Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Beatles - The 'Yellow Submarine' Albums

Yellow Submarine (1969)
The animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine was conceived to meet the Beatles' contractual obligations to make a third feature film for United Artists (but, given the severely minimal involvement of the Beatles in the project, Yellow Submarine was disqualified for that purpose; the Let It Be documentary fulfilled their contract instead).  The movie depicts the Beatles sailing in a yellow submarine to a mythical paradise called Pepperland, a place full of love and music, to save it from the Blue Meanies, who hate anything positive.  What could have been an easy-exploitation cartoon movie instead became one of the most heartfelt, innovative, visually delightful, and lovingly produced animated features ever made.  The soundtrack album, alas, was made with less care.
The Beatles were working on material for their own movie (Magical Mystery Tour) at the same time they were asked to contribute new songs for the Yellow Submarine movie, whose producers were already using familiar material from earlier Beatles records in addition to the title song.  Also, the group was going through a random and uninspired period, having just exhausted themselves making Sgt. Pepper; the group had such low expectations for the Yellow Submarine movie, they considered its accompanying soundtrack LP to be of minor (if any) importance.  All but one of the four new songs they gave to the producers of Yellow Submarine were rejects from the 1967 Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour sessions.  Side one of the soundtrack record starts with the title track - the exact same recording that appeared on Revolver - and ends with "All You Need Is Love" (making its debut appearance on a U.K. Beatles LP), with the new material in between, while side two has instrumentals from Beatles producer George Martin's film score.  The result is a record that is a genuine movie soundtrack record but not so much a Beatles LP.  Incidental film music on a Beatles record was second nature to American fans, who'd had to endure editions of the A Hard Day's Night and Help! albums featuring just the songs from the movies with film music as filler, but at least this time all the film music was on one side, not staggered with the Beatles' material on both sides throughout. 
Such staggering might have helped in this case, though, because the new tunes sound weaker than they actually are when placed together on one side.  George Harrison's "Only a Northern Song," a complaint about the Beatles' song publishing company in the form of a song with lyrics critiquing . . . itself (!) is a sludgy dirge, while Paul McCartney's "All Together Now" is a charming but rather silly singalong that attempts to replicate the magic of "Yellow Submarine" itself.  That said, though, the other two songs are noticeably better; John Lennon's "Hey Bulldog," the only song written specifically for the movie (it was recorded in February 1968), has a great barrelhouse blues feel, while George's "It's All Too Much" has some spellbinding guitar feedback and moody organ riffs suggesting early Velvet Underground and anticipating Pink Floyd's grand seventies soundscapes.  But despite all that, and despite Martin's stellar score, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album - released in January 1969, two months to the day after the film's American release - must be considered a footnote at best in the Beatles' catalog.  But hey, at least it was the first appearance of "All You Need Is Love" in true stereo, right?
Fortunately for Beatles fans who are completists (and what Beatles fan isn't one?), there is an alternative.     

Yellow Submarine Songtrack (1999)
The original plan for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album was for it to include all of the sixteen songs used in the movie, but someone at EMI must have reasoned that asking fans to pay full album price for four new songs plus twelve duplications was far more egregious than asking them to pay full album price for four new songs, two duplications, and George Martin's background instrumentals. The irony was that, when Apple released Yellow Submarine Songtrack - which followed the original plan for the 1969 release - in 1999 for the movie's re-release on home video (which included the "Hey Bulldog" sequence, originally edited out of most prints), it turned out to be the superior collection. 
Aside from "A Day in the Life" (the 24-bar orchestral improvisation from which was used in the film to show the yellow sub soaring over England before landing in the Thames), every song partially or completely included in the movie is here, all fully remixed from the original multi-track tapes, a procedure not used for most of the 1987 or 2009 compact disc re-issues of the Beatles' original albums.  The result is a fuller, richer sound that makes listeners feel like they're in the studio with the Fab Four themselves. The music on Yellow Submarine Songtrack is clearer, the vocals have more presence, and some songs have been enhanced for added effect. "Eleanor Rigby" features a superior remix of Paul McCartney's vocal with a greater emphasis on the strings, while "Yellow Submarine" is practically re-worked into an entirely new version, with John's backing vocals on the third verse coming in sooner and the sound effects being more prominent. The piano riff on "Hey Bulldog" is also more pronounced, and the vocals are more centered.  And although nothing could make "Only a Northern Song" a better song, it was made into a better recording, here in true stereo for the first time ever (it was originally mixed in duophonic, or "mock stereo," sound due to tape machine problems) and sounding fresher. "Nowhere Man," is all about the treble, and the guitars on that song are brought out beautifully here, while "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" sparkles with remarkable clarity.
George Harrison probably benefited the most from these remixes, with "Think For Yourself" having more punch and the sitar on "Love You To" sounding more intricate. Yellow Submarine Songtrack goes out with "It's All Too Much," its fresh reworking bringing out the innovation in the original recording and sounding more timeless and durable than some of the seventies art rock it must have inspired.
Although George Martin's film score is lovely, the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album rightly serves to remind us that it's the Beatles' music, not Martin's, that is the film's raison d'etre and so celebrates that music to the extreme.  The remixes bring out the beauty of the songs and demonstrate how they belong together and reinforce each other in the movie. The record is thus a journey to Pepperland itself, and a reminder of what a positive force the Beatles were and still are . . . both for their fans and for the animation artists whose movie brought out their essence in spellbinding color and diverting storytelling. Love really is all you need.
(This is my last Sunday record review for awhile; I should be back with them in late March.)

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