Friday, September 18, 2009

The Beatles — Yellow Submarine

One has to wonder if Yellow Submarine, the Beatles' soundtrack album to a film they barely contributed to, an album that features only four new tracks penned by the Fab Four, can be truly considered an part of official canon. Happily, we don't have to fret, because Apple assures us that it is. Perhaps its inclusion in the official discography has its benefits, though: we as people love to tear down our heroes, and by placing Yellow Submarine in the hallowed company of unassailable masterpieces like Revolver and Rubber Soul it absorbs most of the blows, allowing those lone nuts who try to rail against Sgt. Pepper or The Beatles stand out even more prominently.

Apple certainly didn't include it because of its historical importance. Largely forgotten apart from its title song (which appeared on Revolver) and its connection to the film (which is remembered for its imagery and its use of classic Beatles tunes off of other album), the soundtrack thankfully is seen, not heard, in the line-up of the band's work.

It is interesting to note, however, that it points toward the "back-to-basics" approach the band would soon adopt for the Get Back project. The lyrics of "All Together Now" are so vague and simplistic that it's tempting to call them psychedelic ("Sail the ship/Boom, bam, boom/Chop the tree/Boom, bam, boom"), but it's propelled by a driving acoustic riff. Likewise, "Hey Bulldog" is pure hard rock, featuring bluesy riffs, thundering fills and a killer bassline. The lyrics don't mean a thing, but who cares when it sounds this good?

Nevertheless, it's the psychedelic songs that prove the most enjoyable. "Only a Northern Song" floats on its Mellotron as a demented trumpet slices through the air, undermining its gentler mood. George Harrison wrote the song back in '67 and submitted it for Sgt. Pepper, but the band went with "Within You Without You" instead. Despite its psychedelic tone, Harrison wrote the album as a bitter condemnation of the royalty percentages he received under the agreement laid down by their music publisher; basically, he received 8 percent of the profits from the songs he wrote, while Lennon and McCartney each got 15. For such a caustic number to fit so nicely in the nice, spaced tone of the film is a testament to Harrison's compositional skill, and probably the effects of drugs as well. Even better is his killer guitar trip "It's All Too Much," which mixes heavily distorted guitar with the Indian drone typical of Harrison's compositions.

To be honest, all four songs are pretty great; why, then, am I so hard on it? Well, as you can see, it's packaged as an album, sold for album prices, but it only has 4 Beatles songs you can't get elsewhere. And even that's not true anymore: Apple, perhaps as an incentive to those who would spend extra money to get the mono box set (despite it featuring less albums and no "special features" like the stereo set, and despite it containing the mixes the Beatles cite as the definitive versions), dumped all four of the album's exclusive, Beatles-penned tracks into the mono mix of Past Masters as perhaps a mea culpa. Perhaps if they'd issued the soundtrack as an EP with "Across the Universe" thrown in as the band originally planned, they'd have had a hit on their hands. As it stands, though, there's little to say about George Martin's instrumental score (not that it isn't good) or the "proper" stereo version of "All You Need Is Love." Yellow Submarine is a shallow, transparent cash-grab on the company's part and a contractual obligation on the band's. But it's hard to listen to the original tracks and not get swept away in their quality.

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