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Friday, 5 August 2011

The Beatles: Revolver


Forty five years ago (August 5, 1966) today, the Beatles released the album Revolver. It was their sixth studio album, eagerly awaited by millions of fans, and topped, inevitably, the album charts in both the UK and the USA.

There is a convention in rock history to regard the musical history of the Beatles as falling into two periods; the first from 1962 to 1966, from their first album, Please Please Me to Revolver; and the second from Sgt. Pepper to the break-up of the group in 1970. This division has much to do with the release of the two compilation double albums in 1973; 1962-1966 (The “Red” Album) and 1967-1970 (The "Blue" Album). For my generation, those who were children in the sixties and only really registered the Fab Four in their last years, or after their break-up, these were frequently among the first albums we bought – a chance to get the best of the greatest rock group ever and to spend long teenage afternoons listening to the songs again and again, mourning over the group’s breakup, apportioning blame for the same (with Yoko usually occupying the role of prime villainess) and speculating about the chances of a reunion.

The convention is strengthened by the accepted wisdom which acclaims Sgt Pepper as the greatest Beatles album, with everything before leading up to it and everything following as part of the long disintegration period leading to the ultimate break-up of the group. And there is certainly some validity in this view. Sgt Pepper is a magnificent album and encapsulates the Zeitgeist of the Summer of Love better than anything else which happened in 1967. 1966 saw the Beatles do their last live tour and their guiding mentor and manager, Brian Epstein (the “fifth Beatle”), died in August 1967. Looking back, John Lennon saw this event as the beginning of the end of the group, "I knew that we were in trouble then. ... I thought, we've fuckin' had it now."

But in August 1966, when Revolver was released, this was all still in the future and – despite all the growing pressure the group was under, particularly through touring – they were at their creative best. Lennon and McCartney were expanding in their musical maturity and sophistication, still working easily together, each taking the other’s ideas and mutually adding touches of refinement and genius, interacting instinctively with their producer, George Martin. The rivalry, which was always part of their relationship, had not yet reached the stage where it had started to poison things between them. Harrison was growing into his self-confidence as a musician and composer in his own right and Ringo was … well, Ringo was happy.

With all this in mind, I would like to suggest a different model for viewing the work and history of the Beatles between 1962 and 1970 (leaving aside the earlier Quarrymen and Hamburg period), divided into three periods; the Boy Group period, from Love Me Do to the film and album Help!, their harmonic peak of creativity and genius, where everything came together, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper, and the long period of increasing rancour and break-up from 1968 to 1970[*].

Against this background, then, Revolver becomes part of a triptych of albums. Following this artistic image, I would see Sgt Pepper as the central part of the picture with Rubber Soul (characterised by folk-rock influences) and Revolver (a stronger emphasis on electric-rock) forming the two framing elements.

However you want to see Revolver in the overall context of the musical history of the Beatles, you cannot deny that it is a wonderful album which stands the test of forty five years very well. From the opening sarcastic Taxman to the psychedelic final Tomorrow Never Knows it is a creative tour de force, which becomes even more evident when compared with an album like A Hard Day’s Night, released only two years earlier. This is not to knock AHDN, which is a fine pop album with many very good songs – nevertheless, the albums are musically light-years apart and the contrast shows just how much the group has grown in this period.

The Beatles were controversial in the latter half of the sixties because of their drug use – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds often being given as an example of a description of an LSD trip. While I have never really accepted the rather disingenuous denials of various members of the group regarding this, publicly they have been much more open about the effects of drugs on the creation of the songs on Revolver. Doctor Robert is about a fantasy doctor who cures his patients with drugs, McCartney has described Got To Get You Into My Life as “actually an ode to pot”, and confirms that Tomorrow Never Knows is about LSD trip. Shortly before his death, Lennon told how She Said She Said originated

“That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in the Beatles tour where we were having fun with the Byrds and lots of girls. Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, 'I know what it's like to be dead.' He was describing an acid trip he'd been on. We didn't 'want' to hear about that. We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing, and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties, and this guy-- who I really didn't know-- he hadn't made 'Easy Rider' or anything... kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, 'I know what it's like to be dead,' and we kept leaving him because he was so boring! And I used it for the song, but I changed it to 'she' instead of 'he.' It was scary... I don't want to know what it's like to be dead!”

I would like to say that I remember the release of Revolver as a significant event but I was only six years old and Bonanza, F Troop and, above all, Batman, were much more important to me at the time. But Revolver even had something for kids too and, certainly not later than 1967, if my memory serves me correctly, I remember singing Yellow Submarine with my friends. I certainly didn’t know it was from the album Revolver, I may not even have known it was by the Beatles, but one thing I did know … it was a cool song!




[*] In terms of albums, I would see the first clear signs of a lack of coherence as a group in The White Album. For Beatles purist fans, Magical Mystery Tour then becomes a possible subject of controversy as to which period it should be categorised under. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to see MMT as a sort of seamless continuation of Sgt Pepper – a coda, if you will, still following and utilising the wave of creativity which that album generated.



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