Tag Archives: great albums

The Beatles – Revolver – Classic Music Review

 

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.

Blink 182 – Enema of the State – Classic Music Review

One late summer in 1999 I found myself flirting with a hot British chick seated at a table next to mine at a sidewalk café in Montreal on the kind of warm night that oscillates the hormones. We were both drinking Cosmos and talking bullshit when, aggressive bitch that I’ve been since puberty, I asked her to share my table. She shot me a wicked look with a raised eyebrow and moved over, not to the seat across from me, but the seat next to me.

Starting to feel wet, I naturally reached in my purse for one of my long, white cigarettes. On cue, she pulled out her pack and waited for a light.

Love was in the air.

The conversation naturally turned to music, and I shared my fervent admiration of her country’s great bands. “That’s funny,” she said. “I’ve recently fallen in love some American music.” “Oh, really?” said I, hoping to God she wouldn’t say something stupid like Lenny Kravitz. “And who might that be?”

“Blink-182,” she smiled, taking a drag off her cigarette.

Enema of the State?” I cried.

“Yes! Isn’t that a fantastic fucking album?” she gushed, breathless with delight.

I leaned over and whispered in her lightly perfumed ear, “I have the CD back in my hotel room. Let’s go fuck to it.”

She looked at me at first with surprise, then heat, and whispered back, “Lead the way.”

What a night! What a woman! And what a record!

No other album summed up the 90’s for me as well as Enema of the State. Teenage angst, sexual frustration and suicide fantasies. The awkwardness of growing up and not really wanting to grow up. Relationships that fall short but are easily replaced with more relationships that fall short. People trying to be cool and coming off like they know shit at a time when nobody knew what the fuck they were talking about, not Bill Clinton, not Bill Gates and not the losers waiting to hit the lottery at a dot.com.

It was the perfect marriage of punk and pop.

Some might say (to borrow a phrase) that Enema of the State is sophomoric and lacks depth. Well, what were the Nineties? We had a whole world getting rich on money that didn’t really exist! It was like the Earth had been overrun by naïve, confused teenagers who took over our countries and businesses and turned the world into Fantasyland. Enema of the State was no more sophomoric than the President of the United States telling us that leaving semen on a dress really wasn’t sex. How childish can you get?

The album opens with “Dumpweed,” a kick-ass expression of intense frustration that women never do exactly what you want them to do. We are wicked bitches, aren’t we? Rather than come off as offensive, the song is an honest admission of the failure of expectations in relationships and the childish need to control powerful emotions:

She’s a dove, she’s a fuckin’ nightmare
Unpredictable, it’s my mistake to stay here
On the go and it’s way too late to play
I need a girl that I can train

You have no time to catch your breath on Enema of the State; all the songs are high-energy drivers. Many of the songs are also goddamned funny, as revealed in the next song, “Don’t Leave Me:”

And she said that I’m not the one that she thinks about,
And she said it stopped being fun, I just bring her down.
I said, “Don’t let your future be destroyed by my past.”
She said, “Don’t let my door hit your ass.”

There is also honest emotion as well. Jumping ahead two songs to “Going Away to College,” we hear the wit dissolve into frank admission:

And if young love is just a game
Then I must have missed the kickoff
Don’t depend on me to ever follow through on anything
But I’d go through hell for you and
I haven’t been this scared in a long time
And I’m so unprepared so here’s your Valentine
Bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody
This world’s an ugly place, but you’re so beautiful to me

This brings us to the first major hit, “What’s My Age Again,” one of those songs so unique and unusual, you remember where you were when you first heard it (I was at Sparky’s on Church Street in SF at 1 a. m.). The song expresses a deep wish that all of us have had at one time or another: to not grow up. The spin in this song has little to do with youth being delightful but the apprehension that adulthood is going to populated with a bunch of judgmental pricks. The arrangement is simply brilliant: moving from a steady start, Travis Barker picks up the pace mid-verse and then “and that’s about the time she walked BOOM away from me.” Simply one of the great originals in rock.

I was less impressed with the next two, “Dysentery Gary” and “Adam’s Song,” but my perceptions are probably biased because I know what comes next. “All the Small Things” is a relentlessly thrilling pop-punk ride with driving guitar, unabashed drumming and perfect vocal harmonies. The structure of crash-quiet-drive-it-home that makes a great rock song is on display here, and nobody drives it home quite like these guys.

The underrated “Party Song” with its unusual beat and life-lesson lyrics comes next, teaching us that the name-dropping broads with fake tits who dominate L. A. conversation are as far from Venus as one can get (the goddess, not the planet). “Mutt” describes the life of a loser couple, memorable more for the drumming than the lyrics. Things pick up again with “Wendy Clear,” a mover that fails to answer the age-old question, “Why do I want what I can’t get?” but since it’s a core human paradox, no answer is required. The cymbal work and harmonies on this cut are especially bright and compelling.

The closing song, “Anthem” is an ode to that wasteland of normalcy, the American suburb, where every year hundreds of thousands of teenagers dream of escape to a reality characterized by more reality. The music is suitably intense and the musical theme appropriately anthem-like . . . at least as far as rock music goes. You can tell from the passion with which this song is sung that Tom and Mark shared not only disgust at the state of things but also had tremendous empathy for those who have to live in the dreary world of tract homes.

More important than the individual songs, Enema of the State creates a mood that perfectly reflected the mood of the times for the dot-com generation. Its combination of punk-pop-rock, humor and disgusted commentary on the state of things in Fantasyland made it one of those unique works that express the things that were on everyone’s mind but hadn’t yet gelled into something communicable.

And when I was eighteen, it was a great album to fuck to.

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