Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Eleven)

The Beatles’ third movie was a cartoon loosely based on a Revolver single.  Released in Britain in the summer of 1968, the soundtrack didn’t surface until January 1969.  During scheduled breaks from the making of each of their earlier live action productions, the band also put together new collections of songs.  Half of their third LP would end up in A Hard Day’s Night while half of album number five was used in Help!  Unfortunately, the non-movie songs wouldn’t surface on the American releases of these albums.  Instead of two full-length studio offerings, we got two soundtracks made up of movie songs and original film orchestrations.
Because the band were so thoroughly exhausted from making “The White Album”, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack only featured four previously unreleased songs, none of which were conceived for the film.  They were basically leftovers from past sessions that took place in 1967 and 1968.  As a result, the album is filled out with two well-known hits plus a whole side of classical material created for the movie by producer George Martin.
Even though he hits a bum note on the third word of the very first line, Ringo Starr’s warm vocals on the title song are part of its charm.  (His performance gets progressively better, thankfully.)  Cheerfully bouncy and supremely innocent, Yellow Submarine never fails to put a smile on my face.  With its quirky use of sound effects, not to mention that brass band cameo, it’s both amusing and sweet. 
All You Need Is Love, the other previously released track, has grown on me immensely over the years.  Although it’s still quite easy to be cynical of its naive, undoubting, endlessly positive nature, it’s next to impossible not to be emotionally swept up in its irresistible arrangement.  You want to believe in its too-good-to-be-true message and the music allows you to do that for its entire four-minute running time.  Even when it gets goofy at the end with references to past Beatles hits and even In The Mood, of all songs, it never loses its power.  The ultimate cheer-you-up anthem.
In between Yellow Submarine and All You Need Is Love are the four new tracks.  Cheekiness abounds in Only A Northern Song, a psychedelic Sgt. Pepper outtake written by George Harrison, released for the first time here in its original mono version.  The musical equivalent of an inside joke, Northern Songs was the name of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s publishing company.  Harrison and Ringo Starr signed on, too, when their songs started appearing on Beatle releases but their share of the loot was quite small (1.6 percent each compared to the 30 percent stakes Lennon and McCartney each had).  They both eventually broke away to form their own separate entities.  Excellent decision.  By the way, at no point have Lennon (when he was alive), his estate nor McCartney ever had a majority ownership.  (Long story.)  Deeply sarcastic, Only A Northern Song amusingly downplays the significance of itself (and every George Harrison contribution, for that matter) in two ways.  In three verses, it suggests that the music is a little off and in two choruses, no matter how it was conceived, its of little importance to the chief songwriters in the group.  (“It’s only a northern song.”)  Along with its trippy arrangement (dig that warped horn, man) and airy melody line, sung by Harrison, this wouldn’t have been out of place on Sgt. Pepper.
All Together Now spends most of its two minutes sounding like an adorable children’s sing-a-long.  But in the third verse, there’s a hint of naughtiness.  (“Can I take my friend to bed?”)  Basically a cute little throwaway, its most charming element is the succession of sped-up “all together now”s and collective hand claps in its final half-minute.  The harmonica continues its unexpected comeback with this low-key, triumphant appearance.
Hey Bulldog features some of the best music Lennon and McCartney ever wrote together but good luck figuring out the lyrics.  Every once in a while, however, there’s a sly, lucid insert.  At one point, it sounds like Lennon is taking a dig at his fans.  (“Some kind of solitude is measured out in you/You think you know me, but you haven’t got a clue.”)  Essentially one of their nonsensical dream-like numbers, Hey Bulldog is filled with rich imagery and enough puzzling lines to keep you thinking about it for as long as you care to.  The ad-libbed ending with McCartney’s oddly convincing barking and Lennon’s maniacal laughter, not to mention their banter, is quite enjoyable.  The Beatles at their silliest.  Thanks to this reissued version of the soundtrack, you can hear the dialogue a little clearer than before.
Over the years, It’s All Too Much has aged into one of Harrison’s all-time greatest Beatle tracks.  This utterly brilliant six-and-a-half minute epic features some of his deepest lines heard against a full-on psychedelic rock-out.  Ringo’s tambourine playing gives me the chills.  How it never made the cut for Sgt. Pepper remains a mystery.  It would’ve fit in perfectly.
The second half of the soundtrack is handed off to producer George Martin and his 41-piece orchestra as they run through seven instrumental numbers. all re-recordings of material heard in the movie.  The strings on Pepperland are heartbreaking in their loveliness.  Sea Of Time echoes elements of Within You Without You with its sitar-drenched opening before settling into a brief series of beautiful orchestral vignettes.  (More elegant string work to behold in that one.)  Sea Of Holes is pretty much a static mood piece despite the use of some backward sound effects.  It can be skipped.  The uneven Sea Of Monsters works best when it reprises the key string line from Sea Of Time.  Other cool moments include a bit where the violins appear to be laughing and the galloping section near the end.  Unfortunately, for the rest of the duration it’s pretty forgettable.  March Of The Meanies, on the other hand, is the best of the lot with its dramatic tension greatly conveyed by Martin’s first-rate string section.  Pepperland Laid To Waste does a wonderful job at establishing mood without the safety net of a visual accompaniment, always a challenge for movie score albums.  And Yellow Submarine In Pepperland is a strong finale, both moving and whimsical.
Like the previous releases, the sound quality is excellent, although I had no qualms with the original CD from 1987.  Early pressings include a three-minute mini documentary that you can only access via your computer.  (You need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime in order to watch it.  Check the back cover for more details, especially if you’re a Mac user.)  Featuring far out clips from the Yellow Submarine movie (honestly, can you think of another animated feature that looks like this?) and short clips of some of the soundtrack material, it’s one of the better ones in this reissue series.  Paul McCartney expresses his admiration for Lennon’s quirky songwriting.  (There’s a short scene from the Hey Bulldog promotional film that plays while he speaks.)  However, he sounds a bit disappointed that the final film was less Disney (as he hoped) and more Sgt. Pepper (as he believes it turned out to be).  As Ringo helpfully points out, Yellow Submarine is less of an album and more a collection of Beatle tracks that would work in an animated setting.  Although there’s nothing truly revelatory here (all this footage was previously contained in The Beatles On Record documentary), it’s still an entertaining segment.
As for the liner notes, there’s lots of stills from the film to check out.  Also, the original writings from both the British and American album sleeves have been restored.  The former features a goofy, at times remarkably honest paragraph from The Beatles’ on-again/off-again press agent Derek Taylor as he briefly introduces a well-written rave review of “The White Album” by London Observer critic Tony Palmer.  The latter, written by Dan Davis, unwittingly appears to give away the entire plot of the movie in a rambling, overwritten, sometimes irritating piece that puts the theme of the movie (pleasure: good, deprivation of pleasure: bad) into historical and mythological context.  Finally, there’s the standard historical and recording sections standard to all fourteen of these releases.  I’m not sure I knew this before but there was a plan to release the four new Beatle songs from the film along with Across The Universe as part of a stand alone EP in 1969.  For some reason, this idea never became a reality.  The liner notes also explain the technical side of Only A Northern Song and Hey Bulldog.
Despite one too many George Martin pieces, for most of its 39 minute, 43 second running time, Yellow Submarine is a lot of fun, featuring some of George Harrison’s best work.  If you don’t care about the orchestral selections, seek out the 1999 Songtrack collection which features just The Beatle tracks taken from the movie (except A Day In The Life).  I don’t know about you but listening to this record makes me want to see it on DVD.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 11, 2010 
12:24 a.m. 
Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 12:24 am  Leave a Comment  

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