“sea of green,” indeed…

I am amazed that the Yellow Submarine album still exists. Let’s analyze its contents: 6 Beatles songs – 2 of which were previously released (the title track, on Revolver, and “All You Need Is Love,” on Magical Mystery Tour), plus 7 tracks of George Martin’s soundtrack music for the Yellow Submarine animated film. In other words, 4 songs. The second disc of the mopping-up Past Masters set is 51 minutes long. There’s plenty of room for these 4 tracks, which total fifteen minutes. Does anyone really think the CD is worth buying for Mr. Martin’s soundtrack work?

About that music: in some circles, there remains lingering suspicion that George Martin, being musically trained and all, is the real genius behind the Beatles; that the Beatles were just pretty faces (and good singers) while Martin was the real musician. This strikes me as thinking similar to the notions that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written the plays that appear under his name, since he lacked the proper education some would say is necessary to have done so. In other words, unless you’re born to the right folks and have gone to the right schools, you can’t make anything decent artistically. This is obviously class-based crap – but of course, in any individual situation, it could be the case. So, here’s George Martin, flying solo, writing and arranging music under his own name at last: does it illustrate that the spark of Beatle genius resided within the subdued soul of the refined Mr. Martin? Well…no. Certainly, Martin’s ear for colorful orchestrations is in evidence…but compositionally, these pieces are pretty forgettable, certainly lacking the melodic verve and energy of actual Beatles composition. Martin’s no Francis Bacon (but then, neither was he).

So about those four Beatles songs. George Harrison gets two songs on this LP – which is, mathematicians confirm, fully half of the “new” material. These tracks date mostly from 1967, in the midst of recording Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, while “Hey Bulldog” dates from February 1968, a few months before work started on the White Album. “Only a Northern Song” continues the string of Beatles songs featuring prominent noise tracks – in this case, lots of swirling weirdness, to go along with the spastic trumpet playing and some glockenspiel sprinkled from a wizard’s cape. All of this sparkles atop a rather narcotized-sounding Harrison vocal, riding a sometimes very odd chord sequence (odd enough that Harrison’s lyric comments on the same) spelled out by a big fat Hammond organ (unusually for the Beatles). It’s George’s most avant-garde work with the Beatles, aside from his collaborations on Lennon’s “Revolution 9,” and anticipates the oddity of his Wonderwall Music. I like it a lot, cuz I’m weird like that. “All Together Now” is a very minor Beatles song, a fun little kid-style singalong courtesy of one Mr. James Paul McCartney.

The other two Beatles songs nearly are worth the price of the individual CD (if you’re silly enough to buy it like that). “Hey Bulldog” is one of the last times you can hear the band actually having fun in the studio (if not, it sure sounds like it), driven by an absolutely killer Lennon piano riff (doubled on guitar and bass) and one of the band’s more propulsive, rocking performances. (Hey – let’s add it to that hypothetical Beatles rawk album I mentioned last time…) McCartney’s very active bass part is practically a whole song by itself – it crucially provides some rhythmic variety against the steady pulse of nearly every other part aside from the main riff. And on “It’s All Too Much,” George Harrison and the band invent shoegaze, twenty years ahead of time. Guitars drone both crunchily and hazily, there are no chord changes whatsoever, and George sings like he’s pouring honey over razor blades. But somebody needs to pull those wonderfully rich, textured, distorted guitar parts from out of the vague center-channel purgatory they dwell in…even though the rest of the track is pretty cool too: an organ part also burning in some nice distortion, Ringo’s incredibly pinging drums, and two insane trumpet parts. Plus, is that a clavinet playing that funky little bass part in the break? But again: turn up the damned guitars. Someone, please!

So why weren’t those tracks folded into either an expanded Magical Mystery Tour (the three contemporary tracks) or added to Past Masters (either all four, or just “Hey Bulldog”), while Martin’s soundtrack work was either left to fend for itself in the marketplace or available only as part of the film which, ultimately, provides its most sympathetic home?

See this entry’s title.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to ““sea of green,” indeed…

  1. James

    George Martin, God bless him, didn’t play (or write) George’s Atkins/Perkins influenced guitar breaks. I doubt having Paul sing like Little Richard on “I’m Down” was his idea, either. I’ve heard some of the novelty records Martin produced before he met the Beatles, and while they’re fun, they’re very far off from the 50’s rock/60’s Motown influenced sound of the early Beatles.

    Regarding -Yellow Submarine-, there is that remastered “special edition” of a few years ago (still in print as far as I know) that gives you the Beatles’ half and singles from around the same time (“Strawberry Fields,” “All You Need Is Love,” etc.). You’re buying one more Beatles collection, though.

  2. Thanks for the analysis. Now I can continue to ignore the album as sub-quality filler and a shameless money grub.

  3. James: Are you referring to the 1999 Yellow Submarine “songtrack” that was released alongside the DVD of the film? Those versions were actually remixed (as opposed to merely remastered). At this point, that version is definitely the better of the two to pick up, minor improvements in sound notwithstanding (and if I complain about the suppression of the guitar sound on “It’s All Too Much” on the remaster, it’s even more genteelized on the “songtrack” version).

    Yellojkt: Problem is, “Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much” are definitely worth owning – and “Northern Song” is not too far behind. But in the present era, you know, there are many options for listening to particular songs, aren’t there.

  4. Oh – and no criticism of George Martin intended. I suspect if you asked him, he would not think of himself as a particularly gifted composer. As an arranger and producer though – and as the conduit through which some of the Beatles’ ideas were translated into music playable by other musicians – he was indispensable. His willingness to let the band pursue its idea was also essential to their development: a more hidebound, traditional producer would have gotten in the way, quite possibly exacerbating band tensions…and the band might not have made it past Brian Epstein’s death if they couldn’t even create music together effectively in the studio.

    So definitely credit Martin for what he did do – I was only arguing against those who’d give him credit for what he did not do (as James points out: much of the appeal of Beatles records has little to do with production or arranging per se).

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