Yellow Submarine is a rare and unusual record—a Beatles album where the Beatles didn’t particularly care. Back in the mop-top days, the band had signed a contract guaranteeing three soundtrack albums to their American record company. The Beatles’ involvement in the Yellow Submarine movie was negligible, but they were expected to deliver new material to help promote it. John and Paul, however, weren’t about to use their A+ material on a throwaway project. Hence this album.
Half of the album isn’t even Beatles material. Side two consists of orchestral music from the Yellow Submarine movie, written by George Martin. It’s all perfectly pleasant, and there are even a couple of cool parts, most notably the Indian-inspired string glissandos in “Sea of Holes” and the backwards snippets in “Sea of Time”. For the most part, however, it’s kind of twee and inconsequential, as you might expect: it’s the incidental music from a silly animated movie, released at a time when even the cognoscenti could muster a degree of patience for psychedelic whimsy. If you got really stoned while watching the movie back in the day, this might give you some amusing flashbacks (or alarming flashbacks—I can imagine the Blue Meanies being awfully hard to deal with). Otherwise, it’s of little value.
The original material on side one, however, is fascinating. The material’s tossed-off origins give it a character unlike any other Beatles album. Since John and Paul couldn’t be bothered, half of the new songs are George tunes. “Only a Northern Song” is an example of his mordant humor—the entire song is a declaration of worthlessness on the part of the singer: “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play / Or what words I say”. Given that “Northern songs” was the name of the Lennon/McCartney publishing company, it may also be a dig at his more prolific bandmates. Musically, it’s reminiscent of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, dominated by organ and a splattering trumpet part. George’s other song is the extended “It’s All Too Much”, which establishes a beatific vibe through hymnal organ, overdriven guitars, and a hypnotic, keening melody. As it fades slowly over the course of six and a half minutes, the trumpets return and compressed drums in the style of “Tomorrow Never Knows” come crashing as the other Beatles provide harmonies on the “It’s too much” refrain. It rocks, and as long as songs like this were being relegated to throwaway projects, George could be excused for sniping at John and Paul in “Only a Northern Song”.
Paul delivers a children’s song called “All Together Now”, which practically defines lightweight. For a collection of silly nursery rhymes, it’s reasonable tuneful and energetic, and at barely two minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. John’s “Hey Bulldog” is one of the great lost Beatles tunes, dominated by a driving piano riff. Over the fade, the Beatles make silly dog noises, adding a sense of spontaneity and fun that was absent from some of the later studio experiment years.
Filling out side one are “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love”, which are covered in greater detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say, they are no worse in this context. Vigilant record-buyers should also be aware that the four new songs also appear on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album that came out about ten years ago, along with every other song that appeared in the movie, essentially making it a “best of” covering the psychedelic years. While not part of the current remaster series, the songs were remixed from the original master tapes, and sound awfully good. No matter how you get them, though, the otherwise unavailable songs on this album ought to be part of any thinking Beatles fan’s collection.