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Saturday, August 06, 2016

Of the beginning: On Revolver at 50

By Dennis Hartley

The Beatles were beside themselves with glee. Stoned – which they were most of the time in the studio – the experiments became part prank, part innovation. In that kind of dreamy, altered, impractical state, the possibilities were limitless. Recording became no longer just another way of putting out songs, but a new way of creating them.

-from Bob Spitz’s 2005 biography The Beatles, regarding the sessions for Revolver

On August 5, 1966, The Beatles released an LP that not only represents the pinnacle of their oeuvre, but remains one of the best pop albums of all time. Yes, as painful as it may be for some of us of “a certain age” to process, Revolver turns 50 years old this week (!).

It’s even more mind-blowing that Revolver arrived just 8 months after Rubber Soul, an album that in and of itself reflected a quantum leap in musical and lyrical sophistication for the band. And whereas Rubber Soul demonstrated an earnest embrace of eclecticism (incorporating everything from rock, pop, and R&B to country, folk, and chanson), Revolver ups the ante further. As Tim Riley nicely summates in his book, Tell Me Why:

Rubber Soul has a romantic astonishment, the echoing realization that teenage quandaries don’t dissipate with age; they dilate. Starker realities intrude on Revolver: embracing life also means accepting death.

That’s a heavy observation; but lest you begin contemplating opening your veins, keep in mind that while “Tomorrow Never Knows” suggests you surrender to the void, and “She Said, She Said” insists I know what it’s like to be dead…this is the same album that gifted us the loopy singalong of “Yellow Submarine” and upbeat pop of “Good Day Sunshine”.

Yet Revolver works as a whole; 14 cuts of pure pop nirvana, with no filler. As someone once astutely observed, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain [in the 1960s], but also the most commercial.” Therein lies the genius of the Beatles; their ability to transcend that dichotomy with sheer talent and craftsmanship. It is significant to note that when recording sessions for Revolver began in April of 1966, the Beatles were nearing the end of their touring days. It’s no coincidence that the less time they spent on the road, the more exponentially they progressed as creative artists and studio innovators.

How quickly were they evolving? Consider this, from a 1966 UK newspaper article:

LONDON – They’re calling it the end of an era, the Beatles’ era.  […]

Last Sunday night, about 200 [fans] picketed the London home of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, demanding to see more of their idols. The foursome has not toured Britain this year and there are no plans for personal appearances […]

The obvious conclusion, supported by their words and actions in the past months, is that they are bored with being the Beatles. […]

With their success, they have gained a certain sophistication. Their last album, Revolver, was musically far ahead of their efforts at the height of their popularity and they are well aware of the fact.

“Songs like ‘Eight Days a Week’ and ‘She Loves You’ sound like right drags to me now,” John told an interviewer recently. “I turn the radio off if they’re on.” *

(*Source: Things We Said Today: Conversations with the Beatles, by Geoffrey and Vrnda Giuliano)

It’s very telling that Lennon distances himself from “Eight Days a Week” and delegates it to a bygone era, even though it was released just the year before (in February of 1965). You just don’t see that kind of accelerated artistic growth nowadays (Has Taylor Swift’s music “progressed” since last year? Sounds like the same over-compressed, auto-tuned corporate Pablum to me…but let’s throw her another Grammy, cuz she’s so awesome!).

At any rate, in celebration of Revolver hitting the half-century mark (with very little sign of aging), I thought it would be fun to revisit it, track-by-track, and see why it stands the test of time. In addition to giving a nod to the original UK 14-track sequence, I am prefacing with the double-sided 45 RPM release of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” – as they were recorded during the same sessions and shore up this truly amazing song cycle.

(All “authorship” notations below sourced from Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding)

Paperback WriterAuthorship: McCartney (.8) Lennon (.2)

One of the classic riff songs (it may have “inspired” the suspiciously similar hook for the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), featuring proto-metal guitar tone from George and a sonic Rickenbacker bass line from Paul. In a Ray Davies-styled turn, Paul assumes the character of a cynical pulp writer, drafting a letter of introduction that he hopes to be his entre to fame and fortune: Please Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look? Later in the song, he synopsizes it as a dirty story of a dirty man…and his clinging wife doesn’t understand. He’s flexible: I can make it longer if you like the style. Listen for George and John’s “Frere Jacques” quote in the backing vocals.

