It was 1966; the world a-buzz with music that caused adults to tut, hippies smoking trees, dancing VW campervans, and love that required no financial transactions. After The Beatles’ Icarus-esque flight near the sun in which – against tradition – their waxy wings didn’t melt but remained cool and sturdy despite the band comfortably landing on the Sun’s hot plasma surface, The Beatles found themselves tired and weary after years of non-stop touring around the world to millions of screaming fans.
They had just finished a tour of the UK which, luckily for them, was rather short when compared to their previous tours, and were given three months off; the longest amount of free time they had been granted since the early mop-top days of ’62. This gave The Beatles the opportunity to expand their knowledge, their influences, and their minds. John Lennon was delving deep into Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and psychedelic texts about “the self” and “the ego” – albeit whilst consuming an ungodly amount of LSD. McCartney – the more stable and sensible one of the writing duo – explored the likes of ahead-of-the-curve experimental musicians John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Classical music. George Harrison, after dabbling with the sitar in the song ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ on Rubber Soul, fully immersed himself in the world of Indian music – specifically in the music of Ravi Shankar. All of these factors were necessary in order to produce arguably the best Beatles album – and therefore album in general – of all time; Revolver.
The are many reasons as to why Revolver is seen as The Beatles most important album.
Firstly, it was the first dramatic change in their sound. Whilst one could cite large developments in the complexity and diversity of The Beatles’ sound and lyrics with their previous record Rubber Soul – which was certainly a turning point – that explored love seen through a la vie en rose perspective but with a folkish hue, and even find hints of it in Help! with Dylan-esque songs (‘Help!’, ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’, etc) about isolation, loss and desperation – albeit delivered with a sugar coating using catchy riffs and upbeat melodies. But in regards to Revolver however, their music is barely recognisable when compared to the innocent, pop, simplistic 2-and-a-bit minute hits of Beatlemania, with a dramatic change in sound comparable probably to Radiohead’s transition from ‘OK Computer’ to ‘Kid A’.
The track ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for example is a Bernard Herrmann influenced, classical, baroque number about the existential melancholy of quaint English church villages, death, and loneliness, conveyed through the stabbing, cello-filled orchestration of producer George Martin, sounding reminiscent of the main theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. The song is utterly captivating; dotted with surreal but haunting imagery, with lines like: “Waits at the window/ wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door/ Who is it for?” and “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear/ No one comes near”. However, this is counteracted in the album by the infectious, McCartney-esque optimism of bouncy jaunt ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ridiculously catchy crowd-pleaser ‘Yellow Submarine’.
Secondly, it can be safely asserted that Revolver was The Beatles first proper foray into psychedelic music; a genre that they would determine a third of their musical output, with the future releases of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and portions of The White Album; expanding upon this sound to the Nth degree. Whilst The Beatles couldn’t help but drop the occasional drug reference in their earlier, more innocent songs like ‘Day Tripper’ or ‘She’s a Woman’, or tried out whiffs of psychedelic, experimental effects, such as the guitar feedback intro of ‘Ticket to Ride’, Revolver is an all-out assault; utilising never-before-used studio techniques in order to create a completely unique sound. (Interestingly, Bob Dylan – who introduced The Beatles to marijuana in 1964 at a party – was surprised to find that they had no experience with the drug, having assumed that they did based on mishearing the lyric ‘I can’t hide’ as ‘I get high’ from their 1963 hit ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. The drug reference in McCartney’s ‘She’s a Woman’ (‘Turn me on when I get lonely’) was added at the behest of Lennon in order to give Dylan a “real” drug reference for him find).
The drug-induced haziness of the Lennon written song ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, for example, was the first ever use of backwards guitar on a record. The idea of reversing sounds, vocals and instruments was discovered by accident when Lennon, suitably tired and stoned from a long recording session that day, put the tape of that day’s musical output into the tape recorder backwards. After sitting there, transfixed for a few moments by these alien sounds, Lennon ran into the studio the next day shouting “LISTEN TO THIS!”. This, combined with the sonic droning of the sped-up and slowed-down tracks, creates a layered, mood-enhancing feel utterly conducive to self-reflection and the nature of perception – further explored in the album’s accompanying B-side ‘Rain’.
The epitome of this sound is found on the last track of the album, with the psychedelic tour de force ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. A Lennon piece inspired by LSD-guidance tome ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ played in its entirety in the chord of C, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a soundscape, comprised of the hypnotic drumming of Ringo Starr, trance-inducing bass-drone, random tape loops of orchestra, laughing, mellotron, flutes and sitar – all spliced together by McCartney in a musique concrète fashion. This is the song one refers to when confronted with someone who dismisses The Beatles, claiming that their sound could be reduced down to ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’.
Furthermore, Revolver contains three song contributions from George Harrison; his previous contributions being limited to one or two songs per album (although not for lack of trying). His first contribution, ‘Taxman’, is the album’s opener; a real rock and roll head-banger about Harrison’s dissatisfaction with Harold Wilson’s supertax. Also written by Harrison is the heavily Indian inspired ditty ‘Love You Too’ which, many critics agree, fits in better in Revolver than Harrison’s other Indian contribution in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with the song ‘Within You, Without You’.
If Lennon is the master of lyrics, McCartney is certainly the master of melody. McCartney includes two of arguably his greatest – but most underrated – songs, with ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘For No One’. Always overlooked by the public in favour of ‘Let it be’ or ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ is a mesmerising lullaby dedicated to love, with a lyrical rhythm and melody that rivals The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ (of which McCartney is a huge fan). Always cited by McCartney as the favourite of his own songs, Lennon too said in a number of interviews that he considered it the best of his musical partner’s work. This is then balanced with the longing sadness and regret of ‘For No One’; a nostalgic piano-plodding waltz about the end of a relationship that, as the song says, “should have lasted years”.
Revolver is a masterpiece that, although reaching its 50th anniversary today, has ripples caused by its initial splash that can be found in music still. With the resurgence of psychedelic music in recent years with bands such as Tame Impala (with lead singer Kevin Parker sounding like circa 1966-68 Lennon, back from the grave), Temples, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Triptides and Foxygen to name but a few, the influence of Revolver and The Beatles in general is alive and well – but still unequalled. In fact, I might just listen to Revolver all over again right now…