Between the December 1965 release of Rubber Soul and the sessions that resulted in the single “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain” and the August 1966 release of Revolver, three very important changes occurred in Fab Four land:
1. The group’s recording engineer under producer George Martin for all their previous albums, Norman Smith, left the fold after being given a shot to produce a newly-signed EMI Records artist the label had big hopes for: a group known to the pop culture underground circuit at the time with the strange name of “The Pink Floyd”. Smith would be replaced by Geoff Emerick. The impact on the group’s sound would be immediate, and nothing short of magical.
2. The group had already made the decision to quit touring: the August 29 date at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park would be their last. Therefore, they no longer felt any restrictions on the kind of music they could produce in the studio and how it might need to be played live.
Taken together, these changes helped shape the recording environment that resulted in what most folks have come to recognize as the Beatles’ greatest achievement. While Sgt. Pepper will always be recognized as their most popular (and perhaps most influential) album, there’s little question as to their finest album: Revolver is not only their most eclectic, but in terms of sheer quality and the aural carnival of different sounds and styles contained therein, it can’t be matched. But it’s not just The Great White Shank that puts Revolver at such a lofty place: most, if not all of the great pop culture magazines put Revolver at the top of their lists as well. Simply put, there is, and will never be, anything like it in rock music ever again.
And the reason for this is simple: Revolver is a product of its time. As a group, The Beatles were at the top of their creative powers and cohesiveness as a playing unit. Their manager Brian Epstein was still alive, which helped keep the divisions in the group – divisions which were already, even at this point in the group’s career, starting to emerge – below the surface. Secondly, the group’s introduction to LSD (hence, “Doctor Robert”) had allowed the band (John Lennon in particular) to begin creating, as it were, in bright colors: quite different from the pot-influenced, mellow folk stylings of Help! and Rubber Soul; his contributions to Revolver would play a large part in the album’s eclecticism and crackling tension. Finally, with the band thinking outside the box, yet still restricted by 1960′s technology, it found a willing cohort in engineer Emerick, who could take the group’s general concepts and ideas (say, colors or images) and help turn them into music and the sounds you hear throughout the album.
One final note before I continue: similar to what I wrote about for Rubber Soul (#3 on my top ten list), the American version of Revolver is quite different from the British version, with three of Lennon’s five compositions (“I’m Only Sleeping”, “Doctor Robert”, and “And Your Bird Can Sing” removed from the album – they would subsequently appear on the American release “Yesterday and Today”). This left the U.S. version of Revolver not only diminished in terms of actual content (eleven songs instead of fourteen), but even more importantly, diminished in terms of artistic impact and quality. This is nothing short of a crime, but, being what it is, that’s the last we’ll say about that!
One could tell immediately with the release of the “Paperback Writer” / “Rain” single in June 1966 that the Beatles were already exploring new territory: a vocal intro, guitar and drums, and then – boom! – McCartney’s bass almost making the needle jump off the record. It’s a fine rocker in every sense of the word, but it would be the “B” side, “Rain”, that would turn heads.
Most folks consider “Rain” the first actual “psychedelic” song of the ’60s, and it’s a wonder to behold – in my view, one of the finest recordings the group ever made. A dense, almost murky backing track (accomplished by the band playing the song faster on tape then slowing it down during playback to record the vocals) with jangly guitars, playful drums, and booming bass introduced by five sharp, syncopated raps by Ringo on his snares. Lennon’s lyrics paint life as lived by people who are either “turned on” (you get the picture) or turned off:
When the rain comes they run and hide their heads
They might as well be dead
When the rain comes, when the rain comes
When the sun shines they slip into the shade
and drink their lemonade
When the sun shines, when the sun shines
Rain I don’t mind
Shine, the weather’s fine!
But the best is left to the end: after the song’s final verse there’s an interlude featuring wonderful interplay between McCartney’s bass booming through the speakers and Ringo’s drums, followed by a tag of incomprehensible singing by Lennon, the result of his coming home stoned one night and wanting to hear a playback of the song then mistakenly putting the tape in backwards. Voila! The most interesting “tag” in the band’s recorded history.
“Rain” is not just an incredible recording, it’s a microcosm of what Revolver would be: songs of love and human interaction, the staples of earlier records, go out the door, replaced by various recorded images depicting the realities of life: death, taxes, love, and relationships, all perceived through an altered state of mind.
Harrison’s “Taxman” kicks off Revolver in a disoriented fashion, with the sounds of a band getting ready to play off-mic and a low, sneering count-in that belies McCartney’s actual count-in (“Four!”). Once again showing his continued growth as a songwriter, Harrison paints a bleak picture of life lived solely to pad the pockets of the rich and powerful, and the utter hopelessness of it all:
Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you nineteen for me
‘Cos I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman
Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all
Cos I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
Cos I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
And you’re working for no one but me
The lead solos (played by McCartney) during the break and fadeout are fierce and cutting. McCartney, in fact, unlike his understated presence on Rubber Soul plays a huge role on Revolver: while his instant classic “Eleanor Rigby” continues the bleak portrayal of everyday life immediately following “Taxman”, “Here, There, and Everywhere” (inspired by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds), “Yellow Submarine”, “Good Day Sunshine”, and, of course, the electric “Got To Get You Into My Life” are all classics in and of themselves, bringing much-needed light and clarity to what otherwise would be a dark and cynical reporting.
