Reexperiencing ‘Yellow Submarine’ : The countercultural convergence of the Beatles and the Bay Area

the beatles
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Picture yourself on a blank page. Drawn on it are hedgelike bouquets that form a canopy over buoyant trumpeters and large-toothed lizards. Across the endless green you see a quartet of four small-headed people with ornaments for bodies, monkey cows with human faces and candy-striped rainbow clouds.

This “unearthly paradise” is the imaginary world of the Beatles’ Pepperland. Though drawn in a 2-D animated style that resembles the artwork of a fanciful child, the “Yellow Submarine” animated film takes its viewers on a twisted and whimsical journey through the Beatles’ music soundscape. The movie is a narrativized acid trip; from the poetically riddled dialogue to the surrealist René Magritte allusions, this film emblemizes the dreamscape the Beatles’ music has imagined for its listeners.

Five decades after its release, the youthful character of this film still speaks to the enduring nature of the Beatles’ music and their peaceful message, which became especially relevant at the height of the Vietnam War. And though this film is quickly slipping into the cult classic genre, its mantras remain critically relevant to modern American culture and politics.

The Beatles reinvented their image several times throughout their career, but “Yellow Submarine” is a work in direct conversation with the counterculture shift of the 1960s. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument to say which arrived first — the Beatles’ rebellious discography or the hippie culture — but it is clear that both developed from a sort of renegade culture symbiosis.

The Beatles’ history with Berkeley and San Francisco

During this period, these reverberant messages of peace amid conflict echoed throughout the Bay Area. In the same year that the film captured audiences, Berkeley activists were fighting for the establishment of People’s Park, and the emergent Free Speech Movement on the UC Berkeley campus had reached a point of climax.

Beatlemania culture was both embedded in and popularized by the hippie movement that sprang out of Berkeley and San Francisco during the ‘60s. The quintessential image of the free-spirited, long-blond hippie can be traced to this eclectic era, and just a year after Haight’s Summer of Love — a pivotal moment of cultural convergence in the hippie movement — “Yellow Submarine” arrived in theaters.

The resonance of the Beatles infiltrated not just radio stations and sound stages, but also everyday life. “The Beatles and their fans helped to make those countercultural ideas and values that percolated in coffee shops and on college campuses more mainstream,” explained Nicolette Rohr, a doctoral candidate at UC Riverside who examined the influence of Beatlemania in directing the shifting social currents of the era.

The quintessential image of the free-spirited, long-blond hippie can be traced to this eclectic era, and just a year after Haight’s Summer of Love — a pivotal moment of cultural convergence in the hippie movement — “Yellow Submarine” arrived in theaters.

These “countercultural ideas” also threatened the stereotypical images and conventional roles of women in the 1940s and ‘50s. The Beatles attracted the first screaming, fanatic audiences to their concerts — mainly young women. This Beatlemania hysteria was the first of its kind, and it was during this fan culture revolution that young women’s voices sounded across the nation.

In 1965, Newsweek claimed that “the young successfully ‘Beatle‐ized’ the nation, and many think they may be about to ‘Berkeley‐ize’ it as well.” Just as the Beatles are known for their free-loving music and messages of peace, so is Berkeley synonymous with a similar progressive mentality. Despite the heavy-handed philosophical overtones of The Beatles’ music, their charm, beat and charisma certainly allowed these intellectually and spiritually rich lyrics to pass as popular music.

“Yellow Submarine” is an imaginary blip of what might be the Beatles’ psychedelic daydreams. Though a pop band, the Beatles revolutionized and radicalized the social shape of Britain, the United States and the world in a time period in which the younger generation was shaping the world’s social and political agendas.

The dialogue, art and soundscape — A liberating psychedelic portrait     

Just as the freedom of the Beatles’ music aligned with the mass cultural liberation of young people in the 1960s, so too does the whimsical style and Seussian tone of the film. This youthful refusal to conform is reflected in the disfigured, childish animation of “Yellow Submarine.”

The film’s story begins in an upbeat, color-struck landscape. In what is initially a jovial and picturesque scene, a tirade from the Blue Meanies turns all of the singers, band players and citizens of Pepperland into stone. One sailor from Pepperland manages to escape this invasion and travels to Liverpool in a yellow submarine to recruit Paul, John, George and Ringo to save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies.

Though the Beatles are doubtful of the sailor, they venture with him anyway and soon find themselves sifting through cosmic space and deconstructed time. Along their journey, they encounter mysterious places that evade all scopes of wake-sanity; a land full of holes, Nowhereland and the Sea of Monsters. Roger McGough, poet, children’s author and writer for “Yellow Submarine,” takes credit for writing this “Sea of Monsters” scene. After the Czech animator Heinz Edelmann drew out the raiders on horseback, McGough worked with the existing script to construct this scene and to “Liverpool-ize it.”

Just as the freedom of the Beatles’ music aligned with the mass cultural liberation of young people in the 1960s, so too does the whimsical style and Seussian tone of the film. This youthful refusal to conform is reflected in the disfigured, childish animation of “Yellow Submarine.”

When McGough first joined the writing cast and read over the script, he noticed a very American-branded tone to the film: “It was as if it was voiced over by Ben Stiller, Larry David, Woody Allen, and Steve Martin and that sort of thing. That’s what it sounded like; very American jokes and very American iconic flavor. So when the Beatles saw that, they said, ‘That’s not us.’ ”

Just as the Beatles’ lyrics are laced with political wit and cloaked in peaceful armor, so too is the script of “Yellow Submarine.” The dialogue follows a Wes Anderson-like rhythm, each character responding with little hesitation or calculation. This linguistic effect makes the four Beatles seem to operate as one unit, creating an added element of quirkiness that the Beatles’ counterculture audiences could relate to.  

Similarly, the biomusic of the Beatles encapsulates a spirituality that seems endemic to this Beatlemania culture. Biomusic incorporates natural sound with modern tempos and rock beats. In “Yellow Submarine,” the use of biomusic proliferates as the Blue Meanies’ laughter, noises of clanking and ship-yard calls echo through many of their songs. This collection of noninstrumental sounds allows the eerie soundscape to blend with the psychedelic style of animation.   

The film’s production also embodied a resistance to conform to the conventional blockbuster agendas of American film producers. McGough added that there was a kind of “American-British feud” between American producers who wanted to expedite the film’s production and its creative contributors. He argued that the film remains a cult classic because of its affiliation with the Beatles and its distinctly uncommercialized flavor, adding that this timelessness may stem from the authenticity of the film, one that was “unique for the time” and spoke to a “psychedelic riff that was going on.”

Despite its nonconformist styling, however, the end of the film presents a contrastively conventional happy ending: The Beatles restore peace to Pepperland by defeating the Blue Meanies through the power of love. Though seemingly cliché, the film’s conclusion nevertheless made a radical claim. In the context of the Vietnam War and the political contention of the 1960s, the Beatles’ messages of love and peace provided a simple yet powerful framework for promoting an anti-violence movement; and, perhaps as the Beatles suggested in this film, communicated the enduring message that love trumps hate.

 

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected]