Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (1969)


Delayed by a few months to avoid competition (?) with the White Album, this film soundtrack is much less a Beatles album than the corresponding packages for A Hard Day's Night and Help!... in England, at least. In the U.S., in order for Capitol to squeeze maximum sales potential out of each and every recorded Beatles track, the soundtracks removed all non-film numbers and padded out the running time with scoring and orchestral tidbits. Ken Thorne's score for Help! was mildly interesting, enough to get partial credit for introducing George Harrison to the sitar, but hardly constituted added value for Beatles fans, a bit like expecting Prince and getting Danny Elfman; on A Hard Day's Night, George Martin's lush instrumental rearrangements of Beatles tunes were the kind of half-baked Muzak that appeals only to sickos like me. (When I was a kid I preferred Martin's strung-out "And I Love Her" to the Beatles'.) But this obviously wasn't Beatles music and, by a lot of standards, was therefore something of a ripoff. Among the Beatles' American soundtracks to this point, only Magical Mystery Tour, issued strictly as an extended-play in England, was padded out with actual songs by the band -- the irony here being that the incidental music in that film was actually their own work but has never been properly issued.

The four new Beatles songs on the Yellow Submarine LP were initially to be given the same treatment; with the bonus of the then-unissued "Across the Universe," a 7" EP was even mastered and prepped for release but was cancelled at what seems to have been the last minute. This would have been a more logical home for these haphazard, relatively inconsequential scraps, which on the album itself are joined not by "Universe" but by the title song, originally from Revolver, and the single A-side "All You Need Is Love," which also figures in the film and, in fairness, had yet to appear on a British LP up to now. It's curious that the Beatles opted to sign off on an album that commits the same basic consumer fraud as the UA and Capitol records from overseas; only Side One is by the Beatles, whose name is plastered on the cover; the rest is George Martin's score for the animated film. It's even more curious that this odd package has retained its place in the Beatles' discography ever since, and officially Apple even considers it one of their studio albums, which is a rather laughable redefining of terms. Further irony -- or, perhaps, an explanation -- is provided by the perverse truth that Martin's half of the record is far stronger than the Beatles'.

It shouldn't have been surprising that just two months after putting out their no-holds-barred double album, the Beatles could only muster up a handful of new tracks, though the rules of quality-over-quantity certainly don't seem to apply to the thinnest, most wanting collection of music they ever released. Three of the four are outtakes from the Sgt. Pepper period and its immediate aftermath, with the upshot that they sound quite anachronistic when hearing the band's output in sequence. The producer of the film Yellow Submarine, Al Brodax, would later complain that he felt he was thrown the bones of rejected material just to be shut up, as the Beatles regarded the contractually-obligated animated feature as something of a nuisance; John Lennon's sole contribution "Hey Bulldog" comes from slightly later (but still pre-White Album, hence just as distant) and reflects a bit more care thanks to its Keith Richards riffage and driving piano, a bit of a silly "Day Tripper" knockoff. While not top-tier material, it's somewhere on a level with the songs they created for Magical Mystery Tour: charming, lighthearted fare with a newly rediscovered zeal -- dating from the tentatively stripped-back "Lady Madonna" period between the psychedelic days and the India trip -- for good old rock & roll. Submarine could have done well with a few morsels of tossed-off, humorous fun like this, maybe comparable to the band's typically strong b-sides from earlier on, but Brodax was right to complain: half the songs he received from the band are genuinely awful.

Paul's "All Together Now" manages to exhibit all of his worst tendencies; it's as bad as "Hello, Goodbye" but thankfully shorter; and the band does seem to be in a less enthused (probably more stoned) mindset for the session. Still, the Beatles fans who see this as more important or vital than "Let 'Em In" are fooling themselves. Being stupid is fine, but cute? Unbearable. Worse, "Only a Northern Song" -- though produced with some audible gusto by George Martin -- is absolutely the worst song George Harrison wrote until Dark Horse, and is in the running as the worst composition released by any of the Beatles in the '60s. The laziness of the songwriting is almost awe-inspiring, particularly the lyrics. "If you're listening to this song / You may think the chords are going wrong / But they're not / He just wrote it like that." "We just play it like that." Excuses, excuses. The melody is typical Harrison: descending notes and a whole lot of self-imposed misery.

Thankfully, Harrison -- this is the only instance when he offers more new material than either John or Paul -- also contributes a much better song, the feedback-filled and power chord-laden "It's All Too Much," a Beatles obscurity that's nevertheless a surprisingly joyous piece of true psychedelia boasting some of its composer's best guitar work on record. The filmmakers wisely used it at the film's exhilarating resolution; accompanied by the visuals, it's a triumphantly delightful artifact of its time that does what nothing else on the Beatles' side of this record manages: it makes you believe for a moment. In fact, while still artistically facile compared to most of the White Album, it's a good enough song that it's quite surprising it has managed to remain almost universally unheralded; the Yellow Submarine album is indeed one of the few effective hiding places left in this catalog. The only caveat, really, is that the released version fades after six minutes, at which point bootlegs allow us to hear that the band proceeds to jam at considerable length, elevating the song a hell of a lot, indulgent as it may be. The Beatles' moment has lasted a long time but they will always be a band of and defined by the '60s, and that's one reason this recording -- which unabashedly celebrates the atmosphere and strangeness of what, by the time it was actually released, was already starting to transform into a bygone time -- is so compelling. It's a pity that the record replaces this climax with the more cloying and obvious "All You Need Is Love," even if it is capable of reaching toward the same sort of curious longing for a brief moment almost none of us now listening ever got to experience.

It's no longer relevant in the streaming era, but back in the CD years, $17 was an absurd amount to pay for four Beatles songs to round out their catalog, unavailable elsewhere until the 1999 release of a remixed soundtrack album with much more generous Beatles content. Everything about this package is a bit off-key and stupid, like the fact that the liner notes are just a perversely hyperbolic review of the White Album (comparing the band to Schubert, of all people); in this case the Americans were less cynical, offering a Tolkien-like explainer of Apple Bonkers and Blue Meanies and other creatures from the feature film. The wise consumer and casual fan is likely to understandably prefer Yellow Submarine Songtrack, gathering every Beatles song heard in the film in newly sparkly mixes, including even those only audible in fragments like "Think for Yourself."

Alas, that doesn't mean this album is devoid of value, even if its place in the "canon" is distinctly undeserved; its artistic virtues, however, have nothing to do with the Beatles. If you are a fan of the genuinely intoxicating feature film, a masterwork of surrealism, resourceful animation and imagination and a true feast for the senses -- so much so that the band was impressed and embarrassed when it turned out their own new songs weren't up to the quality standards of the film -- George Martin's evocative and beautiful score is a must. Skip the Beatles stuff entirely -- it really belongs with Past Masters anyway -- and prepare to be transported. I don't really grade film scores because my standards aren't very well-defined, but I'd rate Martin's work here as operating at the top level of the form; you decide if it's worth the dross, but certainly don't come here expecting the Greatest Rock Band to hold their end of the bargain.


[Heavily revised version of a review first posted in 2003.]

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