Classic Music Review: Revolver by The Beatles

 

Originally published in October 2012, completely rewritten March 2016.

If you listen to all the albums that preceded it in chronological order right before you place Revolver on the turntable, you will sense immediately that this is not just another Beatles album, but a revolution in sound and songcraft.

There are surprising number of very stupid critics who attribute the revolution to the Beatles’ use of LSD, marijuana and similar substances. While LSD can expand one’s awareness of the fragility of the convention we call “reality,” and marijuana can give one the feeling best expressed in the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” neither substance is particularly helpful in the act of creation. Creation requires the artist to exert discipline over the cascade of sounds or images or words bouncing around the brain.

All the evidence indicates that McCartney didn’t use acid in the period prior to Revolver, but immersed himself in the thriving London arts scene at a time when the arts would have provided just as much stimulation and perspective-altering experience as golden sunshine. John and George did indulge in psychedelics, but if anything, it seems to have had the effect of opening their minds to different musical, literary and spiritual traditions.

The use of weed during the Revolver period is well-known to anyone with a copy of the Anthology 2. “Got to Get You into My Life” is an ode to grass. The giggly version of “And Your Bird Can Sing” reeks of cannabis. Had the Beatles thrown discipline to the wind—as they did frequently during the dark days of the White Album and Let It Be—they might have stupidly insisted on releasing that version, or cut it up into snippets for use in a suite. At this point in time, they were still in deep collaboration with the more staid George Martin and had just brought in the ultimate recording studio nerd in Geoff Emerick, so pointless experimentation during the recording of Revolver was off the table anyway.

So while its likely that drug use played a part in opening minds to new possibilities or allowing them to relax and not take themselves or their worldwide popularity too seriously, one could argue that the simple fact that they had more time to play in the studio contributed mightily to what many consider their greatest work.

You could also argue that timing had as much to do with Revolver. The mid-60’s were a time when the arts were flourishing, when artists in every field were breaking new ground and challenging convention. Thanks in part to economic stability, people of the time could begin to explore the higher level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, needs that are often satisfied through aesthetic experience. This led to a public willing to consider the new and different, which in turn encouraged artists to keep reaching for the new and different. Revolver could not have come into being during the conformist 1950’s and it couldn’t have come into being in the dark and ugly 1970’s.

Finally, the Beatles of this period were extremely competitive, musically ambitious and wanted to sound different. They wanted to break with the Beatlemania past and explore new ground. While drugs may have been part of the journey, the progression would have likely happened had they never heard of LSD.

“Taxman” breaks all kinds of conventions while a establishing the sense that the Beatles are completely comfortable with defying those conventions. Revolver opens with a George Harrison composition, quite a departure from Lennon-McCartney dominance. The intro, with its conflicting countdowns and socially-inappropriate cough, paints a laid-back scene reinforced by the simple rock chord structure of the song. We are delighted and surprised as this apparently basic song is transformed by a series of complex harmonies, political commentary and a scale-defying lead guitar performance by Paul McCartney, who stepped in when George found the solo too demanding. The song’s surprising richness is amplified when it hits us that The Beatles have opened an album with a song that has nothing to do with boy-girl relationships, but their perception of a warped tax structure. While you might classify “Taxman” as a “protest song,” it’s a right-wing protest song—a libertarian anti-tax message. It’s not something you’d expect from a band whose fans were terrified that they were “going hippie.”

After the studied casualness of “Taxman,” the perfectly-executed harmonies that open “Eleanor Rigby” hit you right in the gut. As George Martin notes in the documentary Produced by George Martin, the melodic syncopation is simply fantastic, enriched by the finest string arrangement in rock history (the strings-only recording on Anthology 2 stands up well on its own merits). The lyrics are a masterpiece of poetic economy, easily McCartney’s best lyrical effort. The last verse confronts us with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the inability of organized religion to supply us with any sense of meaning:

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

I’m forever astonished that the man who could write the spare but vivid lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” could plummet in a few short years into someone content to fill songs with nonsense words characterized by zero narrative coherence. The story behind the song is that he did get assistance with the story from Lennon and longtime Beatles buddy Pete Shotton, so it’s likely that McCartney’s lyrical decline accelerated as the relationship with Lennon deteriorated. All that aside, “Eleanor Rigby” is as perfect a song as one could imagine, an indisputable masterpiece executed in two minutes, seven seconds.

