The sordid truth behind The Beatles ‘Ticket to Ride’

After breaking through with rhythm and blues covers, upbeat love songs and lovelorn ballads in 1963, The Beatles began to mix things up. In 1964, this entailed creating their first musical film, A Hard Day’s Night, with its accompanying album. By 1965, however, the Fab Four began to revolutionise their musical outlook, welcoming more complex themes and varied styles.

Many will argue that the major turning point occurred towards the end of the year with the arrival of Rubber Soul, a masterful, unprecedented album heavily influenced by Bob Dylan’s contemporary folk-rock musings. Indeed, tracks like ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Run for Your Life’ took a rather dark turn thematically, but what about John Lennon’s cry for “help” earlier in 1965?

The title track on the movie soundtrack and album Help! was a marked change in Lennon’s songwriting, as one of his first rather personal and emotionally charged compositions. However, elsewhere on this album was Lennon’s ‘Ticket to Ride’, a number-one hit in the US and the UK.

Sonically, ‘Ticket to Ride’ was a little heavier than fans had grown accustomed to and notably made use of drone effects. “It was [a] slightly new sound at the time because it was pretty fuckin’ heavy for then,” Lennon said. “If you go and look in the charts for what other music people were making, and you hear it now, it doesn’t sound too bad. It’s all happening; it’s a heavy record.”

On the surface, the single appears to reference a rail-bound romantic muse, but it holds a lewd darkness in its depths. McCartney, who was credited as a co-writer on the song, once innocently posited that the song refers to a girl who has a British Railways ticket to Ryde, a town on the northeastern coast of the Isle of Wight, where McCartney’s cousin once owned a pub.

However, Lennon, the song’s primary lyricist, maintained that it was more salacious in nature. “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health, and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything,” Daily Mirror journalist Don Short once recalled of the song’s meaning according to Lennon.

“I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966, and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking—you always had to be careful with John like that—but I certainly remember him telling me that.”

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