"They stole our ideas" – John Lennon on the Yellow Submarine film and the unexpected Beatles recording of its soundtrack song, Hey Bulldog

The Beatles Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison with a cardboard cut out of John Lennon from the film Yellow Submarine. July 1968
(Image credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The 1968 animated film of Yellow Submarine is inextricably linked with the Beatles – not just their music but their imagination, ideas and identity. But, with the exception of one scene to meet a contractual obligation, the voices of the band featured in the film were provided by actors and not John, Paul, Ringo and George. It later emerged that John Lennon in particular was unsatisfied with the creative involvement the band had and not receiving credit for the ideas they had provided for the film.

YouTube channel Beatles Bible recently cast Lennon's views on the film in a stark light – using audio from The Lost Lennon Tapes radio series that features Lennon's 1980 interview with David Sheff for Playboy, he doesn't hold back when talking about the background to the exclusive song the Beatles provided for the film's soundtrack; Hey Bulldog. He described the people involved in the film as "gross animals" – with the exception of artist Alan Aldridge, who had first illustrated the Yellow Submarine in November 1966 following the Beatles' Revolver album.

Lennon accused the film's writer of "lifting all the ideas for the music out of our heads and not giving us any credit, like Eric Segal writing Lennon-esque lines straight from [Lennon's 1964 poetry and short stories book] In His Own Write-style".

"We had nothing to do with that movie," Lennon added, referencing contractual obligation to former American production and distribution company United Artists. "We sort of resented them… it was the third movie we owed these United Artists and Brian [Epstein, Beatles manager] had set it up and we had nothing to do with it."

The context may well have been the Lennon's growing dissatisfaction with the Beatles' involvement in film. Though the band clearly enjoyed 1964's A Hard Day's Night, Lennon was reportedly less enamored with the band's control over 1965's Help and 1967's The Magical Mystery Tour had been poorly received by critics and audiences, despite the success of its soundtrack.  

The Beatles posed with cardboard cutouts of their 'Yellow Submarine' characters at TVC animation Studios in London, 6th November 1967, L-R George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr. They were taking part in a short film called 'A Mod Odyssey' about the making of 'Yellow Submarine'

The Beatles posing with cardboard cutouts of their Yellow Submarine' characters at TVC animation Studios in London, 6 November 1967. The band were taking part in a short film called A Mod Odyssey about the making of Yellow Submarine (Image credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)

Lennon did enjoy the finished movie but noted where some of its characters had come from. "I like the movie, I like Heinz's [Edelmann, illustrator] artwork but they got all the ideas for the glove in the sky, and the thing that sucks people up was my idea. They said, 'Have you got any monsters?' and I said , 'Yeah there's Horace the vacuum cleaner in the swimming pool'. Which was a thing you could buy and it went round the pool sucking up the things. I said, 'That could be a monster'. They just took him…"

Lennon's pool monster creation features in Beatles Book Monthly, No. 52, Nov. 1967 - accompanying an article called John At Home, Part Two. 

It's a good-sounding record that means nothing

Aside from his own score, the film's soundtrack features a host of Beatles favourites along with the title track. Hey Bulldog was noted in being a new song to Beatles fans that hadn't been released before. But Lennon seems slightly dismissive of it in the interview.

"It's a good-sounding record that means nothing – nice lick on the piano and all that." 

Though it's credited as a Lennon-McCartney song, Lennon described it as "me" in the Sheff interview, though it shares the distinction with McCartney's Lady Madonna as being a Beatles songs based around a piano riff. 

"I remember Hey Bulldog as being one of John’s songs and I helped him finish it off in the studio, but it’s mainly his vibe," noted McCartney in Barry Miles's book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now. "There’s a little rap at the end between John and I, we went into a crazy little thing at the end."

Hey Bulldog was recorded during what was supposed to be a filming session for the Beatles' promo video for the 1968 Lady Madonna single, which would be backed by Harrison's The Inner Light as the b-side. This explains why a video exists of the song – the Lady Madonna camera crew remained in the studio filming as the Lennon and McCartney worked on Hey Bulldog. But the footage captured that day would remain lost for 30 years. 

"On February 11, they recorded Hey Bulldog at Abbey Road, while I filmed the entire process", remembered friend of the band Tony Bramwell in his book Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With The Beatles. "We didn’t need any promo material for Bulldog, but Paul had also recorded Lady Madonna, the song he had written in memory of his mother, which did need some promotional film. I cut the Bulldog shoot, using the bits of the lads playing and sitting about in the studio, and we used that. Then it vanished, completely disappeared. 

"We thought it had been stolen, as things often were if not nailed down. Over thirty years later, in August 1999, my original film was rediscovered and used with a reissue of Bulldog to go with the revamped digital version of Yellow Submarine." And you can see that footage above. 

Lennon had originally titled the song 'Hey Bullfrog" and reportedly got its name when Paul McCartney tried to make Lennon laugh by barking like a dog during the recording of the song's basic track. This new title appears in the outro's vocals and producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick left McCartney's barking in, alongside shouting and screaming noises from the two songwriters. 

"That was a really fun song," Emerick recalled to Mark Lewis for The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. "We were all into sound texture in those days and during the mixing we put ADT on one of the ‘What did he say? Woof woof’ bits near the end of the song. It came out really well."

The song's tenth take was decided to be the best, with George Harrison adding a distorted intro with his SG, later borrowed by Lennon to track the solo. 

Emerick was especially impressed with McCartney's bass playing on the song, and he would cite it as one of the Beatles' final true group efforts in the studio with equal musical contributions. Days after they would fly to India to study meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. 

Along with the Beatles' other songs from the soundtrack, in 1999 it would be one of the first times the band's music had been remixed, completed by Peter Cobbin at Abbey Road Studios using the original multitrack tape and released as the Yellow Submarine Songtrack. Only Sgt Pepper cut A Day In The Life is absent – it was used in the film but never appeared on the musical soundtrack release. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.