Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Yellow Submarine

It barely makes sense to talk about this album as a coherent entity. It was supposed to be an EP consisting of the four new tracks, but the American market demanded a full album, so it was padded with the title track and ‘All You Need Is Love’ on one side and George Martin’s orchestral score on the other. (This did at least mean that the album had mostly new music on it – another route might have been to combine the four new songs with nine or ten others from the film that most Beatles fans would own already.) It was the only Beatles album I never bought before getting the boxset: I knew the tracks incredibly well anyway, as my schoolfriends and I went through a phase of watching the film every time we got stoned. (I still love the film, and recently it became the second movie my three-year-old son had ever seen – one of the joys of being a Beatles fan is the huge range of ephemera, which enable you to come at the group from so many different angles.)

But most of all, the recording of these tracks was so disparate. Accumulated over the course of a year, they have nothing to unite them, no direct relevance to the Yellow Submarine concept. The result is like looking through the back door of Abbey Road during the making of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour – the paths they didn’t take during this period.

‘Only A Northern Song’ was supposed to be Harrison’s other track on Sgt. Pepper but was dropped for not being good enough. Harrison was the Beatle whose songs were least suited to a project like Yellow Submarine – he was the most abstract songwriter in the group, tending to write about his ideas and views. Lennon was a more ‘visual’ songwriter and McCartney made more use of character and narrative, both of which worked much better in this context. Notably, the only two songs of Harrison’s to feature prominently in the film are both ones which the filmmakers had no option other than to use, since a major selling point was that the film featured new Beatles songs and they had to use the exclusive songs they’d been given. I like ‘Only A Northern Song’ quite a lot, but the filmmakers must have been nonplussed to receive a sour rant about Harrison’s publishing contract set to music, with no visual hooks at all. The sequence they came up with is great, but has no narrative content or relevance to the lyrics.

‘It’s All Too Much’, apparently written by Harrison in an uncharacteristic fit of exuberance at the wonder of the world (must’ve been the drugs), slots into the end sequence of the film very well. It’s also an interesting example of The Beatles’ facility for picking up and dropping styles. Apparently intended for Magical Mystery Tour, it’s The Beatles attempting a full-on psychedelic wig-out with feedback, layers of sound and an extended outro. Having flung it out to Yellow Submarine, they then never recorded anything like it again. (It does however seem to be the model for Oasis’ entire Be Here Now album.)

‘All Together Now’ was recorded before the release of Sgt. Pepper but never found a home, and probably later struck McCartney as being good fodder for a cartoon: it also struck me as a great opener for a playlist of Beatles songs aimed at kids, which I’ll share with you at some point. (It’s also interesting as a jolly summer-of-love preview of the weirder, more sinister childlike songs on The Beatles.) The only one which may have been written with the soundtrack in mind was ‘Hey Bulldog’, purely because it must have been submitted for use at the last minute: Mark Lewisohn states that it replaced ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’ as the final new track for the film. (It did emerge very late in the day – the concept for the ‘Lady Madonna’ video was to show them at work in the studio, but rather than mime to the already-recorded single, they decided to record something new and let the cameras film that. The footage, since re-edited, makes a better video for ‘Hey Bulldog’ itself, since that’s what they were actually playing.)

‘Hey Bulldog’ has become a minor Beatles classic, and is the only track from Yellow Submarine to genuinely point to where the group was going next: less whimsical, more focused around guitars/bass/drums/piano, with a harder edge. It has a rawness and menace that hadn’t been heard since ‘Money’ on Beatles For Sale. The other tracks were already relics from the group’s psychedelic phase: the lag time of an animated film had no chance of keeping up with The Beatles’ restless creativity.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Magical Mystery Tour

A perverse index of how successful Sgt Pepper was can be found in the backlash that followed six months later. Today, the slating that Magical Mystery Tour received seems magnificently irrelevant to the group’s reputation. Indeed, it’s rather gratifying that The Beatles used their huge commercial clout to convince the BBC to devote an hour of the Boxing Day schedule to their rambling stoner home movie: having done their three years of punishing, crowd-pleasing itineraries, they were now doing what the hell they wanted. Take that, The Man!

Yet the kicking they received was not entirely undeserved. The Beatles do appear to have lost focus quite rapidly after Sgt Pepper, partly as a result of McCartney’s bullish determination to maintain it. Just four days after finishing Pepper, when they probably should have taken a break, they were back in the studio working on Magical Mystery Tour. Another factor was the death of their manager Brian Epstein, which was not only traumatic but robbed them of a key authority figure. And although they’d been doing lots of drugs for some time by this stage, in the air of the summer 1967 – and with a resounding creative and commercial triumph behind them – it’s just possible that it all went to their heads.

In the Anthology series there’s a sequence of interview clips where nobody can come to a consensus on whether ‘All You Need Is Love’ was written specially for the Our World TV special or not. It’s generally unclear to me whether the material they were recording in this period was intended for specific projects, or whether they were just slinging songs together and putting them out wherever seemed appropriate at the time. Up to this point, their record releases had been very straightforward – they aimed to average a single every four months and an album every six. Recently the gaps between releases had stretched, but the pattern was more or less the same. Yet post-Pepper, they were working on two different soundtracks (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine) whilst still putting out singles, but not working on an album. Their approach to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack appears to have been to use it as a dumping ground for less favoured material (as evidenced by poor George contributing two of the four new songs).

In addition, the group were also accruing offcuts like ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’, which didn’t see the light of day until the ‘Let It Be’ single in 1970. Pre-Pepper, they’d never had time to mess about in the studio. Now they seemed to be doing it quite often, no doubt to the delight of George Martin and his team who had to sit around until the early hours committing to tape what might only be an extended in-joke.

A lot of the material from this period has been celebrated in retrospect, and there’s a lot to like about it. The only real dud on the Magical Mystery Tour EP, for me, is ‘Blue Jay Way’ (I even like the much-maligned ‘Flying’). ‘I Am The Walrus’ is of course a Classic Beatles Song, as Lennon gets away with a measly single contribution to the soundtrack by the simple tactic of making it one of the most astonishing pieces of popular music ever made. (It’s been analysed enough elsewhere – Howard Goodall covers it well in the documentary I linked to in the second piece on Revolver.) Neither ‘The Fool On The Hill’ nor ‘Your Mother Should Know’ would have dragged down the hit-rate of Sgt Pepper. Although there’s sometimes a lethargy to the performance or a lack of polish in the production to the tracks from this period, it’s only by comparison with their own high standards – and you only have to listen to the ‘Weimar’ version of ‘Your Mother Should Know’ (recorded after the ‘proper’ version, but discarded) to know that they were still disciplined enough to search for the best way of doing something rather than go with the first thing that came into their heads.

Yet whilst these tracks may have been celebrated individually, they simply don’t add up to as much as Sgt Pepper, or indeed Revolver or Rubber Soul. It’s annoyingly nebulous and I’m possibly trying too hard to justify an instinctive response here, but it does seem that the unifying sense of purpose which had shaped earlier Beatles albums is missing here – and would arguably remain missing until Abbey Road.