THE BEATLES: YELLOW SUBMARINE (1969)
1) Yellow Submarine; 2) Only A Northern Song; 3) All Together Now; 4) Hey Bulldog; 5) It's All Too Much; 6) All You Need Is Love; 7) Pepperland; 8) Sea Of Time; 9) Sea Of Holes; 10) Sea Of Monsters; 11) March Of The Meanies; 12) Pepperland Laid Waste; 13) Yellow Submarine In Pepperland.
There is no pressing need to decry and deplore Yellow Submarine as a «failure», since the album was never truly geared for any sort of success, and everyone knew it at the time: it never even managed to hit the top of the charts in either the UK or the US. Perhaps, had it been marketed along the lines of Magical Mystery Tour — for instance, packed with contemporary singles like ʽLady Madonnaʼ and ʽHey Judeʼ on Side B — it might have seen a warmer reception. But, on the other hand, unlike Magical Mystery Tour, this particular project was somewhat anachronistic from the very beginning, so even that might not have helped.
The thing is, Yellow Submarine (the movie), together with its soundtrack, genuinely belongs in 1967, with all of its humorous surrealism and young-and-innocent flower power vibe. Most of the basic work on the movie was done in late 1967, and the Beatles themselves filmed their brief cameo at the end of the cartoon in January 1968, before the Indian trip that can truly be seen as the last important watermark separating the band's «mid-period» (psychedelia, rabid innovation, friendly cohesion) from its «late period» (back-to-basics, Elder Statesmen, dissent and dissolution). Much had changed in the world, and for the band, by July 1968, when the movie was premiered; and even much more had changed by January 17, 1969, when the soundtrack was finally released (apparently, the delay had a lot to do with George Martin recording the symphonic score for the second side).
Thus, it is almost ironic that the soundtrack to one of the friendliest «buddy» cartoons in the history of animation, celebrating peace and love and bright colors and substances, came out at the same time that the band, on the brink of total collapse, was trying to patch up its recent fallout with George Harrison, only briefly delaying the inevitable. And hence, one more reason for a subconscious lack of respect for Yellow Submarine: when placed in the chronological context of late 1968 / early 1969, it feels fake, or, rather, just uncomfortably anachronistic — the first «new» Beatles release that reeks of nostalgia, rather than points to the future, or, at least, gives the exhaustive lowdown on the current situation.
The other reason for «despisal» is, of course, the fact that even the first side of the album, with only four out of six «new» songs on it, is mainly comprised from outtakes. Only John's ʽHey Bulldogʼ, recorded during the same session as ʽLady Madonnaʼ, was donated to the movie right away, and, naturally, it is the best of the lot. Incidentally, the contrast between the energetic, but harmless-friendly boogie piano melody of ʽLady Madonnaʼ and the melodically simpler, but definitely more «evil», «barking» piano riff of ʽHey Bulldogʼ, recorded almost back-to-back, is another glaring textbook example of the John/Paul dichothomy. Watch how John can be friendly, funny, mentoresque, and downright nasty at the same time: "if you're lonely, you can talk to me" is sung with such primal ferocity that I'd rather not be lonely, given the actual choice. On the other hand, the final bit of dialog — "I said woof" etc. — is one of the most lovingly silliest moments in the Beatles' entire career. The song is a worthy companion to ʽI Am The Walrusʼ in sheer terms of «what the heck is going on?», even though it lacks the latter's intentional «epic» vibe. A ʽWalrusʼ for the kids?
The other three songs were all written or even recorded in 1967: George's two contributions are both outtakes from the Sgt. Pepper era (but they do make Yellow Submarine the only original Beatles album on which George is the main contributor), and Paul's ʽAll Together Nowʼ was conceived in the Magical Mystery Tour period. The Paul song clearly did not make the grade because of its explicit kiddie orientation (it is even based on a basic counting-out rhyme structure), and George's songs are both somewhat questionable. ʽOnly A Northern Songʼ shows no serious attempt at creating a vocal melody, playing out rather like an absent-minded psychedelic jam — it is rather obvious that, in the wake of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ and ʽMr. Kiteʼ, the decision not to let it compete with these songs in 1967 was correct.
ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ is far, far better, one of George's most underrated love anthems, in my opinion — not to mention the kick-off, a wall-crumbling fifteen-second Hendrix tribute if there ever was one (and, although much of the song is dominated by keyboards and trumpets, the guitar throughout is 1967-distorted-psychedelia at its wickedest). The song is somewhat marred by the extra-long coda, though, which is actually funny, considering how the also-anthemic, also-uplifting, also-coda-focused ʽHey Judeʼ would be even longer — but, of course, the choral singing on ʽHey Judeʼ is supposed to entice and draw in the listener, making him one with the band, whereas the coda to ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ is primarily instrumental, and is probably best appreciated during a chemical holiday in Pepperland.
Of course, two great songs and two passable outtakes do not make up for a credible album, and, in order to pad out the results, George Martin was commissionned a full instrumental score for the second side. Which is usually the biggest complaint: that Side B has nothing to do with the Beatles in the first place, making the record a rip-off. This is not entirely true, of course. At least one of the pieces (ʽYellow Submarine In Pepperlandʼ) is built on the theme of a Beatles song (guess which), and besides, whatever happened to the «fifth Beatle» tag? Personally, I've always loved the ʽMarch Of The Meaniesʼ theme, and still consider it fairly «Beatlesque» in spirit (with just a pinch of Wagner thrown in for good measure).
Naturally, the instrumental orchestral themes work better within the context of the movie for which they were commissionned — except that in the movie, you almost never get to hear them in their entirety, logically developed from beginning to end. In any case, my firm position has always been that the original Yellow Submarine made and continues to make much better sense than the 1999 Yellow Submarine Soundtrack, a total commercial rip-off which threw out the orchestral score and replaced it with songs that were already available on regular LPs. (One could easily make oneself that kind of mix without having to buy the album). On the other hand, something like a double LP mix with all the songs and all the instrumentals properly sequenced could also have been useful.
Which brings us to the obvious conclusion: unlike A Hard Day's Night and Help! (in their UK versions), Yellow Submarine is the Beatles' first and only true «soundtrack album», and it makes little sense to rate, judge, criticize, or enjoy it beyond the context of the animated movie which it represents. Which would have been bad news if the movie were «Beatleproof» — but, fortunately, «nothing is Beatleproof», and no one is Beatleproof, including the animator George Dunning (whom laymen only know for his work on this particular cartoon), and the bunch of script writers who managed to fill a silly, simplistic fairy-tale storyline with enough subtle wit, humor, and intelligent puns to last a lifetime.
The situation is simple: it makes no sense to get the Yellow Submarine LP before watching the movie, it makes no sense to not watch the movie if you care about the Beatles in the first place, and it makes no sense to crap on Yellow Submarine after watching the movie, unless the Blue Meanies actually got to you in the process. With the musical and cultural world galloping at full speed in the late Sixties, it almost feels like a last-moment soulful gift, a final memento of the era in which the Beatles were the chief symbol of the whole «make love not war» ideology. So it does have its place in the catalog — sort of like a paragraph break before the final act of the tragedy. Judge it on its own terms.