Released as a double a-side with ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ has become a divisive song among Beatles fans. To many it is a charming singalong for all ages; for others, it’s one of the band’s weakest moments, and an unnecessary bout of whimsy on the otherwise flawless Revolver.

I don’t actually know where they got the idea for it; I just felt it was a really interesting track for me to do. I’d been doing a lot of covers. At that time I did either covers or something they wrote specifically for me.

‘Yellow Submarine’ chimed perfectly with the carefree, nostalgic and childlike attitudes that dominated the psychedelic era.

I remember lying in bed one night, in that moment before you’re falling asleep – that little twilight moment when a silly idea comes into your head – and thinking of ‘Yellow Submarine’: ‘We all live in 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.

‘Yellow Submarine’ was a songwriting collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Lennon wrote the verse melody, which was combined with McCartney’s chorus. The 2022 deluxe reissue of Revolver contained Lennon’s original demo of the song, a nostalgic, despondent look at his childhood:

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
And the town where I was born
No one cared, no one cared…
John Lennon
‘Yellow Submarine’ demo

On 20 March 1967 Lennon and McCartney gave an interview at EMI Studios to the BBC’s Brian Matthew. The Beatles were unable to attend the 1966 Ivor Novello awards, held three days later, so the interview was recorded for inclusion in the BBC broadcast on 27 March.

‘Yellow Submarine’ was given an Ivor Novello award for being the single a-side which achieved the highest certified British sales. During the interview, Lennon and McCartney discussed the origins of the song.

Brian Matthew: Who was principally responsible, Paul or John?

John Lennon: Paul.

Paul McCartney: John, really.

Lennon and McCartney: No. No.

Matthew: I see.

Lennon: Ringo.

McCartney: No, it’s the old patty, you know. The old vaudeville. I suppose I thought of the idea and then John and I wrote it. There’s your correct answer, Brian.

Matthew: Yeah. What were you setting out to write? I mean, did you think of a song for Ringo in the first place, or what?

McCartney: We just sort of thought, we have to have a song. That it was. Sort of bit of fantasy in it, you know. And the only way to do that would be to have it so kids could understand it, and anyone could take it on any level. Multi-level song.

Matthew: Yeah. I heard a funny sort of story that you used to perform this to your nephews. Is that all wrong?

McCartney: That’s all wrong. That was Mozart’s Piano Concerto.

Matthew: Oh, I see. [Laughter]

Matthew: John, earlier before we started recording, you said it was in effect written as two separate songs.

Lennon: Yeah. I seem to remember, like, the submarine, the chorus bit, you coming in with it.

McCartney: Yeah.

Lennon: And wasn’t the other bit something that I had already going, and we put them together?

McCartney: Well, yeah. Right. Yeah.

Lennon: And it made sense to make it into…

McCartney: Yeah, the bit… [Sings verse melody] ‘Dut-ta-da, da-dut-ta-da.’

Lennon: With Ringo in mind, again.

Matthew: Yes.

Lennon: Always thinking of him, you see, at times like this. [Laughter] And that’s what happened.

Matthew: And they, like, gelled.

Lennon and McCartney: Yeah.

Since The Beatles had stopped recording cover versions by 1966, ‘Yellow Submarine’ was given to Ringo Starr as his vocal contribution to Revolver. It became his first lead vocal on a Beatles single.

I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, which it eventually turned out to be, so I wrote it as not too rangey 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. It’s pretty much my song as I recall, written for Ringo in that little twilight moment. I think John helped out; the lyrics get more and more obscure as it goes on but the chorus, melody and verses are mine. There were funny little grammatical jokes we used to play. It should have been ‘Everyone of us has all he needs’ but Ringo turned it into ‘everyone of us has all we need.’ So that became the lyric. It’s wrong, but it’s great. We used to love that.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

One couplet in the song was suggested by Donovan, whose single ‘Mellow Yellow’ was released in October 1966. McCartney visited Donovan’s apartment in London on 26 May, prior to the recording session for ‘Yellow Submarine’.

He played one about a yellow submarine. He said he was missing a line and would I fill it in. I left the room and returned with this: ‘Sky of blue and sea of green/In our yellow submarine.’ It was nothing really, but he liked it and it stayed in.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

‘Yellow Submarine’ was the inspiration and basis for The Beatles’ fourth film, released in 1968, as well as its accompanying soundtrack album.

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