Beatles’ “Revolver” at 50!

By Gillian G. Gaar

beatles_revolverWhen Allen Evans wrote “The latest Beatles album, ‘Revolver,’ certainly has new sounds and new ideas,” in the British music weekly New Musical Express in August 1966, it was a decided understatement. “Revolver,” the Beatles’ seventh U.K. album was their coming of age record, the moment when they really began to experiment musically and lyrically. It was the first time half of the album’s tracks weren’t love songs. They also went in new sonic directions, trying out some new audio tricks just to see what they sounded like.

For years, it’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that’s been heralded as The Beatles’ best work. But over time, “Revolver” has challenged the dominance of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Not that it had been overlooked; the album hit No. 1 in both the U.S. and U.K, and sold nearly 1.2 million copies in the U.S. in 1966 alone. But the rediscovery — and reassessment — of “Revolver” could only begin to happen once the immediate impact of the golden appearance of “Sgt. Pepper’s” had started to fade.

The year 1966 would prove to be transitional for The Beatles. It was expected to be like 1964 and 1965; they’d shoot another movie, release two albums and go out on tour. Instead, The Beatles broke that pattern for good. They couldn’t find a suitable film script, so there was no movie. Touring proved to be such an unhappy experience that, after August, they’d never go out on the road again. And “Revolver” would be the only album released during the year.

There was a studio session on January 5, 1966, the group overdubbing music for the TV special “The Beatles At Shea Stadium” due to deficiencies in the recording of the original August 15, 1965 concert. But after that, there was only the occasional interview and photo shoot until work on what would become “Revolver” began April 6. And The Beatles were keen to do something different.

“There’s got to be some kind of change,” Paul McCartney said in an interview with London Life magazine. “It probably won’t be drastic, but I think the good thing about us is that we keep contradicting ourselves. I saw someone on TV asked what he wanted out of life and he said ‘a cozy rut.’ To be in a cozy rut is about the sickest thing ever, I think. You can enjoy it, but what’s the point of living in a cozy rut?”

The very first session for “Revolver” made it clear The Beatles wouldn’t be staying in any “rut.” The first song the band worked on was one John Lennon had just written: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” A few days earlier, McCartney had taken Lennon to Indica Books and Gallery, the gathering point for London’s growing counterculture. Lennon had come across the book “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead” by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” was an eighth-century Buddhist text on guiding the dying to the next plane of existence; Leary related this to the psychedelic experience of surrendering one’s ego to a higher realm. Lennon took a line in the introduction as his starting point: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”

From its simple guitar/bass/drums backing, “Tomorrow Never Knows” evolved into a phantasmagoria of sound. George Harrison played tambura, providing the song’s distinctive opening drone. Ringo Starr’s drums pounded out a thunderous beat; engineer Geoff Emerick put the microphones close to the kit, then limited and compressed the sound. McCartney brought in a handful of tape loops, each with a specific sound, like a backwards sitar or McCartney laughing.

“I laid all of the loops onto the multi-track and played the faders like a modern day synthesizer,” recalled Emerick, explaining how he constructed the track.

Lennon wanted a vocal to match, telling producer George Martin he wanted to sound, “Like a Dalai Lama singing from the top of a mountain.” Two new ways of treating his voice were worked out. Engineer Ken Townsend devised a way to electronically reproduce a vocal via a tape delay called ADT or Artificial Double Tracking (also known as Automatic Double Tracking). This meant the singer didn’t need to sing a part twice in order to get a double tracked vocal. It was a major breakthrough, and most of the album’s other songs used ADT.

Lennon’s voice was also put through a Leslie amplifier/speaker — first noted for its use in conjunction with a Hammond organ, but later with other instruments as well — which gave it an eerie wailing sound. Vocal tracks were also frequently recorded at different speeds; recorded at a slower speed, for example, to sound higher when played back at full speed.

The band began work on McCartney’s vibrant “Got To Get You Into My Life” on April 7. While McCartney has always described it as an “ode to pot,” Lennon always felt LSD had really provided the inspiration. “It actually describes his experiences taking acid,” he later told Playboy. “I think that’s what he’s talking about.”

