Friday, 4 July 2008
The Beatles "Revolver" (1966) ('Core' Album #6, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: Taxman/ Eleanor Rigby/ I’m Only Sleeping/ Love You To/ Here There and Everywhere/ Yellow Submarine/ She Said, She Said// Good Day Sunshine/ And Your Bird Can Sing/ For No-One/ Dr Robert/ I Want To Tell You/ Got To Get You Into My Life/ Tomorrow Never Knows
And with that classic count-in, full of such psychedelic swirls (and in contrast to the 'energetic' count-in on 'I Saw Her Standing There' that ushers in the Beatles' 'Merseybeat' years) begins a run of songs that have The Beatles at their absolute peak (and, some would say, won't end until that finally crashing chord of 'A Day In The Life').SGT PEPPER’S might be better known, Rubber Soul might be more applauded, The White Album might be more eclectic and Abbey Road more polished, but to these ears Revolver is better than any other LP the fab four ever made, together or apart. Coming at the exact midway point of the Beatles’ recording career, Revolver is full of backward and forward glances, full of the last batch of those effortless accessible tunes the Beats were so good at making and were so loved by so many people and the biggest hint yet that the fab four were out looking for darker and deeper subjects, heading even further into psychedelia after dipping their toe in the water on Rubber Soul. Witness: how many other albums end with the daring likes of Tomorrow Never Knows (it not only sings about the next world, it sounds like it came from there too)? More to the point, how many other albums had the likes of this spaced-out masterpiece recorded as the first song recorded for the album (back in the dying days of 1965 for crying out loud, while the group were still singing their oldies but goldies songs on tour!)'Revolver' is a clever album - but not so clever it leaves the listener behind. 'Revolver' is an eclectic album - but not to such ridiculous lengths that it leaves the album sounding fractured or fragmented. 'Revolver' pushes the boundaries of everything that's possible in popular music in 1966 - and yet still sounds like The Beatles we all know and love. That's quite a feat for any band to pull off - the fact that The Beatles managed to do it while still touring and just eight months after 'Rubber Soul' is, quite frankly, ridiculous modern bands have access to so much more technology and have years to make their records - and they still can't come up with one a hundredth as good as this. 'Revolver' is an album that has something for everyone (even Pope Benedict liked it, after a 2010 poll of the Vatican's greatest records - presumably Lennon is now 'forgiven' for his 'Beatles are bigger than Jesus' comment!)
It might be significant that 'Revolver' is the first time The Beatles really have the time to make an album the way they want to make it. The last two years - 1964 and 1965 - have seen the release of two film soundtracks albums in July, with touring and filming delaying the records that tiny bit longer. In 1966 the band don't make another third film, have an album deadline pushed back to August and so have more spare time than normal (there were several on the cards but the band couldn't agree on any of them ; candidates include Joe Orton's 'A Talent For Loving', which would have opened a few eyes - the Beatles play four parts of a split personality serial killer - and 'Lord Of The Ringos', sorry, 'Rings', with the drummer a shoe-in for Bilbo Baggins and Lennon keen to play a wizard; one little known Beatles fact is that director of the modern versions Peter Jackson had to buy the film rights from Apple, who had held on to them ever since 1966. The Beatles version would surely have been an improvement on that three-part snooze-fest, though, which is basically a travelogue for New Zealand with a few Hobbits thrown in now and then). However, it's still incredible to me that an album this good can be recorded in snatched sessions in between tours and across just three months (April-June 1966). A more compact and yet more varied album than 'Sgt Peppers', 'Revolver' is the sound of a band evolving at incredibly speeds without leaving too much of their still young audience behind, growing at the same rate as teenage and twenty-something minds eager for change and progression. 'Revolver' is the high water mark of the 1960s and in my opinion pretty much of music as a whole - only The Beach Boys' half-finished 'Smile' (which began recording at pretty much the same moment this album came out) can compare. You can learn so much from this record, which in the words of a later Beatles song will show you that you're everywhere, but still get you home for tea.