John makes his first appearance on Revolver with “I’m Only Sleeping,” one of my favorite Lennon tunes and one of my personal anthems. I adore afternoon naps and deeply resent the interruption of my natural rhythms by something as pointless and silly as having to earn a living. The deliberate laziness of the arrangement, accentuated by the dreamy harmonies and the backwards guitar passages that seem to float through the air like passing clouds. The chord pattern of the song is non-standard with the bridges ending in F rather than the root E and a subtle replacement of the Em as the opening chord of the verses with an E7 in the third verse. Lennon wrote the two best sleeping songs in history (the other being “I’m So Tired”) and here his vocal sounds like he’s perfectly ready for a little nap at a moment’s notice. When he sings “waiting for a sleepy feeling” he sounds like he’s giving himself a nice stretch.

George gets another turn with the classical Hindustani-influenced composition “Love You To.” The opening alap tickles the ears with surprise and delight, paving the way for the drone of the tambura and the song proper. It took me a long time to warm up to this song, and the lyrics certainly could have used more work in terms of coherence, but in the context of Revolver, the piece is both a pleasant diversion and a successful experiment with a different musical tradition.

Even groundbreaking albums reflect some continuity with what has come before, and the Beatles were masters of the love song. They take the form to a higher level with “Here, There and Everywhere,” one of many harmonic masterpieces in their catalog. Paul alters his voice to one combining borderline and full falsetto to accentuate the sweet and gentle feelings expressed in the lyrics. The key shift in the bridge reflects the heightening of emotion one feels when trying to express the inexpressible feeling you have when overwhelmed by the emotion of love. The chord changes in the bridge are quite demanding, creating tritones and harmonic opportunities galore. For me what seals the deal is the simple electric guitar chord accompaniment—the Beatles proved to be masters at making the complex accessible to the listener, and those simple chords leading to that dreamy run at the end of each bridge, accomplish just that.

Next we have the children’s song set to Goon Show sound effects, “Yellow Submarine.” As another break from the same-o, same-o, I accept it, but I have to confess I generally prefer to skip the song when listening to Revolver. I can’t stand little kids and little kid things and try to avoid those disease-carrying, snotty little beings and anything associated with them whenever possible.

Lennon returns with “She Said, She Said,” a song with a backstory of an acid trip with Peter Fonda. Interestingly enough, George helped John sculpt the song from three stray fragments Lennon had floating around in his head. Whatever they did, it worked, and George’s lead guitar here is one damn fine piece of picking. Ringo is on fire as well, riffing off the main beat until the clinching beats of the chorus in one of his most distinctive contributions.

When we flip the disc, we find Paul in a cheerful mood (not unusual) in “Good Day Sunshine,” a song inspired by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream.” The harmonies in the chorus and fade never fail to make this occasionally snarky bitch smile, especially when they slip into dissonance and give the song a faint whiff of (eek!) jazz harmonies. Not as cheerful but even more exuberant is Lennon’s “And Your Bird Can Sing,” famous for the dual guitar riff with Harrison and McCartney. Often ignored is Paul’s superb bass work, which really keeps the song moving.

Paul was never better than he was on Revolver, and “For No One” provides further supporting evidence for that argument. Sung with just the right amount of detachment and enhanced by the rare sound of French horn, “For No One” is an excellent composition, and like “Eleanor Rigby,” it’s a song that makes you stop what you’re doing and listen to the beautiful music and spare but powerful lyrics.

“Dr. Robert” is one of John’s lesser numbers, the one most often cited by critics as proof that Revolver was a drug-fest. I think it’s more accurate to say that young people in the 60’s tended to see drugs as an exciting taboo to shatter, a pharmaceutical fuck-you to the authorities with their ridiculous scare stories about something as innocuous as marijuana. The song itself is not particularly singable, danceable or memorable, but the mood is compatible with the other songs.

George earned all three spots they gave to him on this album, and as a lover of discordant notes, I find “I Want to Tell You” irresistibly charming. It’s also nice to hear George in a relatively good mood for a change, as he could be a rather moody sort. “Got to Get You Into My Life” follows with its striking horn arrangements and a very energetic McCartney vocal. This one is a fun, if challenging song to sing, thanks to McCartney’s close-to-full-octave leaps at the ends of the primary verse lines.

