Sunday, June 15, 2008

174. The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (1969)

Now we continue our journey through the back catalog of a little-known '60s band I've recently discovered.

As they reached the inevitable nadir of their undistinguished career, something weird happened. Some devoted fan took The Beatles' songs and made an animated movie out of them. With Peter Max-inspired design and a stream-of-consciousness plot, the movie was most definitely of its time, and that's probably why very few people are aware of it today.

Probably even fewer people know that The Beatles released an accompanying soundtrack, though to be fair it's not much of an album. There are 6 Beatles songs, two of which were previously released: Yellow Submarine and All You Need Is Love. The album's entire second side is taken up with the film's score, composed and conducted by the 5th Beatle, producer George Martin. The score has been much maligned (an updated version of the soundtrack released in 1999 even eliminated it in favor of additional Beatles songs), and unjustly so.

It's no secret that George Martin came from a classical background, but it's a slight surprise that the score is not quite traditional. For one, Sea of Time expertly incorporates George Harrison's eastern-leaning Within You Without You. The soaring Pepperland and romantic Sea of Monsters are more conventional, but might lead you to create a movie in your head that's better than Yellow Submarine itself. March of the Meanies, however, is the most arresting tune. It's swirling and macabre and predates Danny Elfman's film-scoring career by a good 15 years. All in all, it's nice music for listening to while reading before you fall asleep.

As for the four new songs; they are really the selling point. The question is, are they worth it? As with many things, the answer is yes and no. George Harrison's Only A Northern Song is dreary and murky and dissonant. The lyrics are a sign of interband turmoil, seeming to address the fact that John and Paul were so lauded for their songs, while his went underappreciated (Northern Songs is the name of the Lennon/McCartney publishing company). However it's strange that George tries to prove his point by writing the exact kind of song he's deriding; the chords are off, the multitude of instruments are out of synch with one another, and his singing is languid and uninspired.

It's All Too Much, another George contribution, fares better. The beat is infectious while the verses and chorus are dreamy. It's a potent combination, and one that Britpop bands like Blur would take straight to the bank 25 years later.

McCartney's All Together Now is another slight and surfacy song from the master of them. It succeeds mostly thanks to a sprightly acoustic jangle and a hoe-down feel. Lennon, on the other hand, delivers the best of the batch. Hey Bulldog is down and dirty, driven by honky-tonk piano, with generous helpings of cutting guitar and bouncy bass. The sound is thoroughly modern, loose, and thrilling.

In total, while enjoyable, Yellow Submarine is not an essential entry in The Beatles' catalog. In fact, one could go without hearing it, and never have the feeling that they'd missed much of anything. Fans would have to wait for the next album for true satisfaction, and they wouldn't have to wait long.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Hey Bulldog

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