Supplying a song for Ringo to sing on every Beatles album was not ever much of a priority. Sometimes a cover song was chosen for him, sometimes he himself chose a cover song to perform, and sometimes a song was written especially for him by John and/or Paul. When the third option was chosen, the composition was admittedly never at the caliber of one they would sing themselves and definitely not one that would be destined to be released as a single. The time spent in the recording studio working on the song would always be minimal as well. The resulting ‘Ringo track’ would be buried somewhere on the album to satisfy the demands of fans who desired to hear their favorite Beatle at the microphone.
Who would ever have thought that the “Lennon/McCartney” songwriting team would compose a song for Ringo to sing that was deemed good enough to be released as a single. In fact, enthusiasm was high (quite possibly in the chemical sense as well) while it was being recorded, much time being spent in getting it just right. They even enlisted friends and loved ones to help in the recording process. The result became the only British Beatles single to feature Ringo as lead vocalist, a track that the singer would forever be linked with as his ultimate ‘claim to fame.’ And with the song eventually becoming the title track of their highly successful animated motion picture, “Yellow Submarine” will probably always be known as the singer’s most noteworthy accomplishment.
“I was laying in bed in the Ashers’ garret,” Paul remembers in his “Many Years From Now” book, “and there’s a nice twilight zone just as you’re drifting into sleep and as you wake from it; I always find it quite a comfortable zone, you’re almost asleep, you’ve laid your burdens down for the day and there’s this little limbo-land just before you slip into sleep. I remember thinking that a children’s song would be quite a good idea and I thought of images, and the color yellow came to me, and a submarine came to me, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of nice, like a toy, very childish yellow submarine,’”
He continues, “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…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.”
As to who wrote what, Paul states: “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.”
John concurs, stating in 1972: “Paul wrote the catchy chorus. I helped with the blunderbuss bit.” In 1980 he described the song as “Paul’s baby. Donovan helped with the lyrics. I helped with the lyrics too…Paul’s idea, Paul’s title – so I count it as a Paul song…written for Ringo.”
Good friend Donovan Leitch relates his input in writing the song. “I helped Paul with the lyrics for ‘Yellow Submarine.’ He came round to my apartment and parked his Aston Martin in the middle of the road with the doors open and the radio blaring. He walked away from the car and came up to my apartment and played me ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with different lyrics and he also said that he had another song that was missing a verse. It was a very small part and I just went into the other room and put together ‘sky of blue, sea of green.’ They had always asked other people for help with a line or two, so I helped with that line. He knew that I was into kids’ songs and he knew I could help. I’m sure he could have written the line himself but I suppose he wanted someone to add a line and I added a line…It was nothing really, but he liked it and it stayed in.”
Another thing that stayed in was a slight contribution from Ringo while in the studio. “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.”
Co-author Barry Miles, in the book “Many Years From Now,” supposes a date for the writing of the song based on Paul’s meeting with Donovan, stating: “Since ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was finished and arranged for a string octet by the end of April, this must have been early in the month or late March.”
“Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby” may have been written approximately at the same time, but recording of the Ringo vocal song for the upcoming “Revolver” album wasn’t begun until nearly a month after “Eleanor Rigby” was complete (except for a last minute vocal overdub on June 6th, 1966). May 26th, 1966 was the date the group first gave its attention to “Yellow Submarine” in EMI Studio Three, the session beginning at 7 pm.
“I have a clear memory of them doing the rhythm track of ‘Yellow Submarine,’” explains engineerGeoff Emerick. “As it happened, George Martin was out sick with food poisoning the night we began work on it; he sent his secretary (and future wife), Judy, along to keep an eye on things…and I suppose to make sure we all behaved ourselves! She sat in George’s place at the console making sure that the Beatles got everything they wanted…while I took the helm. George’s absence clearly had a liberating effect on the four Beatles – they behaved like a bunch of schoolboys with a substitute teacher filling in. As a result, there was a lot of clowning around that evening – silliness that George Martin would not have tolerated – and so rehearsals took up a lot more time than the session itself.”
Geoff also recalls how the song was introduced in the studio: “When Paul first ran the song down on piano, it sounded to my ears more like a children’s song than a pop track, but everyone was enthused and got down to work.” George Harrison also recalls this day: “All I know is just that every time we’d all get around the piano with guitars and start listening to it and arranging it into a record, we’d all fool about.”
“It was Lennon who finally got over his attack of the giggles,” Geoff continues, “and took on the role of responsible adult, admonishing the others…”come on. It’s 20 to 10 (or 9:40 pm) and we still haven’t made us a record!”…This, of course, only had the effect of sending everyone into another fit of laughter. But eventually they settled down and began recording the backing track.”
According to Mark Lewisohn’s book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” the four takes of the rhythm track “had a much longer introduction than was eventually released on disc, with acoustic guitar (John), bass guitar (Paul) and tambourine (George) all preceding Ringo’s drums and the part of the song where the lyrics would come in…The song’s other variation at this stage from what would be released on record was a full, rounded ending. On record it was faded out.”
The fourth take was deemed the best, although it was necessary to perform a tape reduction in order to free up more tracks for the various overdubs that the song would need. This tape reduction then became take five. Onto this, the main vocals of the song were recorded. “Then Ringo and the others added their vocals,” Geoff explains, “with the tape slightly slowed down so that their voices would sound a little brighter on playback.” The precise recording speed of these vocals, according to Mark Lewisohn, was 47 ½ cycles.
One final vocal overdub was recorded before the evening was over. Geoff recounts: “At a certain point, John decided that the third verse needed some spicing up, so he dashed into the studio and began answering each of Ringo’s sung lines in a silly voice that I further altered to make it sound like he was talking over a ship’s megaphone.” George Harrison recalls: “John’s doing the voice that sounds like someone talking down a tube or ship’s funnel as they do in the merchant marine.” By 1 o’clock the next morning, they could retire for the night knowing that they indeed made some good progress in recording the song, completing the rhythm track along with the lead and harmony vocals.