They needed a Ringo song. It’s early summer 1966, and The Beatles are in the throes of their most experimental, most musically ambitious, and most drastically different sounding LP yet, Revolver. The band are beginning to use the studio as an instrument, conjuring sounds that couldn’t possibly be replicated in a live setting, like the echoing tape loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and the backwards guitar solo of ‘She Said She Said’. The band were embracing psychedelia, expansive thought and were pushing the boundaries of not only their personal musical abilities but the expectations of what a rock band could do. But the business was still business, and the Beatles business mandated a Ringo song.
It might seem slightly bizarre to consider now, but Ringo Starr was easily the most popular Beatle during the band’s early ’60s touring heyday, especially in America. The scene in A Hard Day’s Night where John, Paul, and George get a bundle of fan letters while Ringo gets an entire pile? That was based on real life. The other three Beatles were tall, had striking features, could write tremendous songs, and were incredible singers. Ringo was the affable everyman: short, goofy, limited in his musical range, and often times the most relatable and endearing Beatle. His songs weren’t world-changing number ones or genre-defying opuses; they were classic covers or children’s tunes.
Ringo’s popularity, along with the band’s dedication to group unity, necessitated that a rock and roll tune from the past be included in an album’s tracklisting. If not, Lennon and McCartney had to conjure up an idea that wasn’t too hard to sing and also played to the drummer’s natural strengths. In the past, that would include ‘Boys’, ‘Act Naturally’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, ‘What Goes On’, and ‘Honey Don’t’. Even though the band had cut ties with their teeny-bopper past by featuring more mature and contemporary songwriting, the formula for a Ringo song never really changed throughout the group’s recording career.
As was often the case in the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, ‘Yellow Submarine’ combined two separate pieces from each writer. McCartney had the basis of the idea: a children’s song for Ringo about a yellow submarine. He came up with the most straightforward, most sing-songy chorus he could think of, one that could feature backup vocals from everyone to help prop up Starr’s unique bray. Lennon came in with the verse melody, and the duo began workshopping the song’s lyrics together with an assist from folk singer-songwriter Donovan, whose more flowery language was evidenced in the line “sky of blue and sea of green.”
“I remember lying in bed one night,” recalled McCartney as part of The Beatles Anthology, “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.”
How a yellow submarine became the central motif in the song is uncertain. McCartney claims that a yellow Greek dessert locally called a “submarine” was the inspiration, while Lennon recalls seeing the titular nautical vessel during his first LSD trip. Whatever its origins were, Starr’s role as captain of the submarine predated his later role of The Conductor on Thomas the Tank Engine and likely set the first precedent for his soothing narrative abilities in that regard. In fact, an opening monologue that was cut from the song’s intro bears a striking resemblance to the storytelling style Starr would perfect for that show.
Compared to the other sessions for Revolver, the recording of ‘Yellow Submarine’ was less stressful and more lively. Tales of endless takes and perfectionism did not permeate the recording of ‘Yellow Submarine’. Instead, a jovial atmosphere of kitschy experimentation with noises and sing-alongs were to be found in the EMI Studios at Abbey Road. Roadie, Mal Evans, famously strapped a marching band bass drum to his chest and led a conga line consisting of EMI staffers, The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Marianne Faithful, and Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd around the live space for the song’s final refrain. The spirit of the session was centred around one concept: fun.
In that regard, producer George Martin was able to indulge his previous career as a comedy record producer. Having expertise in creating a lively and silly atmosphere, Martin suggested raiding the EMI closet of trinkets to create numerous sound effects. Whistles, chains, tin cans, and even garbage bins were utilized to create the cacophony of sounds, and Lennon was able to make the bubble sounds by simply blowing bubbles into a drink through a straw.
When the band was finished, what they had on their hands was a supremely lighthearted and zany final product. It would make the perfect B-side to the much more solemn and serious ‘Eleanor Rigby’. But this was the era where the Beatles were pushing the Double-A side concept, and so ‘Yellow Submarine’ was pushed in that format as well, although it largely remained the flip side to DJs who played the single. The song made it to number one on the UK Singles chart, primarily based on the success of ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
In America, however, there was an issue. On The Beatles final tour, Lennon had made his infamous “bigger than Jesus” comments which created a furore among religious conservatives. Capitol Records were hesitant to push the religious-referencing ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and instead chose ‘Yellow Submarine’ as the nominal A-side. It would be Ringo Starr’s first, and last, original A-side single with The Beatles during their active career (Capitol released the band’s take on Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’ featuring Ringo as the lead vocalist as a single two years earlier). It would reach number two on the Billboard Hot 100, kept off the top by The Supremes’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’.
The song was always intended to be a non-serious children’s song, but that didn’t stop commentators from attempting to put a number of political, religious, or even psychological interpretations on the tune. But the real legacy of ‘Yellow Submarine’ was in pushing the kooky appeal of Ringo Starr to its comical height. Remnants of his performance could be found in ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Good Night’, and the song’s spiritual sequel, ‘Octopus’s Garden’. The song’s concept was loosely adapted into the band’s animated film Yellow Submarine and it remains a live favourite for Starr during his concerts with his All Starr Band. And it was all because there always needed to be a Ringo song.