Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Beatles: Revolver (1966)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The Beatles' creativity during the mid-'60s was unstoppable -- undeniable, even, and within the rock & roll idiom it had virtually no precedent, not least because no one had reached the point in their career when such restlessness was matched with such automatic validation of ideas. The Kinks, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, among a few others, reached the same point in their careers around the same time but somehow, then as now, the Beatles' work feels different: it's even more confident, controlled, effortlessly inventive than that of their peers -- and yet, even stranger (in the context of pop) as well. What makes an album like Revolver happen? If we knew for sure, they'd be more common, but a few things are worth diving into when we look at the record.

Each of the Beatles' albums up to this point had been a step forward from the last but a reasonably smooth transition at that. Rubber Soul was surely the best of the first half-dozen, and arguably their best ever, but even it wasn't entirely an upheaval of its predecessor, Help!. The folk-rock predictions were there, John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrics and melodies were already reaching their height of sophistication on songs like "Help!" and "I've Just Seen a Face," and sure, the songs were stronger and certainly more mature on average on Rubber Soul, but the production values and overall sound remained similar. Not so for Revolver, their seventh LP. It is, it seems, an effortlessly huge stride into orbit, both in composition and recording, and can now be seen as the beginning -- and best example -- of the band's psychedelic period; in addition, to this day it remains the greatest showcase ever of the talents of one Paul McCartney.

There is little doubt that more experimentation went on with the sheer sounds of recording during the Revolver sessions than at any other point in the history of studio-driven rock music. It's the first Beatles record, and probably the first record by anyone, that was considered by the band impossible to play live and as such was looked upon as something entirely separate from their live act; concerts had come to bore and fill the band with dread anyway, so the idea of laying down songs that relied heavily on varispeeding and other trickery would no longer have seemed a hindrance to them, and as always happens when a medium is in its formative years, the sheer excitement of playing around with the format as no one had previously thought to still retained its novelty for even so intelligent and creative a band as this. Drugs were undoubtedly a factor too, but so they were on Help! and Rubber Soul; to go back briefly to the mention of the Beatles' artistic peers, none of the other landmark albums of 1966 approached the material in quite the same way, with the Kinks' Face to Face coming closest at least in the deceptive sense that its songs are equally ambitious and inspired, if more skilled than emotionally honest. Brian Wilson's theme was the ornate abandonment of rock instrumentation to cast out demons; Bob Dylan's was exhaustion; the Stones' was grit; but the Beatles' goal seemed strictly to be to find a new approach to their music that would excite them, and their solution was to use the studio and what then felt like its limitless possibilities (despite the creative impositions of four-track tape) as their primary instrumentation, and to do so mostly as a unit (discarding "Love You To" and "Eleanor Rigby") -- a natural expansion, but a radical and arguably sudden one.

As noted, no Revolver songs were performed on the Beatles' American tour that coincided with the album, which would turn out to be their final series of live performances. Truth be told, it would have been possible to present a few of the album's songs on stage, primarily Lennon's: "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Doctor Robert," perhaps even "She Said, She Said." But what would the response have been? The band seems to be several steps ahead of their audience here, and together with Rubber Soul, the sense one gets is of a band that's grown past their original objective, so much so that a schism between artist and fans would seem almost inevitable; except somehow, the Beatles are the one band whose followers seemingly grew up along with them, and vice versa. Pet Sounds would be misunderstood and would sell poorly; and while Blonde on Blonde was celebrated, it marked the end of the first phase of Bob Dylan's career; and the Byrds and the Kinks would never resume their early commercial success as their music bloomed outward. The Beatles, however, managed to mark the point at which the idea of "rock" became something for the sophisticates, something people "wrote about" and thought about, and did so, it seems, without missing a beat. It was luck, for one thing; luck was the great theme of the Beatles' career. Despite their brilliance, they enjoyed an uncanny knack for meeting the right people at the right time. And their ruthless quality-control dictated that the silence after Revolver -- which was, unusually, accompanied by a single comprised of two left-field and nevertheless wildly successful songs from the album -- would increase its gravity, build anticipation and prepare the audience for a change in the way they were thought of, a trick that wouldn't have worked if Revolver in particular had not set the stage so well.

