1966: Revolver at 50

1966 The Beatles' Revolver at 50

The third of Jokerside’s tributes to the mighty cornerstone of pop culture that was 1966 links back to the first. It’s August 1966 and the arrival of the second of two musical landmarks that heralded the start of something new. A few months after The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles were about to turn into something else entirely … Revolver, released 50 years ago today.

Yet you may see the meaning of within… It is being, it is being

IN THE MIDST OF A CULTURAL EXPLOSION, UNCHALLENGED SINCE, MUSIC, FILM, TELEVISION AND ALL MANNER OF MEDIA EXPLODED IN 1966. It collided with street level pop culture revolution, simultaneously responding to and dousing those same flames with its own intoxicating fuel. Sat prime in the cultural decade that reached from 1963 to 1974, it blended with the baby boomers’ coming of age, the counter-culture and social revolutions that set a template that’s still felt today.

It had been building for some time. And having played a huge part in the beginnings of the cultural revolution in 1963, four years and six albums into their career, The Beatles were perfectly placed to help this seminal time reach its apex. They were also in the right place. The first two long-reads in this 1966 series have necessarily dwelt in America, celebrating the immediate success of Batman the television series and the May release of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. But few places could rival London as a hotbed for the ongoing revolution. And unlike The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and other bands who’d sprung from the capital, The Beatles had soon left the Merseybeat boom in the early sixties when they led the British invasion of America and by the mid-1960s were lodged in the British capital as observers as much as instigators. But unlike many other bands of the time, The Beatles’ output rarely responded or referenced the cultural shifts around them. Typically, the songs, films and long players that emerged from their prolific work-rate rose sat self-contained. Above that. But 1966 caught them on a cusp.

Spinning disks

“I was alone, I took a ride…”

Writing about Revolver always feels daunting task, as it teeters on the brink of full pelt worship. But subjective as The Beatles’ back catalogue is, it’s helped by its incredible quality. Picking a favourite tune from The Beatles’ output may wax and wane from day to day, season to season, but this writer’s favourite songs don’t sit on Revolver. Nor is the distinctive, monochromatic album cover their best. The difference comes on the turntable. While every Beatle album is an enjoyable album to spin, Revolver couldn’t have been better named. It slots together from that sleeve to the split of the sides, the balance of the tracks and the inspiration of its musicians make for a combination greater than the sum of its quality parts. It’s simply the greatest record playing experience in the Beatles’ oeuvre.

True, it followed close on the heels of albums like A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul each of which marked a new step in maturity, skills and depth for the band. But compared to the huge, influential leaps into the unknown that followed, Revolver is a clear tipping point. Balanced and varied, emotional deep and frivolously disrespectful, it’s an album of the future.

Because what Revolver does is something different altogether. It shows the Beatles at their full power: a live band, whose players were just about cohesive, before later albums found them drifting apart. That later divergence would take them on to higher plains, but the looser fit abandoned the energetic phenomenon that was the Fab Four, the unbreakable force that had defined Beatlemania.

Cohesion would remain in aspects of the albums that followed of course. But in many ways Revolver is the end of one Beatles story. The songs between it and its successor Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started a revolutionary new tale altogether.

At the end of the road, Abbey Road brought back the illusion of beautiful collaboration but from the work of many band members toiling in pairs or on their own, while most were working on solo projects. As a result, that album incorporates the worst excess of both McCartney and Lennon, left unchecked, where Revolver had demonstrated the power of the two working together just a few years before. The rivalry had stretched too far. Before Abbey Road, Let it Be featured a notably unified sound and blues sentiment under the brash production of Phil Spector, but that plastered over growing disdain for each other and multiple disagreements that had grown from mid-1960’s grumbling. Before that, Magical Mystery Tour was to find them rudderless without Brian Epstein, trying the experiment of McCartney leadership. Even Revolver’s follow-up Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a fraction too far into the band’s splintering. The arrival of facial hair and new costumes came with a studio-bound band that had left touring behind. Revolver was the lightning period, the tipping point. The Beatles’ recording era had arrived, where they had chosen studio over road. That, among other things…

