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 a 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, images and 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 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 it’s 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-60s 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 1950s 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 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
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 and 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. I love the deliberate laziness of the arrangement, accentuated by the dreamy harmonies and the backward 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 60s 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.