Billboard Interview With George Harrison by Timothy White
Copyright © 1999 Billboard Magazine and BPI Communications Inc.
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Let's start by clearing up current misconceptions of what the upcoming new "Yellow Submarine" release is about and what it will actually encompass. The main thing you need to get over to all the people is that it's not a soundtrack, but that it's actually the "songtrack." This will be a total of all the Beatles songs that were used in the film. The whole "Submarine" thing was written or done around the time of "Sgt. Pepper," around that period. [But] "Yellow Submarine" only ended up with just those six new songs that were in the film. And then they put all that George Martin-orchestrated material on there. But now it will be every song that was in the movie -- because the film also had "All You Need Is Love" and "Sgt. Pepper" too -- all together, for the first time. And they've all been remixed! The film also had even older songs, like "Eleanor Rigby," that are now on the new "Yellow Submarine: A Songtrack." Exactly, and they're in all their new mixes in that "wraparound sound." So the video and the DVD versions and the new CDs will also have the same new stereo mixes that will match the wraparound sound and will come out around the 14th of September. But I haven't even seen the finished film yet! We're going to a private screening of the new version in a week or two. We may have a couple of cinema "events," showing it in theaters, and I think that's gonna turn into a big night out, but the film is not going to be out in a general theatrical release. We've got all sorts of other things coming in time for November, including an announcement about a Beatles Web site. Neil Aspinall [the chief executive] at Apple, he's organizing all these details, and he's got all kinds of things that are going to reach fruition, like some special merchandising. Having lasted 40 years with the Beatles, Neil is the only person who's ever really been able to keep in contact with the four of us at the same time through all the various conflicts and whatever. And I met him when I was like 13 years old, smoking behind the air-raid shelters at the Liverpool Institute high school. [Big laugh.] There's supposedly a "Yellow Submarine" EP in the vaults that EMI had thought of putting out about a year after the "Yellow Submarine" album was finally released in January 1969. The EP had the six songs put on the soundtrack album, plus an early version of "Across The Universe." Of course it never came out. I remember that the early version of "Across The Universe" was the best one. But we finally put that one out on a World Wildlife Fund charity album ["No One's Gonna Change Our World," December 1969, Regal Starline SRS 5013]. And it also later went on the "Anthology " album. But, you know, there's certain things where somebody might have said, like, "Oh, at this point in time we had some songs in the can," but there's nothing that I can remember that was ever solid discussion about an EP of any sort like that, other than the [two-disc] "Magical Mystery Tour" EP [issued in the U.K. in December 1967]; in America they didn't have extended plays so that had to be made into an album. What about "Hey Bulldog," which was cut at the same February 1968 sessions that included the early "Across The Universe," your "The Inner Light," "Lady Madonna," and other material? Do you remember how the group came up with John's piano riff and your guitar riff for "Bulldog"? Well, it was John's song, and it was a great tune. Funny thing is, in the version for America [as well as most U.K. prints] of the "Yellow Submarine" film they edited "Bulldog" out, so we had to make sure this time that it would be in, because of that whole bit in the movie of the dog with all the heads! And we do now have an unreleased video of "Hey Bulldog," as you know. What it was is that when we were in the studio recording [10 takes of] "Bulldog," apparently it was at a time when they needed some footage for something else, some other record ["Lady Madonna"], and a film crew came along and filmed us. Then they cut up the footage and used some of the shots for something else. But it was Neil Aspinall who found out that when you watched and listened to what the original thing was, we were recording "Bulldog"! This was apparently the only time we were actually filmed recording something, so what Neil did was, he put [the unused footage] all back together again and put the "Bulldog" soundtrack onto it, and there it was! An unreleased live Beatles video! [Chuckling.] Yeah! And everything has a different mix on it now! Because when they set up to this new, wraparound five-speaker mix for the film, they were working away doing that for months and months at Abbey Road. You see, another thing is that a lot of the time the Beatles were only working on 4-track tape, so we'd get to the fourth track and then what we'd do is mix the four tracks onto one track of another 4-track machine, and then we'd do another three tracks. So what they've gone doing in these new mixes -- which we did a little bit of on the "Anthologies" -- was to connect all the four tracks together and have the first four tracks all separated, and then the three overdubbed