Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Beatles: "Revolver" (1966)

The Beatles have always been a part of my consciousness in one form or another since I was very young. I remember my first exposure to them being at that house in San Rafael, when my mom had the vinyl Capitol prints of the “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” soundtracks. My Dad held a certain leeriness about their earlier bubblegum pop years, and he really only connected with them during their mid to late sixties period, as their writing evolved into something more sophisticated and varied. Years later, while we were living in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa, my middle brother stayed with us for a spell and he had Japanese import copies of the early 60s Capitol era. I remember owning the Red and Blue compilations while living in Rohnert Park, during Jr. High. It wasn’t until I was a High School freshmen that I really started to connect with their material, starting with Rubber Soul.

Yet Revolver was the album that really stood out for me, and I remember listening to the Capitol vinyl edition on a regular basis. When CD players affordably went on the market in the late 80s, the Beatles catalog was the first sets I invested in, and I was even more blown away by the UK edition of the album. While countless artists shaped the sound of rock ‘n roll in the fifties, the Beatles expanded the vocabulary of Rock and pop in ways that were profound. Yet what were the circumstances that made them so profound? Did the band even understand fully their impact? I doubt it, as they were probably just doing their thing and being in the moment. When you consider the statistical odds of a band forming, much less connecting at the level they did so, between John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it seems almost miraculous that these four individuals converged in post war Liverpool and the same time and place, yet they did so.

In essence, it becomes the chicken or the egg argument, was their greatness already there, was it preordained (an argument I’m suspicious of)? Or did they simply rise to the occasion with each success? I could well imagine that Revolver must have been a shock when it was released, August 5th, 1966. But there were ample clues that the band had evolved enough to be able to release such a title. There writing had become more sophisticated, the subject or romance had already become ambivalent, as early as late ’64 they had started to veer away from the bubblegum pop format, and the writing became more varied, as evidenced with several tracks off of Beatles For Sale – “Baby’s in Black, I’m A Loser, I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”, and this sophistication was further evidenced with Help – The flute ensemble of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and the string quartet of “Yesterday” or the heavy rock of “Ticket To Ride”.

While Rubber Soul might have been a revelation as far as an album filled with quality material, the conventions of the album, their standard rock instrumentation of guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, excluding the exception of George’s Sitar on “Norwegian Wood”, had remained intact in principle, even if the writing had grown by leaps and bounds. Rubber Soul was also a more organic sounding album, with its emphasis on acoustic guitars, whereas Revolver, in a sense, was an electronic album, and the first true studio only release.

One also should bear in mind, two events sandwiched between the pre and post release of Revolver. One being the infamous Robert Whitaker, ‘butcher babies’ photo sessions that seemed intended to smash their clean cut image, and during the final tours in 66, the frightening Philippines / Manila incident where Imelda Marcos claimed The Beatles snubbed her, when they had previously declined to attend a breakfast, although Marcos wasn’t informed of the decline. The diminishing returns of their bubblegum image, and the growing security risks of touring due to Beatle mania, probably shaped their confidence they could continue as a recording only band.

While Norman Smith had managed some great technical feats for The Beatles in 65, Geoff Emerick role as an engineer was probably the most significant development to evolve for the Beatle’s 1966. Paul’s Bass sound alone was a vast improvement, with more presence and fullness, it allowed Paul to treat the bass as a lead instrument. Geoff Emerick from his book: “Here, There and Everywhere” in 2006 made the following comments about how he arrived at the Bass sound:
“But before he got down to the brass tacks of teaching the others their parts (for “Paperback Writer”), Paul turned to me. “Geoff,” he began, “I need you to put your thinking cap on. This song is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound we’ve been talking about, so I want you to pull out all the stops this time, all right, then?” I nodded an affirmative…It occurred to me that since microphones are in fact simply loudspeakers wired in reverse (in technical terms, both are transducers that convert sound waves to electrical signals, and vice versa), why not try using a loudspeaker as a microphone?...I broached my plan, gingerly, to Phil McDonald…Over the next few hours, while the boys rehearsed with George Martin, Ken (Townsend) and I conducted a few experiments. To my delight, the idea of using a speaker as a microphone seemed to work pretty well.”

Ringo’s drum’s also benefited from Emerick’s techniques including close miking the bass drum. The guitars themselves took on a more heavier sound, while The Who and The Kinks had already broken new ground with a heavier rock sound, The Beatle’s refined those innovations and laid the groundwork for the power pop single, and this could be demonstrated with such tracks as “Taxman, She Said, She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert”.

