Friday, August 5, 2016

The Beatles' Revolver turns 50

50 years ago today, on August 5, 1966, the Beatles released Revolver, an artistic breakthrough for the band which many would call the greatest rock album of all time.

1. The first song on the album, "Taxman," is by George Harrison, but Paul McCartney deserves a lot of credit for both the classic bassline and the manic lead guitar. Paul's guitar solo (which, unusually, is heard twice in the song) seems to have been influenced by George's growing interest in Indian classical music, and foreshadows the vocal melismas in George's next song on the album, "Love You To" (the last word of each verse in that song — "meeeeee" — evokes the middle of the "Taxman" guitar solo).

2. The Beatles had previously used a string quartet in "Yesterday," but the second song on Revolver, "Eleanor Rigby," was the first time they used no instruments other than strings and voice. It's also one of the earliest Beatles songs to focus on specific characters beyond the standard personal pronouns (you/I/she/he), paving the way for "Penny Lane," for instance. With its themes of loneliness, religion, and death, "Eleanor Rigby" was a shockingly weighty and profound song for a band that used to be best known for teen-oriented pop songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

3. The Beatles used backwards guitar for the first time in John Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping."

4. George's second song on the album, "Love You To" wasn't the Beatles' first use of sitar (which was in "Norwegian Wood"), but it was their first song with only Indian instruments and voice.

5. John was generally very critical of Paul, but they both agreed that "Here, There, and Everywhere" was one of Paul's best songs.

6. "Yellow Submarine" — a song so colorful and childlike it gave rise to an animated movie.

7. "She Said, She Said" features a brilliant use of shifting time signatures: the song starts in the standard rock 4/4 (when singing about the present), then switches to a 3/4 waltz once he sings about "when I was a boy . . ." I don't have a link to the album version (I assume you own it or can stream it), but Ringo Starr's drumming on this song is some of his best.

8. John's acidic "She Said, She Said" is nicely juxtaposed with Paul's ebullience in the next song on Revolver, "Good Day Sunshine."

9. George and Paul brilliantly harmonized their guitar parts on John's "And Your Bird Can Sing."

10. "For No One" is one of my very favorite Beatles songs. Paul perfectly fused lyrics to music here. The slow, methodical chord changes in the verse reflect the singer's dwelling on the breakup and trying to analyze things from every possible perspective. Then the emotional intensity is heightened by the shift to a minor key in the chorus ("and in her eyes you see nothing . . .").

11. In his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald calls "Dr. Robert" "one of The Beatles' most incisive pieces." MacDonald explains:

Concerning a New York doctor who habituated his socialite clients to narcotics by mixing methedrine with vitamin shots, the song shifts key evasively, stabilising only in its middle eight — an evangelical sales-pitch backed by pious harmonium and warbling choirboys. Lennon's caustic vocal . . . is matched by McCartney's huckstering harmony in fourths ('he's a man you must believe') and by Harrison's double-tracked guitar, with its unique blend of sitar and country-and-western.

12. "I Want to Tell You" is George's third and last song on Revolver. George usually had a maximum of two songs per album; this is the only time George got three songs on a normal-length Beatles album. (The White Album had four, but it was a double album.)

13. "Got to Get You Into My Life" is an outstanding Paul song in a Motown vein.

14. The last song on Revolver, "Tomorrow Never Knows," is one of the most startling in the Beatles' whole catalog. The basic song is unusually simple for the Beatles: there's just one melody (no vocal harmonies), one drum beat, and two chords repeated over and over. That kind of minimalism was rare in 1966. The lyrics are the most blatantly drug-inspired of any Beatles song: "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream . . . Listen to the color of your dream . . ."

What's truly ground-breaking about the recording is the tape loops which each Beatle made at home and brought to the studio to be added to the mix. Ian MacDonald lists the five loops (most of which were speeded up): (1) a seagull-like sound, which is actually Paul laughing; (2) an orchestra playing a chord; (3) a Mellotron (a precursor to the synthesizer) played on the "flute" setting; (4) a Mellotron played on the "strings" setting; and (5) a sitar. The song also includes a backwards, cut-up version of the guitar solo from "Taxman." MacDonald observes that the loops are played "in cross rhythm, invit[ing] the audience to lose its time-sense in a brilliantly authentic evocation of the LSD experience."

Here are the original tape loops in isolation, one after another (not as they're heard on the record):


Bob R said...

Very nice post (including several definitions of "nice.") I'm a little too young to have participated in the debut. (Abbey Road was one of my first albums; then I started to work backwards.) I got Yesterday and Today - a American album containing some songs from Revolver - from the bargain bins. Revolver is a much more well thought-out album. I'm a big fan of And Your Bird Can Sing for reasons that are not entirely rational. It was my favorite on Yesterday and Today. Whenever anyone covers it well, it makes my night. Paul always gave his best efforts on guitar and bass on songs written by John and George.

David said...

Took a lot of effort to put this together. Thanks and very good job.

Heartless Aztec said...

Yellow Submarine is a beloved English pub song these fifty years later.

David Begley said...

Nice work; no easy task to put this together.

Anonymous said...

Is not Lennon's inspiration for She Said She Said someone's account of (temporarily) dying on an operating table? Maybe Steve McQueen? Think I read that somewhere.