So why is 'Revolver' such a masterpiece? Well, all thirteen songs on this album are brilliant in their own distinguished ways (well, eleven of them are anyway - 'Good Day Sunshine' always sounded lightweight to me and 'Yellow Submarine' is an acquired taste but, hey 12/14 is still amongst the best scores on this website). What's more they're all brilliant in different ways: no one track on 'Revolver' sounds like another. One minute we're in crunching electric rock/pop mode with very earthy lyrics about paying taxes, the next we're hearing Paul's voice accompanied by strings on a song about lonely old people and the next we're in Lennon's ethereal dream-world, surrounded by hallucinogenic backwards tape. And those are just first three songs on the album! After that we get soul, Indian ragas, children's songs, heavy metal prototypes ('She Said She Said') and whatever the hell is going on in 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. Other 1960s albums on this site - even other Beatles albums - cover less than half of this ground and can't match the sheer consistency of this most fab of fab four records. However, better yet, 'Revolver' has a unity even 'Rubber Soul' only half-has; a feeling that these songs are all parts from the same magic psychedelic kiln, fired through with slightly different takes on what a mess the world is in across 1966. Some songs offer hope, some escape, some a warning, others a chance of happiness, others ruefully reflecting on just why we're trapped. 'Revolver' works as well as it does because it 'feels' like it belongs together - and for all band's comments on 'Anthology' that they considered this album and 'Rubber Soul' as 'parts one and two', they've actually taken a rather large step forward. Even 'Sgt Peppers', with its much lauded concept about an Edwardian band playing in the park, gives up in from tracks three through to 12!
Best of all, this album also comes at the exact midway point between Lennon’s early-period Beatles domination and McCartney’s late-period Beatles creative stranglehold, with both men at the top of their game and writing some of the best individual pieces that either of them ever wrote. Slowly aware of his diminishing role within the group, Lennon even writes a song about his new drug-addled lethargy on I’m Only Sleeping, although by contrast his other songs on the album are as brave, daring and frequently as barbed as ever. McCartney, meanwhile, is covering even more styles than usual and while his songs for the most part are not as noisy or as outspoken as Lennon’s, they are the album’s quiet highlights, equally deep and profound and among his most mature too. Harrison also gets his greatest amount of songs on any one Beatles album (assuming the White Album counts as two!) and apart from his famous song Taxman includes two of the most under-rated songs of any Beatles album, in addition to his pioneering task of bringing the exotic sounds of sitars and eastern philosophy into popular culture for more or less the first time. As for Ringo, his drumming across the whole of 1966 is never better: from Rain in the beginning of the year to Strawberry Fields at the end of it (via Revolver’s She Said She Said in the middle), the fact that his fellow Beatles were writing some of their most heartfelt and honest songs always brought the best out of this most sympathetic of drummers and Starr is a, well, star here, adding several new variations on his distinctive ‘backward fill’ style. Suddenly the clumsyness of the first two Beatle albums seems like a long time ago.
'Revolver' just sounds quite unlike any other album ever made. In fact, scratch that, it feels like 14 mini-albums that are all quite unlike any other album ever made. This is also the album where The Beatles begin to think about the 'sound' they need for each song - rather than wrapping up a track with just their usual instruments and a few overdubs, this is where The Beatles start using outside musicians as a matter of course, making mini-symphonies of sound and spending as long as it takes, rather than merely getting songs down on tape as quickly as possible. That's impressive given that this is – apart from George Martin’s many cameos, the flutes of Hide Your Love Away, the strings of Yesterday and the still disputed Ringo-less Andy White session for Love Me Do – the first time the Beatles had ever used any outside musicians on their records. On Revolver there are outside musicians on almost every song, with lots of instruments making their first or – in some cases – their only appearance on a Beatles record. Witness the strings of Eleanor Rigby, the French horn solo on For No One, the brass section on Got To Get You Into My Life, the sitar and tabla of Love You Too, the sound effects on Yellow Submarine and the backwards guitar on I’m Only Sleeping – and that little list doesn’t even include the thousands of tape loops and electronic treatments of Tomorrow Never Knows. It’s as if the Beatles’ writing creativity has grown at such a phenomenal rate that their own pretty spiffing musicianship skills are no longer up to sounds they can all hear in their head. However, for now the influences are still subtle enough for Beatle fans to absorb instead of feel threatened with and are one of just many washes of texture across what must be the band's most varied sounding album (only 'The White Album' cuts 'Revolver' close). Also, 'Revolver' contains some of the best Beatle backing tracks of all time, where all four men are in the same room from start to finish (for the last time, really, until the White Album).
What's more they vary greatly: from the craziness of Yellow Submarine that found all four Beatles providing bizarre sound effects, to the touching close harmonies on 'Here There and Everywhere' to the tight intense group performance of songs like She Said, She Said, recorded for the album at the last minute and bumping the album up from 13 tracks to 14. In many ways 'Revolver' is the last 'band' album (although a case could be made for 'Abbey Road'), with all four pulling together to make this the best album it can possibly be.
