Marching Against the Meanies
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The Underrated Gem: The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine Soundtrack at Fifty
ONE of the hardest things to do in music...
is to decide which of The Beatles’ albums is the worst. It seems odd and outrageous to think that such a band could have a poor record but, like every artist, there are those albums that do not shine as brightly. I guess, if we had to have a bottom-two then you’d put Let It Be (1970) and Yellow Submarine (1969) in there. Both albums have terrific tracks on them but, considering the tension in the group around the time Let It Be was recorded, you can understand why the songs are not as strong and memorable as earlier records. That was the last album The Beatles released but their penultimate recording – 1969’s Abbey Road was their last recording as a band and it was a welcome return to form! That album celebrates fifty years in September and I cannot wait to re-investigate it. I feel Yellow Submarine gets a bit of a hard deal when it comes to The Beatles’ cannon. The film came out in July of 1968 (November in the U.S.) and actually did rather well. The Beatles’ films do range in quality but Yellow Submarine is right up there with the very best. The band themselves did not provide their voices to the animated film and, despite a lack of Beatles, the public and critics reacted well. The band, in 1968, were at a peak and it would be a little while before cracks started to form.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles during their ‘Mad Day Out’ shoot in 1968/PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Murray
They would release their eponymous album in November (1968) and it was a productive and successful time in the camp. My favourite film from the band is A Hard Day’s Night but they did not have a great deal of acclaim after that. There were some promising films but nothing really matched that early brilliance. Maybe people were not expecting much from Yellow Submarine considering the rather so-so success they had with their films before that. Critics and the public raved and loved the trippy and mind-blowing animation. The Beatles themselves did appear in the final scene but apart from that it was down to other actors and people. The film’s soundtrack came out in the U.S. on 13th January and four days later in the U.K. The original 1969 version is split into two distinct halves – a 1999 version was released that is purely songs from the band and does not contain George Martin compositions. It is safe to say the film’s soundtrack does not get the same positivity as the film itself. I feel any Beatles albums is worth celebrating and the fact we are about to mark fifty years of Yellow Submarine is a big deal. The reason I love the soundtrack is because it has those two halves. The opening part is a collection of more traditional Beatles tunes.
Of the six tracks from the band, four were previously unreleased. We all know the film’s eponymous track was released as a single in August 1966 and appeared on their Revolver album. All You Need Is Love was included on their Magical Mystery Tour album but was released as a single in July 1967. I think the new songs are very interesting. George Harrison’s Only a Northern Song was rejected for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but I prefer it to Within You Without You – a Harrison song that did make it onto the album. Harrison reflected his annoyance at being merely a contracted songwriter to The Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs. The group performed overdubs on the track and it contains trumpet, glockenspiel and spoken voices. It is a nice track and one of the stronger efforts from Harrison at the time – there would be weaker songs from him on The Beatles. All Together Now matches the jaunty nature of the film and it was recorded in a single session back in May of 1967. 1967 was a very prolific and productive time for the band and, considering Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour were released that year, it is amazing to think they had any energy and music left in them! Paul McCartney has described the song as throwaway but it stands up in its own right. Maybe not the finest from the band; it is remains a fun and child-like track that perfectly fits into the film.
IN THIS IMAGE: A still from the 1968 film/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Another George Harrison song, It’s All Too Much, was recorded later in 1967 and looks back at the Summer of Love and its excess. It is about Harrison experimenting with LSD and that time period. I think the track, again, is one of Harrison’s stronger efforts and makes excellent use of guitar feedback. We get a trumpet passage from Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark March and a lyrics from Sorrow – a 1966 hit from The Merseys. If McCartney felt his effort on Yellow Submarine was a bit slight, there is no arguing against the power and quality of Hey Bulldog. This was recorded in February 1968 and it was specifically recorded for the film soundtrack. Lennon, in his dismissive fashion, felt the track talked about nothing but he liked its sound and did not dismiss it as a piece of work. I love the song because it is catchy and you find yourself singing along to it. It has a definite bite to it and the guitar work is fantastic – some properly good and meaty riffs from The Beatles! There seems to be that divide, between critics and fans, between the band’s composed songs and the instrumentals from George Martin in the second half. I love The Beatles’ efforts and think their new material would have made a strong E.P. It is the more psychedelic and varied compositions that follow that drew praise.
