The Whimsical Meaning Behind The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” Differed Greatly from the Tune’s Gloomy Beginnings—Brought by John, Not Paul

Yellow Submarine” is like a musical Rorschach test, revealing more about the listener than the artist. Some will tell you it’s The Beatles at the height of their charm. Others will complain that its comical, childish tone had no right accompanying the weightier numbers on the band’s 1966 masterpiece album Revolver. (We tend to agree with the first of those two points of view, but we’ll leave it up to you.)

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What’s fascinating is how this song that so many people thought they knew began to show different sides of itself based on a reissue that arrived more than 50 years after the song was first released. Let’s find out about this song, its recording, and the movie it inspired. 

From Nihilistic to Nautical

For many, many years, the common view about “Yellow Submarine” was that Paul McCartney was the primary author of the song. And it wasn’t like this was in dispute. In an interview done shortly before his death, John Lennon agreed with McCartney’s recollections of doing the bulk of the writing, as recounted in David Sheff’s book All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

“‘Yellow Submarine’ is Paul’s baby. Donovan helped with the lyrics. I helped with the lyrics, too. We virtually made the track come alive in the studio, but based on Paul’s inspiration. Paul’s idea, Paul’s title. So I count it as a Paul song.”

The truth is that McCartney may have had the idea for a children’s song about a yellow submarine, but that’s not quite the whole story. In a 2022 Special Edition release of Revolver, a version of “Yellow Submarine” labelled “Songwriting Work Tape/Part 1″ features about a minute of Lennon playing acoustic guitar and singing a song to the familiar melody in the verses. Only the lyrics set a drastically different tone than what the finished product would become. Lennon sings, In the place where I was born / No one cared, no one cared / And the name when I was born / No one cared, no one cared.

Those familiar with the hit single version of the song know that’s a far cry from the buoyant nautical themes that would eventually take the track over. It’s apparent now that the two songwriters, as they did so often in their time with The Beatles, combined their separate creative inclinations. It’s just that with “Yellow Submarine,” Lennon’s original somberness pretty much evaporated as McCartney’s more benign vision came to the fore.

[RELATED: The Beatles’ 4 Feature Films Ranked]

The Four Men and the Sea

To turn “Yellow Submarine” into a proper chanty, The Beatles raided the special effects room of EMI’s Abbey Road studio. They rattled chains in a bathtub, blew bubbles into a bucket of water, and clinked glasses together. (The latter job was actually done by The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, one of several luminaries who crashed the chaotic sessions.)

The finishing touches were laid down by Lennon and McCartney, who went into the studio’s echo chamber and started blustering about with whatever nautical phrases popped into their heads, such as “Full steam ahead, Mister Boatswain” and “Cut the cable.”

Meanwhile, the two men made the wise decision to hand over lead vocals to Ringo Starr, whose performance sounded like a beloved uncle returning from his time at sea to regale the family with exotic tales. At one point, “Yellow Submarine” also included a spoken-word section by Starr, but the band decided against including it.

What Is “Yellow Submarine” Really About?

“Yellow Submarine” makes sure to keep things as simple as possible in a lyrical sense—all the easier for children, the song’s intended audience, to sing along to it. Echoes of Lennon’s original lyrics can be heard in the opening line: In the town where I was born lived a man who sailed to sea. This man inspires the narrator and his cohorts to set sail and live their life among the waves in the titular submersible.

There are whimsical touches all over the place, such as the line Many more of them live next door. (How, pray tell, does one live next door to a submarine?) And then there’s the fact that this sub has room enough to include an entire band that can strike up music on a whim.

One of the song’s more famous couplets (Sky of blue, sea of green / In our yellow submarine) was apparently donated by folk singer Donovan (see Lennon’s quote above), yet another big name within The Beatles’ orbit at that time. It all leads to the big booming chorus, sung by a cast of thousands, including, among others, all four Beatles, producer George Martin, George Harrison’s wife Patti, and Marianne Faithfull.

A Second Life on the Waves

“Yellow Submarine” was released as a double A-sided single alongside the massively different “Eleanor Rigby.” It proved to be yet another in the band’s long line of massive hits. And two years later, it provided the perfect inspiration for The Beatles’ first-ever animated film. Even though the four men largely steered clear of the film while it was being made, the adventures of the cartoon Fab Four fighting the Blue Meanies proved irresistible to audiences.

Not bad results at all for what some would dismiss as a novelty song. The Beatles proved with “Yellow Submarine” that they could score with just about any type of material once they spread their pixie dust over it. One still wonders, however, what might have transpired had John Lennon followed his original, dark idea for the song through to its fruition.

Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images

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