tracks separated, in order to create a new mix. Normally the mixes heard since the '60s up till now from Beatles records have all been on these finished 4-tracks with the pre-mix of the other three tracks stuck onto it. In other words, the individual tracks on the basic tapes were rediscovered, allowing you to separate each of the original, incremental tracks. So for the first time you've actually got a much bigger, cleaner mix, because you've got the original bass and drum and guitar tracks unmixed-together, you know? And also, with all the old equipment and all the compressors and the stuff that we used in those days, you'd spend ages trying to improve the final 4-track mix you figured you were stuck with. This engineer, a fellow named Peter Mew, did a lot of the work with a guy called Allan Rouse, who's kind of in charge of all the Beatles catalog. So we went in and listened to all these new, fully remixed tracks, and they really are good, with the sound coming all around you, you know! A few more questions about the classic songs originally on the "Yellow Submarine" album, like "It's All Too Much." Is that you playing the organ on that track? That's right! I probably wrote it on the organ, I think. At the end of "Too Much" there are snippets of Jeremiah Clarke's "Prince Of Denmark's March" and the Merseys' '66 [No. 4 U.K.] hit "Sorrow." You mean on the fade-out? Yeah, with "Your long blond hair/And your eyes of blue." That was all just this big ending we had, going out. And as it was in those days, we had the horn players just play a bit of trumpet voluntarily, and so that's how that "Prince Of Denmark" bit was played. And Paul and John just came up with and sang that lyric of "your eyes of blue." But just a couple of years ago somebody suddenly tried to sue us for that! For them singing a little snatch of lyric to give exposure to an obscure song? Oh yeah. I just ignored it. I think that's one of my songs that's actually published now by ATV and Michael Jackson's Northern Songs, so I just thought, "Well, they can deal with it." I just thought it's so ridiculous, you know. Incidentally, that riff that's played on "It's All Too Much," I seem to have heard at least 50 songs that've used that lick since then. [He hums the melody on the chorus.] You know the one I mean: Dah ding ding ding, dah ding ding ding. I mean, that's become like a stock thing. The difference is some people admit where their influences come from, like the Byrds [did] with the Rickenbacker 12-string thing after they all went to see "A Hard Day's Night." But then I've had people writing to me and telling me about a group called Texas with a song called "Black Eyed Boy" [a No. 5 U.K. hit in 1997], and everybody's saying, "Hey, they've ripped off your song!" But I don't know, because somebody sent me a cassette and I put it on, and I couldn't hear a thing! We've never really been into suing people for things like that. I've heard a bunch of records in the past that took things from things like "What Is Life," or "Living In The Material World," or "Here's Comes The Sun." What's the point? But I suppose the point would be like Bright Tunes [the publishing company that started the protracted plagiarism suit against Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" in which George ultimately prevailed] -- you could just try and make some money out of people. The guitar feedback on the intro to "It's All Too Much" was done in May of '67, so it was pre-Hendrix, before he started to go wild with that stuff, since his "Are You Experienced?" album [released in the U.K. on Dec. 5, 1967] hadn't come out yet. But, now, I don't think I was playing the guitar feedback; as I say, I was playing the organ, so I think that was probably Paul that did that. But it was, like, manufactured, meaning that it wasn't like an accident or anything; it was part of the arrangement. I just wanted to write a rock'n'roll song about the whole psychedelic thing of the time: "Sail me on a silver sun/Where I know that I am free/Show me that I'm everywhere/And get me home for tea." [Laughs.] Because you'd trip out, you see, on all this stuff, and then whoops! you'd just be back having your evening cup of tea! But we also had that feedback on "I Feel Fine" [in 1964], and John always claimed it came about from playing an acoustic Gibson with a pickup in it, and it had a big round sound hole, and it just used to feed back very easily if you faced it toward the amplifier. But then I've heard other people say that wasn't the first feedback either: "1897, we had feedback on such and such!" [More laughter.] We've talked about "Only A Northern Song" before, which was intended as a little commentary of yours. It was at the point that I realized Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18- or 19-year-old kid, I thought, "Great, somebody's gonna publish my songs!" But he never said, "And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you're assigning me the ownership of the songs [Harrison had written as a Beatle]," which is what it is. It was just a blatant theft. By the time I realized what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalog, I wrote "Only A Northern Song" as what we call a "piss-take," just to have a joke about it. "All Together Now," by Paul and John, do