The Long and Winding Road Part 7: Revolver

Revolver (released 5 August 1966)

Dear Revolver,

I don’t know much about music — actually scratch that, I know almost nothing about music — but from what I’ve read, anyone looking for an annus mirabilis of music would probably use 1966 as their starting point. After all, this was the year of massive musical steps forward: Simon and Garfunkel released their Sounds of Silence album, launching a new era for folk rock. David Bowie and the Jimi Hendrix Experience both released their first singles, the first sparks of a long-lasting musical legacy. And most importantly: the Beach Boys, American answer to the Beatles in terms of musical sophistication, released Pet Sounds in May. Their efforts gave us the most beautiful and sophisticated album of rock music history, one that certainly makes you look a bit rough in comparison. But still the Beatles have prevailed: despite the weird, sometimes even cacophonous quality, you still remain a wonderful, beautiful piece of art, and fully deserve your status as one of the best albums of all time, if not the best outright. (Er, also this year: Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident in July and would disappear out of the spotlight until 1975. Though we won’t dwell on that…)

But let’s first deal with your only clunker, which is — and I say this knowing full well that I will be abused by people who have up till now tolerated my incessant wittering — “Tomorrow Never Knows”. When I say clunker, of course, I don’t mean that the lyrics are badly written, the drumming is messy, or that John’s singing is completely horrible (though that last one is a bit true). I’ve listened to it three times, and it has grown on me with each listen. It’s a radical departure from everything we’ve ever heard the Beatles (or for that matter, ANYONE) do. And I’m still feeling my way around it, plumbing the depths of those seagull cries and a mishmash of world instruments.

Here’s the thing, though: even after all these listens I still can’t locate a real sense of cohesion or knowledge about what’s they’re trying here. To draw a slightly complicated analogy, this song is like skydiving: you’re thrown into the air and left to the mercy of sounds and elements you have no concept of. The difference is, you have no knowledge of where the ground is, or if you’re going to die. Now, I like chaos in art as much as the next person (capstone supervisor: get back to your writing, Chamois) but chaos can be overwhelming, and it certainly does this to me. It’s just three whole minutes of noise, with nothing special standing out. A squeak here, a processed vocal there, but none of it sticks together, and it’s one gloopy mess which I’d rather not subject myself to. As Bob Dylan put it so nicely, it just seems like John and the Beatles were trying hard “not to be cute anymore”, and so they came up with this to confuse everybody — and it doesn’t work very well.

Happily for us listeners, the thirteen other songs that come before the explosion of “Tomorrow Never Knows” are still cute and perfectly fun to listen to: it keeps a sense of the unexpected and surprises you at every turn. The amazing thing is how many surprises they manage to throw in, and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that there is something to discover in every single song.

Let’s start with something that’s also found in “Tomorrow Never Knows”: warped sounds. This was the album where the Beatles raised the finger to live performances and decided to have as much fun as they could with studio production. As such, we get lots of normally unproduceable sounds on tracks such as “I’m Only Sleeping”, which features George playing a guitar duet. WAIT, DON’T GO — this is no ordinary guitar-playing. Oh no: imagine my surprise when halfway through the song, with John’s distracted vocals already floating around and boggling my brain, I heard some very strange guitar sounds, each stealing into the mix and then growing louder and louder: George playing against himself, in reverse. (Yes, I am easily impressed. Aren’t you?) This took George hours to perfect, and you have got to hand it to the man for spending so much time on this perfect performance: it really adds to the dreaminess of the whole track, the idea that John is speaking to you dazed and confused under the influence of LSD: the noises filter in and out of the listener’s consciousness, and they’re gone before you have time to register their existence. I don’t know who’s got the more accurate depiction of an acid trip, but I like George’s better.

There’s so much more I can say about just this song, but its many qualities are also abundant on so many album tracks (if anything, this is the most cohesive album we’ll ever get from the Beatles till Abbey Road) that I could basically write a generic paragraph extolling those qualities and still you would find more than one song. This album-spanning consistency was a result of the Beatles getting along very well with each other in the studio and knowing what each other wanted on each song. So Ringo’s drumming remains constant throughout you — delightfully unpredictable. From the moment he starts drumming on “Taxman” through to the final ecstasies on “Tomorrow Never Knows” — ESPECIALLY on “Tomorrow Never Knows” — he drums away like a possessed madman, with the heavy beats and the softer ones all alighting on what seems like the wrong place, and sometimes offering rhythms and drum fills like you’ve never heard them before. Seriously: many of Ringo’s drum performances, agreed to be some of the finest in rock music, shows just how creative he could be in withholding the heavy beats for the right moment (or is it the wrong one?). If you have a very weird, off-kilter feel, it’s all thanks to Ringo’s dependably uncanny drumming.