Here, we get the symphonic film score that Martin specifically composed for the album. He used a forty-one-piece orchestra to create the sounds and everything came together over two three-hour sessions on 22nd and 23rd October, 1968. It was edited down to length to fit on the L.P. and some of the compositions nod back to previous Beatles songs. Sea of Time references George Harrison’s Within You Without You; Yellow Submarine in Pepperland reprises the film’s eponymous cut. Sea of Monsters is my favourite passage and, alongside an inclusion of Bach’s Air on the G String (the beginning to it), it is the most fantastical and imaginative. There are other Classical nods but it is the sheer breadth of the music and its imagination that strikes me. Many critics have argued a four-track E.P. would have been a stronger release but I love the mixture of Beatles songs – whether you like them or not – and the seven songs Martin composed. It leads to this complete work and, whilst All Together Now gets a bit of stick, it is a part of the album and has value. I like the fact that the soundtrack is seen as inessential – perhaps the first time The Beatles has experienced a rather muted reaction to an album. Magical Mystery Tour did not get universal acclaim but there were plenty of impassioned reviews. The film was hugely praised but when the soundtrack came out, a lot of people shrugged.
I think Yellow Submarine has grown in stature and importance this far down the line. The George Martin score is fantastic and I love the way you can hear it as a free-standing thing and do not need to know about the film. I would urge people to catch the film itself as it is one of the rare Beatles films that ticks all the boxes and truly shines. The original songs, I think, are worth more than casual listening and the soundtrack is a fantastic thing. Any Beatles album that turns fifty warrants celebration and reflection. This retrospective review from AllMusic seems to reflect the general indifference to the soundtrack:
“And then there was the jewel of the new songs, "It's All Too Much." Coming from the second half of 1967, the song -- resplendent in swirling Mellotron, larger-than-life percussion, and tidal waves of feedback guitar -- was a virtuoso excursion into otherwise hazy psychedelia, and was actually superior in some respects to "Blue Jay Way," Harrison's songwriting contribution to The Magical Mystery Tour; the song also later rated a dazzling cover by Steve Hillage in the middle of the following decade. The very fact that George Harrison was afforded two song slots and a relatively uncompetitive canvas for his music shows how little the project meant to Lennon and McCartney -- as did the cutting of the "Hey Bulldog" sequence from the movie, apparently with no resistance from Lennon, who had other, more important artistic fish to fry in 1968...
What is here, however, is a good enough reason for owning the record, though nothing rates it as anything near a high-priority purchase. The album would have been far better value if it had been released as a four-song EP (an idea the Beatles even considered at one point, with the addition of a bonus track in "Across the Universe" but ultimately discarded)”.
If you are not a fan of the singalong All Together Now and prefer the Harrison offerings; you cannot deny the fact the George Martin compositions are quality. The fact Yellow Submarine and All You Need Is Love are Beatles classics means that at least eleven of the thirteen songs are either good or brilliant. The fact most modern artists cannot produce the same quality and consistency shows what expectations were placed on The Beatles’ shoulders. They had won critics over with their eponymous album in November 1968 so maybe it was an issue of timing. Perhaps there was expectation that the soundtrack would be stronger but, having heard the music in the film the year before, people knew what they were in for. Yellow Submarine’s soundtrack remains, to some, a curiosity and one of the few inessential Beatles recordings. To me, it is a vital documentation of a busy time in the band’s life and a rare fusion of band originals and George Martin compositions.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1968/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Usual Beatles soundtracks would contain original songs but I like the fact we have that blend of familiar and fantastical. I do not agree the band were preoccupied or too focused on recording The Beatles to put much effort into the soundtrack. I like the original songs and the fact that they have their place; most people compliment the Martin score and, whether you think everything stands up or not, we need to give the soundtrack more respect. It turns fifty later this month and I think it is well worth getting hold of and spinning. The band’s final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, would gain contrasting reviews – Yellow Submarine, in some ways, prefaced what would happen during the Let It Be sessions. I think every Beatles album deserves praise and feature and, fifty years after its release, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack remains a giddy, fascinating and occasionally flawed...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
DELIGHT for the senses.