For all of their obvious populism—the ootsy-cutesy sing-alongs, the exhortations to love everyone and everything—the Beatles, in their most beat-loving, insectoid hearts, were purveyors of oddities. Not to the degree of a Frank Zappa or a Syd Barrett, but they loved getting their weird on, going back to John Lennon’s youthful days as a Goon Show nut who liked nothing more than drawing figures copulating in the margins of his school books, then making his classmates giggle.
Sometimes Beatles oddness took the form of early covers, especially in the early days—a show tune like “Till There Was You,” a girl-group number like “Boys,” pronouns and gender notions be damned. This put them far ahead of their time, and it also set them up for sonic experimentation that no one was yet dabbling in—Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, obviously. Paul McCartney has cited 1970 B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”—the official cut a Beatles nut is most unlikely to know—as his all-time fave by the band, precisely because of the spirit it invokes, a mad hatter’s call of We Will Not Be Hemmed In.
A collective that presents as a rugged individualist is a formidable one, and in the case of the Beatles, it’s what allowed them to both serve up the tunefulness to make a melody master like Schubert say “my my,” and also scrabble about to mine their peculiarities. But just as “You Know My Name” is the great lost Beatles song in plain view, their Yellow Submarine album, which came out fifty years ago on January 13, is the lone unmentionable of the Beatles catalogue. People act like it didn’t happen, as though we took a straight shot from The White Album to Abbey Road, with Let It Be and the Get Back mess—or, rather, the anecdotes of it, and what was salvaged from it—being a kind of P.S. to their career.