In memory of Susan Beals, a real Beatles fan.
The Beatles had been ruling over the airwaves for two years worldwide. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show had created a new paradigm in popular music, similar to what Elvis had accomplished eight years earlier, which was on the decline by then. It was the reinvention of rock and roll, literally, and Beatlemania was in full swing. But early into the game it had started weighing on the Fab Four, and at this point it was obvious that there was trouble in paradise; the year was 1966.
Tired of all the touring, hysterical fans and the accostment from the press, the Beatles were already looking for alternatives and escape routes. John had said it a year earlier in his song “Help”, and in March of that year he made the infamous declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, which caused them to endure a messy backlash, particularly in the USA’s Bible Belt. All that piled up convinced them to stop playing in public; the recording studio was to become their playground.
A particular thing about the Beatles in 1966 is that their music had already taken a new direction, as it shifted from the fast tempos of their earlier hits like “She Loves You,” “I want to Hold Your Hand” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”, to a slower tempo and more sensible melodies. They even started delving into a more acoustic and folkish sound, especially on some of John’s songs.
In August of 1964, the boys had met Bob Dylan who introduced them to marijuana, a substance they welcomed into their lives, hence “Got To Get You Into My Life”. There’s that funny video where John and Bob are cruising around in a limo, and a stoned-out-of-his-mind John Lennon barely says anything. Off course, there’s nothing to get hung about. After their initiation with Mary Jane, the Beatles started, as John put it, “writing obscurely, à la Dylan, never saying what you mean, but giving the impression of something.” The lyrics on the songs were more profound (“Think For Yourself”), of a reflective mood (“In My Life,” “Nowhere Man”) or more ambiguous (“Norwegian Wood,” “If I Needed Someone”). That was Rubber Soul‘s trademark, and it was a style that was assimilated perfectly by bands like the Byrds, whose career really took off after that.
The mop tops had gone from the prellies (the stimulant drug Prelludin) of their early days in Hamburg —which they took in order to keep themselves going, through the long hours of music they had to play in the German clubs populated by drunk, bellicose sailors. That’s, ultimately, how they earned their chops that made them the most solid, compact and distinctive band in the Merseybeat scene— to weed.
But now it was something else: lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Which was given first to John and George —unbeknownst to them— by John’s dentist, and was causing them to veer off in yet another different and more creative direction. By simple definition, a drug is a mind altering substance. Drugs are classified in three categories: stimulants (uppers), depressants (downers) and hallucinogens (all-arounders). LSD is a hallucinogenic that produces intensified thoughts, emotions, and sensory perception in the user. And it became the drug of choice that users were taking for what they referred to as a ”conscience-expanding” experience. For sensitive people with artistic tendencies, LSD was a real ticket to ride; to travel into the hidden places of the mind, soul and spirit, and explore new forms of art (the price to be paid later). At least that’s what it did to the four boys from Liverpool.
The times they are a-changin’, says Dylan in his song. And, indeed, times where changing at the speed of sound in 1966. Pop music was also changing dramatically, as it wasn’t much about bubblegum music anymore. Besides the Beatles, we had the Beach Boys and Phil Spector trying to do things differently. The Beach Boys, with their cool sound, awesome harmonies and the intricate arrangements envisioned by Brian Wilson. Phil Spector, on the other hand, with his Wall of Sound offered more than the basic entertainment, through elaborated and sophisticated arrangements and recording techniques, in tunes that were intended as “little symphonies for the kids.”
Rock and pop bands started working on songs with a certain lyrical profundity and meaning, both socially and philosophically. People were changing the way they thought, the way they looked and the way they lived. “Acid came along, marijuana came along, hashish came along; everything started to flower. Colors started to sprout. Clothes got looser, more colorful, more abstract, more bizarre. Carnaby Street happened and the whole of the youth culture exploded; flowered, really, literally,” reminisced Graham Nash, in an interview (1990) for David Hoffman’s television series on the 60s.
Before the Beatles, most performers were getting their songs and music from commissioned musical teams. That’s how songwriting teams like Leiber-Stoller, Goffin-King and Holland-Dozier-Holland made a name for themselves. And the musicians who were behind most of the popular music that was being played on the radio in those days was the Wrecking Crew, a group of professional session musicians based in Los Angeles that had in its ranks such hard hitters as Glenn Campbell, Hal Blaine, legendary bassist Karol Kaye, and Leon Russell. Those were the players that also appeared on the Beach Boys albums and Spector’s Wall of Sound. I was listening to the local oldies station the other day, on my way to work, and I marveled at the fact that the same musicians were playing on most of the songs (“God Only Knows”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, “California Dreaming” and “Be My Baby”) that I was hearing.
