Is Yellow Submarine by The Beatles really about drugs?
18 November 2023, 15:00
Drug song? Psychedelic whimsy? Or is it just about a submersible vehicle painted in a bright colour? Let’s delve into the mind of Paul McCartney…
The Beatles - Yellow Submarine
On Wednesday 17th July 1968, The Beatles premiered their psychedelic full-length cartoon feature Yellow Submarine. A star-studded affair at The London Pavilion, The Fab Four took time out from recording "The White Album" to see the film, joined by stars like Rolling Stone Keith Richards, model Twiggy and the first public appearance of Yoko Ono with John Lennon.
But why had The Beatles recorded such a child-like song in the first place? Why did it become so popular it made Number 1 in the charts and found a place on the band's "greatest hits" collection The Beatles 1962-1966 aka the "Red Album"? And what were they doing making cartoons anyway?
The genesis of Yellow Submarine as a song came in early 1966 as the band were preparing songs for their seventh album Revolver. Traditionally, a Beatles album would include a “Ringo song”, designed to please fans of the Beatle drummer, in the same way as he’s get a vocal spot in their live shows.
Paul McCartney was thinking about such a song when he was living with the family of his girlfriend Jane Asher in Wimpole Street, London. He recalled: “I was laying in bed in the Ashers' garret... I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, so I wrote it as not too rangey in the vocal.
“Then [I] started making a story, sort of an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he'd lived. I think John helped out. The lyrics got more and more obscure as it goes on, but the chorus, melody and verses are mine.” Pop-folk singer Donovan was a friend of the Fabs at the time and contributed the couplet “sky of blue, sea of green”.
The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby (From "Yellow Submarine")
By this point in their career, The Beatles were expanding their songwriting horizons, aware that the beat boom of the early 1960s was now long gone. Their previous album Rubber Soul had included a number of “story songs” like Drive My Car and Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), which moved away from the traditional “I love you” compositions.
Revolver would go further: the LP would include an Indian raga by George Harrison, John Lennon’s psychedelic drone Tomorrow Never Knows and McCartney’s stark, classically-influenced Eleanor Rigby, scored for strings and no Beatle instruments.
So The Beatles recording a song for kids wasn’t that unusual in the circumstances. In fact, they liked the song so much they made it a double ‘A’ sided single with Eleanor Rigby, released on the same day as the album.
The recording of Yellow Submarine at Abbey Road studios was remarkable for the party that was held during the session: the Beatles, together with friends, wives and even Rolling Stone Brian Jones added sound effects, vocals and roadie Mal Evans playing a big bass drum to get an authentic marching band effect.
Once the track had reached the general public, the interpretations started - especially once the use of the psychedelic drug LSD had become more widespread in the UK. Were The Beatles tripping when they made the record? Are they referring to smoking joints or something, like Donovan did with Mellow Yellow - which was meant to be about smoking banana skins...!
Or were “yellow submarines” actually Nembutals otherwise known as pentobarbitone, a well-known tranquiliser that came in a pleasingly submarine-shaped yellow pill?Sadly not - as McCartney said at the time: “It's a fun song, a children's song.”
The idea of making a cartoon film about Yellow Submarine came in 1967, when the studio United Artists were chasing The Beatles for a follow-up to their film Help! The Fabs still owed them a movie as part of their deal, so it was decided to fulfil the contractual obligation with an animated film.
Directed by Canadian animator George Dunning and designed by German artist Heinz Edelmann, the film was made in London. Both Dunning and producer Al Brodax had been involved in the cheesy Beatles TV cartoon series that the band had hated, so the Fab Four didn’t have much enthusiasm for the new project.
Because of this, when the producers asked The Beatles for some new songs for the Yellow Submarine movie, they sent over some of the outtakes and below-par material that they’d ben working on across the Summer of 1967. One track, George’s Only A Northern Song, was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions, but dropped from the final album.
Another song, recorded in February 1968, would later only appear in the UK print of the movie. Hey Bulldog was a quickie song, knocked out when The Beatles were in the studio to shoot a video for their single Lady Madonna.
The Beatles - Hey Bulldog (Promo video)
The band did agree to appear as themselves in a short live action sequence at the end of the film. For the rest of the movie, their voices were played by Carry On actor John Clive as John, Geoffrey Hughes, later better known as Eddie Yeats in Coronation St and Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances as Paul, Peter Batten as George and Paul Angelis as Ringo. Comedian Dick Emery played the “Nowhere Man”, Jeremy, who the team pick up on their travels.
The tale concerns Young Fred, a sea captain in the idyllic world of Pepperland, which is invaded by the music-hating Blue Meanies. He hijacks the Yellow Submarine and makes his way to Liverpool, where he beseeches The Beatles to come and bring music back to Pepperland and break the boring spell of the Meanies.
Along the way, the crew embark on a series of surreal adventures - losing Ringo in the Sea Of Monsters and getting trapped in the Sea Of Holes - before unleashing Beatle music on the Blue Meanies, who realise the error of their ways.
Some of the animated sequences in Yellow Submarine are stunning - a mix of psychedelic and pop art visuals set to Beatle songs. Even the lacklustre new tunes are given life by the hand-drawn visuals. On its release, The Beatles themselves realised the quality of the product and the film was a huge success, spawning all kinds of elaborate merchandise.
Yellow Submarine celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 with a very nice remastered edition, issued in 4k digital quality for the first time. For a movie that was entirely hand-made, that’s pretty impressive.