Celebrating ‘Revolver’: Beatles’ First On-Purpose Masterpiece
1966: the most manic of the Beatlemania years. The lads get chased around the world, playing 25-minute sets that have nothing to do with the increasingly complex music they’re exploring in the studio. A long-forgotten John quote about religion – “We’re more popular than Jesus now” – gets dug up and creates a scandal in America. A Ku Klux Klan protest outside their Memphis show draws 8,000 people. The butcher cover gets censored. The drugs get heavier – Paul dabbles in cocaine, John dabbles in acid. George gets serious about Indian music and religion. Ringo starts a construction company called Bricky Builders. And in their spare time, the Beatles make the greatest rock album ever, Revolver, released on August 5th, 1966 – an album so far ahead of its time, the world is still catching up with it 50 years later. This is where the Beatles jumped into a whole new future – where they truly became the tomorrow that never knows.
Crazy as it seems now, Revolver wasn’t released in the U.S. in its full 14-song glory until the 1987 CD version. For 20 years, Americans knew only the butchered U.S. LP, which cut crucial tracks like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “I’m Only Sleeping.” So it took time for Revolver to get recognized as the Beatles’ peak album-as-album statement. The mop tops were gone, yet the Beatles didn’t return to the Rubber Soul sound either. Not many acoustic guitars on Revolver; not many love songs, either. The album’s distinctive sonic flourish is that abrasive electric rush – “Taxman,” “Here, There And Everywhere,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” – yet there’s also more piano than ever, their first horn section, attempts at raga, chamber music, R&B, whatever pops into their expanding heads. Rubber Soul had come as a surprise to them – crashing it out in a few weeks for the Christmas 1965 deadline, the Beatles stumbled into a revelation of how how far they could travel over the course of a full-length LP. Revolver was the first time they set out to make a masterpiece on purpose, arrogant bastards serenely confident that any idea they tried would turn out brilliant. And this time, at least, they were right.
Revolver is all about the pleasure of being Beatles, from the period when they still thrived on each other’s company. Given the acrimony that took over the band at the end, it’s easy to overlook how much all four of them loved being Beatles at this point and still saw their prime perk as hanging with the other Beatles. Despite the fact that all doors of society and celebrity were open to them, the Beatles’ main human contacts were each other, four lads tuned into some wavelength other people around them could sense but couldn’t share. As John told biographer Hunter Davies, “We have met some new people since we’ve become famous, but we’ve never been able to stand them for more than two days.”
The whole album gives off the vibe of the studio as a clubhouse, with everyone feeding off each other’s ideas. The competition is friendly (at this point) but fierce. John responds to “Yellow Submarine” by leaving Paul a note: “Disgusting!! See me.” Paul is getting seriously into the London avant-garde scene, or at least he’s into getting high with these guys who are friends with his girlfriend’s older brother – they run an art gallery or maybe it’s a bookstore but they know all this cool shit he’s certainly not going to miss out on (“I vaguely mind people knowing anything I don’t know” is the way he puts it) and that’s that. Paul gives an interview to longtime friend Maureen Cleave for the Evening Standard: “I’m trying to cram everything in, all the things I’ve missed. People are saying things and painting things and writing things and composing things that are great, and I must know what people are doing.” She reports, “He is most anxious to write electronic music himself, lacks only the machines.” That might not even have been a joke.
There’s an endearing hubris all through the music – captured perfectly in the eight-second guitar break that cuts in at the end of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” flipping it into a whole new song, or the dizzying guitar frills in “And Your Bird Can Sing.” You can hear that in the band’s press conferences from their summer tour, as when a reporter in L.A says, “In a recent article, Time magazine put down pop music. They referred to ‘Day Tripper’ as being about a prostitute and ‘Norwegian Wood’ as being about a lesbian. And I just wanted to know what your intent was when you wrote it, and what your feeling is about the Time magazine criticism of the music that is being written today.” Paul replies with a straight face. “We’re just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians, that’s all.”
Arrogance like that doesn’t happen often, but without it, an achievement like Revolver would be unthinkable. George Martin brought their craziest ideas to life – as he put it, “I’ve changed from being the gaffer to four Herberts from Liverpool to what I am now, clinging onto the last vestiges of recording power.” One of the most important sonic innovations on Revolver was a sweater – their new teenage engineer Geoff Emerick stuffed Ringo’s wool sweater into his bass drum, giving Ringo’s drums that distinctive thwomp everybody else spent years trying to copy. “He was always experimenting and the bosses at EMI didn’t like it,” Martin said. “He got severely reprimanded when they found him putting a microphone in a pailful of water to see what the effect was.” The Beatles got everyone in Abbey Road thinking along the lines of improv – never saying “no,” responding to every idea with “yes, and …”
Paul moved into his new bachelor pad on Cavendish Avenue, near Abbey Road; he now had no problem coming into the studio earlier than anyone else and pushing his ideas. Jane Asher exposed him to classical music and theater; her brother Paul introduced him to scenesters like the Indica Bookshop’s Barry Miles and John Dunbar, absorbing the art scene, reading Robert Crumb comics or the Evergreen Review, listening to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, which Paul enjoyed playing to annoy George Martin when he came over for dinner. Still living in the attic of Jane’s parents, his gold records piled under the bed, Paul began making primitive tape loops with a pair of Brenell reel-to-reel machines. He and his new friends spent stoned hours recording loops they considered avant-garde sound collage; they rarely bothered to play them back the next day. But one turned into “Tomorrow Never Knows,” replacing the usual guitar solo with a “tape solo” in a crash of psychedelic thunder. It was the first song the band finished for the Revolver sessions in April and set the bar high for everything that followed over the coming months.
