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"Yellow Submarine" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1966 album Revolver. It was also issued on a double A-side single, paired with "Eleanor Rigby". Written as a children's song by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, it was drummer Ringo Starr's vocal spot on the album. The single went to number one on charts in the United Kingdom and several other European countries, and in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It won an Ivor Novello Award for the highest certified sales of any single written by a British songwriter and issued in the UK in 1966. In the US, the song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The Beatles recorded "Yellow Submarine" during a period characterised by experimentation in the recording studio. After taping the basic track and vocals in late May 1966, they held a session to overdub nautical sound effects, party ambience and chorus singing, recalling producer George Martin's previous work with members of the Goons. As a novelty song coupled with "Eleanor Rigby", a track devoid of any rock instrumentation, the single marked a radical departure for the group. It was also the first time they had issued a single in the UK consisting of album tracks. The song inspired the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine and appeared as the opening track on the accompanying soundtrack album.
In the US, "Yellow Submarine"'s release coincided with the controversies surrounding Lennon's "More popular than Jesus" remarks, and the band's public opposition to the Vietnam War, which led some radio stations to impose a ban on the Beatles' music. The song received several social and political interpretations. It was adopted as an anti-authority statement by the counterculture during Vietnam War demonstrations and was also appropriated in strike action and other forms of protest. Some listeners viewed the song as a code for drugs, particularly the barbiturate Nembutal, or as a symbol for escapism. "Yellow Submarine" has continued to be a children's favourite and has frequently been performed by Starr on his tours with the All Starr Band.
When asked in May 1966 about his vocal spot on the Beatles' forthcoming album, Ringo Starr told an NME reporter, with reference to "Yellow Submarine": "John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] have written a song which they think is for me but if I mess it up then we might have to find another country-and-western song off somebody else's LP." In a joint interview taped for use at the Ivor Novello Awards night in March 1967, McCartney and Lennon said that the song's melody was created by combining two different songs they had been working on separately. Lennon recalled that McCartney brought in the chorus ("the submarine ... the chorus bit"), which Lennon suggested combining with a melody for the verses that he had already written.
McCartney commented in 1966: "It's a happy place, that's all ... We were trying to write a children's song. That was the basic idea." Their working manuscript for the lyrics shows a verse crossed out and an accompanying note from Lennon reading: "Disgusting!! See me." Scottish singer Donovan contributed the line "Sky of blue and sea of green".
In 1980, Lennon talked further about the song: "'Yellow Submarine' is Paul's baby. Donovan helped with the lyrics. I helped with the lyrics too. We virtually made the track come alive in the studio, but based on Paul's inspiration. Paul's idea. Paul's title ... written for Ringo." In his 1997 authorised biography, Many Years from Now, McCartney recalled coming up with the initial idea while lying in bed, adding that "It was pretty much my song as I recall ... I think John helped out ... but the chorus, melody and verses are mine."
Author Steve Turner writes that in its focus on childhood themes, "Yellow Submarine" fitted with the contemporaneous psychedelic aesthetic, and that this outlook was reflected in George Harrison's comments to Maureen Cleave in his "How a Beatle Lives" interview, when he spoke of an individual's purity at birth and gradual corruption by society. Cleave likened his perspective to a contention put forward in William Wordsworth's poetry. In Many Years from Now, McCartney says he "started making a story, sort of an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he'd lived" and that the story line became gradually more obscure.
According to McCartney, the idea of a coloured submarine originated from his 1963 holiday in Greece, where he had enjoyed an iced spoon sweet that was yellow or red, depending on the flavour, and known locally as a submarine. Lennon had also thought of an underwater craft when he and Harrison and their wives first took the hallucinogenic drug LSD in early 1965. After the disorienting experience of visiting a London nightclub, they returned to Harrison's Surrey home, Kinfauns, where Lennon perceived the bungalow design as a submarine with him as the captain.[nb 1] Musicologists Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc comment that the band's adoption of a coloured submarine as their vessel chimed with Cary Grant captaining a pink one in the 1959 comedy film Operation Petticoat, made during the height of his psychoanalytical experimentation with LSD.
