Show Hide image

50 years on, the Beatles film Yellow Submarine tells the story of the Sixties

The Beatles had little interest in the making of Yellow Submarine. But, the animation in which they barely appear says far more about them than they could have predicted.

Like many a pop-cultural highlight from the Age of Aquarius, Yellow Submarine came about mostly by accident. Its public unveiling, at a gala premiere made tabloid-worthy by the fact that Paul McCartney arrived alone rather than accompanied by his long-term girlfriend Jane Asher, was also weighed down by paradox. Here, after all, was that guaranteed box office smash, a “Beatles film”, in which the Fab Four only appeared in the closing frames (the previous 90 minutes were left to to cartoon representations of themselves); a celebration of Beatle-banter whose vocal parts were supplied by actors, and an undertaking in which the band took no interest at all until cinema audiences and critics signified their approval. What had started out as an expedient ended up, rather to its own surprise, as a bona fide classic from the late Sixties psychedelic margin – John, Paul, George and Ringo demonstrating yet again that practically any base metal could be turned to gold when exposed to their potent, alchemical touch.

Yellow Submarine began life late in 1967 as not much more than a contractual obligation. Rudderless after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, and already up to their necks in the cash-haemorrhaging vanity project of Apple Corps, the Beatles were keenly aware that they owed United Artists – the sponsors of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965) – a third film. As none of them, by this stage, could work up the faintest enthusiasm for another extended stint in front of the cameras, George Dunning’s animation offered an ingenious route out of the deal. If there was a legal obligation to provide four new numbers for the accompanying LP, then in the wake of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) sessions, the vaults were crammed with unreleased material, some of it of very doubtful quality. “It’ll do for the album,” John Lennon is supposed to have quipped whenever some undercooked snippet was played back to him by the studio engineers: it was in this cynical and provisional, or at least improvisatory, spirit that the enterprise ground reluctantly into gear.

All this gave the soundtrack album – released early in 1969 – a determinedly makeweight air. Of the six full-length songs on its opening side, “Yellow Submarine” had already featured on Revolver (1966) while “All You Need is Love” was a standalone single from July 1967. Of the new material, Harrison’s sarcastic “Only a Northern Song” had been rejected from Sergeant Pepper; “All Together Now” was a throwaway McCartney knees-up recorded in a single session, and “It’s All Too Much” another minor Harrison piece left over from the Summer of Love. Only “Hey Bulldog”, a new Lennon number from February 1968, has anything like the charge and dynamism of the Beatles’ best work, and in the absence of further sweepings from the studio carpet, side two was given over to George Martin’s orchestral score.

On the other hand, if the album could be safely characterised by the Beatles biographer Philip Norman as “a dustbin for second-rate tracks”, then the film itself is a startling late Sixties confection, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the age in which it was conceived, but always glancing back to the older world behind it: at once a state-of-the-art Sixties freak-out and an increasingly wistful survey of the foundations from which that phantasmagoria eventually crept.

Much of this, naturally, was down to the spectacular range of talent assembled for the project. Dunning himself was a forty-something veteran of the Beatles cartoon series sponsored by the ABC television company in the US. Screenwriter Erich Segal’s later credits would include the sempiternal weepie Love Story (1970). With Heinz Edelmann on board as art director, what had originally been conceived as a vehicle for Beatles songs (there are also full-length versions of “Eleanor Rigby”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Nowhere Man” and “When I’m 64”) swiftly transforms itself into something far more subtle and left-field. It is a complex juxtaposition of colour and sound, where the music harmonises with the animated landscapes on display, rather than, as it were, letting them play second fiddle.

 Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty

 

Yellow Submarine opens in “Pepperland”, an idyllic, sub-oceanic utopia whose elegant, music-fancying inhabitants are regularly entertained by their in-house orchestra, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and whose moral code – that standard Sixties embrace of tolerance, inclusiveness and affirmation – is set out in a series of word-statues (“Yes”, “Love”, “Now”, “OK” and so on). Into this blissed-out Arcadia erupt the music-hating Blue Meanies, bossed by their wonderfully camp, kinky boot-adorned leader “His Blueness” and his craven sidekick Max (voiced by the comedian Dick Emery). Happily, the escaping “Young Fred” manages to reach Liverpool in the Yellow Submarine, alert the Beatles and, after various adventures in such underwater playgrounds as the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science, the Sea of Monsters and the Sea of Holes, bring them all-conqueringly back.

Bright, primary colours, wide-eyed Sixties sloganeering (the Blue Meanies’ Sidewinder-style  surface-to-air missile, known as the “Glove” is, inevitably, disabled by having the “G” removed), efflorescent foliage and endless green grass…One of the fascinations of Yellow Submarine, half a century on, is its strew of late-Sixties cultural references. George is regularly heard to remark that, “It’s all in the mind” (a famous catchphrase from the Goon Show); and the Beatles’ encounter with the “nowhere man”, Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD, in the Sea of Nowhere, leads a puzzled Ringo to observe that he “must be one of these Angry Young Men” (at one point Jeremy refers to his forthcoming New Statesman piece). Meanwhile, the cigar placed in the mouth of a denizen from the Sea of Monsters is trailed by a bar or two of Bach’s “Air on a G String”, in homage to the long-running Hamlet cigar ad. Visually, though, the effect is far more eclectic: a collage of the contending cultural styles that were around in the Sixties, many of them dating back seventy or even eighty years before the piece was conceived.