A more dangerous influence was cocaine, which Paul flirted with heavily that year. Cocaine was so little known at the time, the cops who raided Keith Richards’ Redlands mansion in 1967 threw his stash away because they had no idea what it was, while seizing his collection of hotel soaps. Paul’s hook-up was the posh art dealer Robert Fraser, who got busted for heroin in that same infamous Redlands raid, around the same time he helped the Beatles select the faces on the Sgt Pepper cover. (He does everything he can, Doctor Robert.) Paul quit cocaine because he couldn’t take the crashing comedowns. “You didn’t stay high,” he complained years later, exasperated at the drug’s inefficiency – a very Paul reason to quit.
Meanwhile, John was looking on enviously from his stately suburban home out in Weybridge, bored in his crumbling marriage, lounging in bed or watching TV all day, hiding his inner turmoil behind the flashy wit of “I’m Only Sleeping” or “She Said She Said.” His nearest neighbor was Ringo, who lived just around the corner, so he was the one John visited most, usually dropping in unannounced and sitting in his garden. When John wasn’t with the band, he’d go two or three days at a time without speaking a word. “I have to see the others to see myself,” he told Davies. “I have to see them to establish contact with myself and come down. Sometimes I don’t come down.” People who weren’t Beatles didn’t really cut it for him. “Most people don’t get across to us.”
George wrote three of the highlights – the Quiet One’s big breakthrough as a writer. “Love You To” was his first full-on foray into Indian music, with sitars and tablas played by the North London Asian Music Circle, breaking down his mystic detachment with his bitch-wizard vocals. “I’ll make love to you, if you want me to,” George informs the people of Earth. “Taxman” tweaks British politicans by name. (“Mr. Wiiiiilsoooon! Mr. Heath!”) George might not have a firm grasp on how taxation works – they tax your car to pay for the street, not the other way around – but there’s no arguing with the brash aggression of the music. “I Want to Tell You” is one of his most bizarrely underrated gems, with that jangling dissonant piano (played by Paul, as was the “Taxman” guitar solo) to echo the noise in a shy boy’s head.
Paul’s songs have a new caustic realism, even the piano ballad “For No One,” lamenting “a love that should have lasted years” – a very different sentiment from “mine forevermore.” It’s the ultimate “you stay home, she goes out” break-up song. Paul sits in his empty room, replaying her voice in her head, thinking up snappy comebacks for arguments that ended months ago, while she keeps wearing less and going out more. “Got to Get You Into My Life” has the album’s funniest line, the wonderfully snide tongue-twister “If I am true I’ll never leave and if I do I know the way there.”
John never cared for “And Your Bird Can Sing,” but it’s one of his best songs ever, so scathing and yet also so empathetic and friendly, packed with tiny musical triumphs. (I must have heard it 30 or 40 thousand times before I fully noticed the girl-group hand-claps that sneak into the song for the middle guitar break, and then just as mysteriously vanish.) It’s a hipster-baiting putdown like the ones Mick Jagger was perfecting on Aftermath – but after John sneers that your whole phony world will come crashing down, he also assures you that he’ll be around, the last thing Mick would ever say. The album gives off the vibe of the Beatles as a self-sufficient commune, sharing secrets all the lonely people outside will never get. The Beatles are so confident of their superhuman hipness it doesn’t even occur to them to argue the point, which is how Revolver can sound so arrogant yet so suffused with warmth. If you play “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “Love You To” back to back with “Ballad of a Thin Man” or “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” Dylan and the Stones sound like sophomores trying a little too hard to impress the seniors.
“We do need each other a lot,” John explained to Davies. “When we used to meet again after an interval we always used to be embarrassed about touching each other. We’d do an elaborate handshake just to hide the embarrassment. Or we did mad dances. Then we got to hugging each other. Now we do the Buddhist bit, arms around. It’s just saying hello, that’s all.” That Beatle bond was at its closest on Revolver, and would remain that way for another year or so, right up until Brian Epstein died. No other album gives such an immediate sensation of hearing them think on their feet together, hearing them communicate so fluently, madly in love with being Beatles. They talked about calling it Magic Circle, then went with the pun Revolver, but either way the title presents a good idea of how tight the Beatles’ revolving circle was, yet how open it remains to anyone who wants to listen – which turned out to be everyone.
Watch five things you didn’t know about Beatles’ Revolver.