This blog is about The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie soundtrack, released in 1969. It is informed by a Daily Beast article by the excellent writer Colin Fleming. Check it out
What I get from the article is an appreciation for The Beatles more ‘out-there’ music, and a love for the song ‘Hey Bulldog’ in particular with a great appreciation for George Martin’s orchestrated soundtrack on side B of the LP.
This all ties in with an excellent book I’ve been reading:
Sound Pictures: The Life Of Beatles Producer George Martin - The Later Years 1966-2016 by Kenneth Womack. Here is the Goodreads link:
There are six Beatles songs on side A of Yellow Submarine. Fleming claims these songs alone would be one of the greatest EP’s ever made, but I think he is blinded by the excellence of ‘Hey Bulldog.’ I hear two gems and basically middling to less quality Beatles material. Let’s look at each song in order.
‘Yellow Submarine’ - A song written for Ringo, recorded at EMI studios (Abbey Road) on a night when when George Martin was off, so the boys went crazy while the headmaster was away. The horns are taken and spliced in from from a BBC record. Everyone (The Beatles, their roadies, and their pals) got in on the sound effects. Was included on the US and UK versions of Revolver. It was also a double ‘A’ side single with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ released in 1966, so to the Beatles this track was considered an ‘oldie.’
‘Only A Northern Song’ - Originally recorded early on for Sgt Pepper’s, considered by George Martin to be underwhelming, and put on the pile for the Yellow Submarine reject songs. Definitely a cast-off. The Womack book shows what The Beatles really thought of the Yellow Submarine project:
(George Martin) “I suggested that he (Harrison) come up with something a bit better.”
The Beatles openly displayed their disdain for the feature-length cartoon, deliberately planning to commit their weakest songs to fulfill the four tracks that they were contractually obligated to deliver for the soundtrack. As George (Martin) later recalled, “If they had and rubbish, as they considered it, at the end of the session, that would be one of the songs. There used to be a standing joke: ‘Ah, good enough for Yellow Submarine ...let them have that one.’”
‘All Together Now’ - A McCartney penned children’s song, The Beatles at their most simplistic and elemental in their modern era. Uke, acoustic guitar, harmonicas and lots of backing singers. This song was also recorded when Martin was on holiday, listing Geoff Emerick as both producer and engineer. From Fleming’s article:
Even when McCartney did what could have been dross, he remained one of our peerless melodists. He could out-melody you, and that’s really where he separates himself from every other rock composer. That is the home ballpark, you might say, in which McCartney was unbeatable.
‘Hey Bulldog’ - John Lennon rips this slice of psych-pop, the true gem of the rock tracks on this record. McCartney’s bass is completely off the charts, played high up on the neck, fluid and melodic with many notes. As for the guitar solo, check out the ‘White Pedal’ if you guitarists want to get the exact emulation of the 100 watt Vox transistor amps The Beatles were using. It even has a ‘Yoko ’knob!
The track turns into sheer madness at the end with the dog barking and screaming.This is a song I’ve covered many times, It echoes Pink Floyd’s ‘Lucifer Sam.’
Recorded with the basic tracks Lennon’s piano, McCartney on tambourine, Starr on drums, and Harrison on electric rhythm guitar, Paul’s fantastic bass, more guitars and vocals were quickly overdubbed, as well as a searing solo courtesy of Lennon on Harrison’s Gibson SG Standard guitar. This is the sound of The Beatles rocking out without any strings, arrangements, backwards effects, or seagull noises.
‘It’s All Too Much’ - A much better Harrison tune, still not deemed worthy for release on a ‘proper’ Beatles LP . Obviously influenced by Hendrix, the track is offset by a clever George Martin horn arrangement. Track was started at De Lane Lea studios so EMI man (engineer) Geoff Emerick could not attend the sessions. He busied himself engineering Odessey And Oracle by the Zombies at EMI (Abbey Road). The horn players were not given an arrangement and had to learn on the fly. Session brass player David Mason (heard on ‘Penny Lane’) from Womack’s book:
... lifted a section of baroque composer Jeremiah Clark’s Prince Of Denmark’s March (commonly known as the Trumpet Voluntary) , which afforded Harrison’s composition with a robust flavor of Englishness.