Turning off the amps

“A love that should have lasted years…”

In March 1966, in interview with The Evening Standard’s Maureen Cleave, John Lennon responded to a question on Christianity by saying, “We’re more popular than Jesus right now”. It was a remark that would dog the next six months, reaching a peak on 12 August when the band embarked on what would be their final American tour, just seven days after the release of Revolver. Despite Lennon’s attempt at clarification in Chicago, it was a remark that wouldn’t go away. March also found them caught in the fall-out from the Yesterday and Today photo shoot. An attempt to satirise the band’s fame, the end result featuring the four members in butcher garb surrounded by doll body parts unsurprisingly caught the attention.

Mid-way through the American tour, a concert in Memphis that was originally cancelled by the City Council was disrupted when a firecracker exploded and everyone expected an assassination attempt on Lennon. That gig, featuring the standard set-list of just under an hour, was described having a nasty undertone, something that doesn’t seem to have left as the band continued on the road to Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August.

Earlier in 1966, an Asian tour concluded prematurely in India after a catastrophic leg in the Philippines that found The Beatles inadvertently upsetting the ruling Marcos regime, having police protection withdrawn and suffering countless attacks on their entourage as well as a last minute demand for money on the runway. Tricky tours combined with the increasing difficulty the band had translating their advancing sound to performance. For safety, Beatles concerts were staged in arenas, flooded with a  supernatural screaming from the moment the Fabs appeared to the moment they walked off-stage that meant the band couldn’t hear each other or their instruments. For a band built on harmony, shrugging off the pop star tag in favour of ground-breaking musicianship, the number was up for live performance by the end of August. As Ringo recalled in the Anthology, more than anyone, it was John Lennon more than anyone who’d had enough.

As manager Brian Epstein was reported as saying at the band’s decision to abandon live touring to spend more time in the studio, “What am I going to do now?” He didn’t give up trying to convince the band to return to the road, but he never succeeded in his lifetime. Brian Epstein would die almost exactly one year after their final performance at Candlestick Park.

Brackets

“When I’m in the middle of a dream …”

The Revolver period falls between two single releases, both of which never made it onto the main LPs released during 1966 or 1967.

Recorded in April, Paperback Writer was released on 30 May in the US and 10 June in the UK. Making number one in both countries and many others across the globe, Lennon later described the tune as the son of his Day Tripper, but it’s almost entirely McCartney’s work. It carries some odd and rather sad distinctions. Although well known, it failed to make Revolver and surfaced only in the December 1966 compilation A Collection of Beatles Oldies in the UK, and the Hey Jude collection in the rest of the world in 1970. B-Side Rain is often hailed as the band’s greatest second string song, a Lennon-led drug ballad dominated by overpowering sonics.

While Paperback Writer was the newest song to make The Beatles final tour in late summer 1966, it was also the first single since She Loves You not to sail straight into the number one slot in the UK. Recorded in 11 hours, the process  wasn’t without tension, particular down to a highly motivated McCartney. He logged more studio time than anyone else, but was also increasingly fastidious about his other bandmate’s parts, particularly Harrison’s guitar line. These splits in recording ethic and practise are clear on the subsequent Revolver album.

Paperback Writer is a pelting, relatively simple but intriguing song that nodded to two things. Tellingly, it’s styled as a letter, unusual for their work up to that point. But it might also be The Beatles’ most obvious acknowledgement of the Swinging Sixties, commentary on which they had generally left to their London-based contemporaries.

In November 1966 and January 1967, touring left behind them, The Beatles would return to the studio following the release of Revolver and a three month break: their most substantial holiday in four years. Lennon had landed a part in How I won the War before meeting Yoko Ono; McCartney had diversified his music interests while writing a film score; Harrison travelled to India and met Ravi Shankar; Ringo mostly stayed at home and may have bought a car.

Emerging in February, the result of those winter sessions would became the double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. That balance is only mildy ruined by the recording of When I’m Sixty-Four in-between those two classic tracks. However, their release as a single marked them out from the Sgt Pepper’s album that surfaced in June 1967. The double A-side may have suffered the ignominy, as some of the best songs do, of being pipped to number one (in this case by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me) but it otherwise stands as the perfect dichotomy of Lennon and McCartney.

The Revolver sessions were well and truly over, but The Beatles speed of work was still a marvel in that incredible year.

Into 1966

“I’ll be writing more in a week or two…”

In May, Jokerside marked the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, astonishingly the American group’s 11th studio album and regarded as McCartney as the best he’s ever heard. While that was in its own way a response to Rubber Soul, released in America with a folk-leaning mix which Wilson described as going “together like no album ever made before”, the Pet Sounds influence on McCartney was clear. Or it partially was. The Beach Boy’s record company rush released the band’s interpretation of the traditional Sloop John B earlier 1966, a track that had a definite influence on the vocal arrangement of Paperback Writer. But Pet Sounds itself wouldn’t be released in the UK until July 1966, shortly after the Fab Four had left the studio and the Revolver sessions behind.

That said, 1966 wasn’t a year lacking in inspiration and competition. This was the year of The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and when The Jimi Hendrix Experience formed. There was a healthy rivalry within the UK music scene and also across the Atlantic, but The Beatles were at the fore. And Revolver was a clear indication of that.

Revolver (1966)

“Both of us thinking how good it can be …”

The Beatles seventh album was recorded between early-April and mid-June 1966. After hoping to record in a more modern studio than the EMI Studios in North London, the Fab Four ended up once again in Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin, this time assisted by freshly promoted engineer Geoff Emerick. Lennon had promised a different sound for this album, so it’s perhaps no surprise, although contrary to the flow of the final LP, that the first track they worked on was Tomorrow Never Knows, and the last, also from Lennon, was She Said, She Said. Fitting in the Paperback Writer and Rain sessions in between, what unfurled that heady spring would be a punchy 35 minutes of innuendo, psychedelia, barely concealed drug allusion, Asian inspiration, classical composition and the a big marker on the road to modern dance music. This was a band fast growing up and the album let alone the listeners had to get used to it.

Taxman

It leads with a Harrison number, the first of three. And not only that, a spiky referential piece of pointed satire. While one for the ages, at the time it showed a band increasingly mindful of the events that surrounded them, even if George’s perception was shrewder than the others. The countdown, recorded a fair while after the track, makes for a strange opener. But what’s odder is that Harrison couldn’t get to grips with his own guitar line, even at half-speed. Although he would more than reprieve himself during the sessions, McCartney filled in alongside his own storming bass. Considering his rising star, Harrison’s three contributions to Revolver were in spite of Lennon and McCartney, who were increasingly less inclined to help (pander to) the third and junior song-writer.

Eleanor Rigby

Some might say this is McCartney at his best. It’s stylised compared to the lilting baroque of companion piece For No One on Side Two. It’s highly distinctive, a dark concept pulled together by the band and friends one evening from McCartney’s first verse. Well, apart from Lennon, who no one wanted to credit with much help. It comes into its own thanks to George Martin’s arrangement though, an addition taken from McCartney’s notes but one that would give the rocking Beatle pause when he first heard it. Classical backing and death. Pure shock pop in 1966.

I’m Only Sleeping

McCartney appeared to be immensely motivated in 1966, and hugely irritating. But his early starts, pulling up to Lennon’s house long before that Beatle got up, would have unexpected consequences. It was while waiting for Lennon around his pool that McCartney developed the sublime Here, there and Everywhere. And it was Lennon’s tired irritation in the hold of various psychedelic compounds that led to this underrated classic. Along with Doctor Robert, a prime slice of ambiguous lyrics (Lennon’s certainly sibilancing “seeping” throughout), it’s also a key component in the Revolver’s advanced sound. The vari-speed was intricately worked out, as was Harrison’s reversed Indian-style guitar line. Beguiling stuff.

