If there’s one song that almost every single person in the world can attribute to The Beatles, it has to be ‘Yellow Submarine’. The song is so naturally tailored to burrowing into your brain that, even after a momentary intrusion into one’s ear, the song is lodged deep within your cerebral catalogue for years, if not decades, to come. And there’s a good reason for it — that’s exactly how Paul McCartney wrote it.
The more jovial side of the most ferocious songwriting partnership in all of pop music, McCartney spent most of his career within The Beatles trying to balance the ruthless and raw sounds of John Lennon with his own brand of elbow-in-the-ribs music hall revelry. These songs were usually labelled as “granny shit” by Lennon but have become a rich piece of the Fab Four’s iconography. Sometimes though, Macca’s songs weren’t just designated for Beatles diehards and the mythical music halls of old; sometimes, they transcended into anthemic moments of innocent joy.
One such song that leapt from silly to sublime is ‘Yellow Submarine’. “It’s a happy place, that’s all,” remembered McCartney of the track. “You know, it was just… We were trying to write a children’s song. That was the basic idea. And there’s nothing more to be read into it than there is in the lyrics of any children’s song.” It’s a simple premise for a tune and entirely captured not only the mood McCartney intended but also provided The Beatles with the respite from realism they needed.
Recorded during the Revolver sessions, ‘Yellow Submarine’ feels far removed from their work at the time. The band had moved away from their boyband beginnings and were intent on creating work that challenged them artistically and nourished them personally. Endlessly trying to perfect and redefine what it was to be pop stars, the group were nearing their creative peak while still dealing with the pressures of starring in films, playing live shows and just existing within the cacophonous chaos of Beatlemania. For that reason alone, ‘Yellow Submarine’ acted as a huge reprrive.
Speaking in 1999, George Harrison remembered the song very fondly: “Paul came up with the concept of ‘Yellow Submarine.’ All I know is just that every time we’d all get around the piano with guitars and start listening to it and arranging it into a record, we’d all fool about. As I said, John’s doing the voice that sounds like someone talking down a tube or ship’s funnel as they do in the merchant marine. (laughs)
“And on the final track, there’s actually that very small party happening! As I seem to remember, there’s a few screams and what sounds like small crowd noises in the background.”
The song was initially written as a piece for Ringo Starr to take up lead vocals on: “I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, which it eventually turned out to be, so I wrote it as not too rangey in the vocal,” McCartney told Barry Miles for Many Years From Now. “I just made up a little tune in my head, then started making a story, sort of an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he’d lived and how there’d been a place where he had a yellow submarine. It’s pretty much my song as I recall, written for Ringo in that little twilight moment. I think John helped out; the lyrics get more and more obscure as it goes on but the chorus, melody and verses are mine.
“There were funny little grammatical jokes we used to play. It should have been ‘Every one of us has all he needs’ but Ringo turned it into ‘every one of us has all we need.’ So that became the lyric. It’s wrong, but it’s great. We used to love that.”
The truth is, despite its innocent nature, the song is an accurate reflection of the psychedelic era that was washing over London. The band had, largely already partaken in the drug, but McCartney seemed to capture the essence of the scene’s willingness to start afresh within the simple track. The song was even constructed in the “twilight zone”. Macca told Anthology: “I remember lying in bed one night, in that moment before you’re falling asleep – that little twilight moment when a silly idea comes into your head – and thinking of ‘Yellow Submarine’: ‘We all live in a yellow submarine…’”
“I quite like children’s things; I like children’s minds and imagination. So it didn’t seem uncool to me to have a pretty surreal idea that was also a children’s idea. I thought also, with Ringo being so good with children – a knockabout uncle type – it might not be a bad idea for him to have a children’s song, rather than a very serious song. He wasn’t that keen on singing.”
Released as a double a-side with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ on the day Revolver came out, ‘Yellow Submarine’ has gone on to become one of The Beatles most cherished hits — the song is designed to make you all join in with a smile on your face. It naturally offers a view of McCartney’s creativity, but, perhaps more importantly, it allowed four lads who had been whisked into stardom the chance to settle back down, remember their childhoods and have some fun.