Notes on "Yellow Submarine" (YS)
KEY G Major
FORM Verse -> Verse -> Refrain -> Verse -> Refrain ->
Verse (instrumental) -> Verse -> Refrain
GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST
Style and Form
- "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 overlayed upon it.
- 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 pigeonhole for a while by mid-'66, but the appearance of this song b/w "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.
- 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 100 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, 2, 3 four-ONE...," and the refrain contrasts with its "ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR."
Melody and Harmony
- Only five chords are used throughout, all of them garden variety, diatonic choices.
- The tune is also painfully simple, though in a subtle way, bears the John Lennon stamp of pentatonicism. You'll note that the 7th scale degree (F#) does not appear at all, and the 4th degree (C) appears only briefly and in the subordinate role of a passing note between 3 and 5; as on the word "the" in the phrase, "In the town."
- 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:
- verse 1: acoustic guitar w/maraccas(?), and later, bass drum
- verse 2: add the sound of water waves
- refrain 1: waves continue
- verse 3: 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 :-)
- refrain 2: add drumsticks tapping. It's as though you can't have a Beatles song without this; or handclaps, or tambourine.
- verse 4: slice-of-life submarine noices (whirring machinery, shouting people, clanging bells, etc.)
- verse 5: 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. IMHO, the decision to later have it start NOT on the first line is a fine example of "avoidance of foolish consistency."
- refrain 3: the backing vocals sound richer, out of some combination of larger forces, more overdubs, and/or a wider stereo picture.
- 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 G vi ii ii V I
- What *is* the chord on the final beat of measure 3? The pattern of root movement by a 5th, 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' in its 6/3 inversion, or do they mean to break the pattern with C Major (or added 6th) here?
- The refrain is also eight measures long, and parses into 4+4 'AA'. It flirts even more dangerously with montony 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 |
I V I
- The outro features the refrain repeated potentially forever into the fadeout. 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
- Way back, in our study of "Little Child" I had remarked on the 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.
- 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:
- Hard R/Blues (T) D
- Classical (ER) e (dorian)
- Psychedelia (IOS) e-flat
- Indian world music (LYT) c (dorian)
- Soft rock (HTAE) G
- Novelty number (YS) G
- Psychedelia (SSSS) B (Mixolydian)
- 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.
- Okay, now; you turn the record over.
"O-U-T spells "out." 122494#97
Copyright (c) 1994 by Alan W. Pollack
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