Magical Mystery Tour and the songs that would make it onto Yellow Submarine, were recorded around the same time and circumstances (the death of Brian Epstein and the trip to India to name a couple) and in many ways run tangential to one another. Magical Mystery Tour was very much a Beatles heavy production in all sectors, from the “story” to the direction to of course the music. Meanwhile, by all accounts, The Beatles weren’t particularly invested in the Yellow Submarine project, only making appearances in the movie in live action form because they were liking how the movie was looking as things were wrapping up. As a result Magical Mystery Tour, whilst being the band’s worst cinematic effort, also helped produce an album that stands alongside their great works. Yellow Submarine though, although being one of the band’s best contributions to cinema, also produced the only album in The Beatles catalogue that most would describe as inessential or mediocre.
Both can also be described as “double-EP’s” more than albums themselves, and here it is because at one point the songs that make up Yellow Submarine were only going to be an EP (including “Across the Universe” into the mix). One could argue that it’s still only a Beatle’s EP, because the second half of the album is made up of the orchestral works of George Martin. Though if you really want to stretch the “fifth Beatle” definition it still could count, and if anything this separation does stress how much George Martin’s contributions to the Beatle’s sound helped to cultivate their epic, orchestral sound. Though without the movie’s cartoon and surreal to accompany the orchestra, some of the music comes across as pretty kitsch.
Still even when the band is not trying for greatness (I mean, two of these songs had been on albums already), The Beatles are still able to produce the occasional nugget of it. We shall find them now:
Track by Track
“Yellow Submarine”: see here for review
“Only a Northern Song”: The common factor between the first two track written for Yellow Submarine is how self conscious they are about being songs. This one, the first George number, makes that apparent enough to include it in the lyrics, particularly the first two verses which make fun of the band’s eccentricities. The songs on this records are the only psychedelic songs I can think of by George that don’t bring Indian Classical influences into the equation, the drone of those instruments replaced here by suspended organ chords, before being overpowered by percussion, chimes and trumpets towards the back end of the track.
“All Together Now”: Paul’s admitted, and many critics have pointed out, that this song was written in order to capture the same kind of sing-song magic that has made “Yellow Submarine” such a classic. This one is obviously not so, and when put in comparison with that song suffers from being too “obvious”. Apparently it took six hours to make and record, which sounds about right. Still, it definitely has its charms, much of that coming from the simple instrumentation that sees the band returning to the skiffle style they had crafted their song writing skills from (even if here it returns in a pastiche style). And dammit, I always sing along!
“Hey Bulldog”: In the middle of the band’s smallest and least substantial release comes maybe the most overlooked song from The Beatles that can comfortably be called capital-g Great. Or the song that is often called the most overlooked, which I think is a pretty big oxymoron. Either way this in my Top Five favourites from the band. John took to the piano to create an iconic, and rare for the band, piano riff that the rest of the band’s energy builds around. The rhythm section in this song is maybe the best of the band canon, not just in Ringo’s energetic work on the cymbals and snare, but with Paul’s incredible melodic bass work, skipping with a step that surpasses even John at the piano. The result of this combination is that sounds legitimately funky. And then there’s George’s guitar, using a then new fuzz, that simply screams in the solo like it was a hound in the moonlight. I bought a new pair of speakers this weekend, and this was the first song I played to test them. It was a superb choice.
“It’s All Too Much”: The lesser of George’s two psychedelic contributions, mainly on account of being aimless and too long, still has lots to admire. Again the hammond organ replaces the drones of the sitar, and George getting acquainted with the fuzz box produces maybe the straight up noisiest song the band made that was produced by tape loops. Because of this I would like to think that this song helped to cultivate the sound of noise rock going forward.
“All You Need is Love”: see here for review
“Pepperland”: I guess this is the first time that the Record Club would be reviewing what would very much classified as classical music, which definitely makes this track special in some way. I’m afraid as I write this my memory of the movie is not clear enough to describe it along with the actions of the movie, but thankfully this piece with its soaring strings, and brass and woodwinds riffs is one of the only ones here that I would say works just as well without the visuals.
“Sea of Time”: An incredibly interesting piece for the way it creates a classical tune from the ideas of Indian Classical music, though more specifically the sounds from “Within You and Without You” (play the first five second of both and see if you can tell the difference. Still, that’s mainly after the introduction, after which we get a 5/4 waltz that gradually moves into whilstful strings.
“Sea of Holes”: The cool electronic sounding parts of this song come from George Martin deciding to have a harp that played backwards. That, along with the swirling descending chords, gives this the suspenseful feel that really makes the title ‘Sea of Holes” make sense. Though the xylophones near the end of the song are a bit excessive.
“Sea of Monsters”: Some of the more atonal elements of this song make me think of Frank Zappa during that period, particularly humorous when you think of the relationship between the Beatles and Zappa at that point. Towards the back end of the track George Martin makes his baroque influences obvious, taking a segment from Bach’s “Air on the G String”, but the amount of tonal changes in this song makes it obviously a servant of the story.
“March of the Meanies”: The xylophones and strings here are so suspenseful and vivid that they do pull pictures from the movie out of my head. That feel is further emphasised with the swirling woodwind, and when all the music quiets down for the piano and clarinet (rising up for an epic conclusion)
“Pepperland Laid Waste”: A relaxing woodwind track that is counteracted with strikes of dark strings to demonstrate the title, how the attack has effected the land. Some of the metallic percussion on here though, is a little too silly to be truly suspenseful in its own right.
”Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”: Familiarity with the original song makes the particular piece a highlight, interpreting its simple melody with mountains of tremolo guitar and a tiny little glockenspiel. It particularly works when the music goes into its quiet woodwind section, because you know at some point it has to move back to the main riff, which makes the final blasts all the more joyous.
So, yeah, as a result of being pretty inseparable from the film it is the soundtrack of, Yellow Submarine is the worst album which is part of the official canon. But this being the worst album is more a testament to just how creative and prolific the band were at this time. It’s also the last obvious bouts of psychedelia before the band would move to their last two albums, both of them endings: the symbolic one and the literal one. It’s all terribly confusing. I think I’ll have to go for the one wikipedia says is next, even though in my heart its the Beatles farewell…
What did you think, though?
The Beatles Album Rankings
- The Beatles
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Magical Mystery Tour
- Beatles for Sale
- Please Please Me
- With the Beatles
- Yellow Submarine