Now, the thing about the Beatles in 1966 was that not only they were writing their own lyrics and playing their own music, but they did so in an unordinary way —thinking outside the box— by utilizing the recording studio as an instrument, which enhanced the delivery formidably. With the album Revolver they started pursuing a non-existent technology that in a way they had to create, as a means of projecting their innermost thoughts and feelings. None of the boys was a virtuoso, but they all had a very original way of playing their instruments, along with some interesting chord structures.
So, the Beatles revolutionized not only what happened in the studio, but what happened before even going to the studio. When they took a song to the studio, they already had in their head the kind of sound —and effects— they wanted to pursue. All that was only achieved with the help of the one that can very well be considered the fifth Beatle: George Martin.
With all its different textures, Revolver is, by and large, one of the most innovative (instrumentation, recording techniques, fancier chord structures, variety of styles, and clever lyrical contents) records in modern music; a pioneer in its own right. Yeah, maybe some other musicians were already on that kind of quest before them, who knows. But it was the Beatles who did it from the standpoint of pop music, which was to be accessible to anybody who took music somehow seriously.
Those people that listen to prog rock (and, in the 80s, the metalheads), who keep bashing the Beatles —just because they were commercial and sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; and because, according to bashers, “they sucked as musicians”—, need to think about the fact that progressive musicians had the Beatles as a reference to what they achieved. King Crimson had Revolver and Sgt. Pepper as a reference for In the Court of the Crimson King. And the same with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; and even Velvet Underground (not necessarily a prog rock band) had Rubber Soul. The Beatles didn’t have that. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out!, with the trippy tune “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”, came out in late June of that year, so we can’t talk about it as an influence on Revolver, neither. Velvet Underground & Nico came out in March of ’67.
People who listened to Velvet Underground read Nietzsche, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Jacques Derrida, and listened to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. The same with some of the people that listened to prog rock and Frank Zappa. If you dug Frank Zappa, you probably were into the music of Edgar Varese, John Cage and Arnold Schoenberg. Most of the prog rock players were conservatory musicians that were classically trained. That wasn’t what rock —as a free form of music, without academic ties— really stood for. And don’t get me wrong, I love Zappa, Velvet Underground and prog rock. But the Beatles broke a barrier by making varied musical choices available to anyone who fancied them; people from all walks of life and idiosyncrasies.
Revolver comprised the conceptual value of pop/rock as a whole (way ahead of its time), with eclectic variations of styles and forms that were made available to the common folk, through a commercial output. In Revolver there’s a song for everybody, for every taste, and for every state of mind. A revolver is a handgun with a revolving chambered cylinder that holds a number of cartridges that can be discharged in succession without reloading. And Revolver is a world of music that can be heard in succession, also without reloading.
Since this is not a review of the album, I’m just going to comment on a few songs that I want to use to convey what makes Revolver so great. The highlighted tunes are: “Taxman”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “I’m only Sleeping”, “Love you To”, “She Said She Said”, “I Want to Tell You”, “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. For this, I’m going to consider some of The Kink’s Ray Davies’ observations, out of a review he made of the album when it just came out. And I think those observations are relevant (even though some of them are off the wall), as Ray Davies was also a musician and contemporary of the Beatles, known for taking a different approach to music.
Although it wasn’t the first one to be recorded, “Taxman” is the opening track; by none other than George. And there couldn’t be a better introduction to Revolver than this, with a tune that was telling us this album was going to be a game changer right of the bat; a different way of recording and making music. “Taxman”, a political statement by a disgruntled constituent that is sounding off —with a very sardonic tone— about the government’s insatiable greed. However, it’s not only the political message that hits us hard, but the fact that it’s very well conveyed as a solid rocker with sophisticated chord progressions, which put it at a different level as a pop piece.
With “Eleanor Rigby” the Beatles made a more formal incursion in the world of classical music, which wasn’t of everybody’s approval. Some saw it as irreverent and out of line. Like that classical orchestra musician that famously said, “I’m not going to clap my hands and sing Paul McCartney’s bloody song!” after he was asked to clap his hands and sing along to “Hey Jude”. To others “Rigby” was sheer nonsense. Ray Davies said of it: “It sounds like they’re out to please music teachers in primary schools. I can imagine John saying: ‘I’m going to write this for my old schoolmistress.’ Still it’s very commercial.” But, besides it’s commercial appeal, “Eleanor Rigby” is clever, original and it has an evocative air of literary landscapes, à la James Joyce. And you couldn’t get that from any other band, but the Beatles.