The Beatles' and psychedelia's adoption of childhood themes was also evident in the band's May 1966 single "Paperback Writer", as the falsetto backing vocals chant the title of the French nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques". Starr later said he found "Yellow Submarine" a "really interesting" choice for his vocal spot, since his own songwriting at that point amounted to "rewriting Jerry Lee Lewis's songs". In author Jonathan Gould's opinion, Starr's "guileless" persona ensured the song was presented with the same "deadpan quality" that he gave to the Beatles' feature films. As a result, Gould continues, the eponymous submarine "became a satirically updated version of the improbable craft in which Edward Lear put his characters to sea – the Owl and the Pussycat's pea-green boat, the Jumblies' unsinkable sieve".
The song begins with the first verse, opening with the line "In the town where I was born". The structure comprises two verses and a chorus; a third verse, followed by a chorus; two further verses, the first of which is an instrumental passage; and repeated choruses. In musicologist Alan Pollack's description, the melody is "painfully simple, though in a subtle way, bears the John Lennon stamp of pentatonicism". The composition uses just five chords; in Roman numeral analysis, these are I, ii, IV, V and vi.
The lyrics offer an anti-materialist message typical of the Beatles' songs on their Revolver album and of psychedelic culture. Reising and LeBlanc view the song's lyrics as a celebration of "the simple pleasures of brotherhood, exotic adventure, and an appreciation of nature". They also see "Yellow Submarine" as the band introducing travel-related imagery to align with a psychedelic journey conveyed in an LSD trip, a theme used more introspectively in "Tomorrow Never Knows", where Lennon exhorts the listener to "float downstream".[nb 2] Musicologist William Echard recognises the psychedelic traits of oceanic imagery, childhood and nostalgia as especially prominent in the song, thereby making "Yellow Submarine" one of the most obvious examples of UK psychedelia's preoccupation with a return to childhood.
The Beatles began recording "Yellow Submarine" during the eighth week of the sessions for Revolver. The project was characterised by the group's increased experimentation in the studio, reflecting the division between their recording output and the music they made as live performers. The first session for the song took place at EMI Studios (now Abbey Road Studios) on 26 May 1966, but without producer George Martin, who was unwell. Author Ian MacDonald views Bob Dylan's contemporaneous hit single, "Rainy Day Women ♯12 & 35", as a possible inspiration on the Beatles. The two songs share a similar marching rhythm and a festive singalong quality.
The band spent much of the afternoon and evening rehearsing the song. They recorded four takes of the rhythm track, with Starr playing drums, Lennon on acoustic guitar, McCartney on bass, and Harrison on tambourine. The performance was taped at a faster tempo than appears on the completed track, which is in the key of G♭ major.
Following a reduction mix of take 4, Starr recorded his lead vocal and he, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison sang vocals over the choruses. The vocal parts were again treated with varispeed; in this instance, they were recorded a semitone lower. Harrison's contribution is especially prominent, departing from his bandmates' to sing an f1 note on the word "submarine".[nb 3] The recording was given another reduction mix, reducing the four tracks to two, to allow for the inclusion of nautical and party-like sound effects.
The Beatles dedicated their 1 June session to adding the song's sound effects. For this, Martin drew on his experience as a producer of comedy records for Beyond the Fringe and members of the Goons. The band invited guests to participate, including Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Harrison's wife Pattie Boyd, Marianne Faithfull, Beatles road managers Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, and Alf Bicknell, the band's driver. The studio store cupboard was sourced for items such as chains, bells, whistles, hooters, a tin bath and a cash till.[nb 4]
Although effects were added throughout the track, they were heavily edited for the released recording. The sound of ocean waves enters at the start of the second verse and continues through the first chorus. Harrison created this effect by swirling water around a bathtub. On the third verse, a party atmosphere was evoked through a combination of Jones clinking glasses together and blowing an ocarina, snatches of excited chatter, Boyd's high-pitched shrieks, Bicknell rattling chains, and tumbling coins. To fill the two-bar gap following the line "And the band begins to play", Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick used a recording of a brass band from EMI's tape library. They disguised the piece by splicing up the taped copy and rearranging the melody.[nb 5]
The recording includes a sound-effects solo over the non-singing verse, designed to convey the submarine's operation. Lennon blew through a straw into a pan of water to create a bubbling effect. Other sounds imitate the whirring of machinery, a ship's bell, hatches being slammed, chains hitting metal, and finally the submarine submerging.[nb 6] Lennon used the studio's echo chamber to shout out commands and responses such as "Full speed ahead, Mr Boatswain." From a hallway just outside the studio, Starr yelled: "Cut the cable!" Gould describes the section as a "Goonish concerto" consisting of sound effects "drawn from the collective unconscious of a generation of schoolboys raised on films about the War Beneath the Seas".[nb 7] According to Echard, the effects are "an especially rich example of how sound effects can function topically" in psychedelia, since they serve a storytelling role and further the song's "naval and oceanic" narrative and its nostalgic qualities. The latter, he says, is "due to their timbre, recalling radio broadcasts not only as a contemporary experience but also as an emblem of the near-distant past", and he also sees the effects as cinematic in their presentation as "a coherent sonic scenario, one that could be diegetic to an imagined series of filmic events".
In the final verse, Lennon echoes Starr's lead vocal, delivering the lines in a manner that musicologist Walter Everett terms "manic". Keen to sound as if he were singing underwater, Lennon tried recording the part with a microphone encased in a condom and, at Emerick's suggestion, submerged inside a bottle filled with water. This proved ineffective, and Lennon instead sang with the microphone plugged into a Vox guitar amplifier.
All the participants and available studio staff sang the closing choruses, augmenting the vocals recorded by the Beatles on 26 May. Evans also played a marching bass drum over this section. When the overdubs were finished, Evans led everybody in a line around the studio doing the conga dance while banging on the drum strapped to his chest. Martin later told Alan Smith of the NME that the band "loved every minute" of the session and that it was "more like the things I've done with the Goons and Peter Sellers" than a typical Beatles recording. Music critic Tim Riley characterises "Yellow Submarine" as "one big Spike Jones charade".
The song originally opened with a 30-second section containing narration by Starr and dialogue by Harrison, McCartney and Lennon, supported by the sound of marching feet (created by blocks of coal being shaken inside a box). Written by Lennon, the narrative focused on people marching from Land's End to John o' Groats, and "from Stepney to Utrecht", and sharing the vision of a yellow submarine.[nb 8] Despite the time taken in developing and recording this intro, the band chose to discard the idea, and the section was cut from the track on 3 June. Everett comments that the recording of "Yellow Submarine" took twice as much studio time as the band's debut album, Please Please Me.[nb 9]
The Beatles chose to break with their previous policy by allowing album tracks to be issued on a UK single. The "Yellow Submarine" single was the Beatles' thirteenth single release in the United Kingdom and the first to feature Starr as lead vocalist. It was issued there on 5 August 1966 as a double A-side with "Eleanor Rigby", and in the United States on 8 August. In both countries, Revolver was released on the same day as the single. The pairing of a novelty song and a ballad devoid of any instrumentation played by a Beatle marked a considerable departure from the content of the band's previous singles. Unusually for their post-1965 singles also, there were no promotional films made for either of the A-sides.
According to a report in Melody Maker on 30 July, the reason for the Beatles breaking with precedent and releasing a single from Revolver was to thwart sales of cover recordings of "Eleanor Rigby". When Harrison was asked for the reason, he replied that the group had decided to "put it out" rather than watch as "dozens" of other artists scored hits with the songs. In his NME interview in August, Martin said:
I was keen that the track be released in some way apart from the album, but you have to realise that the Beatles aren't usually very happy about issuing material twice in this way. They feel that they might be cheating the public ... However, we got to thinking about it, and we realised that the fans aren't really being cheated at all. Most albums have only 12 tracks; the Beatles always do 14!
