If you know the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” you probably think of it as a whimsical children’s song, brimming with silly sound effects and cheery refrains.
But a newly-discovered studio recording, featured on an expanded reissue of 1966’s Revolver, reveals that the song was initially composed with a much darker mood in mind: On it, John Lennon plays the chords and sings the melody of the “Yellow Submarine” verses, but his gentle guitar and vocals give the song a slow, melancholic shape. In place of the playful lyrics Beatles fans know, Lennon sings a dejected refrain:
In the place where I was born
No one cared, no one cared
And the name that I was born
No one cared, no one cared
Paul McCartney wrote the final lyrics for “Yellow Submarine,” and Ringo Starr sang it, so Lennon’s role in its early stages is surprising. The new album’s producer, Giles Martin—who is the son of longtime Beatles producer George Martin—was also surprised.
“I had no idea until I started going through the outtakes,” Martin tells Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield. “This was a Lennon-McCartney thing. I said to Paul, ‘I always thought this was a song that you wrote and gave to Ringo.’”
The origin of “Yellow Submarine” is one of many surprises packed into the new Revolver. The reissue features newly-mixed versions of the album’s 14 tracks and 2 singles, as well as all of the originals. It also includes a number of unpolished studio recordings that offer glimpses into the band’s creative process.
Revolver is the fifth Beatles album that Martin has remixed and expanded. It follows remixes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (2017), The Beatles (2018) (also known as “the White Album”), Abbey Road (2019) and Let It Be (2021).
Originally released in 1966, Revolver was a turning point for the Beatles. They had started to morph from a suit-and-tie-clad boy band into a psychedelic, experimental rock project with 1965’s Rubber Soul; on Revolver, that transformation appears complete. Among its 14 tracks, the album includes the politically-charged “Taxman”; the orchestral, heartbreaking “Eleanor Rigby”; and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the swirling LSD anthem that opens with the lyrics, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”
Though Revolver finds the Beatles evolving into avant-garde songwriters, the technology used to record it was still fairly run-of-the-mill. The album is a mono mix, not a stereo mix, meaning that all instruments and vocals on any given song were collapsed into one stream of sound, as opposed to the modern approach of recording them on different tracks. For a long time, this made the prospect of remixing Revolver—or anything that came before it—seem impossible to Martin and his team.
But a technological breakthrough occurred during the production of Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back, which was released last year. The film follows the Beatles as they record what would eventually become their final album, Let It Be, and give their last-ever performance together. To make it, Jackson’s team developed technology that allowed them to split mono tracks into their separate parts—a guitar on one track, vocals on another, and so on.
The new technology relies on artificial intelligence and machine learning, Martin tells BBC News’ Mark Savage. “It has to learn what the sound of John Lennon's guitar is, for instance, and the more information you can give it, the better it becomes.”
Martin himself doesn’t entirely understand the process, he admits to Variety’s Chris Willman. “I don’t know how it’s done!” he says. “It’s like I’m giving them a cake and they’re giving me flour, eggs, and milk and some sugar.”
The new Revolver also shares thematic similarities with Get Back: Both projects pull back the curtain on some of the Beatles’ most beloved songs, humanizing the four men who have achieved divine status in the eyes of so many fans.
On the reissue, listeners hear George Martin and Paul McCartney debate whether the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” should have vibrato, eventually deciding that they shouldn’t. They hear the backing track to “Rain”—which was slowed down for the song’s final version—played at a chipper full speed. In one of the album’s most joyful moments, listeners follow along as the band struggles to get through a recording of “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Why? They can’t stop laughing.