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Notes on "Yellow Submarine"


Notes on ... Series #97 (YS)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: G Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Verse | Refrain | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse (instrumental) | Verse | Refrain
        CD: "Revolver", Track 6 (Parlophone CDP7 46441-2)
        CD: "Yellow Submarine", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46445-2)
        CD: "Yellow Submarine Songtrack", Track 1 (EMI 5 21481-2)
  Recorded: 26th May 1966, Abbey Road 3; 1st June 1966, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 5th August 1966 (Double-A Single / "Eleanor Rigby
                             and LP "Revolver")
US-release: 8th August 1966 (LP "Revolver")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "Yellow Submarine" is another late-Middle Period example of how the Beatles so astonishingly manage to elevate gesture over content, per se; and I mean this with no pejorative intent. The music which underlies this track is simple, even a bit simplistic, but that's not only the whole aesthetic point of it, but this simplicity provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.
  Next note The deployment of the sound effects here would be cute enough no matter where they came from, but that the fact that the Beatles themselves took the trouble to synthesize and participate in them adds value. It's also worth recalling just what an attention-grabbing curve ball this song appeared to be in context of its initial release. Sure, the Beatles had been growing ever more difficult to pigeon-hole for a while by mid-1966, but the appearance of this song (three days after "Revolver" seperately released as the B-side of the single "Eleanor Rigby"), no less, promised to go the limit. Could anyone other than the Beatles get away with this? Try to imagine "Yellow Submarine" as the first or second song of a no-name group.
  Next note On the more mundane level of song writing craft, we have the following points of interest:
  • The "in medias res" opening with an unaccompanied vocal pickup. Compiling a list of all Beatles' songs with this feature is both instructive if not entertaining party game.
  • The use of a refrain, not bridge; approximately only one third of the more than hundred songs we've covered in this study so far use the refrain, and consideration of just which Beatles' songs go for it in favor of the bridge is another matter I'll leave as a party game for now. We also have here the extremely unusual appearance in the middle of three verses in a row.
  • Harmonic rhythm used to articulate form — note how the verse is characterized by the pattern "four-one, two, three, four-one ...," and the refrain contrasts with its "one, two, three, four".

Melody and Harmony

  Next note Only five chords are used throughout, all of them garden variety, diatonic choices.
  Next note The tune is also painfully simple, though in a subtle way, bears the John Lennon stamp of pentatonicism. You'll note that the seventh scale degree (F#) does not appear at all, and the fourth degree (C) appears only briefly and in the subordinate role of a passing note between third and fifth; as on the word "the" in the phrase, "In the town".


  Next note The arrangement is consistently varied on sectional boundaries for the most part. This device was a long-standing Beatles' trademark in the purely instrumental/vocal realm, but here it is extended to apply to include special effects:
  • First verse: acoustic guitar with maracas [?], and later, bass drum.
  • Second verse: add the sound of water waves.
  • First refrain: waves continue.
  • Third verse: party sounds, and later, a sloppy marching band in the style of "Rainy Day Women, #12 & 35" (If this were being done by the likes of Charles Ives, the band would enter off-beat, in a different tempo and key. In context of a pop song, it's already sufficient just to have a band make an appearance, per se, even if it is in the same key and tempo; at least the chords they play clash with the backing track :-)).
  • Second refrain: add drumsticks tapping (It's as though you can't have a Beatles' song without this; or handclaps, or tambourine).
  • Fourth verse: slice-of-life submarine noises (whirring machinery, shouting people, clanging bells, etc.).
  • Fifth verse: Lennon echoes Ringo in the manner of a captain shouting orders over the squawk box (One of the unsung mono/single song variants in the Beatles' canon is the mix of this song which features Lennon's echo starting right off the bat on the first line of the verse. In my humble opinion, the decision to later have it start not on the first line is a fine example of "avoidance of foolish consistency").
  • Third refrain: the backing vocals sound richer, out of some combination of larger forces, more overdubs, and/or a wider stereo picture.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The eight-measure verse parses into a 4 + 4, AA structure. The harmonic shape of the section is open (ending on V) but still, the rote AA repeat combined with the relative absence of interesting chord changes creates a not entirely unpleasant monotony; especially in those stretches where the entire verse is repeated twice or more in a row.
          --------------- 2X ----------------
       G |D     C |G     e |a     a |D     G |
   G:  I  V     IV I     vi ii    ii V     I

   [Figure 97.1]
  Next note What is the chord on the final beat of measure 3? The pattern of root movement by a fifth, established throughout the rest of the section suggests that the chord should be a-minor. I hear a C-natural in the bassline at that point, though. Is the chord simply a-minor in its 6/3 inversion, or do they mean to break the pattern with C-Major (or added sixth) here?


  Next note The refrain is also eight measures long, and parses into 4 + 4 AA. It flirts even more dangerously with monotony than the verse with a clunky harmonic rhythm and a closed harmonic shape, ending on I. The sustaining of V through the inner two measures adds some slight slow-motion syncopation to the harmonic rhythm which gives some relief from the four-squaredness. Additionally, with the exception of the outro, they have the wisdom to not repeat the refrain twice or more in a row.
       ------------- 2X --------------
      |G      |D      |-      |G      |
   G:  I       V               I

   [Figure 97.2]


  Next note The outro features the refrain repeated potentially forever into the fade-out. In actuality, the music trails off near the end of the second iteration; remember, the full refrain is eight measures long, not four.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Way back, in our study of "Little Child" I had remarked on how the first side of "With the Beatles" sequences five Beatles' originals in a row, all in the same key but certainly not all in the same mood or tempo. The running order of the first side of "Revolver" bears some striking contrast and comparison.
  Next note Though both albums make extensive use of stylistic contrasts in moving from track to track, the later album shows not only a more extreme variety of styles, but also a much more sophisticated handling of key sequence and mode:
  Next note Although the quotient of non-rock music is relatively high, the placement of two of the "hardest" numbers in the first and last positions helps establish a center of gravity for the side as a whole.
  Next note Okay, now; you turn the record over.
  Alan (122494#97)
Copyright © 1994 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.