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Excerpt from new Beatles piece

Tuesday 10/25/22

For a long time, we’ve thought that McCartney was most responsible for “Yellow Submarine.” Starr needed his vocal set-piece for the record, McCartney went to work, with assistance from Lennon, and a key line worthy of the lilting, imagistic grace of Yeats—“Sky of blue and sea of green”—provided by Donovan. According to the history books and assorted recollections, the song more or less grew up then and there, on the spot, probably like McCartney’s “Get Back,” as we saw in the eponymous docu-series.


The song does seem like such a McCartney thing to do. He’d be your guy for whimsy and melody. We think of him as doing out and out fun better than Lennon. The latter was about wit and edge, not wholesomeness.


Starr made a remark at the time that the duo was finding a song for him to sing, but if that didn’t come to fruition, he’d have to run down a country and western number from someone else’s record and cover that.


Can you even imagine? Starr singing a Carl Perkins or Hank Williams number on Revolver nestled between “Here, There and Everywhere” and “She Said She Said”? Incongruity overload.


The mind boggles, but then again, it also does when we hear “Long Tall Sally” still being performed in August 1966 on tour. The Beatles were musical time travelers, but the point of time traveling is to be in one place at one time, not with a dangling foot left behind in a period the rest of you has already departed.


Everything is now different for “Yellow Submarine,” or at least insofar as the shipyard in which it was built, on account of the Revolver box set. There have been surprises that have rocked every last fiber in me, in terms of unreleased Beatles music, much of which I discovered on bootlegs over the years. The first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for instance. First take of “A Day in the Life.” The country and western version of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” George Harrison’s acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps.” The unadorned sixth take of “Across the Universe” is one of the best things the Beatles—or John Lennon—ever made, and they didn’t even release it until it was big box set round-up time.


We must now add Lennon’s demo for “Yellow Submarine.” Unlike with, say, that first take of “A Day in the Life”—the recording I wanted to hear more than any other in my own life—I had no idea that this piece of music existed, let alone that it portended what it does.


Or did. I don’t even know what tense we ought to be using. I do know that we can give the idea that McCartney wrote “Yellow Submarine” a suitable rest, or even dash it to pieces. He normally gets credited with the melody, but the demo on the Revolver box set shows that Lennon already had it. Here, it’s more elegiac, suggestive of Elgar, whom I bet Lennon heard a lot of, without trying to, growing up where he did, when he did.


We never really know, do we? That’s why I’ve never been much invested in books that are factoid driven. Mark Lewisohn, for instance, is not for me. I never regard all of those facts as completely correct. Or many of them. I think that they may contain aspects of the truth, but they’re not adequate enough in and of themselves for me to be all that invested in their value. Patterns emerge, and you go with the pattern, rather than the one reported item. You piece matters together. You deduce. But the art is always so much more interesting anyway.


The official version of “Yellow Submarine” does have another Lennon quality—namely, narrative, with a guide to lead. Lennon the artist was the guide who shepherded us to other worlds. “In My Life” is another world. The same can be said of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I am the Walrus,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Come Together.”


We go places with Lennon that we wouldn’t go on our own. His songs excel at holding open doors that we didn’t know existed even as closed doors. We then pass through those entries, and what do we find? New worlds, yes, but also insights into us and our world. The world of who we are. I don’t mean political parties and wars and what has a tendency to trend. All of that flakes away; we are the real constants.