– Author Nicholas Schaffner
The single topped sales charts around the world. The double A-side was number 1 on Record Retailer's chart (later adopted as the UK Singles Chart) for four weeks during a chart run of 13 weeks. On Melody Maker's singles chart, it was number 1 for three weeks and then spent two weeks at number 2. It was the band's twelfth consecutive chart-topping single in the UK. Despite the double A-side status there, "Yellow Submarine" was the song recognised with the Ivor Novello Award for highest certified sales of any A-side in 1966.[nb 10]
In the US, the single's release coincided with the Beatles' final tour and, further to the controversy over the "butcher cover" originally used for the Capitol Records LP Yesterday and Today, public furore over Lennon's "More popular than Jesus" remarks, originally published in the UK in his "How a Beatle Lives" interview with Cleave. The "Jesus" controversy overshadowed the release of the single and the album there; public bonfires were held to burn their records and memorabilia, and many radio stations refused to play the Beatles' music. The group were also vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War, a stand that further redefined their public image in the US. Capitol were wary of the religious references in "Eleanor Rigby", given the ongoing controversy, and instead promoted "Yellow Submarine" as the lead side. The song peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (behind "You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes) and number 1 on the charts compiled by Cash Box and Record World.
In Gould's description, it was "the first 'designated' Beatles single since 1963" not to top the Billboard Hot 100, a result he attributes to Capitol's caution in initially overlooking "Eleanor Rigby". During the US tour, Beatles press officer Tony Barrow asked Leroy Aarons of The Washington Post to remove mention of the band's "latest" single slipping on the charts when Aarons presented his article for their approval.[nb 11] In author Robert Rodriguez's view, the radio bans were responsible for the song's failure to top the chart. The single sold 1,200,000 copies in four weeks and, on 12 September, earned the Beatles their twenty-first US Gold Record award, a total they had achieved in just over two-and-a-half years.
One of the UK's older pop journalists, Allen Evans of the NME expressed confusion at the Beatles' progressiveness on Revolver but predicted, "One thing seems certain ... you'll soon all be singing about a 'Yellow Submarine'." Derek Johnson echoed this in his review of the single for the same publication, and described the song as "so different from the usual Beatles, and a compulsive sing-along". Melody Maker's reviewer said that the song's basic qualities would make it a "nursery rhyme or public house singalong" and complimented Starr's vocal performance and the "fooling around" behind him. Billboard characterised it as the Beatles' "most unusual easy rocker to date" due to the Starr lead vocal and an arrangement that featured "everything ... but the kitchen sink". Cash Box found the single's pairing "unique" and described "Yellow Submarine" as "a thumping, happy go lucky, special effects filled, highly improbable tale of joyous going on beneath the sea".
In their joint review for Record Mirror, Peter Jones said he was not especially impressed by the track but that it demonstrated the band's versatility, while Richard Green wrote: "Sort of Beatle 'Puff the Magic Dragon' ... Will be very big at about 9.30 on a Saturday morning on the Light Programme." Reporting from London for The Village Voice, Richard Goldstein stated that Revolver was ubiquitous around the city, as if Londoners were uniting behind the Beatles in response to the antagonism shown towards the band in the US. He said that "Yellow Submarine" depicted an "undersea utopia" and was "as whimsical and childlike as its flip side is metaphysical".
Ray Davies of the Kinks derided the song when invited to give a rundown of Revolver in Disc and Music Echo. He dismissed it as "a load of rubbish" and a bad choice for a single, adding that "I take the mickey out of myself on the piano and play stuff like this." Writing in the recently launched Crawdaddy!, Paul Williams was also highly critical, saying the song was as poor as Sgt. Barry Sadler's pro-military novelty single "Ballad of the Green Berets".[nb 12]
In his review of the Beatles' final concert, held at Candlestick Park near San Francisco on 29 August, Phil Elwood of the San Francisco Examiner rued that the band had failed to play anything from their "new, delightful album" in concert, particularly "Yellow Submarine". In her round-up of the year's pop music for the Evening Standard, Cleave named the single and Revolver as the best records of 1966. No customer reviews for the moment.
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