THE BEATLES: REVOLVER (1966)
1) Taxman; 2) Eleanor Rigby; 3) I'm Only Sleeping; 4) Love You To; 5) Here, There And Everywhere; 6) Yellow Submarine; 7) She Said She Said; 8) Good Day Sunshine; 9) And Your Bird Can Sing; 10) For No One; 11) Dr. Robert; 12) I Want To Tell You; 13) Got To Get You Into My Life; 14) Tomorrow Never Knows.
In 1966, the Beatles were cool. Of course, in certain ways, they were cool ever since the world learned enough of them to treat them as such, and in still other ways, they remain cool even today. But I am not just talking about the usual «cool» here; I'm talking about «cool cool», that particular kind of it that sows respect even in the hardened hearts of young cynical intellectuals. For the Beatles, 1966 was that very brief period where they were, like, one of the coolest things ever — so much so that, despite their pop orientation, they could be competing with the likes of Ornette Coleman. After Rubber Soul, nobody could properly predict where they would go next, and, although in retrospect their creative development seems quite logical and consistent, back in those days each new record was seen as a revelation.
They even looked cool — still wearing the suits, but exchanging the cutesy ties for rougher looking sweaters, adopting «continental intellectual» sunglasses, letting their hair down to barely acceptable length, but still quite a long distance away from the Frisco hippie look (and still untainted by the Maharishi aura). Still very much in the public eye, too, keeping touring activities on a limited, but active scale: the band's last concert, in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, would be held twenty four days after the release of Revolver (without featuring even a single one of the new tracks). This was the year of John's «more popular than Jesus» scandal — adding as much to the «coolness» image as could be sucked up by the world's growing share of cultural rebels. The Beatles, though, were no rebels. They were just cool. Nothing else.
Consequently, Revolver may not be the Beatles' «best ever» album (what is?), or their most «revolutionary» album (one could write a thesis on that issue and still be left standing in the middle of the road), but the way it seems to me, it is their «coolest» album — in mid-'66, all of the conditions for that were met, no difficulties encountered. The reason why so many «hip» people prefer it to Sgt. Pepper are crystal clear — Sgt. Pepper is saturated with idealistic ambition, a genuine desire (at least, on McCartney's part) to make a «grand» statement from a «rock guru» standpoint, which can easily piss off some people, especially if they feel that the actual music is not quite up to the task (and that feeling is not that difficult to feel for an album that has ʽWhen I'm 64ʼ on it). On Revolver, however, the idea of a «conceptual» approach had not yet burgeoned — the songs are perfectly free to flow, without having to work for any common noble purpose. And yet, at the same time, Revolver washes away the last traces of «simplistic teen pop» that could still be evident on bits of Rubber Soul (ʽWaitʼ, ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ, etc.).
It is also a «transitional» album, in the best sense of the word that there is: Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison are now fully established as individual creative forces with separate, coherent creative ideologies (George gets a grand total of three songs to celebrate that, his largest share ratio per one vinyl disc on a Beatles album ever), and yet the group spirit is still completely intact — as evidenced not only by the jointly written ʽYellow Submarineʼ, which works primarily as a charming buddy anthem, sealed off by having Ringo sing on it, but simply by the fact that everything is perfectly coherent, with no visible attempts to pull the blanket in opposite directions, and plenty of emotionally involved and fruitful collaboration, too, on each other's songs.
And, above all else, perhaps, it's a LOUD album! Revolver is often proclaimed as the record on which the Beatles finally embrace the psychedelic vibe without reservations — but, truth be told, there is relatively little «hardcore psychedelia» out there, apart from Klaus Voormann's sleeve painting and ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ. On the other hand, there is a lot of loud, thick, bulging electric guitar-driven rock music, usually provided by John (ʽShe Said She Saidʼ, ʽAnd Your Bird Can Singʼ, ʽDoctor Robertʼ), but also by George (ʽTaxmanʼ, ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ), whereas Paul, assisted by the «rock saboteur» George Martin, is channelling the loudness into the realm of art songs (ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ) or brass band stylistics (ʽGot To Get You Into My Lifeʼ) — adding heap big lot of aural diversity without disrupting the overall flow.
And finally — it is the first Beatles album where not even a single song can be said to «owe a heavier-than-it-should-be debt» to anybody else in particular. I have scrutinized every piece in my mind several times, and not a single one qualifies as «okay, here they are being a bit too much somebody else (Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, the Byrds, etc.) and not quite enough themselves». Like everybody else, I have my favorite tracks here and ones that I could, more or less, live without (ʽDoctor Robertʼ, even after all these years, strikes me as a rather minor novelty number, notable for its drug-related lyrics rather than much of anything else; melodically, it seems like a miscalculated attempt on John's part to upstage Paul with ʽPaperback Writerʼ), but all of them exclusively represent the vision of the Beatles and no one else.