This was further demonstrated in their single recorded during this period, “Paperback Writer / Rain”, overdriven brisk guitars, very present bass and drums, complex vocals, and in the case of “Rain”, a backing track that is slowed down and their first use of backwards vocal. “Paperback Writer” should have been seen as the first signal of the new identity, the fab four, bubblegum pop sensibility had ended. Paul McCartney has observed in 1997:

“One day I led the dance, like “Paperback Writer”, and another day John would lead the dance like “I’m Only Sleeping”. It was nice, we weren’t really competitive as to who started the song, but the good thing was if he wrote a great “Strawberry Fields”, I’d try and write a “Penny Lane”. So, we kept each other on our toes”

This change was also very evident in the Klaus Voormann cover, Voormann had been a long time friend from their Hamburg days, and he would go on, in the space of a few years to play bass on John and George’s solo albums. The cover also managed to hint at their sense of humor, and their interest in pop surrealism, sans the band name, which one could say was a reflection of their already iconic status, and the fact that their individual persona’s had become more pronounced. It is also worth noting that the title could have a double meaning – it could be referring to Long Play 33 1/3 Rotations Per Minute, the speed that a vinyl record has to properly play, or it could be a word play on ‘Evolve’. John observed in 1969 and 1975:
“The sixties saw a revolution among youth – not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking. The youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution, which is really an evolution, and is continuing…We were a part of it and contributed what we contributed; I can’t designate what we did and didn’t do. It depends on how each individual was impressed by The Beatles, or how shock waves went to different people. We were going through the changes, and all we were saying was, ‘It’s raining up here’ or, ‘There’s land!’ or, ‘There’s sun!’ or, ‘We can see a seagull!’ We were just reporting what was happening to us.”
After a brief introduction – an audio loop, a cough, the chirp of a guitar, and the count-off, “Taxman” kicks things off, it’s a testament to George’s development as a songwriter that his track would lead off the album. Yet, ironically, it is Paul that plays that blistering lead guitar. “Eleanor Rigby” is significant on several fronts, one being the composition, the narrative description, the classical motif, and the willingness for the band to step out of themselves, to step out of their positive outlook, and acknowledge that there were a lot of working class people, that were leading lives of quiet desperation – those lonely (and lovely) people. That track alone – “Eleanor Rigby” would set up a template that other writers would follow, including Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, all of the way through to Aimee Mann. Geoff Emerick also made observations about the sonic innovations with “Eleanor Rigby’ after Paul had specifically instructed that he didn’t want the strings to sound like Mancini:
“String quartets were traditionally recorded with just one or two microphones, placed high, several feet up in the air so that sound of the bows scraping couldn’t be heard. But with Paul’s directive in mind, I decided to close-mic the instruments, which was a new concept. The musicians were horrified! One of them gave me a look of distain, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and said under his breath, “You can’t do that, you know.’”
One has to bear in mind that in the late fifties as Rock N’ Roller’s like Elvis or Buddy Holly started to go pop and use string sections, the strings often sounded banal, and generic. Something that McCartney was probably instinctively fighting to avoid, but McCartney and Emerick’s instincts were correct, and revolutionary.

John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” is a whimsical acoustic pop number with George’s crisp, distorted guitar fills and the introduction to backwards guitar. When the Anthology CD’s were released, this is one of the tracks presented a different arrangement including vibes, this being indicative of this period, where the Beatles by ’66, had the luxury of not settling for one arrangement and then moving on, but could find the ideal voice of a song. George’s cavalcade of guitar at the end of the track, segway’s nicely into his own track.

George’s “Love You To” was his first proper attempt at an Indian composition, although it isn’t pure replication being that an acoustic guitar, and some heavily distorted guitars drive the rhythm, Tabla player Anil Bhagwat adds to the track, and Jimmy Page would eventually do the same on his “Black Mountain Side” on the first Zeppelin album – but the track was an important template, the blending of rock, pop and world music would become commonplace. Peter Gabriel would build his entire career on the merging of such sensibilities, as well as Paul Simon.

In many respects Paul is one of the most natural melodic songwriters, putting forth a melody seems to second nature to him, and this strength was never more evident in “Here, There and Everywhere”; one of his most liked, and highly regarded tunes, and one that John would eventually site as a favorite.

“Yellow Submarine” is in essence a children’s tune, written by Paul and John for Ringo, the inclusion of topical sound effects set another precedent, and Pink Floyd, the band that fittingly Norman Smith was assigned to produce by the end of 1966, would take these techniques to new heights. It should be noted that Syd’s final Pink Floyd track, “Jugband Blues” (1968) shares a similar structure with a marching brass band interlude, but the sentiment was darker, surreal, and disturbing. John’s “She Said She Said” is one of those few mid tempo acid rock numbers, inspired by an LSD experience, John’s overdriven guitar, and George’s heavy fuzz lead weaves together nicely. Paul observed in 1997 about “She Said She Said”:
“Very much John. It’s a nice one. I like the title “She Said She Said”, which I think was made up on the session. John brought it in pretty much finished, I think. I’m not sure but I think it was one of the only Beatle records I never played on. I think we’d had a barney or something and I said, “Oh, fuck you!” and they said, “Well, we’ll do it.” I think George played bass.”

Geoff Emerick has also revealed that “She Said She Said” was the last thing recorded for the album, when they were a track short from the standard fourteen track long-player.

