1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Yellow Submarine is an album that I find difficult to rate higher than any other Beatles’ albums simply because there are only 4 new Beatles songs on it! The band contributed four excellent new songs to the soundtrack, and a couple older favorites were added, and that’s the extent of the band’s contribution. Brilliant producer George Martin adds some orchestral background pieces from the movie, and that’s that.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I’m 52 years old, so it’s no use lying, or even minimizing, what I’m going to say: I don’t mind kids’ music. I’m talking about music produced and aimed directly at kids, not music recorded by kids, although some of that’s pretty good, too1. I liked kids’ music when I was a kid, and I liked it as a parent, and I’ll probably like it again when I’m a grandparent.
I think somewhere over the past several years on this blog I’ve discussed my love, as a child, for the LP Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert. It was released in 1972, the year I turned 5, and it’s the first album I recall that was all mine, that wasn’t a family record, or one of my sisters’. I used to go to the basement every day to play its songs and, as my mom has recalled, “march around the basement.”
The album had fun songs with lots of activities, and a gatefold opening that included a map (for helping Cookie Monster with “The Magic Cookie“) and pictures and tips on how to best enjoy it. (“Get some pots and pans from your pantry to bang on!“) The songs on the album were purely for kids – fun, silly, simple. The only (subtle) tip of the hat to the larger world of pop and rock into which it was released was the cover art that seemed to be a nod to Simon & Garfunkel.
The other kids’ albums I remember from my childhood are selections from Walt Disney movies. I think we may have had a “Disney Greatest Hits” type record, and perhaps a soundtrack from Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although I may be conflating my memories of childhood jigsaw puzzles with childhood music. But the point is, these were orchestral, Broadway-style songs. Back then Kids’ Records were not interested in staying current with pop music tastes and sounds.
I moved on from Ernie and Bert pretty much directly to my sister’s Elton John albums and the 70s version of Weird Al Yankovic: albums of collected novelty songs sold on TV by companies like K-Tel and Ronco. But my childhood musical tastes – Ernie & Bert, Disney songs – have maintained through adulthood: the music I like continues to skew strongly toward good melodies. (This is probably a big reason why I love The Beatles.)
By the time I had kids of my own, in the late 90s and early 00s, an entertainment juggernaut had completely transformed kids’ music: The Wiggles. Many parents disliked The Wiggles when they first saw them, and I think a big part of it was that in the 90s it was unusual to see grown men performing for kids with no women. That may seem odd today, in 2019, but in 1999 it was really jarring to see. Myself, I immediately loved the band – mainly because my toddler son LOVED THE BAND. It was impossible for me to see him sing and dance along to the songs and NOT feel some love for the geniuses that gave that to him.
What I really liked about The Wiggles, however, was the fact that they took rock music sounds and styles and put them into kids’ songs. The Wiggles were a band, playing their own songs, on their own instruments, and they touched off a wave of “rock music” kids bands. The fabulous Dan Zanes & Friends2, The Laurie Berkner Band, The Imagination Movers … There were just so many! Then there was Choo-Choo Soul, a show that made R&B-style kids’ songs. It was the Golden Age of Kids’ Music for Gen-X Adults.
The proof was when bands for grown-ups began getting into the act. The wonderful They Might Be Giants released several terrific kids albums, including Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Def Leppard, Barenaked Ladies, even former freshmen, and one-hit wonders, The Verve Pipe, released kids’ albums. (Of course, Johnny Cash was ahead of everyone by 30 years.) Soon, parents were demanding rock music as kids music.
But leave it to the best band in the history of the universe to have presaged all of this kids rock music by a couple generations. The band, and Paul McCartney, in particular, had been writing Wiggles-style songs since the start of their run3. They also produced flat-out, old-school kids-style songs (i.e. not Wiggles-style) throughout their career. Catchy, singalong melodies were right in their wheelhouse. And although they usually sang about love, which any child will tell you is “icky,” many of their songs are about less icky stuff, like colorful submarines and counting with friends, and, in fact, would sound really good as the soundtrack to a cartoon movie!
For details about how the movie Yellow Submarine and its soundtrack came together, you should consult any Beatles biography, particularly one by Mark Lewisohn. Or, to save time, check out the Wikipedia page. Basically, the band was contractually obliged to produce four new songs for the movie, which they did. These songs were slapped onto some other old Beatles’ songs used in the movie, a few orchestral selections from the film, written by producer George Martin, were tacked on, and Voila! Beatles album.
So, basically, even without trying, The Beatles could produce an excellent album – albeit one that mostly sounds like it’s made for kids. In particular, the title song (originally released on the band’s Revolver album) seems aimed squarely at the elementary-school, let’s-sing-a-song age group. This is a difficult song to write about because it seems like it’s become a children’s staple – like “Old MacDonald.” Nearly every kid in America, Europe, perhaps the world, has heard and sung along to it. I’d wager more people know the song than know that it’s by The Beatles.
It was written together by McCartney and John Lennon4 expressly for drummer Ringo Starr to sing, and its simple, contagious melody and magical lyrics suit him well. Perhaps the coolest thing about the song is all the sound effects created for it. The band and its friends5 blew bubbles in water, rattled chains, and talked in tin cans to create the undersea atmosphere. It’s a fun recording, and if you haven’t listened closely to the original in years, it’s worth a listen.
