Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Revolver

Revolver, the Beatles’ seventh album, is their greatest overall achievement and the dividing line between their Early and Late periods of work. (You could also say it’s the peak of their Middle period if you wanted to divide their career less abruptly.) Revolver is also other things: it’s their first true studio album, where they made absolutely no concessions to their ability to perform the songs live; it’s their first work in which most of the lyrics are not romantic love songs (even Rubber Soul stuck to this formula overall); and it’s their first step into what would soon be termed psychedelia.

Sessions began April 6th, 1966, and ended June 21st. During this time the Beatles concentrated almost entirely on nothing but recording. With their producer George Martin and their new engineer, Geoff Emerick, they created a record with uniformly strong songs and a host of new sounds. In the Anthology, George Harrison said that Rubber Soul and Revolver were like Parts I and II, but most would disagree. If Rubber Soul is mellow acoustic rock, then Revolver takes a hard turn to modern rock, with plenty of electric guitars.

Rubber Soul contained some of John’s greatest work, but Paul excelled on this record, coming up with at least four classics (and the fifth isn’t far behind). John was no slouch, however; his five songs are wildly experimental and fantastic. For his part, George Harrison wrote three songs, including a classic of his own. And Ringo got his first keeper with a novelty song, of all things.

Taxman: In keeping with his reputation for being obsessed with money, George wrote this rocker so strong that it was given place of choice as the album opener. Biting lyrics detail the evils of the Taxman, who takes nineteen and leaves you one (based on the 95% tax rate in the U.K. at the time) and will take the pennies from a dead man’s eyes. The stinging guitar solos are played by Paul, as is that rolling bass line. John and Paul’s backing lyrics chide Mr. Wilson and Heath for the deplorable state of affairs, making this the first Beatles song with a uniquely British reference.1 Unlike most of the tracks, they could have played this live, but chose not to.

Eleanor Rigby: The first Beatles song on which no Beatle plays an instrument, with touching lyrics about lonely people in Liverpool (but they could be anywhere). Paul conceived of the backing octet after being inspired by Bernard Hermann’s score from Psycho. As with Yesterday, he insisted that the musicians play without vibrato, which is quite hard for a trained classical musician to do. However, upon trying the score with and without vibrato, the musicians decided they favored Paul’s choice.2 One of two songs on which John and Paul differ in their recollection of who wrote the majority of the lyrics; I favor Paul’s account, which says that it was mostly him, because Pete Shotton’s recounting of events agrees with this, stating that John was mostly silent during the main songwriting session. (Shotton was John’s closest friend from his childhood.) The song began, according to Donovan, as Ola Na Tungee. Then it changed to Daisy Hawkins and finally to Eleanor Rigby. Rigby’s grave can be found in a Liverpool cemetery near Strawberry Field, the orphanage, which John and Paul sometimes frequented; it’s possible that he remembered the name subconsciously. Father McKenzie3 began as Father McCartney, but Paul was concerned that people would think he was writing about his allegedly abandoned father. Paul and George Martin arranged the octet, consisting of Tony Gilbert, Sidney Sax, John Sharpe and Jurgen Hess on violins, Stephen Shingles and John Underwood on violas, and Derek Simpson and Norman Jones on cellos.  Geoff Emerick positioned the mikes quite close to the strings, almost touching them, unheard of at the time. A truly amazing song, and an eye-opener when released as a  single. No one could argue now that the Beatles hadn’t changed.

I’m Only Sleeping: John’s ode to lying in bed, with an appropriately dreamy feel. His vocal was recorded at a slower speed so that it would be faster on playback, while the rhythm track had been recorded faster and slowed down. The song features backwards guitars, having been triggered by an accident when recording the B-side Rain; but while Rain merely reversed a vocal, I’m Only Sleeping’s guitar solos were planned out in advance and then transcribed in reverse, so that when the tape was played forward the solos would be melodic. This was George Harrison’s idea, and he spent six hours overdubbing two guitar tracks. An amazing contribution to a marvelous song.

