Tiggerlion on The Beatles released Revolver 5th August 1966
A mere week after England won The World Cup, Revolver was released.
Revolver is an album full of curiosity and wonder. Even though the cover is black & white and the mono mix is best, its sound collage explodes with colour. It is a fourteen track kaleidoscope of musical treasures that still sounds thrilling fifty years on. There are five different personalities (the fifth being the studio team led by George Martin) delivering a wide variety of different musical styles, each exploring their own areas of interest. Yet, somehow, it gives the impression of being performed by a single, tight unit. Few of the songs breech the three minute limit but, otherwise, the pop rule book is cast aside.
Most of those rules are broken by the studio boffins. The Beatles explored the possibility of recording in America, like The Rolling Stones, but the owners of those state-of-the-art studios tried to charge extortionate prices. They decided to stay at Abbey Road and rely on good old Heath Robinson British ingenuity; tape loops, backward recordings, varispeeding, distortions, close miking.
An EMI technician, Ken Townsend, invented ADT, automatic double tracking, in early 1966. It links two tape machines. taking the signal from the sync head of one machine and delaying it slightly through the second. On playback, there are small gaps and delays, giving the impression of two separate recordings layered together. The Beatles were delighted with the effect and used Ken’s Flange extensively on Revolver. The EMI maintenance department also devised a new piece of equipment used in the mastering process, referred to as “Automatic Transient Overload Control”, which allowed an increase in volume without distortion. As a result, Revolver and its attendant single, Paperback Writer/ Rain, were cut louder, sounding brighter and sharper, than any other Beatles records up to that time.
Tomorrow Never Knows was the first track to be recorded and is the one that uses most studio trickery. All four Beatles are credited with playing ‘tape loops’ but engineers, Geoff Emerick, aged nineteen, and George Martin should be credited, too (although, Martin’s crazy piano is acknowledged, listen out for it in the fade). There are at least six loops streamed in and out at various points, one of which is McCartney’s guitar solo from Taxman played backwards, another being a drone played by Harrison on tamboura. In the first half, Lennon’s voice was put through Ken’s ADT and for the second, in an attempt to sound like Tibetan Monks, they broke open a Leslie speaker in a Hammond organ and used that. However, the key element of the track is Starr’s drums. His booming drum pattern holds everything together, made awesome by slackening the toms, dampening and compressing, then applying lots of echo. It is a sound that had Americans tearing their hair and their expensively equipped studios apart trying to emulate.
It may be surprising to some, but backwards tapes are only used on one other track. Harrison painstakingly worked out two simultaneous guitar solos for I’m Only Sleeping. George Martin wrote the music backwards, so that, when played and then reversed, there would be added woozy and sucking sounds. Supplemented by Starr’s slowed down cymbals and McCartney’s soft bass, the backwards effect captures the feeling of being semi-awake, expressed in the lyric, perfectly. Backwards guitar has been copied many times but rarely has it been so well deployed. Even though they worked hard on effects to create the sound they wanted, they still kept focus on serving the song itself. Lennon’s thin, weak voice was achieved by varispeeding the vocal track. The harmony vocals are beautiful, McCartney’s high register being especially effective (“keeping an eye on the world going by my window”). Also, in a trademark detail, there is a delightfully timed yawn towards the two minute mark.
The remaining Lennon compositions (She Said, She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing and Dr. Robert) plus Harrison’s Taxman and I Want To Tell You are all more conventionally recorded but no less groundbreaking. These tracks mark a significant step away from Pop music towards Rock. None can be described as love songs. They demonstrate ensemble group playing and Pop guitar at its very best. The Beatles were inspired by Rock & Roll, Soul music, especially Tamla Motown, and Music Hall. They don’t play the blues. Their solos are brief and their purpose within the three minute song is, often, to add musical interest and colour. All these songs are written on guitar and the melody lines or riffs are often like one long lead from beginning to end (especially so on Paperback Writer). The riffs would be multi-tracked. Having three players adds variety and verve. McCartney had been contributing lead since Help! and, on Taxman, his lead steals the show. Throughout Revolver, the interweaving of the guitar textures are outstanding. However, An extra element is Harrison’s burgeoning obsession with Indian music. His playing on these songs, including Tomorrow Never Knows and I’m Only Sleeping, is an elaborate and expressive blend of Pop, Indian and Country. He brings an intricate rolling swing to And Your Bird Can Sing, a snake-like strangling riff to She Said, She Said, a slippery incision to Dr. Robert and, even, a tension to Got To Get You Into My Life.
The core guitar-led songs also have two other striking features. The first is the quality and inventiveness of the backing vocals. In Taxman, the backing vocals effectively take charge (“if you drive a car…if you take a walk…”), McCartney’s sales pitch for Dr. Robert adds a neat counterpoint (“he’s a man you must believe”) and the harmonised “I’ve got time…” on I Want To Tell You gives Harrison hope he might solve his communication difficulties. The second is the rhythm section. McCartney and Starr have never been better. The bass is more prominent than on previous Beatles albums. It is boosted by using a loudspeaker as a microphone, placed directly in front of a second bass speaker. McCartney shines in the spotlight, adding extra melody and bounce to almost every track. Meanwhile, Starr excels. His drum patterns on Tomorrow Never Knows, She Said, She Said and Rain are so pivotal they really deserve a writing credit. He makes a large contribution to the swing of And Your Bird Can Swing and his cymbal work generally is something to marvel, practically glowing within the boffins’ ‘treatments’. Best of all, and back to basics, listen out for the cowbell on Taxman.
