The Beatles, “It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine (1969): Deep Beatles
BY KIT O'TOOLE
Something Else Reviews
MAY 18, 2018
George Harrison’s life had transformed through his immersion into Indian music and spirituality. However, he experienced issues with maintaining a balance between a simple life versus a “rock star” hedonistic lifestyle. This struggle is chronicled in “It’s All Too Much,” a track from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine that represents one of Harrison’s most psychedelic compositions.
He wrote the song “in a childlike manner,” Harrison says in I, Me, Mine, and his lyrics drew inspiration from “LSD experiences” that were “later confirmed in meditation.” He cites certain lines that support his assertion: “As I look into your eyes / Your love is there for me / And the more I go inside / The more there is to see.”
In a June 19, 1999 Billboard interview, Harrison explained that he wrote “It’s All Too Much” on the organ, and played it on the recording. During that discussion, he added that he wrote the songs for reasons other than those he gave in I, Me, Mine: “I just wanted to write a rock ’n’ roll song about the whole psychedelic thing of the time.” The line “Show me that I’m everywhere / And get me home for tea,” Harrison said, described the experience of coming down from drugs. “You’d trip out, you see, on all this stuff, and then whoops! You’d just be back having your evening cup of tea!”
In Revolution in the Head, musicologist Ian MacDonald describes the track as a “protracted exercise in drug-mesmerized G-pedal monotony” which amounted to what he dubbed “automatic writing.” MaDonald criticized the track for what he deemed overly simplistic lyrics, calling it the “locus classicus of English psychedelia: a cozy nursery rhyme in which the world is a birthday cake and the limits on personal transformation are prescribed in the line, ‘Show me that I’m everywhere and get me home for tea.’” He also explains that the chord changes and vocal delivery resemble the Merseys’ “Sorrow,” their 1966 cover of the McCoys original. Harrison quotes lines from the track in the Beatles’ eight-minute version of “It’s All Too Much.”
Recording began on May 25, 1967 at De Lane Lea Music Studios in London; at this point titled “Too Much,” the song grew out of numerous rehearsals. Producer George Martin was conspicuously absent; as he wrote in All You Need Is Ears, he had grown exasperated with the Beatles’ endless jamming with little resulting material. Mark Lewisohn reports in the Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that they finally completed four takes of a rhythm track featuring organ, lead guitar, bass, and drums. This session resulted in a 25-minute jam; it was then edited down to just over eight minutes, according to Kenneth Womack’s The Beatles Encyclopedia.
For the final film and soundtrack, the track was trimmed further to six minutes. The next day the Beatles returned to work on take four, adding percussion, Harrison’s lead vocal, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s backing vocals, and handclaps. Toward the end of the track, Harrison sings lines from the aforementioned “Sorrow” as Lennon and McCartney chant “too much.” These words ultimately transform into “Cuba” and “tuba”; those elements are included in the eight-minute version of the song.
By June 2, four trumpets and one bass clarinet were added; David Mason, who had previously performed the trumpet solo on “Penny Lane,” participated in this session. Lewisohn quotes Mason’s diary, in which he noted that while Harrison led the session, “I don’t think he really knew want he wanted.” Later that evening, the Beatles recorded even more impromptu jamming.
The final revision came on October 16, when the eight-minute version was edited down to six. Elements cut out include a 35-second portion from around the three-minute mark Therefore the third chorus and the fourth verse are missing in this version; however, the line “time for me to look at you and you to look at me” does appear in the film. In addition, the song fades out before the final minute of the coda.
Harrison told Billboard’s Timothy White that during the ending jam, the trumpeters played a snippet of Jeremiah Clarke’s “Prince of Denmark’s March” and the lyric “your long blond hair / and your eyes of blue” from the Merseys’ track. He also stated that Lennon and McCartney added the “your eyes of blue” line.
“It’s All Too Much” immediately demands listeners’ attention as John Lennon’s voice is cut off by a mighty sound. Tim Riley calls that otherworldly sound “a flaming guitar … with the resplendent surge of a Hendrix electric fireball” in Tell Me Why. In the 1999 Billboard interview, Harrison recalled that McCartney performed that screaming guitar introduction to alert the listener that he/she has embarked on a trippy experience. The handclaps and thudding drums add to the controlled chaos as Harrison’s voice suddenly floats in.
“When I look into your eyes, your love is there for me / And the more I go inside, the more there is to see,” George Harrison sings, suggesting a personal spiritual transformation. In Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield calls the track a “psychedelic love song,” although Harrison shrouds his lyrics in mystery. The listener decides whether Harrison is addressing a woman or a spirit – although the eight-minute version suggests a woman (specifically then-wife Patti), when Harrison quotes the aforementioned lines from “Sorrow.”
The Indian influence permeates the track, with Harrison creating a drone-like sound using the harmonium. The hard-charging music reflects Harrison’s grappling with a new sensation “It’s all too much for me to take / The love that’s shining all around you,” he cries. Clearly, he has lost sense of place and time (perhaps here referring to the LSD experience), stating he is “floating down the stream of time.”
In typical fashion, George manages to work in humorous images, as well: “All the world’s a birthday cake / So take a piece but not too much,” he warns. Indeed, he knows that this ethereal journey is short lived. “Set me on a silver sun, for I know that I’m free / Show me that I’m everywhere, and get me home for tea,” he sighs.
As with the Beatles’ earlier “Within You Without You” (specifically its ending, which features nervous laughter), “It’s All Too Much” couches serious messages in amusing images and sounds. Indeed, Harrison follows these childlike dreams with a philosophical statement: “The more I am, the less I know.” Thus, the phrase “It’s all too much for me to take” rings true, as Harrison is clearly grappling with overwhelming sensations — drug-induced hallucinations, yes, but also his continuing study of meditation and spirituality.
In other words, he has much to learn, but concludes with “everywhere, it’s what you make.” This thought could be seen as a precursor to the Beatles’ final statement on Abbey Road: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.”
As the trumpets blare, Lennon and McCartney chat “too much!” as the band plays on. Musicologist Alan Pollack calls this section a “come-as-you-are jam session,” and the unpolished quality of the track stands out from other Beatles productions. “It’s All Too Much” represents Harrison’s foray into psychedelic rock, but it also signals his ongoing struggles with spirituality. How can he balance his new religion with his rock star lifestyle?
As the controlled chaos and thundering quality of this Beatles track suggests, George Harrison offers only one answer: “The more I am, the less I know.”