Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

yellow-submarine What You Need to Know: The Beatles had virtually nothing to do with the Yellow Submarine film and its accompanying soundtrack album. Ignoring the musical direction of The Beatles, released a scant eight weeks before, the film continued in the psychedelic vein of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

The first half of this album is comprised of Beatles songs, only four of them new - “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love” being the double dips. Of these four songs, three were drawn from the Pepper/Mystery Tour-era discard pile, with “Hey Bulldog” recorded later and not specifically for the film. Combine that with the fact that voice actors did the heavy lifting in the actual film, and it’s hard to imagine a Beatles project with less creative input from The Beatles.

The second half of the album is George Martin’s original score for the movie – it’s pleasant but unremarkable, and I’m ignoring it for the purposes of this write-up.

The Songs You’ve Heard: Ignoring “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need is Love,” you may not be familiar with any of this music unless you’ve seen the Yellow Submarine movie recently (and you probably haven’t).

The Songs You Haven’t: Two of the Pepper castoffs on this album belong to George Harrison, and all things considered I would gladly trade “Fixing a Hole” or “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” for either of them. “It’s Only a Northern Song” was George’s characteristically sarcastic dig at Northern Songs, Lennon/McCartney’s publishing company – given that Northern Songs eventually sold the publishing rights for The Beatles’ songs out from under them, his ire was well-placed. The song itself features some of the same trippy sounds as “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and other songs from this era, and is bolstered by one of my more favorite McCartney basslines.

His “It’s All Too Much” is nearly-but-not-quite majestic, and is overlong by at least two minutes, but for all that it’s still a good listen, and another commonly-overlooked highlight of his Beatles era.

“All Together Now” is a goofy singalong in the style of “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s a throwaway track if ever there was one. The real reason to listen to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack is “Hey Bulldog,” driven by a great piano riff and backed by outstanding performances from the entire band. Even if you have seen the movie, you may not know this song – it was cut from the original American version for some reason, though it was restored for the 1999 DVD release – but it’s worth hearing. Go listen. Now.

Why I Like It: A commonly-held perception of really good bands is that their throwaway material is better than the best work of lesser bands – to an extent, that holds true here. Nothing on this album, with the possible exception of “Hey Bulldog,” can really be considered essential, but that this material represents what they were throwing out in 1967-1968 is impressive.

A rare remaster-related side-note: If you buy this one, I recommend you pick up 1999’s Yellow Submarine Songtrack album. The original songs are still there, but George Martin’s original score is swapped out for the other songs that appear in the film. This makes it a killer Beatles sampler album, but it’s also notable that the tracks on the Songtrack are new mixes, whereas the remastered albums mostly use the original mixes done in the sixties.

The problem with using the original mixes, at least for the stereo versions of the albums (and therefore, given that the mono versions are limited editions, the canonical version of The Beatles’ catalogue), is that no one had a stereo system for most of the sixties. The band devoted most of its time and effort to the mono mixes, leaving the stereo mixes to be done in a few days by some low-level EMI scruffs.

The result is a pretty off-balance sound by today’s standards – if you can, get some good headphones out and listen to “Hey Bulldog” from Songtrack and then the same song from the Yellow Submarine remaster. You’ll mostly hear the sounds of missed opportunities – the entire catalogue could have stood a good, modern remixing to go with the remastering. Though I guess if they’d gotten it perfect, no one would have a reason to buy the albums all over again in a few years.

Desert Island Tracks:Hey Bulldog,” “Only a Northern Song,” “It’s All Too Much