And that's just the music. Even the biggest critics of this album (and there aren't many, actually, unlike a lot of Beatles albums that later generations grew up to feel apart from) have to confess that the lyrics on 'Revolver' are deeper than most any other album around at the time. I can't name one 1960s song that cuts as deeply as Eleanor Rigby (death and poverty), For No One (death and love loss) and Tomorrow Never Knows (death and, err, everything!) All three songs and many others are unusually layered across this album: 'Eleanor Rigby' 'feels' far more real, for instance, than other Beatle characters like 'Lovely Rita' or 'Mean Mr Mustard' - in just a few words we feel like we know her whole sorry backstory. We don't even know the character's names in 'For No One' but somehow that doesn't matter: we know these people, they're the ones we pass in the street and see every day. It's as if The Beatles have suddenly realised their responsibilities as songwriters loved the world over and used their talents to reflect all of life (and some of the imagination) - not just their generation's share of it. Most groups of 1966 were still mooning and Juning, swapping tales of teenage angst with their teenage audience, but here the Beatles are consciously widening their scope to concentrate on subjects that had up to this point been reserved for the ‘higher’ sphere of art such as poetry, literature or classical music and only occasionally if ever in so-called ‘pop’ music. The year 1966 was a changeable time in popular music and already some new groups were preparing material that almost deliberately were designed to scare all but their core audiences away (the Doors for instance). In contrast, the Beats aren’t going in that direction on Revolver either and many parts of this album are surprisingly warm and cosy. For example, Yellow Submarine is charming nonsense children’s song, Here There and Everywhere an exquisite love song that’s a logical culmination of all the Beatles’ melodic leanings over the past four years and Good Day Sunshine a last gasp of happiness from the Beatles’ canon before things get unquestionably darker. In short, 'Revolver' sounds like a whole. A whole what? I'm not sure (the experience of life perhaps?) but a 'whole' compared to other Beatle albums that are just collections of songs.
To go back to that 'half-theme', it's often struck me that the lyrics on 'Revolver are nearly all concerned with the passing of time. By 1966 The Beatles are entering their mid-20s, the age when they'd always claimed that they wouldn't still be singing 'pop songs' when they're 25. As a result, 'Revolver' is a terribly urgent album, full of deadlines, warnings and fears where even the ballads have an air of relentlessness about them - an album in a hurry to get everything said before time runs out. I've often wondered - could it be that the 'death threats' of the ill-fated 1966 tour (with both the 'Manilla' incident when the Beatles 'snubbed' Imelda Marcos by not attending a social event they didn't even know they were invited to and the furore in Southern America after Lennon's unfortunate choice of words when discussing the decline of the Christian church) played more on The Beatles' minds than they lot on at the time? 'Anthology recalls one incident, at a gig attended by a 'Ku Klux Klan' protest, where a firecracker went off onstage and all four Beatles looked around convinced one of their band had been shot. The world was a scary place in 1966, after a relatively innocent time across 1963-65, and The Beatles had made several enemies. Many of them are the targets in the record - although it could just be that, now with an age between 26 (John and Ringo) and 23 (George), The Beatles are simply naturally more aware of their own mortality.
'Taxman' is George's frustrations that precious time on earth is wasted filling in tax returns as much as it is about having to give over his precious-earned money (you can just imagine Harrison, at home, figuring that he can pay off his tax bill and make his conscience clearer if he slags off the system that 'forces' him to be creative in the process). 'Eleanor Rigby' is the end result where time runs out, with the title character buried alone and missed by no one by a priest in danger of ending up in the same boat himself. The antithesis of The Beatles' colourful, hopeful communal generation, it's a very dignified and thoughtful song (possibly the last of the great songs inspired by the Ashers' home library - Paul and Jane don't split up until 1968 but none of Paul's songs are quite this philosophical again) that seems to vow that 'their' generation can't ever turn out like this. 'I'm Only Sleeping' has Lennon living in a timeless dream-world where the real world can't disturb him. 'Love You To' opens with the stark opening lines 'Each day just goes so fast, I turn around its past...'. 'She said She Said' is a stark warning about death - actually a conversation the actor Peter Fonda, who nearly died during an operation, told to a scared and LSD-tripping Lennon, the hint being that no one is immune - it could happen at any time (Lennon always feared he would die young, according to those closest to him, making his needless murder in 1980 all the more tragic). 'For No One' is a once happy marriage breaking down because time pulls the narrators in different ways. 'I Want To Tell You' is George with his head 'filled with things to say' but running out of time to say them. 'Got To Get You Into My Life' is, as Paul's since admitted, a song about drugs and the peer pressure of the other Beatles making him take it for the first time - but equally is about time running out to experience some unspecified happy event. And finally, 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is about everything but especially about death (its lyrics are taken wholesale from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead', an 'instruction manual' for how to cope when your soul floats up to the afterlife). Even the Ringo-coined title - which would have made a fabulous umbrella title for the whole LP - hints at a dangerous shadowy tomorrow, full of sudden swift endings.
There's another possible reason for all this. George's growing interest in all things Indian and mystic might have appeared first on 'Norwegian Wood' and is heard most obviously on 'Within You Without You', but it's 'Revolver' that I consider the Beatles' most Eastern album. The main difference between the 'West' and 'East' (along with the weather) is the idea of what life is for. The West is, very generally speaking, capitalist-dominated, with a get-it-while-you-can philosophy spoofed in this song's 'Taxman'. The East, though, have life on Earth as merely one part of our gradual evolution (they should have called this album 'Evolver'!) across several re-incarnated lives - one of many journeys we go through (something that might have comforted Eleanor Rigby and as transition which sounds as if it's happening before our ears on 'Tomorrow Never Knows'). By contrast, the Western world (represented by sarcastic doctors and taxmen) suddenly starts to look corrupt. Did George pass on the books he was reading? (Hearing of his growing interest, many fans and some Indian musicians sent him books to read - one of them will become virtually the entire lyric of Beatles B-side 'The Inner Light') It would be a very 'Beatle' thing to do - sharing experiences - and John and Paul had two of the most 'open' minds in songwriting, devouring any text they could find. That's heard in the music too of course: the sitar-led song 'Love You Too' is the most natural port of call for Eastern sounds, but they're there across the rest of the album too: the backwards guitar loop on John's 'I'm Only Sleeping' sounds like a sitar, there's a vocal 'melisma' on the fade-out of 'I Want To Tell You' (basically the very sitar-like way that John and Paul weave around the note on the line 'I've got ti-i-i-i-i-i-ime'; luckily for me knowing what this word meant got me an extra point on my music A level papers, so thankyou Beatles!) and a tambura playing gently in the background of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'.
Musically 'Revolver' must have been a very difficult album to put a cover to: on the one hand it's a colourful 'Sgt Peppers' like backdrop of larger-than-life characters and new, exciting sound. On the other, it's a tougher kid than the sometimes flowery Sergeant Major and needs something stark and dark, in monochrome. Band friend and sleeve artist Klaus Voormann finally gets the go-ahead to make a 'Beatles' album cover (his first introduction to the band in Hamburg in 1960 was to see if they were interested in some artwork for any album releases) and he's clearly listened to the album brilliantly (he had an advance copy of most of the songs). Black-and-white, with stark bold images of giant Beatle heads (looking like the Eastern Island statues would with Beatle wigs), but surrounded by lots of touches that while not 'colourful' exactly (everything is in black-and-white) do hint at this album's 'brightness' and vibrancy. What's more, the fact that all these little pictures growing out of The Beatles' heads are photographs of their 'older' selves is telling: The Beatles have literally outgrown their past, but are still very much shaped by them. The cover isn't perfect - poor George gets a particularly rum deal, thankfully rectified for the cover of George's 1987 single 'When We Was Fab' where Klaus draws a more modern picture of George to stare at his younger self - but it's a good one and exactly what 'Revolver' needs: daring, but still recognisably like the 'old' Beatles.
Like Rubber Soul, the title of Revolver was decided on very late in the day - long after the album was finished - and is a typically Beatlian play on words. There’s something about this record, from the brave new world offered within its grooves to the stark monochrome cover by band friend Klauss Voormann that hints of something darker and more important than normal behind the psychedelic trappings; a feeling that all of the new ideals the Beatles were rightly or wrongly felt to stand for in the early 60s had now coagulated to the point where the band literally could go anywhere with their music, a sort of ‘revolver/revolution’ in the air (many modern Beatles fans assume this title is a gun reference too – if it is, its probably an ironic one given the song’s peace and love tendencies). On the other hand, the Beatles weren’t yet ready to burn their bridges and this album is also simply another of those glorious Beatles albums filled with hummable melodies and easily understandable lyrics: just another record that ‘revolves’ in other words. Whatever title it might use, 'Revolver' is a fantastic piece of work and a big influence on practically every album that came after it. As bold as any record could ever be in 1966 and yet as hummable and accessible as all the albums that came before it 'Revolver' is an eclectic, electrifying experience that packs so much into its 33 minutes that it seems like so much more. If anything ever happens to the human race, a passing alien could do worse than play this record if they wanted to understand what the human existence was all about- no other record in my collection contains quite this many 'clues' as to life, the universe and everything. A true masterpiece.
Taxman, the only time a George Harrison song ever opened a Beatles album, sounds quite unlike anything the Beatles had ever done before – or would ever do again. A stinging attack on politics and Britain’s economic system, the whole song is played against a fittingly frugal and rather sparse backing of punched guitar chords that sounds so tightly wound you think its going to burst. Thankfully, it does, courtesy of a resplendent guitar solo that sounds so full of energy and excitement its as if someone let the sun in on the taxman’s drab, dreary office. Long admired as one of George’s career-best solos, its actually played by Paul although whether this is because 1) George didn’t know what to do on this bit of the song 2) he had his hands full with the intricate rhythm work (if that really is his playing) or 3) Paul was living up to his (largely unfounded) reputation of getting in everyone’s way and being a control freak is unknown (his bass playing is the song’s other highlight, so chances are it’s a bit of all three, with Macca on particularly bright form on recording day). So great is this solo, it even crops a second time on the fade-out and a record third time in Tomorrow Never Knows; albeit chopped up, played backwards and probably dropped in George Martin’s tea or something. Whoever it is that’s playing, however, Taxman stands as one of the Beatles’ most chilling and uncharitable concoctions, its brittle guitar stabs among the nosiest and exhilarating in their career, although the pill is easier to swallow when you read about the Beatles’ financial history and realise George was right to be angry about where all his hard-earned money was going. The playful and slightly psychedelic spoken count-in also continues a Beatle tradition of starting each new chapter of their career with a sound that immediately sums it up (witness the energetic ‘1-2-3-4’ of I Saw Her Standing There, the inventive ringing guitar note of A Hard Day’s Night and the rather edgy Lennon ad lib before the start of Let It Be’s opening track Two Of Us, in which Doris gets her oats).
Eleanor Rigby is similarly bleak and unforgiving, with brief but perfectly framed verses telling us dispassionately the fate of a lonely old widow. Of all McCartney’s wonderful lyrics, this may well be his best, with the cold dispassionate story-telling of the verses giving way to a bottomless well of melancholy on the choruses. The line in Eleanor Rigby that’s grabbed most attention is the line about the widow ‘keeping her face in the jar by the door’ a wonderful image that was actually written simply to mean her make-up, but instead immediately conjures up images of Mrs Rigby hiding behind a facade and of the character keeping herself to herself to prevent her from getting hurt. While Lennon and Starr chipped ideas in (Ringo’s was Father McKenzie ‘darning his socks in the night’ by the way), this song is very much McCartney’s creation, from the stage-like way the actors enter and exit the song (lots of his Jane Asher period songs are like this as Macca’s introduction to the London theatre scene rubbed off on him) to the way the circular melody eats its own tail in the half-repeat each verse (eg ‘What did he care?’) Following on (nearly) from Taxman and for the second time after Yesterday, McCartney is the only Beatle to feature on the track, fuelling rumours in the post-touring period that he was about to quite the band and go solo – Macca, however, was about the only Beatle not to think of quitting at some point over the next two years. The whole song might well be bleak and uncomfortable in the extreme, however, had it not been tied together with that wonderful longing chorus, with the narrator finally giving way to his feelings and a desperate cry of ‘ahh’ that says more than all the carefully composed words put together. The tune is pretty special too, especially the way George Martin’s staccato strings fiercely rub against McCartney’s smooth vocal on what is one of its composer’s greatest wide-ranging and octave-spanning melody lines. The song’s irregular metre, which makes it sound as if it is hobbling along lopsidedly and about to fall at any moment, is also a clever ploy, instilling in the listener a sense of urgency which the song’s narrator obviously means but apart from the choruses cannot bring himself to say. Whole books have been written about this song and how it got its name so suffice to say that Macca was looking for a five-syllable name to fit the song’s metre, that Eleanor was chosen in honour of the Beatles’ Help! co-star Eleanor Bron and Rigby was a last-minute decision, chosen from a clothing firm in London. The fact remains, however, that Rigby is the name of a leading Liverpool family and there is indeed a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby in a Liverpool graveyard McCartney must have walked past quite regularly in his childhood in Liverpool, even though McCartney is adamant that he had never seen it until after he wrote the song. Spooky. Incidentally, the priest in the second verse was originally ‘McCartney’ not ‘McKenzie’, although Macca was simply filling in words to fit the tune and never intended that to be the finished line – just in case people thought it was about his dad (as its not a very flattering portrait!) The name McKenzie was simply chosen at random out of a London phonebook in desperation at finding one that fitted the same metre. Fans of this song, one of its composer’s finest, should look out for McCartney’s Broad Street album where a rather inferior re-recording of Eleanor Rigby gets a delightful nine-minute instrumental coda, bringing out a lot more of the ghostly string arrangement and making the song sound even more like a standard, one so complete and so perfect it seems like it has been around for a lot longer than just its 40 years.
While his partner was working his little socks off on the last track, Lennon was – not for the first time – getting bored. Fed up with touring, bored of the lack of variety in being a Beatle in 1966 and increasingly disgruntled in his marriage to Cynthia, Lennon was beginning to vegetate. Half defensive and half celebratory, I’m Only Sleeping is Lennon’s honest response to his situation, telling the world in general in the burgeoning psychedelic era that his dream-like state is probably just as valid as their real-life ones anyway. It may well be a message to McCartney too, in response to a couple of month’s worth of McCartney arriving excitedly to work on some new idea he had had – only to be told by Cynthia that his song-writing partner was still asleep in bed. Compare this track to the last one and you’ll hear that apathy at work too: McCartney swoops through nearly three octaves in his efforts to relieve Eleanor of her many burdens; Lennon can barely lift himself off one note to tell us about his own situation. Sleeping is by no means a bad or even a ‘lazy’ song however, especially when its dressed up in backwards guitar, psychedelic effects galore and a very effective vocal treatment with a ‘Leslie speaker’ (ie playing the vocal back through a slashed revolving speaker generally used for spacious instruments such as pedal organs), which gives Lennon’s vocal a very fragile just-woken-up quality. Indeed, so intoxicating is Lennon’s dream world that you half want to jump through the speakers and join him – which was probably its author’s intention in the first place.
Love You Too is perhaps the most obscure song on the album, which is strange given that a good 10% of the albums on this list wouldn’t have been the same at all without it. The first time that ‘genuine’ Eastern musicians are heard on a Western ‘pop’ record (Norwegian Wood is a candidate too but George himself is playing the sitar on that one – and then more like a guitar than how it should be played!), it’s easy to see why Eastern music became so popular in the wake of songs like this one. The sitar-playing on the opening is the perfect overture for the song and spine-tingly other-worldly throughout (typical of the times, the Abbey Road fee sheets don’t actually list the name of the Indian musician in question, although we do know the tabla player on the track to be Anil Bhagwat – its certainly not George himself, though, as was reported at the time, who was then less than a year into his sitar lessons and would have struggled to play this song’s tricky sequences even with decades of practice). The lyrics to the confusingly-named Love You To are the perfect fit for the backing too: a stunning lyrical breakthrough for George, reflecting on how growing older leads to less opportunities to get things right, with some speculation about re-incarnation thrown in for free. A million miles from anything else on offer in 1966, the song is another surprisingly scary Harrisong from this period as - just like he does on Sgt Pepper’s - the guitarist provides the album’s moral backbone, delivering Revolver’s most serious sermon, sounding all the more powerful for being surrounded by often frivolous songs about sailing submarines and drug-taking doctors.
Here, There and Everywhere is in many ways a relief after the four new styles that have been heard so far on this record. A very Beatlesy track – and a very McCartney one at that – its gorgeously sweeping tune, full three-part harmonies and simple but not stupid lyrics of romance are what every young Beatles fan was probably looking for on this album. It would be easy to dismiss Everywhere as a rather backward song, then, amongst the other highly adventurous songs on here, but just like Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds who McCartney was trying to emulate on this track, it’s the very real feeling of commitment, love and honesty that makes this track sound actually ahead of its time. Written at Lennon’s house while John was still trying to wake up (see above!), this song was often said by both Lennon and McCartney to be a ‘favourite’ and thanks to its clever structure – which every verse leads its narrator back to pause on either ‘here’ ‘there’ or ‘everywhere’ - and a fine understated performance, its not hard to see why.
Yellow Submarine is one of those nonsense songs that – as nearly every book about the Beatles will tell you - everyone either loves or loathes on sight. Whether its because I’ve spent so many years hearing the thing its come to sound like an old friend or not I don’t know, but my own feelings are somewhere in the middle. Submarine is a welcome simplistic diversion on this often complex, turbulent record and although I’ve heard several poor recordings of it since that really do set your teeth on edge, the Beatles’ superior original redeems itself by packing in every sound effect it can (including Lennon’s mischievous goon-show style vocal in the song’s final verse). Perhaps surprisingly, given the song’s booming repetitive chorus and uncharacteristically childish lyrics, the song was written by McCartney more or less single-handedly, although it was always intended to be given to Ringo to sing. Less at home with this track than, say, Octopuses Garden or Act Naturally, Starr still valiantly does his best to make the song his own and makes up for in character what he lacks by way of technical accuracy. If this track had been made by nearly any other Beatles contemporary it would have been a career highlight – on this album it merely sounds like treading water or – to some ears – plumbing its lowest depths.