Love You To: This began life as Granny Smith, after the apple, since George couldn’t think of a title. The first of his Indian-flavored compositions, and to my mind the most successful at blending Eastern instruments with a Western sensibility.4 Anil Bhagwat played the tabla and was actually credited on the record sleeve; it’s uncertain if George played the sitar or if another musician, name unknown, was recruited. There are some rock instruments on the track: George plays acoustic guitar, Ringo tambourine and Paul bass, along with a fuzz guitar. The song is kind of sprawling, and the line “Make love all day long/Make love singing songs” is a bit ludicrous, but it was the first Beatles song to directly suggest sexual contact. It also amplified the spirituality hinted at in George’s earlier numbers.

Here, There and Everywhere: One of Paul’s finest ballads, with Beach Boys-style harmonies from John and George. As with Eleanor Rigby, Paul double-tracked his vocal, leading George Martin to comment later that he did it so accurately that it almost sounded like a single track, except fuller. A lovely set of images about moments with his love.

Yellow Submarine: Paul wrote this, apparently with Donovan’s assistance, which explains the childlike feel. John plays acoustic guitar, Paul bass and George tambourine, with an entire session dedicated to recording the sound effects which figure throughout. Brian Jones clinked glasses, and Marianne Faithful and Pattie Harrison also contributed, all of them plus Martin, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans joining the four Beatles on the final choruses. John blew bubbles in a bucket, John Skinner and Terry Condon on the Abbey Road staff swirled chains around in a metal bathtub full of water, and the Beatles went down the corridor to shout things like “Full speed ahead, Mr. Captain!” (John) and “Up the cable! Up the cable!” (Ringo). An outside brass band contributed the brief instrumental when “the band begins to play”; their names, alas, are lost. My favorite line is “And their friends are all aboard/Many more of them live next door”; a good trick if you can do it. Indelibly associated with the later film, and with Ringo’s charming vocal.

She Said, She Said: Side One ends with this psychedelic rocker from John, inspired by an LSD trip he had with the actor Peter Fonda, who kept insisting “I know what it’s like to be dead” while high. There was some trouble getting the complicated rhythm in the middle eight down (“I said no no no, you’re wrong/When I was a boy”), but in the end, the churning guitars and John’s slurred vocals are worth the effort. He also played the organ in an overdub.

Good Day Sunshine: This began life as A Good Day’s Sunshine, and is Paul’s worst on the album, which is really saying something. (“Worst” is a relative term here.) A bouncy, appropriately sunny love song which conveys the feeling of being with your love on a sunny day, with marvelous drumming by Ringo and a slowed-down piano solo from George Martin. The piano and bass were played simultaneously, so either Paul took piano and George Harrison bass, or John played piano. Hard to say. I like the murmur in the background repeating “She feels good” right after Paul sings it, probably John.5

And Your Bird Can Sing: Originally this sounded a lot like the Byrds, but they rethought the arrangement and sped it up. Paul and George play the amazing dual guitar solos. John’s lyrics are so cryptic that people are still arguing about what he meant. To me, the theory that he was referring to Frank Sinatra seems to make the most sense, especially with the line “And your bird can swing”; but others say it was the Rolling Stones. With all the LSD he was imbibing at the time, anything’s possible.

For No One: One of Paul’s best, a beautiful and tragic look into the moment when two people break up. “In her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind the tears/Cried for no one.” Paul and Ringo are the only two Beatles on the track; the French horn is played by Alan Civil. He thought the song was titled For Number One at first, seeing only the title written down. He also had a difficult time playing with the tape because it was in between B-flat and B-major, “in the cracks” as he said, and because Paul and George Martin deliberately put an F, which is just outside the horn’s range, in their arrangement. Still, Civil managed to hit the note, and the resulting solo is gorgeous and sad.

Doctor Robert: Written about John’s dentist, the man who introduced him (and George) to LSD. Unless it’s about a New York doctor who was a famed drug pusher. Either way, their first overt drug reference. John plays harmonium, Paul piano and George maracas. I have always assumed “Ring” was Ringo. It’s also the second Beatles song with a uniquely British reference, here the National Health. I love the guitar work.

