2016 marks my 20th year covering the Beatles as a journalist.
The Fab Four are in my bones, swimming in my bloodstream. Their music is embedded in the very DNA from which I was created, thanks to my mother and her ravenous love for all things John, Paul, George and Ringo. Their music is so close to my heart, it seems the only time I can articulate how much these gentlemen and the music they’ve created means to me is when my aortic valves are overflowing with human emotion.
In the end, there was a story to be told about a band that went down in the books as one of the wizards behind the green curtain who helped shape rock ‘n’ roll as we know it. There have been a billion Oasises and Badfingers who passed through our ears in hopes of becoming the next Beatles, and there will probably be a billion more. But if you talk about a group who had a nation of young faces pressed up against their TV screens when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ, it can honestly be said that there will never be another group of musicians who could conquer the earth quite like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison did in our lifetime.
I wrote that passage back when I had a weekly music column in my school paper, The New Paltz Oracle, which I had cheekily called “I Hate Music” after the Replacements song, in review of the third and final installment of the Beatles’ Anthology series back in the spring of 1997.
I wrote this particular review I’ve excerpted here in a time of bittersweet reflection following a 12-month cycle of life experiences that rocked me to my core: finding out out my mom had inoperable bone cancer, getting “ghosted” by my girlfriend after she graduated and split town and finally losing my beloved grandfather to lung cancer on Veteran’s Day.
I’ve never been more prepared to share my thoughts about “Revolver” than I am at this very moment, this time as a parent to a 3-year-old boy who loves the Beatles with every bit of enthusiasm as I did back when I was his age.
So when I put the pen to paper that week to write my column, it marked the first time I was writing about the Beatles since these tragedies struck my soul.
I remember writing that particular closing graf with tears in my eyes, reflecting on just how much the Beatles meant not only to me, but my mom as well. She instilled a love for the Beatles in me from the time I was in the cradle, and in my young mind at the time I was trying to convey this connection.
Now here I am, two decades later, still writing about the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of Revolver, a record that many consider to be not only the Fabs’ best LP, but arguably the greatest rock album ever created.
I’ve never been more prepared to share my thoughts than I am at this very moment, this time as a parent to a 3-year-old boy who loves the Beatles with every bit of enthusiasm as I did back when I was his age. A 3-year-old, mind you, who is absolutely obsessed with Revolver, and “Yellow Submarine” in particular.
It was one of my own favorite songs back when I was my son Benjamin’s age, especially considering that one of the syndicated television stations here in New York would regularly air George Dunning’s stunning, psychedelic 1968 animated feature based on the song. He made me listen to “Sub” this morning when I dropped him off at Grandma’s, and last week on the way back from a family function I think we listened to it about six times before my wife intervened and convinced him to let the next track, “She Said, She Said”, play out.
I was convinced the innumerable times Benjamin has made us play “Yellow Submarine” would wear on me, but it hasn’t at all. In fact, in honor of Revolver’s 50th anniversary, the incessant listening to the Ringo-sung tune actually inspired me to set sail across the Sea of Holes to explore the song’s history and evolution as a favorite children’s song, one that has endured through five decades to reach the heart of a child who was born in 2012.
“I remember thinking that a children’s song would be quite a good idea and I thought of images, and the color yellow came to me, and a submarine came to me, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of nice, like a toy,’ ” explained Paul McCartney to author Barry Miles regarding the song in the 1997 biography Many Years From Now.
“I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, which it eventually turned out to be, so I wrote it as not too range-y in the vocal. 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…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.”
“Especially when you’re a kid there’s something really fun about it,” Sean Lennon told the Observer. “I know that on every record my dad and Paul would write a song for Ringo. The thing about the Beatles was that they are perhaps the one band that kids seem to agree upon the most. It’s interesting, because their music isn’t necessarily simple or something. It’s got this ageless, universal appeal, and a lot of the little kids I know got into The Beatles at a very early age.”
“There’s something about their recordings and performances that’s simultaneously totally engaging and inviting and also stand-offish in a weird way,” believes recording artist Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, The Grays, Beck), who recorded an incredible instrumental series of lullaby versions of Beatles favorites in the early 2000s called Bedtime With The Beatles.
“It’s intelligent, it’s multi-layered. It’s not just this goofy teddy bear dancing stuff. There’s weight to it, even in their folly. ‘Yellow Submarine’ even has weight to it, even though it’s a kids song. But is it really?”