Often Rubber Soul is dubbed the pot album, and Revolver is dubbed the LSD album, but I feel that overstates and simplifies matters. While the drugs may have inspired the band to take more risks and become more fearless, McCartney and Lennon have admitted they were never able to function properly in the studio, nor be productive while under the influence, yet there remains this romanticism about playing while stoned.

It needs to be noted that we have only discussed the first seven tracks, and already the album has shown a staggering range, the second half is no less full of surprises. Paul’s “Good Day Sunshine” was written in the spirit of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Triad Jazz as Paul has described it, what is interesting about the piano work is one can’t tell if it was all Paul, several of the more bluesy riffs sound like John’s playing style, which would later be evidenced in his Plastic Ono Band and “Imagine” album. John’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” is the most brisk rocker from the album, and attempts a harmonized lead. Again it should be noted that the version heard on the Anthology CD, was altogether different – the 12 string jangle arrangement.

Paul’s “For No One” – like “Here”, is the other highly regarded track, also cited by John as a favorite, and features the first classical solo featured on a Beatles track, played by Alan Civil, it wouldn’t be the last. John’s “Doctor Robert” was inspired by a real event, and seems a sly dig at the Hollywood prescription drug chic that was prevalent in the day.

Something needs to be said about George’s songwriting output during this period, it has been noted that if George were in any other band, he would have been regarded as a very good writer, but had to compete with the giant talents of McCartney / Lennon. George’s third offering, “I Want To Tell You” manages to tuck in an unusual chord, and perhaps the track influenced the sustained / augmented chord choices one could find with contemporary alternative or the art rock scene. George observed in his 1980 book:
“I Want To Tell You is about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit…the mind is the thing that hops about telling us to do this and do that – when what we need is to lose (forget) the mind. A passing thought.”
Paul’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”, a clever ode to pot nonetheless, might be responsible for shaping the careers of bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and Earth, Wind & Fire, with its jazzy, biting, horn quartet. Geoff Emerick observed in 2006 after commenting on Eleanor Rigby:
“No one had heard strings like that before, and neither had they heard brass the way I recorded it on “Got To Get You Into My Life”. Again, I close-miked the instruments – actually put the mics right down into the bells instead of the standard technique of placing them four feet away – and then applied severe limiting to the sound. There were only five players on the session, and when it came time to mix the song, Paul kept saying, “I wish we could make the brass sound bigger.”…That’s where I came up with the idea of dubbing the horn track onto a fresh piece of two-track tape, then playing it back alongside the multitrack, but just slightly out of sync, which had the effect of doubling the horns. I loved Paul’s singing on that song, too – he really let loose.”
Yet is was John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” that broke the most ground - built around a processed drum and bass track, with a hint of organ, the swirl of tape loops was a sonic revelation, with a little dose of George’s backwards guitar, and a little jangle piano for good measure, the track laid the groundwork for an entire new genre, although it would be decades before that would be realized.

Not only has Revolver remained my personal favorite, and many music writers have arrived at the same sentiment, I would have to argue, it had the most profound impact. For decades, Sgt. Pepper was hailed as the most important rock album, and most profound by many critics, but upon closer scrutiny the second half of the album doesn’t hold up as well. While Sgt. Pepper enjoys the highest ratio of ‘firsts’, the first – loosely – concept album, the first to include lyrics, the cover and gatefold, George Martin’s orchestral arrangements and production. The second half of the album is guilty of filler with “Good Morning, Good Morning, Lovely Rita” and there’s a good argument for the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, and is only held together by John’s profound “A Day In The Life”, but Revolver is filled with great songs, it remains interesting and varied, and leaves you wanting more.

This brings us the thrust of the point; that Revolver set up the template for countless bands, pointing musicians to new directions with where they could go. The power pop of Cheep Trick, Sweet, Def Leppard could be found with “Taxman, She Said She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing, Doctor Robert”. The singer / songwriter, balladeer of Billy Joel, Carol King, Adell could be found with “Eleanor Rigby, Here, There & Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine” and “For No One”, or rock and progressive rock’s dalliances with classical with “Eleanor Rigby”. The aforementioned “Love You To” and it’s influence on world music, and the tape loops of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which would lead to trance, ambient, techno, or the experimentation of Miles Davis with his 1972 album, On The Corner.

The tree that is Revolver branches off with its influences on countless bands, in so many directions, that such a list would be profound and encompassing. While I consider the entire Beatles catalogue essential listening, Revolver deserves the credit it enjoys, and should be reassessed by every generation of music fan.

Producer: George Martin
Arrangers: The Beatles, George Martin
Composers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Cover: Klaus Voormann

Tracks: Side one (UK version):  
Eleanor Rigby  
I’m Only Sleeping  
Love You To
Here, There and Everywhere  
Yellow Submarine  
She Said She Said

Side Two (UK version)  
Good Day Sunshine  
And Your Bird Can Sing  
For No One  
Doctor Robert
I Want To Tell You  
Got To Get You Into My Life
Tomorrow Never Knows

You can download the album from iTunes
Or you can order it on-line from Barnes & Nobel
Next up: Led Zeppelin III