you have any thoughts about that? It was a nursery rhyme kind of thing. Again, if you look at it from one point of view, it's embarrassing. But we seem to have been the all-around entertainers, weren't we? Somehow we got away with stuff like that, either with Ringo singing "Yellow Submarine" or us doing a song like "All Together Now." Thinking of things suited for children from the Beatles, Al Brodax, who produced the "Yellow Submarine" movie, also had done the series of Beatles cartoons [several dozen episodes, broadcast on ABC-TV starting in 1965, but only given limited later exposure in England on Granada Television] that were shown on Saturday and Sunday mornings in America. Whatever happened to those cartoons? Oh, we bought them all a few years ago, just so we had control over them for the future. I always kind of liked them -- they were so bad or silly they were good, if you know what I mean. [Grinning.] And I think the passage of time might make them more fun now, in terms of being more watchable than they really were back then. But we don't have any plans for them at the moment. By the way, the song "Yellow Submarine" never really did have anything to do with a narcotic pill by that nickname, did it? I never heard of that pill. Paul came up with the concept of "Yellow Submarine." 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. As I said, John's doing the voice that sounds like someone talking down a tube or ship's funnel as they do in the merchant marine. [Laughs.] And on the final track there's actually that very small party happening! As I seem to remember, there's a few screams and what sounds like small crowd noises in the background. Fans still wonder if that voice shouting into the submarine's funnel is John, same as they still ask who coughed at the start of "Taxman" on the "Revolver" album. My son Dhani reckons it was me. He says, "I'd recognize that cough anywhere!" [Laughs.] But I don't remember. Your own "Sgt. Pepper"-ish film characters in the "Yellow Submarine" movie were dubbed by actors, so the Beatles' only actual appearance in the film is at the end of the picture. Well the deal was we hadn't really been that involved in the making of what was supposed to be our third movie. I must say, at the point I had no idea of how it was going to fit into the film or where it was going. We had our lines and just kind of did it, but it all turned out quite well with the animation, didn't it? It was excellent, and the film was very influential, particularly the work of principal animation designer Heinz Edelmann. Right, and then Peter Max built his whole career on the fact that everybody thought he'd done it! I loved a lot of those characters [Edelmann] came up with. And the Blue Meanie named Max, I always wondered if the later idea of the "Mad Max" movie character came from him. It's a spectacular, Dante's "Inferno"-type tale of good vs. evil. And that "flying glove" character is scary! [Laughs.] It is, it is! And all those Apple Bonkers! The fact is, with the way the culture and the government are now, it's all still happening now as it was in "Yellow Submarine." Except the Blue Meanies have got a bigger stranglehold on the planet right now than they even had back in '67! And it looks like there's no musical group coming along to break the bubble of grayness, because even the music industry has turned gray and is dominated by Blue Meanies. Do you think popular music has had an impact on shaping minds, and that across history it's helped influence peoples' thinking? Music definitely influences you, whether it just makes you feel happy or sad. And likewise I'm sure all that horrible music these days is making people change -- there's just worse crime, more cynicism. I wouldn't necessarily directly blame the music for all of that, but there is this kind of chemistry that's created through endless television or music programming or advertising that drones away on these things-with crap music, with murder movies, and that whole thing with Robert De Niro pointing a big gun at everyone on the big posters [for the film "Ronin"] that you see everywhere now in London. And so it's like my son Dhani was saying, that "Who gives a shit about bombing Bosnia!" becomes the attitude on a campus, because they're all so desensitized. It's like the music and entertainment business has gotten into the arms business. Yeah! And it was both pathetic and very funny at the time, but a couple of years ago I was in Los Angeles, and I had the television on, and for the local weather we went to some guy at the beach. And in the shot of him live with the beach in the background you could just see the pollution was just dreadful, and he just goes, "Yes, well, it's another beautiful day down here at Santa Monica!" And I thought, "What are you talking about? It stinks!" But that's how it is, that's the desensitizing. Maybe in another few hundred years people will be living in sewers with rats crawling all over them, and they'll be thinking, "This is great, life is good." Mahatma Gandhi said, "Create and preserve the image of your choice," and the image we seem to have chosen is one of greed and butchery. The article contained in this page is: Copyright © 1999 Billboard Magazine and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.