Lennon’s She Said, She Said was the last track recorded for Revolver, taped in some very hurried sessions just five weeks before the album’s August release date. Unsurprisingly, its among the most ragged recordings the band made in their ‘middle’ period, but the snarling guitars and stupendously creative drumming really suit the song’s fragmented tale of death, rebirth and separate states of consciousness. One of the most revealing little anecdotes about how the Beatles thought back in the days of 1966 comes with the band’s little documented first group LSD trip, after McCartney reluctantly gave into his bandmates’ endless and rather uncharitable nagging and tried it for the first time. McCartney spent the rest of the day believing he was getting divine insights into life and asked the band’s old friend and roadie Mal Evans to write down everything he said. Looking at the piece of paper the next day, the only bit McCartney could read was ‘there are seven levels’ and all he could remember was something about different states of consciousness. Although he still dismisses it as a joke to this day, the Beatles seemed at the time to have at least been amused by the feeling they were onto something ‘important’ and the idea of different states of consciousness plays a big part in their music from here on in (as, to be fair, it does in much of the period’s music but the Beatles’ more than most and certainly the Beatles were earlier than most in their exploration of it). The first real evidence of this new concept, Lennon’s She Said She Said, may well have been written partly as a response to this idea, although equally it may have been from one of the many philosophy books Lennon was known to have been reading in this period. The song was inspired by a conversation Lennon had with band friend Peter Fonda, where the actor told the hapless Beatle about a near-death experience he had as a child during an operation that went wrong. Already paranoid after taking his first ‘bad acid trip’, this was the last thing Lennon wanted to hear about and he quickly told Fonda to get lost. The phrase echoed round his head, though, and turned into this rather chaotic song where – in contrast to McCartney’s perfectly crafted labour of love songs on this album – Lennon stumbles around the tune, breaking off into musical tangents and swapping rhythms and tempos without a second thought in his desperate attempt to understand the new insights into life he has received. Lennon is so successful at transposing his confused state of mind into sound that the listener travels with him all the way, sharing with him the horror of the song’s heavy plunge from the bridge into chorus and the way the narrator sounds as if he is fighting weights tied to his feet throughout the song. The middle eight – the first inkling of Lennon’s troubled childhood and his attempts to reach back to a happier time – is tremendously moving, considering it consists of only two simple lines (‘when I was a boy, everything was right’). A tour de force in recording terms, the edgy atmosphere of this song has been the template for so many inferior bands since that it’s hard to forget just how revolutionary and revelatory this track is. The fact that even Lennon considered it a hurried ‘filler’ song after recording it shows just how ridiculously productive the Beatles were in this period.
All that and we’re still only at the halfway stage. After the dark night of She Said comes McCartney’s musical balm Good Day Sunshine to soothe our troubles away. Many of Paul’s early songs verged on jazz, possibly because of his dad’s background playing in jazz bands (Can’t Buy Me Love especially, recorded by several jazz musicians over the years), but here McCartney manages an uneasy mix of some typically jazzy-sounding improvisational sounding riffs and typical 60s lightweight pop. The choruses’ lovely sudden bursts of colour and the band’s three-part harmonies (with an added key-change flourish on the last repeat) just about make up for the fact that for once on this album there’s not actually a lot happening here, with the verses just tending to repeat themselves right up to the very end.
And Your Bird Can Sing is another of the cryptic Lennon rockers that fill up this album and like the forthcoming Dr Robert was probably only intended as a bit of nonsense when the Beatle needed to write something quickly for Revolver (You can hear the Beatles giggling their heads off during an out-take of this song on Anthology Two, although the sleeve-notes intriguingly tell us they were actually laughing at something in the studio rather than the song; unhelpfully we’re not told what). Listen again to this performance however, where Lennon snarls his lyrics in such a menacing way he threatens to drown out McCartney’s sensitive harmony vocal, and its clear that Lennon felt some kind of integrity in these lyrics (compare this vocal to the similarly nonsensical Hey Bulldog – now reckoned to be either about McCartney or, more likely, Lennon angry at himself – or I Am The Walrus, that terrific put-down of authority and ‘straight society’ depending on the more intellectual interpretations; comparatively Lennon’s vocals on other vaguely ‘menacing’ songs like Dr Robert and even the murderous but made-up-for-fun Run For Your Life don’t have anything like the same urgency). The only suggestion I’ve ever heard about this song is that it is yet another dig at McCartney and his growing dominance within the group, but this song came out a good year too early for Lennon to be thinking about things like that and chances are its more likely to be his hurt response to a music critic (‘But you don’t get me!’) Bird is that rare thing nowadays in the Beatles universe – a genuine 100% mystery – and fun as it is to speculate over it, it’s probably best to leave it that way.