RainAuthorship: Lennon (1.00)

This is a Lennon song all the way; and generally regarded as the birth of psychedelia (the latter by virtue of actual release date, as it was preceded in the sessions by the equally trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows” the week before). The tune’s signature backward tape-looping was an innovative trick accidently “discovered” by a very stoned John, who put the reels on upside down while listening back to a demo at home. The harmony vocals are very “raga-rock”. It’s a great track, with excellent drumming by Ringo (who concurs, stating once in an interview “I think it’s the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”).

TaxmanAuthorship: Harrison (.9) Lennon (.1)

Back in the old days, before “shuffle play” was a gleam in a code writer’s eye (or “mix tapes” were a thing) Side 1, Cut 1 held import; it really meant something. Sequencing an album was a science; as that opening cut set the tone for the next 30 minutes of your life (slightly longer in the UK). This funky number, the first of 3 Harrison contributions to Revolver, is a perfect kickoff. It sports a catchy riff (I’m pretty sure Paul Weller had it stuck in his head when he wrote the Jam song “Start”), and strident (almost punky) bursts of lead lines from Paul. To my knowledge, this is the Beatles’ first foray into agitprop, with a stinging lyric that namechecks politicians, and advises Inland Revenue to fuck off.

Eleanor RigbyAuthorship: McCartney (.8) Lennon (.2)

This is one of “those” songs that anyone who has ever sat down and attempted to compose a piece of music would gladly sell their soul to have written. Paul’s original working version was the sad tale of a “Miss Daisy Hawkins”, but eventually morphed into the sad tale of an “Eleanor” (after actress Eleanor Bron, who co-starred in the Beatles’ 1965 film, Help) “Rigby” (the name of a shop, according to Paul). It was a masterstroke to add the string backing (Paul’s idea, but producer George Martin’s arrangement), which makes this melancholic, yet hauntingly beautiful song even more so.

I’m Only SleepingAuthorship: Lennon (1.00)

Lennon really ran with that backward looping thing during these sessions; the resultant “yawning” guitar effect gives this lovely, hypnotic number an appropriately “drowsy” vibe, lulling the listener into an agreeable alpha state for 3 minutes. My favorite quote regarding the song is by Lennon’s BFF Pete Shotten, who observed that it “…brilliantly evokes the state of chemically induced lethargy into which John had…drifted.” Ouch. If you want to hear an unapologetic lift, check out the song “Sweet Dreams” by The Knack.

Love You ToAuthorship: Harrison (1.00)

While George had already introduced Beatle fans to the exotic eastern twang of the sitar on Rubber Soul, he would later insist that the iconic 13-note run that repeats throughout “Norwegian Wood” was “accidental” (he was ever the wry one). There is nothing “accidental” about the Indian influences on this proto-Worldbeat song, which features Anil Bhagwat on tabla, as well as “session musicians”. Interestingly, George (sitar and vocals) is the sole Beatle on the track; if I’m not mistaken, the only precedent at that time would have been “Yesterday” (essentially Paul, and session players). Akin to “Taxman”, its couplets wax acerbic: There’s people standing round / who’ll screw you in the ground.

Here, There, and EverywhereAuthorship: McCartney (1.00)

Paul has made it no secret over the years that he was really taken by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, so much so that he developed an acute case of Brian Wilson Envy and lobbied his bandmates to “go to 11” with Revolver to blow Wilson’s irksome masterpiece out of the water. Funnily enough, Brian Wilson would later claim that Sgt. Pepper’s had a likewise effect on him! At any rate, this achingly beautiful love ballad was allegedly Paul’s self-conscious attempt to specifically one-up “God Only Knows”. He gets close.

Yellow SubmarineAuthorship: McCartney (.8) Lennon (.2)

It’s a novelty tune. But as far as novelty tunes go, it’s a bonafide classic. This was Ringo’s “one song” for this album (OK, occasionally they would let him sing two, but not as a rule). While it has been interpreted by some as a song about drugs, or about war, Paul and Ringo insist that was designed to be exactly what it sounds like…a kid’s song (sometimes, a yellow submarine is just a yellow submarine). It sounds like they had fun making it, which apparently they did. George Martin says they “all had a giggle”. He even pitched in on the fadeout chorus, which included Patti Harrison and studio staffers.

She Said She SaidAuthorship: Lennon (1.00)

Another psychedelic gem written by John, which in this case was literally inspired by psychedelics, because he came up with the idea for the song in the aftermath of an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (and you know that those motherfuckers had the good shit, probably Sandoz). At any rate, the story goes that John encountered a freaked-out Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this mantra stayed with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead

(I’ll give you a moment to flip the record over.)