Because of the wild sonics it brings forth, it is the sound of Revolver that sticks to you initially, not so much the songs; in this respect Revolver is reminiscent of the Beatles' most universally celebrated longplayer, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a year later. From this point onward, every Beatles recording sounds as if it could very easily burst from the radio today. Such is the innovation of George Martin and his four faithful soldiers. Indeed the person who is most on a creative roll throughout these tracks is not any of the Beatles so much as it is their producer. Revolver is a masterpiece, but it may well be his more than the Beatles'. He gleefully puts hard rock into claustrophobic compression in "Taxman," and evokes the creeping, crawling electronic unknown in the droning "Tomorrow Never Knows." Never before was every single track on an album so far into a world of its own, lending the record an almost circular feel in its two divisions (hence the title, perhaps?). Klaus Voormann's beautiful drawing-collage adorning the cover of Revolver is black and white, but thanks to Martin every single note of the music inside is shimmering with brilliant color. Somehow he puts into his aural textures things that logically can't be expressed in audio: the drowsiness of "I'm Only Sleeping," the warm ecstasy of "Here, There, and Everywhere," the drug-induced misery of "She Said She Said," the oceanic simplicity of "Yellow Submarine," the triumphant bliss of "Got You Get You into My Life" and "Good Day Sunshine." The notion that George Martin was merely an interpreter is disproven here, for Revolver demonstrates that he is a musical genius himself, matched only by Brian Wilson in his ability to render pop music as an unfathomable kind of singular expression that can't be duplicated in any other medium.

However, the main difference between Revolver and Pepper is that you could completely strip the production away from Revolver, making it a sequel of sorts to the much more simply arranged Rubber Soul, and still have outstanding music. These are classic songs beyond any doubt. Just as Soul was John Lennon's finest hour, with his heart on his sleeve in "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," and "In My Life," Revolver is full of utterly mind-blowing work from Paul McCartney, whose own prowess as a songwriter is given a phenomenal monument here that could never be undone by decades of "My Love." His most famous contribution to the record, "Eleanor Rigby," paints a convincing character portrait that could in some universe feel right at home on Face to Face, except that rather than capture his characters' plight -- and the plight, it seems, of loneliness in general -- with some sort of cheeky ironic distance, he lends it a poetic urgency. No Beatles song to date had sounded so adult, so pressing, so important, yet with a real kind of feeling and empathy at its center. Paul genuinely does seem to look outside himself for these stories of the isolated Rigby and the silent priest Mackenzie, even if he did take the name from a grave he recalled seeing, and each time he slightly falters in his lyric, the melody and the raw feeling of John Lennon's backing vocal rescue it, make it a piece. In addition, the song goes beyond even "Yesterday" in abandoning the rock-band structure, choosing instead a startling, Bernard Herrmann-inspired string ensemble that completely avoids the saccharine nature of so many orchestral pop arrangements; the stark cleanliness of the recording and of the band's vocals circumvent any charge of pretension. The song is simply too direct, and too elegant, to allow for such accusations.

If anything, however, McCartney's other song about loneliness here is even more of an achievement. "For No One" is a sequel of sorts to "I'm Looking Through You" and conversely to "We Can Work It Out," purportedly about "another argument" (his words) with then-girlfriend Jane Asher. But even set against an outstanding cut like "I'm Looking Through You," which is one of the greatest breakup songs in rock & roll, he demonstrates several leaps forward here, at least lyrically, in the sense that the words seem to reflect a far more advanced age than Paul's (23 at the time of recording). The couple in the song, one desperate to communicate and the other desperate not to, are as persuasive a portrait of a crumbling marriage or affair -- despite the spareness of the words -- as a pair from an Albee play. Ray Davies would experiment in years hence with this sort of slice-of-life drama about fallings-out and misunderstandings across years -- "Two Sisters," for instance -- but the ingenious economy of Paul's lyrics, which manages to put across a great depth of pain with very little extraneous information, and the perfection of his weary vocal on the track, again render it unique with the help of Martin's baroque arrangement, performed strictly by Paul (on several instruments), Ringo Starr (percussion) and Alan Civil (the oddly devastating French horn solo).

In instances like these it's harder than ever to reconcile the Beatles' recorded output with the "mop tops" out on the road; indeed, the U.S. cover of the "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" single seems bizarrely ironic: a symbol, however lovely, strictly tied to the '60s set against music that -- in the former case, at least -- now exists above and beyond any notion of time or era. It's as though they were continuing to evolve but sending out old husks of themselves to perform, and it's little wonder that the practice would very soon come to an end. (Ironically, largely because of the Beatles' own influence, rock audiences would soon be ready for the kind of concerts that would have better suited to the Beatles than their slavish twenty-minute runthroughs of the old hits; they never enjoyed this as a band, perhaps more than anything because of a reluctance to revisit the trauma -- and, from the books I've read, it really was trauma -- that they'd endured as a massive chaotic touring act.) All the same, it should be recalled that in 1966, the Beatles -- and certainly Paul McCartney -- were on the absolute tip-top of the world, were at their peak as artists and arguably were well aware of it. This is reflected in Paul's other three truly great songs of the album, which capture a moment of blissful, loving optimism that retains its power to charm and infect across all the intervening decades.