Item one in this agglomeration is the Edwardian chic that distinguishes the Pepperland couture, its high collars, its embroidered waistcoats and flowing skirts, its cloth-capped children, its willowy women dressed like Pallas Athena and its men looking as if they had just stepped off the Sovereign’s Lawn at Cowes. Item two, alternatively, is the almost Wellsian hint of the late-Victorian scientific romance that hangs over the interiors of the submarine, with its gadgets and buttons, edging – once things begin to go wrong – into the world of the Heath Robinson contraption, all tangled wires, mysterious levers and cack-handed menace. Then, there are the gestures in the direction of Eastern mysticism (usually inspired by George’s presence), supported by sitar-driven excerpts from such Harrison numbers as “Love You To” from Revolver. To this can be added imagery from the inter-war era (the dancing girls in the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence are Twenties flappers with a marked resemblance to Isadora Duncan); a top-dressing of patented Sixties psychedelia; and bumper servings of the brand of Sixties surrealism that, while updating Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, also betrays the influence of contemporary artists such as Ronald Searle.

While no single style predominates, one of Yellow Submarine’s strongest debts is to the world of pre-1950s variety. If British popular music of the Sixties is saturated in the music hall tradition – as with the Kinks, or the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968) – then the Beatles had ostentatiously staked out their claim to this territory with Sergeant Pepper, of which McCartney remarked, “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We could make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”

 The Yellow Submarine premiere in 1968: McCartney caused a stir by turning up without Jane Asher. Credit: Harry Mysers/Rex

Sergeant Pepper’s title track is, as the Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald points out, “a shrewd fusion of Edwardian variety orchestra and contemporary ‘heavy rock’”, the pier-end entertainment of 1910 and the Jimi Hendrix Experience colliding head-on. A year later, these influences are still going strong. “Yellow Submarine” and “All Together Now” are both communal, football terrace singalongs shading into the orbit of the novelty song, and there is a rather revealing moment towards the end of the film in which John drops a highbrow reference to Einstein, Paul counters with a snatch of “Any Old Iron”, a piece of high-speed patter recorded by the variety hall titan Harry Champion (1865-1942) as long ago as 1911.

Not that McCartney would have come up with this line himself – like much of the heavily accented Scouse backchat it was doubtless written by the (uncredited) Mersey poet Roger McGough. On the other hand, via his jazz band-leading father Jim, he would have known exactly who Champion was and appreciated why he fits so well into the film’s cultural palette. Another of Yellow Submarine’s incidental tricks is its habit of referring back to Sergeant Pepper’s iconographic cover. Marilyn Monroe’s silhouette features, and one of “Lucy’s” dancing men, zealously guiding his partner across the floor, looks very much like Max Miller. Here, as so often in the film, we can see Dunning’s animators, though not working to the Beatles’ direction, picking up conceits from bygone Beatles albums and developing them in ways which – you assume – the band would have strongly approved. As for their public comments, Lennon’s thoughts on the piece are characteristically double-edged: he was keen on Edelmann’s art-direction while complaining about Segal’s all-too-accurately pastiched Beatle-talk and suggesting that at least some of the visual ideas were his own.

But the strongest twitch on the historical thread comes at the moment when the film fetches up on Merseyside. There follows an extraordinary piece of choreography in which “Eleanor Rigby” plays above the ruins of a black-and-white cityscape, the only constant patch of colour provided by the wandering submarine. A Churchillian bulldog in a Union Jack coat squats before footage of a Remembrance Day parade. Factory chimneys, bare, rising streets, ancient cast-iron lamp posts, tenement buildings and disused viaducts offer a backdrop to solitary human figures – a man jabbering desperately in a telephone kiosk; a figure perched on the arched upper storey of a derelict building; a flock of city-suited businessmen in bowler hats perched beneath umbrellas on snow-covered rooftops. These, clearly, are the “lonely people”, perilously adrift in a representation of the world they came from: a Liverpool which even in the Sixties is struggling to break free from its Victorian past.

 Face to face: the nowhere man and Blue Meanie

The sense of recent – and sometimes not so recent – history rises again in a scene in which the Beatles, after finessing their way back into Pepperland, hide out beneath the bandstand preparatory to donning their Sergeant Pepper gear and setting up the film’s finale. Outside, the slopes are patrolled by tommy gun-wielding Meanies while packs of guard-dogs yelp and searchlights roam back and forth: this is the atmosphere of a Second World War film, into which four amiable Liverpudlians in strange costumes seem mysteriously to have strayed.

Yellow Submarine ends with the real Beatles briefly clowning to camera, each bearing a souvenir of his journey to Pepperland: Paul has “a little LOVE”; Ringo returns with half a hole; George brandishes the submarine’s propeller; John, telescope held to his eye, announces that more Blue Meanies are in sight of the cinema.

For all the willed raucousness, their days as a workable musical unit are coming to an end. Within 18 months the whole thing will be over – all four members of the band were last present in the same studio on 20 August 1969 for the sequencing of Abbey Road. Half a century later, the animation in which they barely appear says far more about them and the world they inhabited than could ever have been predicted at the time. As a piece of pictorial art it brings off the difficult trick of looking both ways simultaneously: from one angle a snapshot of what the Sixties thought of the Sixties; from another a meditation on what the Sixties thought about the decades that had preceded it; a celebration of a thronged and tumultuous decade that doubles up as a melancholic farewell. 

An anniversary screening of “Yellow Submarine” will take place at selected cinemas across the UK on 8 July

DJ Taylor’s new novel, “Rock and Roll is Life: The True Story of the Helium Kids by One Who Was There,” is published by Constable

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis