The Meaning Behind “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a popular song by The Beatles that not only offers a catchy tune and a lighthearted message about life, but also has an interesting and somewhat controversial history.

Written by Paul McCartney in 1968, the song pays tribute to the Jamaican ska style and features a catchphrase that sparked a dispute over credit. This analysis delves into the origins of the song, its influences, and the controversy surrounding the iconic phrase.

Lyrics Interpretation

Before we delve into the story behind this song, let’s take a closer look at each verse of the lyrics.

Verse 1: Meeting Desmond and Molly

Desmond has a barrow in the market place

Molly is the singer in a band

Desmond says to Molly, “Girl, I like your face”

And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand

The opening verse introduces the main characters, Desmond and Molly. Desmond works in the marketplace, while Molly is a singer in a band. The two meet, and Desmond compliments Molly’s appearance. Molly reciprocates the interest, and the two establish a connection, setting the stage for the story that unfolds.

Chorus: Life Goes On

Ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on bra

La-la how their life goes on

Ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on bra

La-la how their life goes on

The chorus is a playful, nonsensical expression that ultimately conveys a simple yet profound truth: life goes on. The phrase “ob-la-di, ob-la-da” is derived from a Yoruba expression, “óbàládì, óbàládà,” which McCartney heard from Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott. It means “life goes on” or “life continues” in the Yoruba language. The lyrics encourage listeners to embrace the flow of life and enjoy its simple pleasures.

Verse 2: A Symbol of Love

Desmond takes a trolley to the jeweler’s stores

Buys a twenty carat golden ring (Golden ring?)

Takes it back to Molly waiting at the door

And as he gives it to her she begins to sing (Sing)

In this verse, Desmond buys a golden ring for Molly as a symbol of his love and commitment. Molly, in turn, expresses her happiness by singing. This demonstrates the deepening of their relationship and the joy they find in each other’s company.

Verse 3: Building a Home Sweet Home

In a couple of years they have built

A home sweet home

With a couple of kids running in the yard

Of Desmond and Molly Jones

The song fast-forwards to show Desmond and Molly’s life a few years later. They have built a “home sweet home” and now have children playing in their yard. The lyrics paint a picture of a happy, loving family, reflecting the joy found in the simple moments of life.

Verse 4: Happy Ever After

Happy ever after in the market place

Desmond lets the children lend a hand (Arm! Leg!)

Molly stays at home and does her pretty face

And in the evening she still sings it with the band

In this verse, Desmond and Molly continue to live their lives, with Desmond involving the children in his work and Molly maintaining her passion for singing. The couple has found happiness in their ordinary routines, embracing the contentment that comes from love, family, and shared experiences.

Verse 5: A Role Reversal

Yeah, happy ever after in the market place

Molly lets the children lend a hand (Foot!)

Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face

And in the evening she’s a singer with the band

The final verse presents a role reversal, with Molly now involving the children in her work, while Desmond stays at home. This change in roles underscores the adaptability of the couple and their commitment to supporting each other’s interests and passions. Molly continues to pursue her singing career, showcasing the importance of maintaining individuality and personal pursuits within a loving relationship.

Outro: A Lighthearted Invitation

And if you want some fun

Take ob-la-di ob-la-da

The outro is a lighthearted invitation to join in the fun and embrace the simple pleasures of life, just like Desmond and Molly. The phrase “ob-la-di, ob-la-da” acts as a reminder to enjoy life as it unfolds and find happiness in the everyday.

True Meaning Behind “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” 

The title “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was derived from a phrase McCartney heard from his friend Jimmy Scott, a Nigerian conga player whom he met at the Bag O’Nails club in Soho, London.

Scott would call out “Ob la di” during his stage act, and the audience would respond with “Ob la da,” followed by Scott’s conclusion, “Life goes on.” The phrase was believed to be Urhobo for “Life goes on,” but McCartney later revealed that it was merely a family expression.

McCartney admired the phrase and decided to use it in his song, giving due credit to Scott by sending him a cheque in recognition. He stated that although Scott didn’t contribute to the songwriting process, the expression was the inspiration behind the title and chorus.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” tells a fictional story about a couple named Desmond and Molly. McCartney was fond of names, and Desmond was chosen as a Caribbean name to reflect the Jamaican ska influence in the song. The narrative of Desmond and Molly, as well as the song’s upbeat rhythm, showcase McCartney’s ability to craft a captivating story within the framework of a catchy tune.

While The Beatles were in Rishikesh, India, attending a Transcendental Meditation course, McCartney wrote the song as a tribute to the Jamaican ska style, which was becoming increasingly popular in Britain.

The opening line of the song refers to Desmond, a nod to reggae singer Desmond Dekker, who had recently toured the UK. This reference demonstrates McCartney’s admiration for Dekker’s music and the burgeoning Jamaican ska movement.

The Catchphrase Controversy

Upon the song’s release in November 1968, Scott claimed that McCartney used his catchphrase without permission and sought a writer’s credit for it. McCartney disputed this claim, asserting that the phrase was just an expression. However, Scott argued that the phrase was not a common expression and was used exclusively by his family.

The British press sided with Scott, which frustrated McCartney. During rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969, McCartney expressed his discontent to his bandmates about Scott’s claim.

Later that year, while in Brixton Prison for failing to pay maintenance to his ex-wife, Scott requested The Beatles to cover his legal bills. McCartney agreed to pay the amount on the condition that Scott abandoned his pursuit of a co-writer’s credit.

Cover Versions

Marmalade

In November 1968, Scottish pop band Marmalade released their cover version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. The song went on to become the most commercially successful of all the cover versions of songs from The Beatles, reaching number 1 on the UK Singles Chart in January 1969. 

Marmalade’s performance on BBC One’s Top of the Pops to promote the track was notable for four of the five band members wearing kilts, and their English-born drummer dressed as a redcoat. The success of their recording sold around half a million in the UK and a million copies globally by April 1969.

Other Artists

Aside from Marmalade, two other acts achieved hits in Europe with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. In 1968, a recording by the Bedrocks, a West Indian band from Leeds, peaked at number 20 on the UK Record Retailer chart. Also in 1968, the Spectrum reached number 19 on the German singles chart with their cover. 

The song has also been covered by various artists over the years, including Patti LuPone and the cast of Life Goes On, whose version was used as the theme tune for the 1989-1993 drama of the same name on ABC in the United States. 

Gabriela Bee’s cover version of the song on YouTube has earned 37 million views as of January 2023. The melody of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was also used for the Sinhala song “Kodi Gaha Yata Mama Upanne” sung by MS Fernando and HR Jothipala in the 1971 Sri Lankan comedy Hathara Denama Soorayo.

Conclusion

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” serves as a testament to The Beatles’ creativity and ability to incorporate diverse musical influences into their work. Despite the controversy surrounding the song’s catchphrase, its upbeat melody and message of life’s continuity continue to resonate with fans. The song remains a classic, showcasing The Beatles’ talent for blending various styles and creating music that withstands the test of time.

 

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