George Harrison was given three songs on Revolver, and all of them are critical to the album’s overall mood. In addition to “Taxman”, “Love You To” takes his sitar work that merely accentuated Rubber Soul‘s “Norwegian Wood” and goes “full India”: modeled in structure and melody after an Indian raga, “Love You To” is an exotic combination of Indian music and eastern mysticism that creates a smoky, intimate, near out-of-body experience for the listener both in terms of music, mood, and lyric:
Each day just goes so fast
I turn around, it’s past
You don’t get time to hang a sign on me
Love me while you can
Before I’m a dead old man
A lifetime is so short
A new one can’t be bought
But what you’ve got means such a lot to me
Make love all day long
Make love singing songs
There’s people standing round
Who’ll screw you in the ground
They’ll fill you in with all their sins, you’ll see
His remaining composition, “I Want To Tell You”, is a straight-out rocker, but even here, as with “Love You To”, the song’s introduction seems to fade in from out of nowhere, sounding at first uncertain, if not discordant. And once the song gets going, that uncertainty and discord is reflected in the song’s lyrics, which probe the inadequacy of human communication without enlightenment:
I want to tell you
My head is filled with things to say
When you’re here
All those words, they seem to slip away
But if I seem to act unkind
It’s only me, it’s not my mind
That is confusing things
I want to tell you
I feel hung up but I don’t know why
I don’t mind
I could wait forever, I’ve got time
Sometimes I wish I knew you well,
Then I could speak my mind and tell you
Maybe you’d understand…
While McCartney’s and Harrison contributions to Revolver are both significant and important, it’s the contributions of John Lennon that create the album’s overall mood, tension, and tone. “I’m Only Sleeping” sounds as murky and fatigued as the author feels, and the backwards guitar solos played at the break and fade only contribute to the mood he’s created. “She Said She Said”, based on a Hollywood Hills poolside conversation Lennon had with Peter Fonda while the band was touring, is a frightening mix of wordplay (the writer’s inability to cope with the meanings of life and death) and differing tempos that reflect the altered state of mind present throughout the song. “And Your Bird Can Sing” seems like a trifle, but it’s really Lennon sneering at the attitudes and pretentions of the elites and well-to-do. “Doctor Robert” vaguely continues along in this same vein, in this case referring to a New York physician known to “dose” his well-to-do dinner guests with cubes of LSD.
And then, finally, there is “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
The first song recorded during the Revolver sessions (where it was originally given the odd name “Mark 1″), “Tomorrow Never Knows” fades in from out of nowhere, with a droning C note (played by Harrison on a tamboura) introducing McCartney and Ringo laying down a feverish, pulsing groove. The song is unlike anything ever recorded before: a combination of distorted, eerie vocals (recorded through a Leslie speaker and further distorted by ADT on the final verse), tape loops played backwards to sound like crazed seagulls, and backwards guitar create a dense, otherworldly aural mass of sound that distances itself and its message from anything remotely resembling reality:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing…
… that ignorance and hates may mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the color of your dreams
It is not living, it is not living
So play the game “Existence” to the end…
… Of the beginning, of the beginning
As “Tomorrow Never Knows” fades to close, an organ and honky-tonk piano meet a swirl of backwards guitar and Indian instruments, creating an almost carnival-like atmosphere, perhaps mocking the so-called “seriousness” of the subject matter, perhaps reflecting a reality completely discordant and out of control, a world gone mad. At the time there was nothing remotely like it, I’m not sure there has ever been anything like it since.
There’s not much left to say: Revolver is a unique aural experience from beginning to end, a period piece that seems to make time stand still with every listen. Every song seems a new listening experience no matter how many times you’ve heard it. There’s not a weak song in the bunch, and one can argue that Lennon’s and McCartney’s in particular are the strongest material they would ever contribute to a Beatles (or, for that matter, solo) album again. (Harrison, of course, would have to wait until Abbey Road before he’d contribute what are considered his best songs to a Beatles album.) With the technology available today, Revolver would still be a tour de force; considering it was all done with archaic ’60s technology is beyond remarkable.
While the next few albums, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack would feature even more creative engineering techniques, in my view, while entertaining (and, at times, astonishing) for sure, on Revolver everything seems more cohesive and contributing to a more solid framework of music. It’s not outlandish effects for the sake of outlandish effects, it’s adding color to the existing musical template, not the template from which the music evolves. Revolver shows a band at the height of its creativity and cohesiveness as a band. While there would be productions of equal quality in the future (“All You Need Is Love”, the “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” and “Hey Jude” / “Revolution” singles come to mind) the collected level of creative brilliance found on Revolver would never again be seen, at least in album form again.
Revolver, in short, is a stunning and complete musical statement, the Beatles’ absolute best. And that’s why it’s #1 on my top 10 list.
Hope y’all enjoyed the series. Now we return you back to your local programming.