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In September 1999, the Yellow Submarine movie was re-released with the expected hoopla. I don't think the extent of the Beatles' contributions to the film is generally known to the public, or Beatle fans, even. We learn something about this from interviews with John Lennon, which we will get to further below. First, let's recap some of the "common wisdom" regarding the Beatles and Yellow Submarine. For instance, Beatles Book Monthly, June 1988 (page 4) says:
The Beatles paid little attention to what was happening, apart from providing - under pressure and with little enthusiasm - the four fresh numbers which Brian had promised the producers...
When the Beatles actually saw Yellow Submarine they were genuinely shocked that "Eppy" had written off the entire project so casually. By this time it was difficult for them to start lavishing praise on the production in public, having paid so little personal attention to the making of it... In separate conversations with me at the time, both John and Paul expressed belated disappointment that they hadn't involved themselves far more actively in the production... John was particularly taken with Mintoff's original creation of "Pepperland". One could easily imagine Lennon himself creating belligerent "blue meanies" and menacing "apple bonkers".
In The Love You Make, Peter Brown says (page 219, footnote), "The Beatles had virtually nothing to do with this animated film, aside from composing a few songs for it when it was almost completed."
The Beatles A To Z, a handy reference book by Friede, Titone and Weiner, says (page 233): "Though the Beatles were not actively involved with the production, they did make an appearance in the final sequence."
Bob Hieronimus is a Yellow Submarine expert and has written a book scheduled for release in early 2000. A newspaper article about him appearing in the The Baltimore Sun, September 26 1999 (page 3F) says:
One of the first things [Hieronimus] discovered is that the success of Yellow Submarine really has little to do with the Beatles themselves, except as a source of inspiration...
They grudgingly allowed Yellow Submarine to be [the third United Artists movie]. They wouldn't work on the film (other than the songs, their voices were provided by other actors), they provided what they felt were their worst songs, and they held their collective breaths, fearing the worst.
I was a little surprised, then, to hear the 1999 documentary/infomercial, "The Yellow Submarine Sails Again", actually giving the Beatles credit for contributions to the film:
John Lennon and Paul McCartney would sometimes call up producer Al Brodax with script suggestions. One morning at 3 a.m., John called and said, "Wouldn't it be great if Ringo was followed down the street by a yellow submarine?" And the suggestion made it into the script.
I found the same anecdote in Nicholas Schaffner's The Beatles Forever (page 99). This one goes a little further, actually giving John credit for the basic plot of the movie:
According to producer Al Brodax, the plot was inspired by a three AM phone call from John Lennon, who said: "Wouldn't it great if Ringo was followed down the street by a yellow submarine?" But that, apart from a brief, awkward appearance at the end, and a soundtrack featuring rejects from the Magical Mystery Tour and "Lady Madonna" sessions, was about the extent of the Beatles' contribution to their third feature-length movie.
Now compare all of the above with what John had to say about Yellow Submarine on two separate occasions. The first is from a 1971 interview with Peter McCabe and Robert D. Schonfeld, recorded in the book John Lennon: For The Record (page 81):
Int.: We talked recently to the man who produced Yellow Submarine, Al Brodax, and he said categorically that George Martin was half of everything the Beatles ever recorded.
John: Oh, that's [expletive]. You know what Brodax used to do? Brodax got half the Yellow Submarine out of my mouth. You know the idea for the Hoover? The machine that sucks people up? All those were my ideas. They used to come to the studio and sort of chat... "Hi, John, old bean. Got any ideas for the film? And I'd just spout out all this stuff, and they went off and did it, you know. Brodax probably thinks that because Brian made a mistake by letting George Martin put all those fills in Yellow Submarine, the "Sea of Holes" [expletive]. And he recorded all this terrible [expletive] that went out with our LP, you know. If you'd check it out, it's a whole sort of joke: George Martin is on one side of our album. Oh, we didn't notice that.