Author Steve Turner, in his new book “Beatles ’66,” agrees. Turner points out that while McCartney said he didn’t take LSD until 1966, his first trip was actually December 13, 1965. This took place at the home of Tara Browne, whose death in a car accident on December 18, 1967 would inspire the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life.”

“The language of taking ‘a ride,’ seeing ‘another kind of mind,’ and not knowing what he ‘would find there’ are more consistent with the language of a psychedelic trip than a marijuana high,” Turner wrote of the song’s lyrics.

The song’s arrangement also reflected the band’s love of the Motown sound. It was the first Beatles song to feature horns, and Emerick gave them an additional bounce by placing the microphones “right down in the bells of the instruments.”

Harrison’s growing interest in Indian music was fully unveiled in “Love You To,” the first song he wrote specifically for sitar. Harrison also played the instrument on the track, and Anil Bhagwat, from London’s Asian Music Circle, was hired to play tabla (it’s been said that Harrison didn’t play sitar, but Bhagwat insists George did). Work began April 11, with Starr the only other Beatle to appear on the song. Lyrically, Harrison treads a philosophical line, writing a love song that looks at the impermanence of life (“Love me while you can/before I’m a dead old man”).

Capitol Records in America needed a new Beatles’ single to release, so on April 13 and 14 they began work on songs for their next 7-inch, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” The former was McCartney’s, the first of his “character” songs as he imagined himself an aspiring writer, framing the lyric as a letter to a publisher. He also said he just liked the sound of the word “paperback.” It was a brisk up-tempo rocker; Emerick boosted the bass sound by rewiring a speaker to make it into a microphone, then placing it in front of the bass speaker.

“Rain” was far more languorous. Lyrically, Lennon sang that there was nothing “good” or “bad” in things; it was how you regarded them that mattered. Thus, it wasn’t “good” when it was sunny or “bad” when it was rainy: “Can you hear me/that when it rains and shines/it’s just a state of mind.” This psychedelic notion was further enhanced by having Lennon’s vocal heard playing backwards during the fade out, an idea for which both Lennon and Martin took credit. Starr also stated he felt his drumming on the track was “the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”

Work on Lennon’s “Dr. Robert” began April 17. The sly number was about a doctor who appears to dole out drugs for reasons other than medicinal. Several names have been put forward as to whom Lennon might be referring to, including Dr. Robert Freymann, Dr. Max Jacobson and Dr. Charles Roberts, all New York-based doctors who allegedly gave out a variety of illicit medications (such as vitamin B-12 shots laced with amphetamines) to their celebrity clientele. But Lennon said, “It was about myself. I was the one that carried all the pills on tour.”

Next up was Lennon’s “And Your Bird Can Sing,” with work beginning April 20. The Byrds’ influence is obvious in the jangly guitar work (courtesy of Harrison and McCartney). Lyrically, it’s oblique; Lennon could be singing to a romantic partner, or simply a friend he regards as materially wealthy, but lacking enlightenment.

“Taxman” would become one of Harrison’s best-known tracks, with work beginning on April 20. His diatribe against paying taxes seems odd in comparison with other “protest” songs of the era, though it was at least a dig against the established order. Lennon said he helped Harrison with the lyrics and was miffed when he didn’t receive credit in Harrison’s autobiography “I, Me, Mine.” Harrison also stepped aside to let McCartney play lead guitar, a blistering solo. The music has a sharpness that lay the groundwork for the future new wave movement; just listen to the Jam’s “Start.”

“I’m Only Sleeping” was another languid Lennon song in the vein of “Rain.” Work on the track began April 27, with much effort put into conjuring just the right “dreamy” feel in Lennon’s vocal. Harrison also took a lot of time working on a backwards guitar part. After working out the melody, Harrison was recorded playing it in reverse. The tape was then played backwards so the melody would be heard in the “correct” order. The backwards guitar adds another disorienting element as it floats in and out of the song.

McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” was another “character” song. About two lonely people, it opens with a striking image of an old, unmarried woman who “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.” But how did the rest of the song come together? Lennon has said, “The first verse was his and the rest are basically mine,” which was disputed by McCartney: “I saw somewhere that he says he helped on ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Yeah. About half a line.” Even Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton threw his hat into the ring, saying he thought up a number of the song’s ideas.

But Lennon’s influence was certainly evident. “Meeting John has made [Paul] try for deeper lyrics,” George Martin said in Hunter Davies’ “The Beatles.” “But for meeting John, I doubt if Paul could have written ‘Eleanor Rigby.’” You can detect his influence in the line “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” which has a surrealism that’s somewhat ominous. Perhaps Lennon’s summary of his assistance is most apt when he said of the song, “Paul’s baby … and I helped with the education of the child.”

Work on the track began April 28. McCartney, Lennon and Harrison provided vocals; the musical backing came from eight string players. Martin wrote the score for the musicians, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s taut work on the film “Fahrenheit 451.”

McCartney wrote “For No One” after returning from a vacation with his girlfriend, Jane Asher. Ironically, it describes the sad aftermath of a break up. Work began on May 9, with McCartney playing piano and clavichord. Starr was the only other Beatle to play on the track with classical musician Alan Civil brought in to play French horn. Sadness is emphasized by the song ending on an unresolved note.

“Yellow Submarine” would become one of The Beatles’ best-known numbers. Written as a children’s song for Starr to sing, work began May 26. “We virtually made the track come alive in the studio,” Lennon said, something that certainly makes the song fun to listen to. All the sound effects — swirling chains in a tub of water, blowing bubbles through a straw in a bucket, clinking glasses, ringing bells — were created live in the studio. The final chorus featured whoever happened to be in the studio that night singing along, including Brian Jones and Harrison’s wife Patti.

Harrison would have an unprecedented three tracks on “Revolver,” with “I Want to Tell You” being the last. Harrison described the somewhat ambivalent love song as being “about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit,” with the song’s narrator decidedly taking a passive role. Work began on June 2, the song being recorded quickly with few embellishments aside from the addition of a piano. A unique fade in was used at the song’s beginning, and the group’s harmonies are strong throughout. McCartney overdubbed his bass on a separate track for the first time; it was something he’d do more frequently in future sessions, saying it gave him more freedom to work out melodic bass lines.

McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine,” with the group beginning work on June 8, was another straightforward number, a song about nothing more than the happiness of being in love on a sunny day. George Martin played piano. Then came “Here, There and Everywhere,” one of McCartney’s most beautiful love songs. McCartney wrote the number while visiting Lennon for a songwriting session, working out the piece as he sat by the pool waiting for Lennon to wake up. Lennon helped him finish it up.

McCartney has also cited the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album as an influence on the song, in particular the opening “To lead a better life” passage. He and Lennon had visited Beach Boy Bruce Johnston at London’s Waldorf Hotel May 17, where they listened to an advance of the album (released in the U.K. June 27); Keith Badman’s “The Beach Boys” day-by-day chronology noted McCartney had previously heard the album a week before at Andrew Loog Oldham’s flat. Work began on June 14, with the group’s block harmonies a standout feature of the song, which Lennon cited as one of his favorite Beatles tracks.

One more song was needed for the album. On June 21, the band began work on Lennon’s “She Said She Said.” The song was inspired by an incident during The Beatles’ U.S. 1965 summer tour. While in Los Angeles, Lennon and Harrison had been tripping on acid at a Beverly Hills party. When Harrison feared he might start having a bad trip, actor Peter Fonda tried to calm him down, saying he knew what it was like to be dead having nearly killed himself in a shooting accident as a child. But, as Lennon recalled, this only heightened their paranoia.

Lennon’s song gave Fonda’s unnerving comment to a woman, her dire proclamation sparking insecurity on his part as well as the same kind of nostalgic reflection on the past seen in the song “Help!” (“When I was a boy/everything was right”). The backing features the same jangly guitar heard in “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Dr. Robert.” But McCartney wouldn’t contribute, having left the studio following an argument. Work on “Revolver” was completed the next day.