The theme of being unexpected persists through other aspects too: so many of the songs twist in ways you don’t expect them to. “Love You To” and “Eleanor Rigby” are both examples of how the Beatles continue to expand their roster of new instruments: George goes for a whole range of Indian instruments in the former while Paul dispenses with a guitar completely in the latter, choosing to play his strings from “Yesterday” again. We’ve heard these instruments before, in the Beatles’ 1965 output, but whereas those were just icing on the cake, with you these instruments take centre stage and become the key ingredients of these songs. And these instruments are so effective in creating moods that reflect the songs’ lyrics: “Love You To” (how is it that nobody comments on how obviously it riffs on “Love Me Do”?) is a sensual, even primal tune that through its mystic arrangements subtly establishes an eroticism: the drone of the instruments suggest a sexual energy bubbling underneath the surface, as if George absolutely cannot wait to engage in sexy time with his partner. At the same time, I dare anyone to listen to “Eleanor Rigby” without contemplating their own loneliness, so haunting is this song with its Psycho-esque arrangement. It’s just such a sad, melancholic (there’s that word again) song, where one can’t help but feel haunted by Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie, and the hollow lives they lived.

Meanwhile, songs like “For No One” and “Good Day Sunshine” both surprise us at how they seem to end prematurely. The former ends halfway through a reprisal of its chorus, while “Good Day Sunshine” ups the ante by ending just after Paul’s changed key. Now, I know that this is perfectly normal by our standards nowadays, but back then listeners would probably have been shocked: a song that didn’t provide closure, mere seconds after producing a new twist. It’s an effect so eerie, that you ask yourself at the end of each track “what’s going on here? Is this all we get? What is happening next?” But we receive no reply (wink) save for the sound of the next song beginning: a musical rebuff from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison All these songs leave us unfulfilled and puzzling over what’s just happened: a mystery waiting for us to unravel, the lack of resolution inviting the listener to dig deeper. We’re confused and we’re surprised, but nevertheless we continue to listen. Quite simply put, we can’t get enough of this.

It’s strange how things that normally would have been vices in music become virtues once we hear them coming out of you and the Beatles. Prematurely ending a song is not the biggest source of confusion: other songs don’t even try to make sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows”, again, provides the best example (basically everything extreme on this album can be blamed on this song), but to be honest, you can point this accusation at any of John’s songs. “She Said She Said” is, unbelievably, a recollection of John’s own conversation with Peter Fonda while the both of them were going through an acid trip (which explains why nobody seems to be talking normally), while “And Your Bird Can Sing” — well, nobody’s been able to agree on what it means, actually, not even the man who wrote the piece in the first place. Meanwhile, despite John and Paul’s insistence that it’s nothing more than a children’s song, the public still insists to this day on reading weird socio-political messages into “Yellow Submarine”, precisely BECAUSE the lyrics seem far too simple for the Beatles. (“’Every one of us has all we need’? MUST BE A COMMUNIST MESSAGE.”)

What does it matter, though? After all, what these songs lack in substance they make up for amply with effect: “Yellow Submarine” may have really simple lyrics, but it’s got so many sound effects in it that you do believe yourself to be deep beneath the ocean, listening to the joyous rumblings of life aboard that amber submersible — and you discover something new to that story every single time. (I particularly loved discovering how they made sounds of waves on a tropical beach just by twirling around chains in a bathtub — it shows just how quirky the four of them and George Martin were.) It says a lot about your aesthetic: when John and George were on their LSD trips (thanks to good old “Doctor Robert”, immortalized in one of your songs), they were there for a new way of experiencing the world, not a solution to it, and so they replicate that experience in you. We find lots of incomprehensible gestures that might not mean anything, but they’re so damn well executed that you’ve got to hand it to them for capturing how confusing it all is. Ooh, look at all the pretty colours…