One of the best things about the album is that George Harrison contributes a higher percentage of new songs (two of the four) than on any other Beatles album. The first is the weird, wonderful “Only a Northern Song.”
The song’s (hilarious) lyrics show Harrison’s justifiable frustration (“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/ What words I say …/ As it’s only a Northern Song.”) about the band’s publishing arrangement, in which his songs were owned by publisher Northern Songs, a company of which Lennon and McCartney each owned 15%, compared to Harrison’s 0.8%. This meant he made far less from the publishing rights to his own songs than John and Paul. It opens with a spooky organ, which suits Harrison’s laconic delivery. McCartney’s bass is terrific, and Starr’s drums fills are really great6. About 1:10 a section of crazy dissonance appears, then recurs at 2:30 to finish the song. It’s a song that benefits from listening on headphones, and for a song that the band (and many listeners) has frequently dismissed, it’s pretty cool.
Next, the band goes all-in on kids’ music again with “All Together Now.”
It’s a cute little number that has some cool Beatle-y things in it. For one, it’s one of their songs where both Paul and John sing lead – Paul on the “1-2-3-4,” etc., and John on the “sail the ship,” etc. I love when they sing in harmony, because their voices blend perfectly. But I also love when they are co-lead singers because I like to think of them as best buddies, and they sound like it when they trade off lines. It’s got a fun build up, from acoustic guitars, then adding bass guitar and drums and harmonicas and voices and I think some sort of saxophone. Then it speeds up at 1:15 through to the end. It’s a fun, goofy, terrific song for kids.
Speaking of John and Paul singing harmony, and acting like best buddies, the next song up on Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favorites from the band: “Hey Bulldog.”
There’s a cool story about recording this gem, and you can watch a video about it here. The song opens with Lennon playing a piano riff that is somehow both dark and upbeat at the same time. Harrison’s guitar joins in on it, with Ringo’s terrific tom-heavy drums, and finally McCartney adds his bass to the riff. Lennon’s voice is perfect on lyrics that are part nonsense (“sheepdog/ standing in the rain”), part koan (“some kind of innocence is measured out in years”), and part simple kindness (“if you’re lonely you can talk to me”). McCartney’s bass on this song is outstanding, constantly changing, holding down the low end while providing, basically, a second lead guitar. And while we’re talking lead guitar, check out Harrison throughout, but especially his solo at 1:13. Lennon and McCartney’s superlative harmony singing is on display, and I love how near the end they dissolve into silliness and banter and make each other laugh7. I ESPECIALLY love near the end, when they completely break down then pull it together for one final, terrifically harmonic “Bulldog,” at 3:03. It’s these tiny things that bring me joy, and really underscore the fact that I’m rather obsessed by this band.
So obsessed, in fact, that Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” his second number on Yellow Submarine, is a song I often find going through my head, especially when I’m stressed out and thinking, well, “it’s all too much.”
It’s a noisy, droning, psychedelic song, with a tooting organ riff throughout. Harrison’s voice, beginning about 1:03 sings a great, rangy melody that seems to ignore the crazy sounds around it. And this really suits the lyrics, which are a positive reflection on all the joyful wonder of the world. Ringo’s drums, once again, are really cool. He plays off-kilter fills that accent the song perfectly. The guitar is cool, played by both Lennon and Harrison. A variety of horns are added, McCartney & Lennon add harmonies, and the whole thing begins to sound on the verge of breakdown beginning around 3:45. From there it becomes a kind of meditative drone, as Harrison wails about 4:40 and the three singers sing “too much,” well, perhaps too much, but that’s kind of the point of it. It’s one of the band’s most distinctive songs.
Next up is another all-time great Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.”
The song was released as a single a year before the movie, but since it appeared in the film it was included in the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite Lennon compositions, including the lyrics, and one of my favorite performances by the band. Since it was recorded partially live, as part of “Our World,” a worldwide live TV broadcast, there’s a party atmosphere to it. As usual, McCartney plays lead bass and Harrison’s guitar solo is unforgettable. It’s a timeless classic, and actually has a bit of kids’ song cheer and simplicity to it.
The rest of the album, well, look. I’m not gonna try to bullshit you people: I can’t get through it. It’s a suite of 7 orchestral pieces by George Martin, the band’s longtime producer, that were written as the film’s score. There’s “Pepperland,” “Sea of Time,” “Sea of Holes,” “Sea of Monsters,” “March of the Meanies,” “Pepperland Laid Waste,” and “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.” I’m sure they are brilliant pieces, and I have Beatle-y friends who swear they are some of the best works to appear on any Beatles’ albums. But I am not a classical music guy, nor a recorded orchestra guy, and I haven’t seen the film in 35 years, so it just doesn’t connect with me.
So there you have it. Yellow Submarine is my least-favorite Beatles record, but still probably my 13th-favorite all-time record. It make me happy, it makes me feel good, and that’s what we were all taught music was supposed to do back when we were kids. It’s what I learned from Ernie and Bert, and it’s a big part of why I love The Beatles!
“Only a Northern Song”
“All Together Now”
“It’s All Too Much”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Sea of Time”
“Sea of Holes”
“Sea of Monsters”
“March of the Meanies”
“Pepperland Laid Waste”
“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”