You may think you know Yellow Submarine, that jokey, surreal number by the Beatles that Ringo Starr sings and children love. But an extraordinary, poignant early version of the song, soon to be revealed alongside a freshly mixed edition of Revolver, tells quite another story.
It is one of a string of shocks lying in wait next month when the band’s landmark 1966 album is rereleased. It comes complete with new outtakes and recovered studio recordings, and offers a potent antidote to Get Back, the acclaimed 2021 Peter Jackson film that chronicled the beginning of the end of the Fab Four.
Now setting these famous songs, including Eleanor Rigby, Here, There and Everywhere, She Said She Said and Got to Get You Into My Life, in their proper context for the first time are Giles Martin, son of the late George, the inspirational producer and arranger, and one of the band’s oldest friends, Klaus Voormann, designer of the album’s striking cover.
Before the release, the two men paint a picture that will alter public understanding of the Beatles once more. Because, for them, the months that led up to Revolver saw the last real convergence of great individual creative talents, still working together.
“They were already pulling away, but collaborating,” said Martin. “It is amazing that all these songs are on the same album. When Paul [McCartney] sat down with me to listen to it again, because he does not often do that, he said: ‘This is it. This is the record where we were each most ourselves. You can hear us making our own contributions.’ ”
In contrast to the rancour evident later, band disagreements were quickly settled and largely about music. “This is not that long before the period covered in Get Back, but the tone is so different. You think: ‘Oh, this is what they were like!’ ” said Martin. “The lifespan of the Beatles was like a mayfly’s really. Everything was so speeded up.”
For Voormann, the influential German the band met in a Hamburg bar in 1960, the album remains a touchstone: “It’s a very important thing in my life and they felt especially proud of it. They had started moving apart when they stopped doing live gigs that summer,” he said this weekend. “So it is fantastic they stuck together as long as they did, because they were hardly meeting up at all outside the studio. That’s the truth.”
And the truth about Yellow Submarine is that John Lennon imagined a sorrowful, wry ballad, rooted in his own childhood. “In the town where I was born, No one cared, no one cared,” he wails in an early demo. It sounds, as Martin notes, more like a “maudlin, Woody Guthrie” chant than the oompah band final version.
Also revealed are a tense debate about the opening of Got to Get You Into My Life, in which an organ stands in for the horns, and discussions about the vibrato on the violins in Eleanor Rigby. “People have said classical musicians were not keen on joining these sessions, but you can hear the violinists enjoying talking to Paul, who puts on a slightly posh voice,” said Martin.
His father is also caught admitting that a screech from the strings recalls his own days learning the violin as a child. “It nearly killed me,” the great producer confesses. And his son reveals now: “He was a nice enough piano player but he actually failed his Guildhall instrument exam on the oboe. He said his hands were so sweaty with nerves that the instrument was like an eel in his hands.”
Fans can also hear Lennon claiming that an early, comparatively lacklustre take of his song And Your Bird Can Sing was good enough. “Next morning they would often come in, hear a track and then do another take,” said Martin.
So how do you improve an album that many believe is one of the best, if not the best, produced by any group? The answer, according to Giles Martin, is that you don’t. Instead you clarify, without cleaning up, or making it sound sterile. “I am not just doing all this work on my own. Paul and Ringo want me to do it and they sit in,” said Martin, explaining he is surrounded by recordings of all the different takes and instrument tracks, so he can check as he goes along. “They don’t want me to just do nothing. There’s no point. And I was trained by my father, and he liked to take risks.”
The fears of those who love their original scratched vinyl are voiced by Voormann: “I’m always sceptical about changing tracks. After all, we took an awful lot of care when we made these things.”
It turns out that without the film Get Back, on which Martin worked with Jackson, this new, enhanced edition of Revolver would not have happened. The technology developed by Jackson, and deployed to pick out individual instruments and voices, was crucial for working on such a basic master tape, one deliberately compressed to suit early vinyl LPs. “It was sort of mono and they had to lessen the base sound so the needle would not jump,” said Martin, who has compared the impact of Jackson’s sound technology to unbaking a cake without adulterating the ingredients. “In my view when you listen to music, it doesn’t get old. We change our attitudes and get old, but the songs stay the same and should sound that way.”
One thing both Martin and Voormann agree on is the central importance of Starr, the band’s “glue”. “He was actually the first one I met in Hamburg. Although I heard John, Paul and George playing from outside the bar, when I went in Ringo was on stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes,” said Voormann.
“He made everyone laugh and was always at the centre of things. He would have kept them together until today. That helped them stay a group and they began to sound like the Beatles once he played, with that swing. He was a jolly man and he still is.”
“He is the ultimate feeling-based drummer,” said Martin. “Sometimes he doesn’t even know what a signature time is. He still talks about ‘the feel’ of a song all the time.”
Martin, who is about to work with Sam Taylor-Johnson on her Amy Winehouse biopic, said that, although he has been immersed in Beatles music since childhood, he finds the completists, obsessed with hearing every take of a song, hard to understand. He does believe, however, that listening to key early versions is illuminating: “People may think a song just materialises, but with these outtakes you can hear a song emerge. It’s great.”