” ‘Yellow Submarine’ is a visual song with a catchy chorus and the repetition that makes it very singable for kids,” legendary children’s recording artist Raffi said. “I had fun recording it, and was glad that fiddle great Natalie MacMaster gave it a jig dancing feel. Naturally, I wanted kids’ voices and I think they very much complete my version of this timeless song. My young fans might think it’s a Raffi song, but parents can tell them what we all know: it’s a Beatles classic.”
As a single, “Yellow Submarine” reached the No. 1 spot on the pop charts of several countries (though it only peaked at No. 2 here in the States) in 1966. Yet in spite of its childlike whimsy, to both Lennon’s and Falkner’s points, there were fans who didn’t perceive it as a tune acutely directed to the tot market at the time; including actual small children of the era.
“By the time I did get Revolver, probably around the time Sgt. Pepper came out when I was 5, it was just an album song to me. It had no significance any different from any,” remembers Jack Rabid, editor and publisher of the long-running music magazine The Big Takeover and a card-carrying member of the Beatles’ fan club since the age of 5.
“Keep in mind, I was singing ‘Run For Your Life’ on the playground at kindergarten that year, having no idea that the song was 1) about murdering someone, and 2) about murdering a woman for being possibly unfaithful, two concepts I had no clue about at that age, so the lyrics were in many ways just words with no meaning to me.”
“[The Beatles’] music isn’t necessarily simple or something. It’s got this ageless, universal appeal, and a lot of the little kids I know got into The Beatles at a very early age.”—Sean Lennon
“It was the band’s energy, tunes and singing that totally knocked me out. And when I would hear them on the radio I would go nuts and refuse to leave the car (my parents would leave me in the garage and tell me to turn the keys off and give them to them when I was done) if the song was still playing. That said, I stood in line with my dad for Yellow Submarine in Stuart, Fla., where we were vacationing in 1968 when it was released, the most excited 6-year-old you ever saw, and was amazed that there were only a dozen people there to see the film. Weird. When is a kid’s cartoon not a kid’s film?”
Critics of the time as well were certainly skeptical of the lyrical intent of the song.
Robert Christgau, in the December 1967 issue of Esquire, insinuated the tune might have something to do with John Lennon’s obsession with submarines, which are phallic in nature. Meanwhile, renowned poet Amari Baraka in the Peter Doggett book There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of the ‘60s, suggested the song was an arrogant vessel for white isolationism used to sail away from real world issues of the era.
But its purity and simplicity, not to mention the sweet baritone of Ringo (who would go on to host the beloved children’s show Shining Time Station in the late ’80s/early ’90s), has helped the song endure as a sweet and innocent standard for the pre-K set, namely because it doesn’t condescend, joining children in their own headspace, nurturing their wild imaginations.
“I think my kids’ stuff is more in line with ‘Yellow Submarine’ than it is with regular kids’ music,” explains Walter Martin, a onetime member of such acclaimed indie groups as Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Walkmen who in 2014 entered the children’s market with the album We’re All Young Together.
“It’s not like ABCs music, but more like regular music that has a slightly more specific imagery that you can immediately understand and a playfulness to it. I always loved the surrealistic aspect to the song, and I try to use that in some of my songs. Instead of ABCs, it’s more fun to sing about imagination and stuff like that. That’s definitely the tone I like as far as kids’ music goes.”
“The Beatles made very childlike music in a very positive way,” explains Meredith LeVande, a children’s music artist from Lower Manhattan who can be seen every morning on PBS Kids.
“For me, as a children’s musician, the songs that grab children’s ears the most or that I find more applicable in working with children—not so much as a listening experience but more of just an educational experience—are the ones that are really, really interactive. And I wouldn’t consider ‘Yellow Submarine’ an interactive song, but it is very much a children’s song.”
“It has one or two minor chords to it, and it’s chorus has a very common and a very happy chord progression. And that’s what I think is really key in understanding why a child would gravitate towards it and why it is a children’s song is because some of the best songs out there for children are very simple tunes in the key of C or G.”
To really get to the heart of “Yellow Submarine” and its true meaning, the wisest move would be to go right to its creators.
And that is exactly what I did when I reached out to Scottish pop icon Donovan Leitch, who helped write some of the lyrics to the song in an uncredited role. What he texted back to me in the early this morning is nothing short of magic:
It was 1966 and outside my London apartment, the Edgware Road was empty on a summer Sunday. Hard to imagine today, a major city road, no cars, no people. I was siting cross-legged on the tatami mats writing songs with my little Swiss UHER tape recorder.