‘All You Need Is Love’ - Recorded and written for the international Our World TV broadcast, this is Lennon at his peacenik finest, absolutely shined up into a diamond by Martin’s sting and horn arrangements. A true Beatles classic. Supposedly recorded ‘live,’ but…(from Womack’s book)
“I was still worried about the idea of going out totally live,” George Martin later wrote. “So I told the boys ‘We’re going to hedge our bets. This is how we’ll do it.I’ll have a four-track machine standing by, and when we go on the air I’ll play you the rhythm track, which you’ll pretend to be playing. But your voices and the orchestra will really be live and we’ll mix the whole thing together and transmit it to the waiting world like that.’”
So there it is, in my estimation, two great songs, ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘All You Need Is Love,’ and a couple okay ones, ‘Yellow Submarine,’ and ‘All Together Now’ held down by the two boat-anchor Harrison ‘tunes.’ I think The Beatles succeeded in their goal of making this side their dustbin of material.
Now, side B of Yellow Submarine features George Martin’s orchestral score for the film. This is where the 14-year old me found the gateway, the entry point for classical music. Silly as it may sound, it was my first appreciation of classical as ‘real’ music. Womack’s book deals briefly with the history of EMI (Abbey Road) Studios and their rich marriage with the best of the English classics, something George Martin was keenly aware of:
Studio 1 had opened during a gala November 1931 ceremony hosted by Sir Adrian Boult, the very same maestro who would blow fifteen-year old George Martin away with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune at the Bromley County School in 1941. EMI Studios required nearly two years of construction, and the November 1931 event featured Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of his own Hope and Glory- including the famous Pomp and Circumstance march, before which Sir Edward joked to the musicians that they should “play this tune as if you’ve never heard it before.”
As we did with side A, lets go over the seven pieces of music Martin provided for the soundtrack, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, in order.
‘Pepperland’ - So breezy, with a string section breakdown, harp, and an arrangement. that just slides along and sounds like classic movie music. Fleming says in his article:
The “Pepperland” theme is as memorable as any in 1960s cinema. Good old George hit upon a big-time melodic refrain there. It’s pure movie soundtrack heaven.
And Womack goes in some detail in his book about George Martin’s influences:
In spite of the fact that scoring the animated feature was a work for hire as far as George was concerned, he pointedly drew his inspiration from Maurice Ravel, “the musician I admire most,” he later wrote. While his youth had been characterized by his early love for Claude Debussy, Martin had cleaved ever closer to Ravel throughout his Guildhall days and beyond. For Martin Ravel “was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time.” In many ways, Martin’s score for Yellow Submarine acted as a long-playing form of homage to Ravel, whose influences can be heard in the nooks and crannies of the film’s incidental music. “
‘Sea Of Time’ - Full of clever references to Within You, Without You’ and using some Indian instrumentation, George reportedly had a devil of a time getting the British classical chaps to play the sliding raga string parts. The song devolves into a Mary Poppins like breakdown before breaking into a lovely waltz.
‘Sea Of Holes’ - Has an ‘Underwater’ feel and backwards effects, something you don’t normally (ever) hear on classical recordings. Has the spidery marimba sounds and tugboat brass, and a little bit of tape echo.
‘Sea Of Monsters’ - Ominous yet happy, trilling flutes dueling with moaning cellos, then coming back to the ‘Pepperland’ motif, then to what sounds like an Elgar march, into a crazy western theme. Wild backwards effects end it out. There’s also a sly reference to J.S.Bach’s Air on the G String.
‘March Of The Meanies’ - A taut, high strung march theme, with surging strings and horns, very evocative and ...cinematic?
‘Pepperland Laid Waste’ - Sad and dreamy strings that explodes into a staccato Bernard Hermann - Hitchcockian type thing.
‘Yellow Submarine In Pepperland’ - Uses the ‘Yellow Submarine’ song in a number of ways. Martin really knew what he was doing.- a pretty upbeat and glorious ending. Here’s how Fleming describes the score in his article:
Martin’s orchestral numbers on Yellow Submarine always suggest to me a strobe light with its power failing and a shirt draped over it, this anglerfish flickering in the dark. I find it comforting. The Beatles, of course, never granted him the opportunity anywhere else to write like this. I hear a man enjoying himself.