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.