I Want To Tell You: Before they began recording, George Martin asked what the title was, and George said “I don’t know.” To which John piped up, “Granny Smith Part Friggin’ Two!” Emerick then suggested Laxton’s Superb, another British apple. Later the song became I Don’t Know before settling on I Want To Tell You. Finished in two sessions; George never got as much time for his songs as John and Paul did. But it’s a good number, with some spiritual questing lyrically. Paul and George harmonize perfectly on vocals and the guitar lines, the bass backing the guitar riff.

Got To Get You Into My Life: Wow, those horns! A pickup brass quintet consisting of Eddie Thornton on super-olds trumpet, Peter Coe and Alan Branscombe on tenor sax, and Ian Hamer and Les Condon on trumpets. Geoff Emerick miked the horns in their bells, and then they “limited the sound all to hell”. This was frowned upon by EMI staff, but the results were hot. Paul said he wrote the words after taking a trip on marijuana. George Martin played the organ, which after the horns is my favorite part of the arrangement. This became a hit when released as a U.S. single in 1976.

Tomorrow Never Knows: Originally titled Mark I, then renamed after a Ringo-ism (he was fond of saying “Tomorrow never knows” when he was feeling philosophical). The most psychedelic Beatles song recorded (yes, more so than A Day In The Life), John’s lyrics came from The Tibetian Book of the Dead as filtered through Timothy Leary. His voices was treated to ADT (automatic double-tracking, invented while making this album by Ken Townsend; John always referred to it as “flanging” because of Martin’s explanation to him of how it worked) and then put through a rotating Leslie organ speaker in the song’s second half. All on one chord, it would have been boring were it not for the layers of tape loops superimposed onto the rhythm track, made at home by the Beatles. The seagull like sounds are Paul laughing, sped up. There’s also a sped-up guitar and a wine glass, and who knows what else. The drum sound came from stuffing a Beatles woolen jumper from Help! which had four necks into the bass drum and then miking it closely and compressing  the result. The mix of tape loops was done live in the studio; everyone had tape strung on pencils, and Emerick played the faders “like a modern day synthesizer” while others worked the panning. This blew my mind when I first heard it. It still does.

Revolver was released August 5, 1966. None of its songs were played live on the following tour. The CD was first released in 1987, and the remastered release came out on September 9, 2009. In the States, Capitol had begged for three more songs for its release of Yesterday…and Today in June6, so rough mixes of And Your Bird Can Sing, Doctor Robert and I’m Only Sleeping were duly sent. This resulted in the U.S. version of Revolver being three songs shorter than the U.K.’s, and if the American Rubber Soul was an improvement, the American Revolver was a travesty. Without Lennon’s three songs, the balance tipped toward McCartney and made for a much less compelling work. Fortunately, Revolver was the last Beatles album to be hacked up. All future Beatles albums would be released as sequenced in the U.K.7

The cover was drawn by the Beatles’ old friend, Klaus Voormann, a German artist whom they’d met while playing in Hamburg. He superimposed a collage of their photos onto the drawing, making for an appropriately surreal image and one of their most distinctive covers. Original titles for the record included Magic Circles, Beatles on Safari and Abracadabra.

Regarding mixes: Since later mixes of the Yesterday…and Today songs were used for the UK Revolver, these differ rather significantly in spots. The mono Revolver mix is also quite different from the stereo; for instance, Got To Get You Into My Life has a different vocal over the fade-out. Love You To goes on for several additional seconds. Tomorrow Never Knows and I’m Only Sleeping have effects in different places, and so on. I strongly suggest that if you’re able to hear the mono Revolver, that you do so. Unfortunately, this mix has only been released as part of The Beatles In Mono boxed set, which isn’t cheap.

Revolver was the peak of both the Beatles’ experimentation and strength, resulting in an album without a single weak track and one which has not dated at all. It wasn’t really remarked upon at the time, however. The next record would be.