A possible exception is ʽLove You Toʼ — the band's (more precisely, George's, since the only other band member to be involved here is Ringo on tambourine) first serious attempt to incorporate real Indian motives in its music, rather than just plunk out a simple (but effective) folk melody on the sitar in ʽNorwegian Woodʼ. It is still a point of debate whether he is responsible for all the sitar playing on the track himself or there are uncredited Indian musicians supporting him at least on the soloing parts — most musicologists are inclined to believe the latter, claiming that it would have hardly been possible for George to master the necessary skills in less than one year of training, not to mention that, for some reason, those «magic skills» would somehow never re-appear on subsequent tracks (and by the time they got around to recording ʽThe Inner Lightʼ in 1968, the Indian session musicians were already given proper credit, even as George was taking extra lessons from Ravi Shankar himself).
But this should not detract from the fact that ʽLove You Toʼ is not only the first full-fledged merger of Indian and Western motives in pop music, as opposed to tiny flourishes in the past, but also one of the best such mergers — unlike future, expectedly more meditative, ventures, this one actually rocks, and combines the «spirit of the drone» with the memorability of a pop hook in a way that somehow seems completely inoffensive for both cultural approaches. Nine times out of ten, the whole «East meets West» thing in pop, be it Western-produced or Eastern-produced, is either dead boring or hideously laughable. With ʽLove You Toʼ, I used to be a little bored, for sure, but now I am convinced that its basic melody is no worse than the average melody of a George Harrison song, and that the sitar carries it in a natural and unforced manner. Indian music aficionados will cringe at its lack of «authenticity», of course, but for those who actually look forward to getting into Indian music from a completely Western background, ʽLove You Toʼ and the likes of it would be a respectable initial compromise. At least it was good enough for Shankar.
Besides, ʽLove You Toʼ is as true to George's ego as anything else he'd written. On Revolver, ʽTaxmanʼ introduces us to his mundane side — never a proper hermit, George liked his money just as everyone else does — and on ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ, he plays that kid in The Who's ʽI Can't Explainʼ who finally grew up and learned to articulate more properly: now at least he realizes that it's no big deal to be confused, because "I could wait forever, I've got time". Funny buddy thing: both of the songs owe a huge part of their effect to Paul — first contributing the exquisite angry guitar solo on ʽTaxmanʼ (raga-style! mind the irony!), then enhancing the somber mood of ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ with the finger-tapping piano bits.
Speaking of Paul, Revolver marks that particular point in the race where he fully catches up with John, the both of them speeding ahead neck-to-neck (another good point to hold up the reputation of the album). Five out of fourteen songs constitute his private domain (as opposed to the average four or even less on preceding albums), and even though all of them are expectedly «wimpy» and sentimental next to John's «grittier» material, at least two out of five transcend generic sentimentalism by delving deep into human tragedy — ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ is often seen as the ultimate heart-breaking anthem to loneliness, but ʽFor No Oneʼ, written and arranged on a slightly less epic / anthemic scale, is actually its more reclusive, but not any less beautiful cousin. (Quite closely matched in spirit by Paul's solo classic ʽAnother Dayʼ four years later — although ʽAnother Dayʼ was quite «upbeat» in comparison, not as much of a straightahead downer; not to mention lacking the exquisite extra flourish of Alan Civil's French horn solo).
Come to think of it, the emotional depth of these two — Paul's suddenly emerging ability to invent two fictitious, but realistic characters and then get so deeply under their skins — pretty much transcends the depth of anything even John had written up to that point. I cannot even exclude the thought that this is the starting point from which we have to unwind the story of the Beatles' breakup (which, in my opinion, has always been the story of John Winston Lennon being pissed off at one James Paul McCartney stealing his, John Winston Lennon's, band from under John Winston Lennon's nose — and not being able to do anything about it, because all the stealing happened through fair competition. But that's putting it too roughly, of course). In any case, Revolver sees Paul firmly and finally taming his «sappy» instincts and taking them in the only right direction that can turn one's genius sentimentalism into lyrical tragism.
On the other hand, you could argue that sometimes genius sentimentalism can place a truly great song on a top spot without adding huge psychological depth, and that such feats are arguably harder to achieve. That is what's being done on ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ, though, a «sappy», «sugary» song if there ever was one, but you would have to be a hardcore balloon-shooting Puritan to remain unmoved by it. Suffice it to say that I have always felt that the line about "running my hands through her hair", regardless of the quality of the lyric itself, actually sounds like the vocal equivalent of «running one's hands through her hair»: this is truly one of the most magical double-tracked vocal recordings ever made (and this is also why the song never produced the same effect in concert, whenever Paul would sing it live later on — heck, there actually was a real reason why the Beatles quit live performing, and it goes much deeper than «how the heck are we supposed to play our backward-recorded guitars onstage!»).
