Classic Music Review: Yellow Submarine by The Beatles

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Since my audience is largely American, relatively few people will be reading The Alt Rock Chick over Thanksgiving weekend. My former compatriots will be heavily involved in the two great American sports of eating and shopping, so I thought I’d slip this one in while no one was looking to fix a hole in my Beatles catalog. You know, where the rain gets in . . . my mind has been wandering lately . . . I need to stop that.

While I’ve retained my American citizenship, I can no longer ethically claim a membership in American society. However, I have compensated for that loss by earning membership in a more exclusive group. I’m now one of the few people outside of George Martin’s immediate family who has listened to Yellow Submarine in its entirety three times.

Not counting musicals (most of which I loathe anyway), there aren’t too many movie soundtracks that make for great listening experiences when separated from the film. The two I like most are Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Mishima and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Milk. Yellow Submarine doesn’t even accurately reflect the music in the film. Why include “All You Need Is Love” and not “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?” The best song on the album was cut from most versions of the initial release of the film, the clip restored thirty years later in the flood of re-released Beatles material. Even the George Martin orchestral contributions are not technically accurate reproductions of what you hear in the film, since the versions on the album weren’t recorded until after the film was released. Only two of The Beatle songs you hear were written specifically for the film; two others were retreads and the last two had been gathering dust in the Abbey Road vaults.

The movie isn’t bad, but I’m sure it meant more to the people who grew up in that era than it does to a millenial looking backwards. It presents highly sanitized versions of the lovable moptops as they embark on a quest to free an undersea paradise called Pepperland from the anti-music, anti-happiness, anti-beauty Blue Meanies. The Beatles save the day by playing music and the Blue Meanies are defeated. I suppose the Blue Meanies represented the straights, The Establishment and/or the pigs and The Beatles everything that is right with the world. The animation is clever and quite advanced for the time. It’s really a film for children and for the inner child lurking about in the psychological clutter of the adult population, a psychedelic version of The Wizard of Oz. If I had a kid, I would allow it, and I’d give a very honest reply when he or she asked, “Mommy, what do they mean when they sing, ‘Can I take my friend to bed?’ Is their friend sick?”

The album is conveniently divided into two distinct sides, one with Beatle performances and the other with George Martin’s contributions. The Beatle side is bookended with the title track and “All You Need Is Love.” Of the other four songs, two are less-than-stellar efforts. “All Together Now” sounds like something McCartney knocked off in thirty seconds; it’s a simple singalong song that’s neither offensive nor stimulating. “Only a Northern Song” is George Harrison whining about not getting the attention nor the royalties earned by his more talented mates for his relatively weak songwriting efforts, with a few stray metaphysical phrases and weird sounds thrown in for good measure. Originally intended for Sgt. Pepper, George Martin put his foot down, told Harrison it wasn’t good enough and dropped it from the album, a wise decision that left Harrison childishly miffed. The song sucks lyrically, melodically and instrumentally, and George should be grateful that they apparently couldn’t come up with anything else to cover the “Sea of Science” segment in the movie.

The two songs that are worth the price of admission are “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”

Geoff Emerick describes the experience of “Hey Bulldog” as the last time he had any fun working with The Beatles. A few weeks after the recording (made during the filming of the promo video for “Lady Madonna”) they would wander off to India and come back a fragmented, grumpy bunch. While they still made a few good records, they lost their playfulness and began to take themselves too seriously. In spirit, The Beatles on “Hey Bulldog” are The Beatles goofing off on the playing fields in A Hard Day’s Night, but by this time their awareness of musical possibilities had expanded exponentially.

The musical structure of “Hey Bulldog” is fascinating on many levels. Much is made about this being one of the few piano riff songs in The Beatles’ catalog, but I think the more important consideration is that they use the seventh chord (B7) as the root and never resolve it to the tonic chord (B major). Seventh chords are primarily used in blues and rock to create tension that leads to resolution—the listener feels a sense of satisfaction when that last line of a blues song hangs on a seventh chord for a moment before coming back to the tonic, where the song began (B7-E, for example). By maintaining the 7th chord as the baseline, The Beatles gave “Hey Bulldog” an edginess that lasts throughout. The upward chord sequence you hear on the bridge to the chorus (the “You can talk to me” lines) is a simple trick, but a very effective one: all they do is take the Bm chord and move the perfect fifth (the F#) up two half-steps per measure (Bm, Bm5, Bm6, Bm7) then do the same when they shift to the complementary Em (Em, Em5, Em6, Em7). This sequence amplifies the dramatic tension already inherent in the root 7th chord. Another way of explaining the tension is that the song is written in the key of B major but we never hear the B major chord we expect to hear—we only hear its neighbors, B7 and Bm (and variations of Bm).

