(Pictured: Ringo poses with a yellow submarine in 2013.)
Years ago I did today-in-history posts at this website. They’re an easy way to feed the content monster, and they’re still popular with radio stations and websites devoted to classic rock or oldies. Trouble is, the sourcing for a lot of the stuff you see is sketchy to nonexistent. Websites cut and paste items indiscriminately without citations. (Even the low-rent Internet shebeen you are patronizing right now has been guilty of that.) Wikipedia entries have footnotes pointing to Songfacts, which in terms of credibility is one click north of “I made this up.” (Sometimes they even cite low-rent Internet shebeens.) Even assuming good faith on the part of the site or the writer, it’s like a giant game of Telephone. You can’t be sure stuff hasn’t gotten distorted.
Certain items get repeated endlessly even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. Every year we’re told that a radio station in Washington DC was the first American station to play the Beatles, in December 1963, even though it’s abundantly clear—with contemporary record chart citations to prove it—that they were on in many American cities in the spring and summer of 1963. But smaller things get fubar’d too. Release dates for albums are especially untrustworthy. Often, people don’t differentiate between UK and US releases, or they confuse the date a record charted with the date it was released.
Back when I was writing for WNEW.com, I made it my business to look deeper into some of the most famous cut-n-paste factoids. I’ve edited the original a bit here.
Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”
In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.”
(Finally, a religion I can get behind.)
The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.
Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.”
(Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)
Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. It was just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.
I never determined how CBS Interactive, the parent of WNEW.com, found me out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, but they did, and they paid me to write from 2008 to 2012. After CBS moved the WNEW call letters from New York City to Washington DC, they nuked the old WNEW.com site, so most of what I wrote is gone, although some of it is at Internet Archive, and I have reposted a bit of it here over the years. The whole experience still seems kind of surreal to me.