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Who made the sound effects on The Beatles song ‘Yellow Submarine’?

Often seen as the one misstep on their landmark album Revolver, The Beatles song ‘Yellow Submarine’ divides opinion like few others in the band’s catalogue. Primarily intended as their whimsical take on the traditional children’s nursery rhyme with purveyor of pastiche par excellence Ringo Starr on vocals, the track has an infectious singalong quality that offsets its potentially irritating silliness.

Although John Lennon contributed many of the ideas for the song based on his experiences taking hallucinogenic drug LSD, it was long thought that Paul McCartney was the driving force behind its melodic structure. In fact, an early demo track by Lennon recently released on the 2022 special edition of Revolver reveals that he came up with the basic melodic pattern for the verses. In the demo, he sings the song’s opening line, “In the town, where I was born”, before taking things in a more melancholic direction with the words, “No one cared”.

In any case, Lennon’s sad childhood tale became a joyful collaboration between all four Beatles, with some friends helping out along the way. In addition to the band members playing their typical instruments, there are various sound effects employed throughout ‘Yellow Submarine’.

We hear waves crashing against the fictional vessel of the story, people chattering, shouting and laughing in the background, chains rattling and clinking, what sounds like a whistle, a naval band playing when cued in by Starr’s lyric, someone shouting instructions over a ship’s tannoy system, and finally the sound of underwater bubbles.

So, who did which sound effects?
Beatle George Harrison was responsible for the waves sounds in the song, which he managed to record by swishing water around a tin bathtub in the studio. The same bath also came in handy for creating the sound of rattling chains, which members of the band’s entourage achieved by dropping an actual metal chain, coins and a bell into the bath. Beatles chauffeur Alf Bicknell and security guards John Skinner and Terry Condon all get credit for their efforts in this regard.

The ship’s whistle we hear is none other than Rolling Stone member Brian Jones playing the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument. On the other hand, the brass band we hear isn’t the real thing but a tape looped into the mix by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. One of The Beatles themselves seems to have pulled the handle of an old-fashioned cash register to create the effect of a pneumatic lever, while it’s Lennon we hear shouting “full speed ahead” and “aye aye” as he muffles his voice to sound like he’s speaking into a ship’s tannoy.

McCartney then shouts repetitions of Starr’s lyrics after each line in the final verse before Lennon arrives again with the bubbles. He created this sound by blowing through a straw into a container of water.

As well as the sounds of inanimate objects, at various points in the song, we hear background chatter, shrieks and laughter from the various people assembled at the recording session. Harrison’s fiancé at the time, Pattie Boyd, is responsible for the laugh we hear after the second chorus.

Meanwhile, pretty much everyone who was there sang backing vocals on the chorus, including all of the above except Skinner and Condon, plus producer George Martin, the band’s personal assistant Neil Aspinall, and singer Marianne Faithfull.

If the song itself is about the communal spirit of life at sea, then its recording was no less convivial, it seems.

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