John’s vocal, especially on the bridge, reminds us that he was one of the great rock ‘n’ roll vocalists of them all, and his energetic piano is an absolute gas. George steps up and nails the solo (Emerick mentioned it’s one of the few times he got it right from the start), and Ringo adds his usual punch and flair. But the centerpiece here is clearly Paul McCartney’s awe-inspiring work on the bass guitar. Some time during The Beatles’ peak creative period beginning in late 1965, McCartney started a practice of remaining in the studio after the others had gone to work out bass parts and experiment with the potential of the instrument. The hard work paid off on many songs during this period, and “Hey Bulldog” is clearly a tour-de-force performance. “Paul’s bass line was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well-played,” wrote Emerick. Here’s a version with the other instruments dampened so you can hear how nimble, inventive and still intensely rhythmic Paul could be:

George was apparently in a much better mood when he wrote “It’s All Too Much.” It’s not as complex as “Hey Bulldog” but is nonetheless an exciting piece with a celebratory feel (according to The Beatles Bible it was written under the influence of acid). It’s basically a drone song that sticks pretty much to the tonic G with added fourths and ninths, permitting the melody to float easily over the music. The instrumentation is not as extensive as it sounds; other than the usual Beatle instruments, we hear trumpets, a bass clarinet and a few stray small percussion pieces. The fullness of the arrangement is extensively aided by feedback, from the opening slash of guitar to the sustained high-pitched moan that runs through the “silver sun” verse. One other feature in this song is prominent, a classic Beatles technique, but a very engaging one nonetheless: hand-clapping. “It’s All Too Much” is one of the best feel-good songs in the Beatles catalog, and a perfect ending to a film with such an upbeat message.

George Martin’s contributions have been ignored by the listening public and deserve a better fate. This is not the crap that United Artists stuffed into the U. S. version of Help! “Pepperland” is the most tame of the seven pieces, a lush and rather formal piece that could have fit easily into the soundtrack of an Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy set in an Americanized version of Europe. “Sea of Time” opens with Indian instrumentation and flashes of “Within You, Without You” before shifting to a waltz with interesting syncopation. The piece takes several turns from dreamy and childlike to curious and mysterious before fading on lush strings. “Sea of Holes” is my favorite piece because it implies such striking imagery. Here Martin supplements strings and oboe with the backwards effects common in Beatle music of the period and foreshadows some of the work of Philip Glass with sudden increases in dynamics.

In “Sea of Monsters,” Martin uses the backwards recording technique on instruments like trombone and cymbals to create the sucking effect of the vacuum monster, but the piece loses its feel when he changes the mood by reverting to full strings and inserts a fragment from Bach’s “Air on the G String.” “March of the Meanies” contrasts the sweet tone of marimba with insistent rhythms from strings and brass to create the necessary ominous introduction, then takes a sizable leap in dynamics to intensify the semi-martial air. “Pepperland Lays Waste” effectively recreates the eerie, colorless visuals through slightly dissonant combinations of strings, flute trills and subdued repetitions of “Pepperland” themes. “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” is a rather anti-climactic end to the orchestral diversions.

All in all, I found it quite interesting to listen to the orchestral side while commuting on the Paris Metro. There was one point where the ominous tones of “March of the Meanies” began as we approached a popular stop and people began subtly jostling for position while pretending not to jostle, then BLAM! the door opens and it’s every Meanie for him or herself.

Yellow Submarine will never make any Best of the Beatles lists, but with two of their most exuberant songs and a pleasant diversion in the form of George Martin’s contributions, it’s a long way from being a ripoff.

Happy Black Friday to my American friends, and please try not to get injured in the madness of the season.

9 responses

  1. […] Latest Classic Music Review: Yellow Submarine by The Beatles […]

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  2. I find it a spectacular album and even prefer it to the white album.At least its way more colourful. In many senses! Ad Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo! So little time! So much to know!

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  3. There’s still some debate about who plays the guitar solo in “Hey Bulldog”, with different arguments made for Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney. Ian MacDonald attributes it to Lennon, and based on the playing style I tend to hesitantly agree. As you note, Emerick remembers it as being Harrison, but I’m dubious. At the time George had not seriously focused on the guitar in a while, and only after the the return from the India trip would he refocus and finally become a quite good lead guitarist. I used to feel it was McCartney, just because he was the only Beatle capable of whipping out brilliant work on the spot in the studio, but there are no accounts of him playing it, and after years of listening I find it less in his style.

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    1. This could turn into something to replace the JFK conspiracy thing. Was there an unknown guitarist on the grassy knoll outside Abbey Road? I tend to trust Emerick because he was there but my ears tell me, “That doesn’t sound like George.” Ian MacDonald is dead, so we can’t query his sources. The attack and scalar movement are reminiscent of McCartney, but the “wit” of the solo is more Lennon. Some of the readers on The Beatles Bible refer to the “Hey, Bulldog” video as proof it was George, but video proves nothing.

      This was before Yoko started showing up in the studio, so at least we can eliminate her as a suspect.

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      1. This was a momentous session for the group, as later events showed. MacDonald states that Yoko was present in the studio the day of the recording, a claim I’ve never seen referenced anywhere else. If true, she certainly was not down on the studio floor with the group. Plus, the angry edge to Lennon’s performance is a reflection of how cheesed off he is about the difficult attempts to get his “Across the Universe” recorded earlier in the sessions – something he later blamed on McCartney.

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  4. Ayrton Mugnaini Jr. | Reply

    GROARC! (Great review, oh Alt Rock Chick!) And did you notice the “Sorrow” quote on “It’s All Too Much”??

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    1. I did, but I’d never heard The McCoys’ version, only The Merseybeats. Very Norma Tanega-ish.

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  5. […] Latest Classic Music Review: A Long Time Comin’ by The Electric Flag […]

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