But back to the unexpected things about this album: the band dynamics have also undergone a subtle, but still important, shift here. With John too busy doing nothing, George manages to nab the opening song instead; and as mentioned before, “Taxman” sets the tone of the album when he begins right in the middle of a useless, slower count-in: by starting when you least expect him to, the Beatles already tell you where this album is headed. And the George-ish qualities of this song and the others are still there: sarcastic and raw, even manic in “Taxman” and “Love You To”. But we can also detect another latent side struggling to emerge: “I Want to Tell You” sees George struggling to tell everyone how wonderful being high is — without any hint of meanness. This is a tone that we don’t expect from the most cynical songwriter in the group: we expect him to rage against everything, snark the hell out of everyone. But here’s another side of George that we’re beginning to see, the persona of the wise guru. It’s just a glimpse for now, but it’s an interesting glimpse — and really sets the stage for his emergence as a real songwriter in a couple of years’ time. And it’s thanks to LSD that all this started to come out.

However, to describe you as the “acid album”, like John did, is a bit of a misnomer. I’ve been talking a lot about how this album was made while everyone was high on LSD, but unlike his bandmates, Paul McCartney never got round to his first trip until two months after your debut — and yet he is responsible for no less than six of your songs. So how is it that he still manages to turn out song that cohere so well with the other eight tracks that you have? Even more terrifically: how is it that he makes you HIS album, a statement of how wide-ranging his songs could be? I can’t stop shouting about it, because he subverts, with EVERY SINGLE SONG, our expectations of the kind of songs a rock album should contain. You think a serious rock album shouldn’t contain children’s songs? I direct you to “Yellow Submarine”. You think that classical instruments have no place in a rock album? This way to “Eleanor Rigby” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”. You think that 17th-century poems don’t belong in an album of the counterculture? (Er, wrong album. Sorry.)

I could go on, but I want to tell YOU that even though John and George also do this, Paul alone succeeds at coalescing his thoughts into something that is uncomplicated and which makes sense. He doesn’t throw everything at us in the hopes that it will stick: he simply isolates a few things that work, and works on it till it’s a perfect blend of melody and words. And that’s why his songs stand out, and why he fully deserves to be called “the best songwriter on Revolver” — as many have done.

There is one song which demonstrates just how much Paul sets himself apart from the other two band members — and it’s one I’ve deliberately held back, simply because it’s too different from the rest to be described in the same context. On the surface of things, “Here, There and Everywhere” has absolutely nothing that makes it stand out from the other 13 tracks you present. It’s a soft rock song, and a normal love song that doesn’t talk about loss or use it as a tool to talk about deeper themes. And yet, when I listened to it… my mouth dropped open, the only time a song has ever done that to me. Because its simplicity is PRECISELY why it is the best song on you: it’s unpretentious, awesomely honest in what it says, and (dear God) the slow, soft harmonies from John and George are simply amazing.

And you know what the best thing about this song is? It is simply bubbling with emotion, and yet it’s just so subtly stated: even when the singer is full of the joys of spring, or whatever it is one is supposed to feel when they’re in love, he doesn’t burst into elaborate metaphors. No: it’s simple and elegant. I don’t know what Heaven is like — and with luck, I won’t be visiting it for another sixty years or so — but this song really does give me a taster of what a musical paradise would feel like. And the arrangements are basically a representation of the whole song in you, Revolver: in an album where every song is special, it’s hard to stand out. So maybe the thing to do is to NOT try to stand out: stand in the background, look inconspicuous, and achieve greatness through your simple honesty. And it’s clearly paid off: Paul once said that this was the ONLY song that John made a point of praising him for; listening to this song, I can full well see why.

Kind of ironic that I’m choosing the inanest song on you to gush over, but I guess everyone involved would have found it amusing. After all, it IS an unexpected move — just like almost every movement on you is.

(looks at word counter) DAMN, I really went overboard on the love for this one…

Yours sincerely,

Favourite track: I think it’s pretty apparent what it is, but just in case you skipped to the bottom in a case of TLDR: “Here, There and Everywhere”. It’s so sweet, and it develops the theme of falling in love and thinking of that person day and night without end SO WELL — a triumph of simplicity. (Yes, I’m still single, but let a man dream. :))

(Featured image from cover of Revolver, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records. I should also say that this is my favourite album cover in their catalogue — it’s just such a perfect smash of the abstract and the real.)

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