The third track, “I’m Only Sleeping”, is an awesome tune with an exquisite melody that submerges us in a dreamy atmosphere and it tells us a lot about the Beatles as master melody makers. “A jolly old thing, really, and definitely the best track on the album,” said Ray Davies of it. A piece that was so different to the music being made at the time.
And then, we have “Love You To”, also by George. “He must have quite a big influence on the group now,” was Ray Davies’ observation. One of the first tunes that George wrote for the sitar, which added some exoticism to Revolver. What makes it sui generis, is the fact that they didn’t just pull it off as a way of doing something different, but it’s the sincere expression of someone that is exploring eastern thought as a way of living, hence the originality of it. Real raga pop, taken to its final consequences, with the meditative lyrics to go with it.
For “She Said She Said” I’ll let John tell us how the tune came about, because his account is very illustrative: “We were on an acid trip, and the sun was shining, and the girls were dancing (some from Playboy, I believe) and the whole thing was really beautiful and Sixties. And this guy [Peter Fonda] —who I didn’t really know, he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider’ or anything— kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him, because he was so boring. It was scary, when you’re flying high.” One of the things that gives “She Said” a special place in the album is it’s lyrics that are declaredly trippy —whether you were thinking in terms of drug use or not—, which contributed a lot to Revolver’s mystique.
“I Want to Tell You”, George once again. Ray Davies was right, George must have had quite an influence on the band, at least on this album. Everything about this song is interesting, with a real touch of uniqueness. From the opening guitar riff that fades in from the ether, to the choppy piano notes, the syncopation, the harmonies and the lyrics. A difficult song to learn, according to Paul: “I kept on getting it wrong, because it was written in a very odd way. It wasn’t 4/4 or waltz time or anything. Then I realized that it was regularly irregular, and, after that, we soon worked it out.” Although Ray Davies was dismissive of this one, there is an undeniable innovative quality to it. That bridge: “But if I seem to act unkind/It’s only me, it’s not my mind/That is confusing things.” Oh my!
“Got to Get You Into My Life”, is the Beatles version of Motown. Although, instead of Motown, I find this tune more reminiscent of Horace Silver’s music, with it’s strident, crisp sound on the trumpets and jazzy chords. Another atypical feature in Revolver that has made it so special up to this day. Of this one, Ray Davies said: “It just goes to prove that Britain’s jazz musicians can’t swing. Paul sings better jazz than the musicians are playing which makes nonsense of people saying jazz and pop are very different.” And remember, the song is not about a girl.
We get to the last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Paul Gambaccini’s (TV and radio broadcaster and author) comment summarizes everything about it: “With ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, as with so many musical miracles of the Beatles, it was an anticipation of the future. It’s hard to believe it was the first track recorded in Revolver, ’cause it sounds like the last and it’s placed last. So that you have this wonderful musical program, which then ends with what sounds like a trailer for next year. It’s as if they were saying at the end of 1966: ‘coming next year, psychedelia’. Because, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is probably the most trippy song of all time.” With this tune it was no-holds-barred, as they set out to break down the barriers in the studio for a song that was ahead of its time musically, lyrically and production wise. And Ringo’s hypnotic drumming is a tour de force. During this period Ringo blossomed as a drummer, and another good example of that is the single “Rain” that should have made it into the album. “I can imagine they had George Martin tied to a totem pole when they did this!” commented Ray Davies, about “Tomorrow Never Knows”. In fact, the boys couldn’t find a better partner in crime than George Martin. Because, every time they needed him to tag along on their experimental escapades, he’d get down and dirty.
Revolver came out on August 5, 1966. That week the Rolling Stones were on the top ten list with “Mother’s Little Helpers”, a song that was very much in tune with the times. Also on the Top Ten were The Troggs with “Wild Thing”, Loving Spoonful with “Summer in the City” and Bobby Hebb’s moving song of hope, “Sunny”, which he wrote after he found himself dealing with his brother’s death and JFK’s assassination. And all this was music that, great as it was, was not at that level where the Beatles were already gravitating.
So, whatever the influences of Revolver are, or whether Frank Zappa or anybody else accomplished anything so ambitious first, that’s beside the point. The main thing is how the Beatles conceived it, how they delivered and what they gave us with it. We have a masterpiece that has withstood the test of time like no other. And that is something.
By Rodolfo Elías.