Even Beatles completists sometimes have a blind spot when it comes to the band’s eponymous cartoon, which ran on ABC for four years — starting exactly 50 years ago, on September 25th, 1965. If you like your Beatles animated, chances are your thing is for the 1968 film Yellow Submarine, the rare cinematic venture that works just as well for the kiddies as the adults.
But one has to wonder if Yellow Submarine would have existed without The Beatles and that underrated Saturday-morning run, when viewers plunked down in front of TV sets, sleep was brushed from eyes, cereal was consumed, and away everyone went. Not quite to Pepperland, but to some funky, witty little universe nonetheless.
Al Brodax produced both Yellow Submarine and The Beatles, and the series functioned almost as a workshop for the later, much-loved feature. The Beatles themselves, who had no hand in the ABC production, thought it was daft. At least, while they were in the Beatles. Which isn’t hard to understand. The voices are hilariously off, with George alternating between a faintly Irish or Scottish accent, Ringo gibbering on in Scouse, Lennon sounding like an American gym teacher at times and Paul having a mock erudite tone befitting a Wodehouse character.
None of which really matters, because The Beatles is about nailing what we might think of as a spirit endemic to the Beatles themselves, of being transported to a realm that they solely seemed to populate, but where you were welcome, and obliged to get in on the fun. And what fun we have in these cartoons, which is why the Beatles — post-Beatles, that is — all became fond of them, as if they too were in on the whole being-transported bit. “I still get a blast out of watching the Beatles cartoons on TV,” John Lennon said in 1972. While in 1999, George Harrison commented, “They were so bad or silly that they were good, if you know what I mean.”
The set-up is simple: a theme song sounding like the “Pop Goes the Beatles” number from some of their 1963 BBC broadcasts plays us in. The four Beatles then get up to hijinks which frequently involve vampires, museums where the displays come to life, the jungle, or cow towns of the American West, and then we have a sing-along complete with lyrics on the screen, and finally another wacky adventure. This is the Beatles as preteens probably liked to imagine them: living in a single big room, sharing beds, rolling along in their car while strumming their guitars, and taking in movies together.
That sounds a touch claptrappy, more so when you factor in the anthropomorphic animals that the band either have to fend off, dissuade from romance — ha — or aid, but these were productions long on wit and a true dexterity.
The sing-alongs were designed, clearly, as filler, but there’s the Beckettesque touch of having Ringo act as the substitute prop man who comes out onstage, where one of the other three is imploring you to really let those lungs blast out the next chorus — bleary-eyed parents must have loved that — and offers up some token of set dressing.
The animated sequences during the sing-alongs feature perspectives you just didn’t see in cartoons at the time. The entire screen might be the board of a fence, with a hole in it, such that 95 percent of the planar field is utterly still, as our attention is focused on one point. There are juxtapositions of static images, and the viewer has to puzzle out some of the meanings of these fascinating mini-videos, like a Joseph Cornell box has been made to dance along to a mid-period Beatles number.
The main adventure segments have what you might think of as an extreme horizontalness. Beatles race left and right; ditto fluttering fish, various means of conveyance, birds, colors, all flowing back and forth, and running little patterns of misdirection like a football offense. Seems a small point, perhaps, but consider Yellow Submarine and its extreme horizontal qualities, that constant across-the-screen flow, only here we’re talking about some brightly plumed birds, rather than the menacing Glove and his cohorts.
And while the voices don’t synch up with those of the Beatles themselves, that’s probably for the best. If you’re going to fashion a new world, all for a Saturday morning’s entertainment, you can chuck out the versimilitude of the old. The key factor is that there was something about the Beatles that was wonderfully, bewitchingly alchemical, so that works not by them but about them could similarly display their particular penchant for wonder and play. Besides, Paul Frees — the Man of a Thousand Voices, who did a ton of Rankin-Bass holiday specials — and the equally talented Lance Percival, are the fellows handling the vocal chores, and they’re clearly having a gas.
The 39 original episodes ran from 1965 to 1967, with repeats filling the remaining seasons through 1969. They’ve never had an official release, although cleaned up and restored they’d look awesome on Blu-ray. The Beatles of the cartoon never shed their height-of-Beatlemania look, and it is somewhat disorienting watching moptop John strum his cartoon Rickenbacker and sing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” bouncing on his legs like it was “Twist and Shout” time. So: If you’re not quite up for taking on the whole of the run of The Beatles, here are the five episodes to catch.
Episode 1: “A Hard Day’s Night/I Want to Hold Your Hand”
The trainspotters are going to get pumped with this one: after we get through cavorting around Transylvania (watch enough of these, and you’d think the cartoon Beatles were extreme Vlad the Impaler buffs), we join the lads at sea, where they stow away in a submersible and end up dancing around an underwater grove with an octopus. Fancy that. Submarines and octopi. Hmmm. Maybe the Fab Four did dig an episode or two back then. The episode also features an early touch that promised that this wouldn’t be all about hooking the preteens on their cuddly heroes: a shimmering orange panel that could have come from a Rothko exhibit.
Episode 14: “Don’t Bother Me/No Reply”
Send-up time: both the James Bond films and the Beatles’ own Bond-pastiche, Help!, get the yucks treatment in this one, with a caper to steal the Beatles’ latest numbers, which are contained in a notebook labeled “New Beatles Songs.” Lennon is a prat throughout, but the McCartney character is sort of like the cartoon’s version of the grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night: the born mixer who delights in getting up to some shenanigans. The more you watch, the more you notice details that give you a bigger kick than last time. The look on McCartney’s face, for instance, when he decides it’s time to be an ass.
Episode 33: “Nowhere Man/Paperback Writer”
The titular songs for each episode tie in (sometimes very loosely) with each mini-story, so here we have some Platonic hermit in a cave who wants nothing to do with the Beatles when they come wandering in — it’s like cartoon existentialism — and then a sequence with the Beatles writing short stories about how they each met one another as different people in life. An imaginative enough conceit that it might have been lifted from something like the Revolver album itself. Heady, and fun.
Episode 34: “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever”
One could make the case that the promo films made for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are the finest visual works pertaining to the Beatles, but this is pretty nifty too: animated shorts for each song. The Beatles thwart a robbery in “Penny Lane,” which is a cool riff on how that song harkens back to childhood. Who hasn’t daydreamed, as a kid, of such a feat of heroism? The second story finds the band at an orphanage, tasked with cheering up the kids there. A charming riff on Lennon’s most personal song.
Episode 38: “Tomorrow Never Knows/I’ve Just Seen a Face”
The penultimate episode, and this is just so freakin’ odd: The Beatles tumble into a well and have this Lovecraftian experience with a subterranean sect, but that’s the normal part. What isn’t is seeing “Ticket to Ride”–era cartoon Beatles performing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its death chants, LSD exultations and synapse-exploding intensity. Cut, then, to the sing-along, which begins with “She Said She Said.” What the hell would you have thought if you were a parent who ventured into the den to see little Sally howling about how she knew what it was like to be dead? Sing, kiddies!