If Lennon’s songs are introspective or, as some have said, an LSD fuelled journey of self discovery, McCartney’s are more outward looking. They provide a contrast to the guitar-driven Pop of the rest of the album. Stylistically, he seems to explore the entire history of music over the twentieth century. His songs don’t require much studio trickery but do involve key contributions from outside musicians. In fact, Revolver is the album that cemented his reputation as the lone Beatle, arriving early at the studio, doing his own thing and refusing help from the other three. This is grossly unfair. Eleanor Rigby is effectively a group composition. He had a melody and a verse but the song was completed one afternoon at Lennon’s house. Harrison came up with the “ah, look at the lonely people” hook with Lennon’s voice predominant in the high harmony. Starr chipped in with “darning his socks” and “writing the words of a sermon no-one would hear”. The care taken over the three part backing vocals for Here, There And Everywhere, the only genuine love song on Revolver, add a richness to absorb any hint of sugar. Harrison’s delicate guitar and Starr’s subtle percussion, including a beautiful round cymbal sound at the one minute mark, enhance the romanticism. Good Day Sunshine may simply be rollicking piano, bass and drum but the enthusiastic hand clapping and committed singing of all The Beatles add the brightness. Got To Get You Into My Life is giddy and euphoric, lifted by a committed effort from each of the four, especially Harrison’s spirited lead guitar. Perhaps, those horns would have sounded better if recorded in Muscle Shoals, but, even so, the result is a very British kind of Soul Music. Only the classicism of For No One is Beatle-light, its cold-hearted rejection underscored just by McCartney’s own clavichord, a guest French Horn and Starr’s restraint. However, Love You To features just Harrison and Starr on tambourine, alongside the Indian musicians.
Harrison’s three compositions are often derided by the naysers but, musically, they fit Revolver perfectly. Taxman’s energetic, snarl is a suitably attention-grabbing start, Love You To brings genuine Eastern exoticism to the party and the idiosyncratic dissonance of I Want To Tell You prepares the listener for the big finish. Harrison’s use of Indian music, both in his songs and in his guitar playing on others, is respectful and authentic. He certainly had a lot of help from Lennon when writing Taxman but he returned the compliment on She Said, She Said, proposing the metre change (4/4 to 3/4 and back) and the insertion of a piece of another Lennon song (“when I was a boy…”). At first glance, Harrison’s lyrics seem all over the place. How can a rich man, obsessed with Indian mysticism and its rejection of material goods, object so aggressively to paying tax or is he making a noble stand against The Man? Is Love You To a paean to universal love and making the most of life or is he saying, ‘I’m a busy man, quick, let’s have a shag!’? You might think it’s no wonder he is tongue-tied and confused on I Want To Tell You or is it actually a song about transcendence and surrendering the ego? Taken as a triumvirate, however, they honestly and openly capture the human being, contradictions and all. We learn far more about Harrison as a person in these three songs than we do about Lennon or McCartney in all of theirs.
Finally, there is the real test of a Beatles Fan’s mettle, Yellow Submarine. How can a children’s song nestle comfortably in an album inventing Acid Rock, Baroque Pop and Raga Rock? In actual fact, it is extremely difficult to write an ear-worm of a singalong ditty and McCartney is a master at it. He composed the song in wide-eyed wonder, and with a little help from Donovan, who suggested ‘sky of blue, sea of green’. Lennon’s children’s songs tended to be sardonic. The Beatles follow the golden rule that when you are being ridiculous, give it everything you’ve got. Collectively, they lavished as much attention on Yellow Submarine as they did on Tomorrow Never Knows. Swirling buckets of water are closely miked to mimic the ocean, loudhailers are distorted for the captain’s announcements, sung with gusto by Lennon, an oompah band is on a loop and there are thrillingly realistic engine noises. By the closing cast-of-thousands chorus and the boys sail off into the deep blue, they have a created an entirely new world. Yellow Submarine is the most successful song from Revolver, reaching number one everywhere. It begat a film that perpetuated the myth of The Beatles being four young men who live together and travel the universe having exciting adventures and lots of fun. It is a legacy that entrances new generations even today.
Revolver is a thoughtfully sequenced album of fourteen tracks, McCartney and Lennon songs alternating, displayed as a dazzling array of treats. There is something for everyone, with one notable exception. There is nothing here for a screaming teenage girl. All the tracks are packed with surprises and successfully achieve what they set out to do. Despite all its diversity, it bursts with sheer listenability and has hardly dated at all. The Beatles were moving on from Beatlemania. They soon stopped touring and became a studio only band. The back cover confirms them as maturing young men, looking cool in floral print shirts and natty shades. On Revolver, The Beatles forge their own path. They are not following others. They are leading the way, onward to the next phase, Psychedelia and Rock.
Revolver was voted best album of all time by The Afterword. Even God agrees. The official newspaper for The Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano, named Revolver as Best Pop Album ever.