We close with the intensely captivating finale, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a song that must have blown a few minds in its day and still remains an unusually magnetic piece. Ringo shines again with his muscular work on the toms, and John’s vocal, patched through multiple filters thanks to Mr. Emerick, is both convincing and utterly commanding. The lyrics are pretty much borrowed from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which lists Timothy Leary as a co-author. Another drug connection, scream the critics! “Harrumph!” say I! What Leary was really trying to do is give already drug-addicted Westerners (properly hooked on the blessed union of cigarettes and alcohol) a more convenient option for reaching states of higher consciousness traditionally attained through boring shit like meditation and yoga. Since I prefer to reach higher consciousness through intense erotic activity, I could care less about the lyrics, wherever they came from. All I know is “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a compelling musical experience, and the perfect ending to an album as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get.

19 responses

  1. Yup – Revolver ahead of SP for me. Nice review.

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  2. […] albums before the end of the year. To recap, I’ve already published reviews of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. I’ll be publishing the rest […]

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  3. Reblogged this on ringingtruenet and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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  4. Cheers mate, need a fag? 😉 About Eleanor Rigby… I totally agree! My No 1 has to be Dark side of the Moon.

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    1. I’m actually doing “Wish You Were Here” first, which is my favorite. I’ll do Dark Side some time early next year after I finish my tour through The Beatles’ catalogue. Thanks for following!

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      1. Dont mention it. Glad you share the “there ARE better ones than the white album” position. I look forward to your next posts. (( \m/ )) (thats my Shaka)

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  5. Reblogged this on Random Thoughts und kommentierte:
    What say you?

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  6. akismet-0c7d67c52924c1aa72d332e41974bcd6 | Reply

    Well while on the Beatles I started listening a bit late. Abbey Road was the one of my favorites along with the White Album and Rubber Soul. These three will always be the favorite albums of all time.

    You can add Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd’s best Wish You Were here but those days of my life were sad. The Beatles seemed so more positive and Pink Floyd will always go down as being too negative and drug induced.

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  7. […] to pass the test of timelessness that defines truly great music, whether it’s Kind of Blue, Revolver or “Waterloo […]

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  8. […] maybe a copy of Revolver would do the […]

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  9. […] Much to my surprise and delight, I liked every song on the album. I can’t even say that about Revolver! Now, She Paints Words in Red may not approach the artistic and influential power of that […]

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  10. A nice thoughtful review of a curious album which seems to now be the universal “best” Beatles album but I cannot agree because… well… I’m a fussy git. It definitely has some of their greatest moments but its weaker tracks makes it fall short of being a masterpiece.

    Totally agree on your thoughts about Macca on this album – he was in peak form here with “Eleanor Rigby”, “Here There And Everywhere”, “Got To Get You Into My Life” and for me, his greatest moment of all – “For No One” You listen to these songs here and then any of his solo stuff and it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same man – what the f**k went wrong? Here those songs are absolute genius, lyrically, melodically and arrangement wise – that wistful French horn on “For No One” is perfect. Unfortunately, he was responsible for writing “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Day Sunshine” both for me appearing as warning signs to what lay ahead in his solo career (and later Beatles days) since they’re frivolous and nonsensical. I remember a Mick Jagger interview where he was asked about this album and he was rather scathing about “Good Day Sunshine” then opined that Dylan’s “Blonde By Blonde” was the better album for him.

    George wise… I detest “I Want To Tell You” – it does absolutely nothing, just drones and plods on monotonously going nowhere… imagine an EP featuring that, “Blue Jay Way”, “Long Long Long” and “Something” and for me it would be an EP to commit suicide to! Many think – including yourself – that “Love You To” is monotonous and dreary but I do enjoy that because it’s a nice change in atmosphere and has some kind of charm that “I Want To Tell You” doesn’t have to my ears. But hey… that’s what makes the World interesting – we all get different things out of these songs! “Taxman?” Brilliant and a neat guitar solo from Macca there showing the band were working as a solid unit really well.

    Of course that leaves Lennon. He may had been starting to go nuts on Acid, but most of his contributions here are great… except for “And Your Bird Can Sing” which is pleasant but always sounded like filler – “Doctor Robert” isn’t brilliant either but the “well well well” sections are lovely and the song has a perverse joyous spirit that saves it. But his three trippy moments – “I’m Only Sleeping”, “She Said, She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” remain utterly extraordinary to this day.

    So, yes, there is no denying John and Paul were hitting major creative peaks here, but the handful of weaker tracks prevent this from being a masterpiece. Get rid of “I Want To Tell You”, “Good Day Sunshine”, “Yellow Submarine” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” and you’re left with a shorter ten track album that would qualify as a genuine masterpiece.