And John's bitterness hasn't faded a bit by 1980 when he talked with David Sheff in The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon & Yoko Ono (page 172):
Playboy: "Hey Bulldog"?
Lennon: That's me, cuz of the Yellow Submarine people, who were gross animals apart from the guy who drew the paintings for the movie. They lifted all the ideas for the movie out of our heads and didn't give us any credit. We had nothing to do with that movie and sort of resented them. It was the third movie we owed United Artists. Brian had set it up and we had nothing to do with it. But I liked the movie, the artwork. They wanted another song, so I knocked off "Hey Bulldog". It's a good-sounding record that means nothing.
The original interview tapes, as aired on The Lost Lennon Tapes radio series, are much more enlightening:
The Yellow Submarine people, who were gross animals, apart from the guy who drew the painting, the actual yellow submarine, came and, apart from sort of lifting all the ideas for the movie out of our heads and not giving us any credit - like Eric Segal writing Lennonesque lines straight from In His Own Write style and the crew . . . We had nothing to do with that movie and we sort of resented them and we didn't know what it was. It was the third movie that we owed these United Artists and Brian had set it up and we had nothing to do with it and we knew nothing about it. But I like the movie. I like Heinz [Edelmann]'s artwork. But they got all the ideas for the glove in the sky and the thing that sucks people up was my idea. They said, have you got any monsters? I said, yeah, there's Horace the vacuum cleaner in the swimming pool which was a thing you could buy, and it went 'round the pool sucking up the things, you know. And I said that could be a monster that sucks . . . And all things like that, they just took them and never credited. They wanted another song; I knocked off "Hey Bulldog".
Now I wouldn't be surprised if John was going a little overboard when he claimed, "Brodax got half the Yellow Submarine out of my mouth," and that they lifted "all the ideas for the movie from out of our heads." Still, he has so much resentment 12 years after the fact that it makes you wonder how many ideas the movie people did take from John and the Beatles.
Anyone who's interested can see John's pool vacuum in Beatles Book Monthly, No. 52, Nov. 1967, page 12. It accompanies an article called "John At Home, part two". There is even a paragragh devoted to "Horace", who is called Percy in the magazine - presumably correctly.
Turn right and you come to the Lennons' swimming pool. It's no fishpond either, but big enough to have to swim if you want to get to the other side. Percy was the only one in at the time. Percy is the machine that keeps the pool clean, and slowly travels around the surface, trailing long plastic tubes which twitch around the bottom of the pool. If you don't have a Percy, apparently, that horrible green slime grows on the bottom and sides and dirt floats on the top.
The same photo was printed in Beatles Book Monthly, No. 121, May 1986, page 21. In No. 125, Sept. 1986, page 43, a picture shows John holding up the pool vacuum and laughing at its jet spray. On page 40 of the same issue, there's a picture of John and Julian presumably looking towards the vacuum in the pool, although Percy is not in the picture.
On the subject of the Playboy interview, I claim there are many more instances like the one above, where the tapes contain much more interesting information than what was published in the book. There are also instances where the tapes clarify passages that were confusing or completely botched in the transcription. For example, immediately following the passage above (page 172), we read the following startling exchange where John apparently takes credit for Paul's Two Of Us:
Playboy: Don't Let Me Down?
Lennon: That's me, singing about Yoko.
Playboy: Two Of Us?
Lennon: Mine. By the way, Rod Stewart turned Don't Let Me Down into [singing] "Maggie don't go-o-o." That's one the publishers never noticed...
Here's what the tapes say:
Playboy: Don't Let Me Down?
Lennon: That's me, singing about Yoko - which Rod Stewart took note for note and turned into [singing] "Maggie don't go-o-o." That's one the publishers never noticed...
And I ask you, has anybody ever heard a more spaced-out interviewer than David Sheff in this Playboy interview? John might as well have been interviewing himself, or talking with the coffee table. In spite of that, John was accommodating and informative throughout. What a good guy.
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