You could turn just a few knobs on "Good Day Sunshine" and probably make it intolerable, or at least cutesy in exactly the McCartney way that would bring us the likes of "Bip Bop" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and, well, "My Love." But it's another case in which the Beatles' slightly oversized ambitions make their work truly sublime; with no one besides themselves to determine what is and isn't acceptable, they find some in-house way of beautifully conveying absolute joy (in a way John Lennon on his own, for one, never could) without cloying; and because the rest of the band still has a say, the song has a mild, psychedelic weirdness, especially in the fade, and a complete absence of smirk. In this song, showtune piano and all, the act of being happy-go-lucky (and probably high) is serious business, not to be mocked. The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" and the Young Rascals' "A Beautiful Morning" can only wish in vain; they're fine songs, but do you ever really think they're truly serious about the lovely sunny times they're promoting?

More powerful yet is "Got to Get You into My Life," a Motown-inspired flip-side of sorts to "For No One." The story's gone around for years that the song is about weed; maybe, fine, whatever, but its profundity certainly doesn't come from that. Again, so much of the power here is in Paul's singing: he sounds positively infected with love, or lust, and a drive to pursue it -- the simpler, prettier "I've Just Seen a Face" found this same voice in him, but on this song there's no reason to hold back behind a folky arrangement. Martin provides horns and the band's as loud as can be, and at last his unhinged soul voice finds its proper place: in a song about the absolute, insane glee of falling for somebody, rendered with a poetry and eloquence that wouldn't have felt possible in the Beatles' music just a couple of years earlier. (Not one of Paul's tracks, performances, productions on Revolver could have existed on any prior Beatles album, nor any of George's; and only a couple of John's could've.)

That same eloquence then captures a more adult topic yet: that of enduring love. "Here, There, and Everywhere" is Paul McCartney's best song -- not his best song on Revolver or his best song with the Beatles, just his best song. It's a strange, hypnotic recording that yearns to evoke early doo wop in its simple, almost claustrophobically ghostly arrangement -- Paul's vocal is dry, intoxicated, the others' backing smoky and enigmatic. Lyrically, it's as wise beyond its years as "For No One" with the opposite frame of mind, exploring the comfortable, continued miracle of a long-term relationship -- arguably before he'd experienced any such thing or had any great reason to romanticize it. It's likely his best lyric, its repetition of the three title words somewhat evocative of Lennon's brand of wordplay, but altogether unmistakably Paul's work and nobody else's. (Lennon's own well-justified admiration of the song was something Paul long treasured.) Paul would always cite the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as his inspiration, but his own song is less angsty, more unconditional.

Unfortunately, while the Beatles' two primary songwriters were both operating at their highest level on Rubber Soul, in the interim John Lennon seems to have regressed just as much as Paul McCartney has advanced. His songs for Revolver are not bad, but in comparison to Paul's, they tend to stumble aimlessly and sound, for lack of a better word, drugged. If Paul's embrace of substances causes him to expand and "turn on," so to speak, John correspondingly, well, tunes out. His often droll, odd compositions are livened up, though, by Martin's playful tinkering, which sets alight a dryly lethargic, cynical lullaby ("I'm Only Sleeping") and a pair of terrifying rockers that display the mental agony of substance abuse: "She Said, She Said" and the one-chord "Tomorrow Never Knows." In both cases, the songs would be lesser works without the producer's bells and whistles, but that doesn't make them less impressive as records. But "And Your Bird Can Sing" is charming, nonsensical Byrdsian filler, "Doctor Robert" a tepid, directionless drug song (literally; it's about the dentist who slipped him LSD), and with the exception of the sublime "Rain," relegated to a b-side, even the best of John's songs from this period sound like the works of someone who desperately needed a break, particularly when looked upon in comparison to Paul's Revolver material, or to his own triumphant songs from Rubber Soul or of course almost any of his earlier songs for the band. (Fortunately, a vacation was just what he and the band would be given in the latter half of 1966, and he would return with one of the finest songs in popular music, though he would never again dominate the Beatles' records the way he once had.) John and Paul wrote "Yellow Submarine" together for Ringo to sing, and it's another instance of a throwaway rendered oddly infectious by George Martin's input, which must assuredly be the reason they thought enough of the novelty to make it a single.