So what about John? At this point, he does not yet fully realize that Paul is tugging on the rug, and Revolver is the last Beatles album to feature him in a completely coherent, workmanlike state, rather than thrown off balance by a miriad extra things. We learn that he is quite preoccupied with the LSD issue — but, funny enough, on both of the tracks that deal with it directly his is the view of a curious outsider: it's either "She said I know what it's like to be dead" or "My friend works for the national health, Dr. Robert". ʽShe Said She Saidʼ went on to become a classic drug culture anthem, but even though its lead guitar line is a little reminiscent of the San Francisco / Grateful Dead jamming style, it is still firmly rooted in the Beatles' usual brand of pop rock; and apart from the thinly veiled lyrics, there is nothing particularly psychedelic about ʽDr. Robertʼ, either. Still, both songs were quite daring for their time, what with The Beatles having the disadvantage of falling under far more closer public scrutiny than, say, The 13th Floor Elevators. «More popular than Jesus» + «Take a drink from his special cup, Dr. Robert» = did I hear somebody calling for trouble? On the other hand, ʽShe Said She Saidʼ could only be interpreted as a vow of abstinence ("I know that I'm ready to leave"), so it's not all that bad.
In reality, there are only two genuine bits of psychedelia on the entire record. The one that people rarely talk about is ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ, which, formally, is just a semi-autobiographical sketch of a lazy guy who sees no reason to get out of bed, and has nothing to do with drugs — on a lyrical basis: the general aura of the song is, of course, extremely trippy, and it would still remain trippy even without the backward guitar solo. Then again, dreaming, or even «waiting for a sleepy feeling» can sometimes be quite a psychedelic experience without any drugs — and there was nobody who could transmit that yawny, sleepy, fuzzy-conscience atmosphere like John could. I used to picture him actually installing a bed in the Abbey Road Studios and recording directly from under the sheets, and it looked very realistic in my mind. (A similar, but slightly different experience would be captured on that same imaginary bed two years later with ʽI'm So Tiredʼ). Listen to how all the instruments are made to sound as if the person playing them had not had any sleep for at least 48 hours — even Ringo's drums seem to be «dragging their feet». And, to boot, a great muffled yawn at 2:01, during Paul's quiet bass break before the second bridge.
The one that people always talk about is ʽTibetan Book Of The Dead In C Majorʼ, a.k.a. ʽIf You Have No Idea On How To Name Your Song, Ask Ringoʼ. Now this one, of course, would be impossible to dismiss as «non-psychedelic»: there is hardly a more flamboyant way of giving yourself away than "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream". Serious adepts like to point out that the tune is a mere trifle compared to «hardcore» London psychedelia of the time, such as Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. Yet even on an objective basis, there is really far more complexity and audacity involved in the meticulous construction of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ from its multiple tape loops than in any of Floyd's astral jamming. And on a subjective basis, well... don't you just love that unnerving Ringo beat?
Seriously, what I love most about ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ is how well it ties in with the album cover. (That link alone would suffice to earn the overall non-psychedelic Revolver its overall very-much-psychedelic reputation). The song places you, the listener, in a capsule, sends you «floating downstream», and has all sorts of impressions flash by in ragged, broken, mysterious tape segments. There has to be an active sender, of course, responsible for the capsule-making and the button-pushing — and there he is, four of them, to be precise, on the album cover, with everyone and everything wedged in between the four Mount-Rushmorian faces. Somebody feeling a bit too God-like, perhaps? Well, the Beatles had been humble enough for too long for their own good; by late 1966, they thought they were entitled to a little more than usual. Besides, feeling God-like is an obligatory ingredient of «coolness» — at least, it used to be like that in the mid-Sixties, when idealistic hopes for the breeding of a new, super-progressive kind of conscience were at their peak, and «coolness» was not yet thought of as incompatible with «mass popularity».
Then again, as great as ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ is in its album-closing role, there are some days on which I think that ʽYellow Submarineʼ might have worked even more effectively — as a simpler, friendlier, homelier gesture to say goodbye with. One for the kids — in fact, it is ironic that it took the Beatles most «adult» album up-to-date to contain the first song targeted primarily at their pre-teen audiences. (Unless you, too, believe that the whole thing is a metaphor for an acid trip, and that John and Paul were taking it out on their simpleton drummer by constantly supplying him with drug innuendos: ʽYellow Submarineʼ, ʽWith A Little Help From My Friendsʼ... throw in the line about "what goes on in your mind", and the picture's complete). For some reason, it never satisfied me in its silly position as track No. 6 on Side 1 — couldn't they have at least switched it places with ʽShe Said She Saidʼ? It's a side-closer if there ever was one! Or, at least, a side-opener, for which function it had to wait until the movie soundtrack.
As far as I am concerned, though, that little mix-up with the sequencing is just about the only flaw I can see about the whole record. Almost fifty years later, it continues to sound just as fresh and relevant as it was back in its time, without losing a single drop of its «coolness», despite not even having an overall conceptual backbone (or, perhaps, because of that?), and yet, still being somewhat larger than the sum of its individual parts. Just like Rubber Soul, it pushes its nose in a dozen different stylistic, emotional, and thematic directions — only this time, nobody does the pushing but the Beatles themselves. If Rubber Soul is the album on which they successfully attempt to turn into the greatest band in the world, then Revolver is the album on which they know of their superpowers as the greatest band in the world, and not afraid to use them. Ambitiousness? Vanity? Pretense? A double helping for me, please, with some meaning of within on top.