For No One is a close cousin of Eleanor Rigby in its tale of a lonely distant couple who no longer relate to one another and in its beautiful but similarly sparse backing. Full of its composers’ characteristic half-rhymes and long unwinding melodies, this song is another impressively mature song - McCartney was after all not quite 24 when he wrote it - and once more seems heavily influenced by Paul’s links to Jane Asher in the theatrical way it tells its story. Biting social commentary without the finger-pointing that usually weighs such songs down and bare string arrangements that match the lyrics like a glove make this comparatively forgotten song another classic. Alan Civil’s French horn solo, however, doesn’t fit quite as well as the strings in Eleanor Rigby – it was, after all, the first Beatles arrangement not to be scored by George Martin as he was busy with Cilla Black at the time and its outsider status shows – but even so its presence doesn’t grate badly and adds yet another dash of colour to this wonderfully textured album.
On the face of it, Dr Robert is a rocking Lennon song about a helpful doctor – and I don’t mean the Dr Who sort! But this song is actually Lennon cheekily getting one of his drug dealer friends into a mainstream song lyric, possibly a veiled reference to the Beatles’ dentist friend who first introduced Lennon and Harrison to LSD after spiking their coffee without their knowledge at a dinner party. A little too knowing and tongue-in-cheek for its own good, Dr Robert does at least feature some more of Lennon-Harrison’s stabbing guitar interplay and a wonderfully sobre bridge that stands like an island in a sea of drug fumes until Dr Robert reaches back into his pill bag and sets the narrator back on his noisy way.
I Want To Tell You is George’s last song on the album and leads off where Love You To ended, with its narrator desperate to tell his audience everything he can before time runs out. This song is written for Western instruments – the last of George’s not to feature a sitar or at least a droning organ pretending to be a sitar until the White Album and B-side Old Brown Shoe – but the way the Beatles’ superlative harmonies are arranged and especially the closing melisma (McCartney’s extended note in the fade which rolls above and below the pitch before locking onto the note squarely) very much show the influence of Indian pieces on his writing. Ignore the vocals, though, and this song could be almost bluesy in the way the piano plays rolling triplets every so often and in the lead vocal’s half-shrugging grunts as George tries to work out what he wants to say - although Ringo’s sudden blast on the drums into the choruses is pure Beatlesy pop. A forgotten gem in George’s canon, this song might be harder to get to know and love than the other more immediate tracks on Revolver but is worth the effort all the same.
I’ve Got To Get You Into My Life is another of Revolver’s high quota of drug songs masquerading as love songs. Unlike the others, though, Life doesn’t even appear to be hinting at anything subversive, with its rattling Motown horns and expressive vocal making the song sound like one of the most catchy things the Beatles had done in a while. Yet McCartney sheepishly admitted in the 70s that he’d actually written this song about his early experiences in drugs and particularly the rift that had been growing in the group between him and the converted Lennon and Harrison (Check out the fade: ‘I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there…’) You don’t need to know that to appreciate the song however, which with its nagging hookline and sudden release from the verse to the chorus is more superlative songwriting genius and proof that McCartney had a definite feel for writing this kind of stomping material (although interestingly this song started life as a rather under-stated harmony-led bluesy ballad, as heard on Anthology Two).
All that just leaves Tomorrow Never Knows. A final moral message delivered by Lennon, seemingly beyond the grave, it uses extracts from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead to tell us to lie back and give in to ‘the void’ as this is the only way we may learn about ourselves (and, possibly, past to our next life). Another song, then, about altered states of consciousness, this song does everything in its power to try and take the listener as far out of every day life as it can and it succeeds, thanks to a succession of tape loops, chopped up guitars and a vocal effect that makes Lennon sound like he is the last man standing at the other edge of the universe. Listen out for several sound effects, specially recorded for this song and played back – by hand – on ancient EMI tape machines spread across the studio and playing at different speeds (the seagull noise – actually McCartney laughing – is particularly memorable) and Ringo’s hypnotic drumming which is so intoxicating and tribal it’s stirred up many a Beatle fan’s soul over the years. To think that a song this strange and staggering (it is, after all, narrated rather than sung and is played all on one chord throughout – just check the Beatles’ sheet music for this song, where the compiler was obviously scratching his head as how on earth to transcribe it and decided to show the melody all on one-note as a compromise!) was the first thing recorded for Revolver back in late 1965 is nothing short of mind-blowing. A psychedelic masterclass that to these ears was never beaten by anybody through to 1967 and beyond – and there’s an awful lot of psychedelia on this list after all – this is Lennon’s peak as a writer and the Beatles’ pinnacle as a creative team. Absolute magic.
So there you have it. One of the most flawless masterpieces in the whole of Western music, wrapped up in 14 progressive but easily digestible bite-size morsels. A stunning, staggering album that set the bar so high that only a very few albums since have ever been able to match it. Revolver has always had a high reputation but for once on this list even that high reputation isn’t as high as it so obviously deserves; a record that cannot be recommended highly enough. It may all be downhill from here, comparatively speaking - but what a height to climb down from...