In addition, elsewhere on the disc, George Harrison reaches an early peak with his sardonic "Taxman," a rocker that sounds bold and forward-thinking as the album opener, and while "I Want to Tell You" is well-sung, well-recorded (incredibly modern-sounding, in fact) gibberish, he also offers one of Revolver's most impressive moments of innovation with "Love You To," another song that foregoes rock music almost totally, here in favor of classical Indian instrumentation (Harrison had been learning the sitar since the previous year, audible on "Norwegian Wood") for a recording that, even more than the otherwise superior "Eleanor Rigby," sounds audacious and improbably stimulating in the context of a rock album -- not the last time the Beatles (and Martin) would pull such a stunt.

Glorious as it all is, the magic of Revolver is all in its multifaceted, more artful than psychedelic, soundscapes that seem to stretch forever in all directions and have no qualms about letting you in on their Technicolor secrets; as ever, the Beatles render even their highbrow and hotly ambitious impulses universal by the feeling of warmth and invitation they bring to their records -- they ingratiate at exactly the points that a lesser band would alienate, and it's hard to name another rock band of any era with such a capability, precisely what would carry them through so many brilliant records from here to the end of their career. A lot of this, again, is George Martin. As when he took Lennon's requests for "Tomorrow Never Knows" to heart -- that it sound like the terrific announcement of some impossibly distant voice from on high -- Martin approached the Beatles' material with immense sympathy. He knew that great records are made with production as an embellishment to wonderful music, not music written solely for its production. In some ways, though, he was merely keeping pace with the Beatles' ever-progressing talent in making their music accessible even in its oddest moments, and Revolver manages to be avant garde without overriding the band's staggering immediacy. In other words, it's weird, yet it's pop. Hell, it's more than either of those simple terms can describe. You can call the next record their signature acheivement in the LP form if you like, but Revolver is the Beatles' most accomplished piece of art.

Of course, the specific and heady logic of the day -- swinging London, the drugs, the encroaching of genuinely new ways of thinking within and without youth culture, and the misshapen allure of the creepy tape loops on "Tomorrow Never Knows" or raga sounds on "Love You To," so unlike anything heretofore declared "rock" -- dictated some of these impulsive responses. As noted above, rock music was now something to be taken seriously, and is there not something deeply troubling about that? For all the Beatles' obvious exhaustion and impatience to "move forward," there's a kind of surrender in the push away from rock & roll and toward art. It's not that Revolver isn't great and profound, it's that With the Beatles and A Hard Day's Night were equally so, and the logical conclusion of the elevation of the Beatles' mid-'60s output moves in one direction toward the drudgery (Genesis, Yes, etc.) and liberation (Bowie, Roxy Music, etc.) of "art rock," in another toward a strange dismissiveness of black music -- the music that specifically inspired the Beatles to perform in the first place and would remain their touchstone, obviously outside of the 1966-67 period and more subtly so even then -- that, for whatever sonic modesty it may possess compared to the studio trickery employed here, has more to say more eloquently than can be provided for by any number of tape loops. This was by no means the Beatles' intention, at least I see no reason to think it was; their experimentation is not a rejection of the supposedly simple and carnal -- in some ways their later songs are simpler, in composition terms, than their "teenybopper" numbers -- but a restless probing much akin in some ways to, if far less adventurous than, John Coltrane's Ascension and Om, or to the passionately confrontational avant garde of Yoko Ono that would soon be issued on the Beatles' own record label. They did not make it exclusionary or snobby, the press and audience did that; they only expressed what they were feeling at the time, and sunshine or not, in the moods and doubts of some of the songs of Revolver, you can hear that the world is starting to come crashing in: not the world of 1967 and flower power, but the world that would consume and destroy it, which they -- or John, at the very least -- seemed to hear before anyone. The Beatles' best work had been vibrant, ecstatic, a boundary-smashing embrace of freedom. Revolver is varied in its moods, but on balance it is unnerving -- and somehow no less vibrant, honest and inspirational than what had come before.


[A second revision of a review first posted in 2000 (!), then updated in 2003; almost certainly the oldest thing I will *ever* post here]

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