aside for Phil Spector on Let It Be. Engineer Geoff Emerick also returned after having departed during sessions for 1968’s White Album.
Neither George Harrison nor Ringo Starr took part. George was on vacation, while Ringo was still filming Magic Christian. But Harrison laughed it off. “I didn’t mind not being on the record, because it was none of my business,” he said in Anthology. “If it had been the ‘The Ballad of John, George and Yoko,’ then I would have been on it.”
In their place, Lennon and McCartney improvised. McCartney played piano, bass, drums and maracas, while Lennon handled guitars and additional percussion. “John was in an impatient mood, so I was happy to help,” McCartney told Barry Miles in Many Years From Now. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”
More importantly, it ended up feeling like the Beatles to these former warring factions. At one point, the guitar-wielding Lennon turned to a drumming McCartney and said, “Go a bit faster, Ringo.” McCartney quipped, “OK, George!”
The beating heart at the center of the Beatles was whole again.
“The story came out that only Paul and I were on the record, but I wouldn’t have bothered publicizing that,” Lennon said in Anthology. “It doesn’t mean anything; it just so happened that there were only us two there. George was abroad, and Ringo was on the film and he couldn’t come that night. Because of that, it was a choice of either re-mixing or doing a new one – and you always go for doing a new one instead of fiddling about with an old one. So we did, and it turned out well.”
Everything unfolded in a single afternoon. Lennon brought the still-unfinished song over to McCartney’s London home on April 14, then they headed off to Abbey Road’s Studio Three at around 2:30PM. By 9, they were done.
“‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ was a very fast session,” Emerick says in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “It was a really good record too, helped by Paul’s great drumming and the speed in which they did it all.”