The Long and Winding Road Part 11: Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine (released 17 January 1969)

Dear Yellow Submarine,


Yours sincerely… okay, I am cheating this a little. Although this is considered to be by far the worst Beatle album ever released, you have FOUR new songs inside your first side, which should not be ignored in any way. And to give these four songs credit, none of them are actually bad by Beatles standards. Granted, “Only a Northern Song” features uncharacteristically offkey playing from George, but he says himself that it’s meant to be that way, and who are we to doubt the mischief-loving, cynical George Harrison?

That said, though, this still only make you half an album. But first, a little context: your Side Two is given over to George Martin’s soundtrack for the film “Yellow Submarine”, released more than six months before this. It was a film built around the Beatles’ greatest hits up till then, and surprisingly there was more of an effort to connect the songs on the soundtrack with the film. However, while the songs the Beatles have done are (mostly) of quality, the same cannot be said for George Martin’s tunes, so different and detached they are from the songs. This means that I’m not gonna write a lot about them. (Yes, I am using George as an excuse for writing only 1300 words or so. It’s Valentine’s Day, my readers have better things to do.)

But to avoid utter despair right from the start, we’ll look at the Beatle songs first. Though the first and last songs are both by George — Harrison, that is — you would be hard-pressed to find two songs that, at least on the surface, diverge from each other more. “Only a Northern Song” is basically George’s take on the nonsense song, except more vitriolic: deep within the mishmash of noises and tunes you can find unfolding in the song (like an intricate and slightly overlaid music box) there’s also scorn for his bandmates. When he says “it doesn’t really matter what chords I play… as it’s only a Northern song” it’s almost like he’s throwing a hissy fit with all those clanging tunes, complaining about how he’s being left out. (It’s hard to read it any other way: George’s V-sign is far too obvious.) Meanwhile, “It’s All Too Much” is yet another of George’s long songs that work around a single concept: it’s meant to be a representation of an acid trip and as a result it doesn’t really have much to say. You are held by the hand and led down guitar and organ solos, raucous and yet incomprehensible, while the lyrics are drilled like a mantra into your head until you agree that yes, it is “all too much”. Now can we go?

Does it work, though? I’m not too sure. You can only take cheekily written comedy songs so far, and these two just seem more like a rant from George, a way for him to rage against the dominant writing partnership at the time, rather than serious songs which try to make a point. In his defense, George had given up trying to care by late 1968, but still it would have been nice to do a song which actually had some sort of quirk to it. Take, for example, the songs we find sandwiched between these two songs.

One song each from John and Paul take up the remaining spots. Of these my favourite is “Hey Bulldog”, which features what may, with a bit of imagination (actually make that a lot of imagination), be considered Lennon-McCartney’s attempt at “rap”. Certainly there are words which are spoken to a rhythm in the song, but that section is not the most interesting part of the song for me: no, it’s John’s quirky humour throughout and his amazing musical sense which proves endearing. There’s a lot of freaky wordplay in there (“sheepdog” and “bullfrog” are there at the start, but the title phrase itself doesn’t appear till the end — well done, John) and his banter with Paul never ceases to amaze. And good luck getting that piano riff out of your head: it is infectious beyond belief. Meanwhile, “All Together Now” finds Paul descending even further into his fascination with childhood by offering us a children’s song. The best you can say about this one is that the rhymes are ingenious, and that it’s a little quirky — perhaps too quirky for its own sake, as it starts rushing towards the end of its two-minute runtime and never seems to stick in your head the way “Hey Bulldog” does. Whatever — this song was never meant to be taken seriously anyway, so reading too much into it would be counterproductive.

These songs show us the post-psychedelia dynamic of Lennon-McCartney at work: John has become the enigmatic mystic, while Paul continues to be the little childlike figure who hops around delightfully producing happy little lightweight tunes. Of course, there were much more subtle differences underneath — disagreements in production, in musical values and in whether they should be dicks to each other, disagreements which ultimately tore the two of them apart. And these two songs show the fundamental difference between John and Paul: one of them determined to get to the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (I wonder if he ever read H2G2), the other fixated on smelling the roses. It’s a huge difference, and an effect that really stays with you long after you’ve stopped listening.

With all the original songs depleted, we skip “All You Need is Love” — recycled from the VERY UNDERAPPRECIATED MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR — and head to side two. This is more a test of patience than it is half of a good rock album, for two very simple reasons. One: the songs are emphatically not rock songs. Two: neither are they very good. I suppose I can’t blame George Martin for riding on the coattails of the Beatles’ success, but all the same, why couldn’t they have done two EPs instead? It’s not like the Beatles didn’t have the material, and they would easily have made twice the money had they separated them into two (it’s not like he wasn’t an established producer in his own right). But to call these songs from the Beatles is a bit much.

Why? These tracks are different, hugely different from the ones we’ve been listening to for the past 22 minutes. Those were snappy, moved along well and didn’t try to bog down your imagination. But the film score is sluggish, and the songs don’t really evoke a lot of images in my mind. To be fair to George Martin, the film itself wasn’t supposed to make sense (just like most good films from the 1960s), and he was only composing incidental music, music which evoked moods rather than told stories. And I do feel the moods he was trying to convey: in “Pepperland Laid Waste”, for example, there certainly is a sense of emergency that comes as the Blue Meanies (look them up, they’re really cute) destroy the titular land. But that’s it: nothing more of interest comes from them — and interest, alas, is the paramount factor when it comes to the Beatles. So when they’re combined with the songs on Side One, they just seem extremely out of place.

I don’t really know what to do with you, to be honest. Let’s face it, this was simply a moneymaking exercise from Parlophone Records, and those never turn out well. (Moneymaking exercises, not Parlophone records.) Still, as one commenter noted, it made George Martin the biggest windfall he ever had in his life — so at least this record made one person happy. For everyone else, I think it’d be much better if they finished the four new songs and then switched the record player off: even if you are easily convinced by the somewhat lacklustre film score, these seven tracks just feel better, and compare better, in their own context.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite song: Despite the magnificence of “It’s All Too Much”, this is one of those periods when I prefer something a little more straightforward… so “Hey Bulldog” it is.

(Featured image from cover of Yellow Submarine, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)

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