    Just my point of view of course!

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    1. In preparation for an upcoming Pretenders review I found out that George was very proud of the chord he invented for “I Want to Tell You”—E7 with an F on top that The Pretenders used on “Back on the Chain Gang.” I guess we all have to have something we can be proud of, even if trivial and overused.

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  11. One of the wildest facts of Beatles lore is the fact that Got to get you into my life was a top 10 hit in the States when released in 1976 as a single in advance of the Rock and Roll collection, which actually ended up being my first Beatles album. and also the thing that told me there was no such thing as Santa because the folks left the sticker from Record Bar on.

    Beatles albums are like children, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, all have redeeming qualities. I however ascribe to the position that the lads were never more truly PSYCHEDELIC than here, munch on a cap, wait about an hour, give it another listen and you will agree.

    I have a question for you my lovely, what are your feelings towards the man whom the boys said was both their favorite American artist (and band) when asked during the presser announcing the formation of Apple???

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    1. Aww! I guess if the Santa myth had to be exploded, The Beatles were a nice way to do it.

      My theory on the “Got to Get You Into My Life” phenomenon is that it was the start of a trend: when current music sucks, look backwards. 1976 was a very bad year for music: a lot of tripe spiced with disco music. We’re definitely in one of those periods right now. My happiness level increased significantly when I stopped feeling that I had to do one or two contemporary reviews a week. The blog would have turned into one long bitch session. I only review the ones I like: a grand total of three this year.

      Nilsson? I’ve thought about doing one of his albums in particular, the one with “Mr. Tinker.” When I was a little girl I thought it was the most magical song in the world. It’s been a while since I’ve heard him, though, so next time I’m in Nice I’ll have my dad play me some.

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      1. Ok now that I have baited the hook, time to reel you in darlin

        Mr. Tinker is from Ariel Ballet which is really his 2nd true album, wiki says 3rd but Nilssonites like myself know better. But if your going to listen to Ariel Ballet you must listen…let’s get back to that in a moment, got to make sure this is done right!

        First, start by watching the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson and why is everybody talking about him? It is by the same cat who did The US vs John Lennon but this is better, much better, and if you are not at least a little misty eyed by the end followed by hysterical laughter you are a heartless wench. Harry’s story was a triumph, and a tragedy.

        After that just for shits and giggles watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVjM84NliCQ for which Harry did the soundtrack including singing the closing credits. Warning it is a movie that is so dated, so shitty, so what the fuck are these people thinking that it is a true classic.

        Ok now what to do with the material itself. I know your a busy lady, but you OWE it to yourself to discover the genius, and folly that was Harry. And I understand you schedule your reviews long in advance, but if there was ever anyone who is worth dropping everything for to discover for your own personal growth as a member of our species

        If your going to start with Ariel Ballet, go ahead and take a step back and give Pandemonium Shadow Show a listen. Like many over hyped works it is overrated, but it is a companion piece, and essential to understanding of someone who was truly a unique artist, and when really on his game one of the best. There is also a strange conglomeration called Ariel Pandemonium Ballet which is literally a combination of tracks from both slightly remixed and reworked by Nilsson from the masters, and it is also worthy of a listen.

        Those releases however are the tip of the iceberg.

        If you liked side two of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake you will love The Point.

        Nilsson Sings Newman won album of the year from Stereo Review, didn’t sell worth a lick, but these are wonderful interpretations of Randy’s early work when he had his bite. And the overdubbing of Harry’s voice for the harmonies on this album is truly amazing.

        Nilsson Schmilsson truly was a masterpiece and his defining statement. Without a doubt this is one of those albums which would be on my deserted island list.

        Son of Schmilsson had it’s moments, but Harry was starting to unravel and it shows. Still loads of great tunes.

        A touch of Schmilsson in the night is an album of standards, worth the listen, but best saved for a surprise to share with that special someone.

        After that was the Lennon produced Pussycats which is where Harry fucked himself for good, and which I think in many ways had to be a nadir for John as well since it was soon after this that he reconciled with Yoko. BTW- never hate on Yoko, she was John’s soulmate and like or loathe her she in my book commands respect.

        From this point on it really was a sad slide downhill, but WIHNAWIETAH will explain it much more poetically than I.

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        1. I’ll check him out after I get done with the proto-punk series (or whatever I’m going to call it) and a British folk thing I have planned.

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