The Beatles, “Hey Bulldog” from Yellow Submarine (1968): Deep Beatles

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Years after the Beatles recorded the Yellow Submarine track “Hey Bulldog,” John Lennon casually described the song as “a good sounding record that means nothing.”

Perhaps it does not contain deep meaning, but “Hey Bulldog” stands as an all-out rock workout that sounds like a White Album outtake; however, the group recorded it specifically for the Yellow Submarine film. According to engineer Geoff Emerick, it gained significance for another reason: it represents one of the Beatles’ last group efforts, with each member contributing parts to the overall song.

“Hey Bulldog” evolved from an early 1968 demo by John Lennon; he had been working on a track tentatively titled “She Can Talk to Me,” named after the rudimentary chorus. On February 11, the Beatles assembled at Abbey Road to film a video for their upcoming single “Lady Madonna”; so as not to waste time, multi-tasker Paul McCartney suggested that the four work on a new song while NEMS employee Tony Bramwell’s cameras rolled. Lennon brought up the home demo, and McCartney began contributing additional lyrics. Lennon improvised the opening piano riff on the spot, and his fingerprints are all over the nonsensical lyrics.

Since Lennon mentions “bullfrog” at the song’s start (“Sheepdog standing in the rain / Bullfrog doing it again”), the track started life as “Hey Bullfrog”; the duo’s hysterical ad-libbing, however, changed the entire nature of the tune.

According to Rolling Stone, McCartney had played drums on a Paul Jones track entitled “The Dog Presides” just a few days earlier; apparently with dogs on the brain, he and Lennon mimicked that song’s sound effects by enthusiastically barking and howling. Legend has it that McCartney’s misreading of the lyrics also altered the nature of the song in significant ways. He claimed that he misread the original lyric, “some kind of solitude is measured out in news” as “some kind of solitude is measured out in you”; Lennon preferred the word change, and the group left in the slip.

More importantly, as Lennon and McCartney improvise at the tune’s outro, McCartney accidentally said “bulldog” instead of “bullfrog (perhaps confusing the “bullfrog” and “sheepdog” references); again, Lennon enjoyed the new lyric. As McCartney told biographer Barry Miles: “There’s a little rap at the end between John and I; we went into a little crazy thing at the end.”

The instrumentation also underwent several changes. According to Hunter Davies’ Beatles biography, Lennon originally wanted to play sitar on the track and sing in a Lancashire accent; obviously the group rejected the idea. The final version consisted of Lennon on piano and guitar; McCartney on bass and tambourine; George Harrison on guitar; and Ringo Starr, of course, on drums. They recorded the song in a ten-hour session, with take ten deemed the best.

According to the Beatles Bible, the group then overdubbed more drums, fuzz bass, a guitar solo, Lennon’s double-tracked lead vocals, and additional backing vocals from McCartney.

Two mono mixes were immediately made, with one given to King Features for the Yellow Submarine film. As the Beatles Bible notes, the tape machine ran slightly faster during the mixing, thus raising the pitch and tempo of “Hey Bulldog.” On October 29, Emerick oversaw the stereo mixes; interestingly, “All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Only A Northern Song” also received remixing for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.

The footage of the Beatles recording “Hey Bulldog” was superimposed over the “Lady Madonna” single; thus viewers assumed the group was performing the latter for the song’s video. But Harrison revealed the truth behind the clip to Billboard Magazine in 1999: “Neil Aspinall who found out that when you watched and listened to what the original thing was, we were recording ‘Bulldog,’” Harrison explained. “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!”

The restored video was part of the rerelease of the Yellow Submarine film and soundtrack, or “songtrack,” as it was retitled. Another addition to the rerelease: the restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” sequence in the film, as it was deleted from American prints.

While never released as a single, “Hey Bulldog” remains an underrated rocker in the Beatles’ oeuvre. McCartney’s bass fascinates; the isolated track in the video above reveals the intricate lines that prove crucial to the song’s pounding rhythm. While hotly debated whether Lennon or Harrison played the guitar solo (my guess is Harrison), it still cuts sharply through the background, lending a harder edge.

Indeed, the lyrics conjure silly images — a Lennon trademark — yet the instrumentation rescues the track from becoming a simple novelty. Hearing Lennon and McCartney shouting and laughing toward the end demonstrates that despite their growing differences, they loved recording together and never strayed far from their youthful Liverpool roots.

Kit O’Toole will be part of two panels at this weekend’s Fest for Beatles Fans, to be held August 9-11, 2013 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, IL: On Friday, August 9, she’ll discuss “35 Years of Beatlefan Magazine”; on Saturday, August 10, she will be part of “We’re Talkin’ About Girls Now: Women as Beatles Historians.” Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram for updates throughout the event: @beatlesgeek.

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