Good Day SunshineAuthorship: McCartney (1.00)

The kickoff to Side 2 is Paul in full cockeyed optimist mode. Everything about it is “happy”, from the lyrics (I feel good, in a special way / I’m in love and it’s a sunny day) and the bright harmonies, to George Martin’s jaunty ragtime piano solo. Paul has said that he was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful; and indeed the song does have that “Do You Believe in Magic?” / “Rain on the Roof” / “Daydream” kind of vibe to it. So lighten up!

And Your Bird Can SingAuthorship: Lennon (1.00)

It’s always fascinating to me how artists view their own work, as opposed to their audience’s perceptions. This song is a perfect example. In interviews over the years, John dismissed it as “Another horror.” (Hit Parader, 1972) and “Another of my throwaways.” (Playboy, 1980). But as far as I’m concerned, he was wrong. This easily places in my top 5 Beatle favorites; a perfect 2 minute slab of power pop goodness, replete with chiming open chords for the verses and Lennon’s patented chromatically descending bass lines on the bridge. And for a “throwaway”, its double-tracked harmony guitar parts sound pretty sophisticated to my ears (to this day, I can’t figure out how to reproduce those note runs).

For No OneMcCartney (1.00)

Another unmistakably “McCartney-esque” ballad; this one a melancholic lament about a relationship gone sour. It features one of Paul’s most beautiful melodies (this guy tosses them off in his sleep-it’s a genuine gift) and sophisticated lyrics. The narrative is the aural equivalent of a “split-screen” view, observing two ex-lovers as they go about their daily routines; one still pines, the other has moved on (typical!). Alan Civil’s transcendent horn solo rips your heart out. Lennon once named this as one of his favorite McCartney tunes.

Dr. RobertAuthorship: Lennon (.75) McCartney (.25)

Prince had “Dr. Michael”, Michael Jackson had “Dr. Conrad”, Elvis had “Dr. Nick”, but the (more often than not) dubiously titled “personal physician” is no stranger to show biz (or professional sports…or to the rich and famous in general). Back in the 1960s, NYC-based Dr. Charles Roberts became popular with Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd for his, shall we say, open-mindedness when it came to administering “medicine” (mostly in the form of injections; vitamins, speed and even LSD). This was John’s in-jokey homage.

I Want to Tell YouAuthorship: Harrison (1.00)

This superb cut from George is one his best tunes, with a memorable riff. A musician I work with at my day job, more versed in music theory than I (I’m largely self-taught) has been kind enough to occasionally enlighten an old dog on some new scales and chord theory and such (it’s never too late to start). Recently, I asked him to deconstruct this particular song for me, because I’ve always wanted someone to explain to me why that purposely dissonant piano figure that Paul pounds out at the end of each verse “works” so well. Naturally, it went in one ear and out the other, but it made sense to me at the time!

Got to Get You into My LifeAuthorship: McCartney (1.00)

Paul’s self-proclaimed Motown homage (and possible nod to the Northern Soul movement that flourished in the U.K. at that time) was also one of his most self-consciously “radio-friendly” compositions to date (witness its belated official release as a “single” in 1976, when it managed to climb up to #7 on the charts…six years after the Beatles disbanded). Of course, Paul’s little in-joke may be embedded in the lyrics, which he later confessed to be an ode to the joys of weed (a predilection that once landed him a night in jail while touring Japan, as you may recall). At any rate, it’s a fab song, no matter how you interpret it, with a fully funkified soul/R&B flavored horn chart (a Beatle first).

Tomorrow Never Knows Authorship: Lennon (1.00)

Just when you think the Fabs couldn’t possibly top the creative juggernaut of the previous 13 cuts, they save the best for last (ironically, the very first number they had worked on for these sessions, which lends the whole song cycle a certain poetic symmetry of its own, especially considering TNK’s refrain: So play the game “Existence” to the end / Of the beginning…of the beginning...). In a 1980 Playboy interview, John explained, “That’s me in my ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ period. I took one of Ringo’s malapropisms as the title, to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.” It’s heavy, all right-and doesn’t sound like anything in Western pop music up to that time; a truly innovative piece of music. It’s basically a drone in “C”, with John’s vocals recorded through a loudspeaker, which George Martin simply turned to the side of the studio microphone. This gave John the sound of a “Dalai Lama singing on a hilltop” (as he had requested). Backward tape loops add to the eerily mesmerizing vibe, and Ringo lays down a thunderous, primal beat that drives the tune quite powerfully. Which brings us to the end.

Of the beginning…

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--Dennis Hartley