“Paperback Writer” and “Rain” were the first songs released from the sessions, the 45 coming out May 30 in the U.S., June 10 in the U.K. This broke new ground for the group, as neither side of the single was a love song. They also made numerous promotional films for the songs, including two set in the verdant grounds of Chiswick House in West London.

Three more songs appeared on the “Yesterday and Today” album, released in the U.S. on May 20: “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Dr. Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.” The album became notorious for its initial release using a photo of The Beatles wearing butcher’s coats and cradling dismembered dolls and raw meat; the so-called “Butcher cover.” The shot had also been used in U.K. ads for “Paperback Writer.”

So the U.S. and U.K. editions of “Revolver” were different. The Beatles hated it when Capitol reworked their albums, and the U.K. edition, released August 5, is far superior. Harrison gets the opening slot with “Taxman,” with a fake count-in edited in for a little “cinema verité.” “Eleanor Rigby” and “I’m Only Sleeping” follow, creating a stunning opening trio of tracks. Then come “Love You To,” “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Yellow Submarine,” the latter providing a nice break before Side One closes with “She Said She Said.”

Side Two opens with the optimistic “Good Day Sunshine” followed by “And Your Bird Can Sing.” The melancholy “For No One” is neatly juxtaposed with the wry “Dr. Robert.” Next is “I Want to Tell You,” the invigorating blast of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and, finally, the cataclysmic “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

The U.S. version, the group’s 11th LP on Capitol, including “The Beatles’ Story,” a narrative LP from 1964, came out August 8. Both U.S. and U.K. versions had the same cover, designed by longtime friend Klaus Voorman. There was also an accompanying single, an unusual pairing of “Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” According to McCartney, the song choices were their manager’s decision: “Brian [Epstein] thought the best two tracks should be made into a single before anyone else could cover them.”

By the time “Revolver” was released, the Beatles had made their last U.K. concert appearance May 1 at the New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert. Their final tour began in Germany on June 23, a tour on which they wouldn’t play a single song from their new album.

The tour was stressful. In Japan, their appearance at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall was protested by some who objected to rock music being played in a venue they felt was sacred (footage of the gigs also reveals how poorly they were playing and singing). A visit to the Philippines ended in disarray when they unintentionally snubbed first Lady Imelda Marcos by not showing up for a special reception. And their U.S. tour was marred by the outcry that followed when Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus” remarks were published in Datebook. They had had enough. Their final concert was August 29 in San Francisco. Afterwards, on the plane taking them back to L.A., Harrison stated, “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.”

Well, not a touring Beatle anyway. For the musical advances the band had made with “Revolver” were just the beginning; by the end of the year, songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” would show The Beatles continuing to forge ahead. And “Revolver” still stands as The Beatles’ grand achievement, when they first made strides into a brave new world.  


REVOLVER AT AUCTION

sgt-revolver

$9,415 U.K. Original Mono EMI-Disc Acetate, 2016, VG Condition, eBay

$7,170 RIAA Gold Album Award, Excellent condition, 2007, Heritage Auctions

$4,780 RIAA Gold Album Award, Excellent, 2008, Heritage Auctions

$4,046 All Members Signed Album w/ COA and UACC certificate,
Excellent, 2005, eBay

$3,883 RIAA Gold Album Award, Excellent, 2009, Heritage Auctions

$3,073 U.K. Original Mono Album (PMC 7009), 2016, EX+, eBay

$3,025 Klaus Voormann Original Beatles Artwork, “Sgt. Revolver” (above, Germany, 1990s).  A Voormann update of the “Revolver” album cover in a “Sgt. Pepper’s” phase. Excellent, 2015, Heritage Auctions (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

$2,804 Original Mono Capitol Promo Album, 2011, Sealed, eBay

$2,700 Original Mono Capitol Promo Album (w/ Sticker), 2011, Sealed, eBay

$2,031 Original Capitol Records stereo “metal mothers” (1966). One-sided and  extremely rare recording, 2 Items, VG-EX, 2009, Heritage Auctions

$1,673 Paul McCartney Signed “Revolver” Album Cover (w/ LOA) 2009, Heritage Auctions

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