The door bell rang. I opened and it was Paul with a guitar around his neck.
He said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Writing songs. What are you doing?”
“Writing songs. Can I come in?”
Off with his shoes and we sit cross-legged on the floor.
George, John, Paul and Ringo and I had become chums on the same path to sing out Peace and Unity to try to heal a sick humanity. We were reading the same books of Spiritual Awareness.
It was clear in our songs, and like me, Paul and John were 3 songs a day men. We would sing new songs to each other, soon George would emerge as a great songwriter and Ringo, too.
“What have you got?” I asked P.
He strummed out a new one with a ruff lyric.
“Ola Na Tungee blowin’ his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay, what can you say.”
I said, “Who’s Ola Na Tungee?”
“Oh, a guy in a book I am reading.”
We would often hang any lyric on a new tune, this tune was “Eleanor Rigby” being born. I strummed a tune of my own, then the door bell rang again.
I opened it and it was a young “Bobby,” a London policemen. Paul came to the door and hung over my shoulder. Then the Bobby saw Paul and said in amazement, “Oh, it’s you Mr. McCartney,” came to attention and saluted. Saluted!
I turned to P and asked, “Is this how it is with you guys?”
“I am afraid it is, Don. We’re like Royalty at the moment.”
The Bobby in awe asked P, “Is that your car down in the street, an Aston Martin?”
“With one wheel on the pavement and the other 3 in the road?”
‘With the radio on and the door open?’
The Bobby smiles and says, “If you give me the keys, Mr. McCartney, I’ll park it for you.”
P gave him the keys and we sat down again to the craft.
“Here is why I came around, it’s this, a kids song, and I am missing a verse,” and he strummed “Yellow Submarine.” He knew I was a writer of many children songs.
I thought, “Paul, a three songs a day man, wants me to fill in a verse?” I knew that if Paul fell on his piano, by the time he would pick himself up he would have 3 new tunes.
He came to the gap in the song and asked, “Can you come up with something for this bit?”
I said, “Give me a minute and went into the other room, came back with “Sky of blue and sea of green / In our Yellow Submarine.”
Paul said, ‘That’ll do, thanks, Don.” Then the door bell rang again.
We both went to the door, it was our Bobby with the keys.
Paul thanked him, the young star-struck policeman saluted again and was gone.
Paul and I returned to the songwriting and mused on the craziness of it all.
But he and I knew what the Submarine really was, a symbol for the way of life that fame had created for him and his band members, and it was also happening to me.
“All our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door.”
Withdrawing into secluded homes and hanging out only with those who shared the fraternity was essential.
I was there at the opening of the film in London, sitting with every luminary in our Music and Film World. I was pleased to be part of the song. And now the song has become a rallying point for so many positive platforms to help children everywhere. Well done, Paul, and John, who I think played his part in the writing, too.
Soon, Ringo, George, John, Paul and I would journey to India and bring back to The West the most powerful help for Children and the future survival of our planet, Transcendental Meditation, known as TM.
—Donovan Leitch, Majorca, Spain 2016
The other day we were all in my son’s playroom—which my wife had painted “Submarine Yellow” in honor of the family obsession—listening to my mother’s old copy of Revolver on a vintage Big Bird portable record player I found at a garage sale years ago for a dime, one very similar to the kind I had when I was Benjamin’s age.
Of course, “Yellow Submarine” was played a good five times before, again, Mama pleaded with our baby boy to let “She Said, She Said” ride out Side 1. As I sat there watching this scene play out I couldn’t help but be overcome with the warmth of nostalgia as I remembered, through the fog of time, a similar scenario playing out on the red shag carpeting of my grandparents’ living room in East Meadow 40 years ago.
I love that my son loves the Beatles, and I am optimistic that this will lead him down a path not unlike my own upbringing immersed in music (that is, of course, if he chooses to do so; he is his own man, after all).
Indeed it’s great that films like Across the Universe, spectacles like Cirque de Soleil’s Love and the brand new Netflix children’s series The Beat Bugs have and will continue to keep the Fab Four in the periphery of the young. But even if it’s an imagined concept, the idea of the Beatles being passed down three generations like a genetic trait only confirms the statement I made about them almost 20 years ago in my college newspaper.
There truly will never be another group of musicians who could conquer the earth quite like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison did in our lifetime, from the crib to the casket and perhaps beyond. Fifty years after its birth, it’s amazing to see just how much “Yellow Submarine” confirms that theory.