Love You To

Perhaps the most difficult fit on the album, Harrison’s second big moment brought the sitar to bear. Much was apparently thanks to an unnamed sitar player who attended the session, but still, this was an influential start emerging from meticulously laboured authenticity.

Here, There and Everywhere

I’d have to agree with Lennon, McCartney and later George Martin in his sleeve notes for Beatles cover album In My Life. This is my favourite McCartney song. It’s so utterly well balanced, thanks huge effort being spent on the harmonies over its three day recording that it can’t help be utter sugar. There’s no pretence about that.

Yellow Submarine

Obligatory Ringo song and campfire classic, it’s probably the drummer’s most famous vocal and its palette of nonsense effects threw up some of the best recording anecdotes, including Lennon’s near- electrocution from a microphone submerged in milk. And that was after he was talked out of singing underwater. Featuring backing chorus contributions from Brian Jones, Donovan and Marianne Faithful among others it’s the song some brandish in criticism of The Beatles. Any reply has to point out that it sits on Revolver. Taking its place along with along two other tracks from this album, it added strength to the film of the same name that emerged two years later, if not structure.

She Said She Said

Famously inspired by the freaky words of Peter Fonda during an acid trip he had with The Beatles in and The Byrds in 1965 (showing the wound from a bullet that had almost killed him as a child, Lennon was annoyed, Harrison freaked out), the ever contrary Lennon lets his irritation shine through in a truly awkward and astonishing song. But then, Lennon was lagging and had to pull something out the bag to challenge McCartney come the end of the sessions. He managed to do it. And Revolver’s all the more powerful because of it.

Good Day Sunshine

Away from the delicate brilliance of other McCartney contributions, a surprisingly stuttering splurge of good-naturedness. It slots in musical japery and frippery that entertained composers and arrangers alongside some decided innuendo that still amuses today. Most of all, it’s a real child of the glorious brewing summer of ’66. Revolver emerged from English heat.

And Your Bird Can Sing                

Quite difficult to listen too after the nuanced mucking around of McCartney’s Good Day Sunshine, And your Bird Can Sing joins the drug-fuelled discussions of She Said She Said and Rain, the latter recorded a week or so earlier. Proof that drug-inspired doesn’t equate with easy, it went through a multiple versions and even a rewrite to make it on to the album.

For No One

Looking ahead to Sgt Pepper’s, it’s not quite as perfect as Here, There and Everywhere… But then it leaves behind the love song behind to reflect the end of an affair. McCartney would return to various parts of a relationship again across his career, but probably never so well. Oh, and a great deal of its brilliance was down to master wrangler of the French horn Alan Civil, who put up with a strange structure and constant demands from the young composer in the studio… And might have knocked McCartney’s block off had the distinguished player not been such a professional.

Doctor Robert

Perfect deception, much to Lennon’s pleasure, fusing a nursery rhyme to the tale of a drug dealing American doctor in the ears of his young and impressionable listeners. Potently full of Lennon’s, at that time, repressed commentary on Acid culture, it’s quite possibly the highlight of Lennon and McCartney’s balance. For that reason, real transitional stuff.

I Want to Tell You

Harrison mark three, the first time the other song-writer had managed it. It duly received less attention than Lennon or McCartney’s pieces, but a further, irregular indication of the Indian influence to come.

Got to Get You into My Life

The soul heart of the album, thanks to McCartney’s trial and error attempts to emulate The Supremes. Many covers have attempted to out-soul the original, but solving that riddle’s beaten everyone.

Tomorrow Never Knows

This is where the future started, at the beginning of the sessions, at the end of the album. The title emerging from one of Ringo’s witty ad hoc sayings (and fortunately making it further than the drummer’s suggestion that the LP should be called AfterGeography in reference to the Stones’ Aftermath), although it’s a phrase never referenced in the song. The lyrics and sentiment came from the experience of Lennon’s third LSD trip in the January of that year, listening to a recording of Timothy Leary et al’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead while on the up. The result is one of the defining songs of the 1960s, perhaps the most influential pop song of the past 50 years.

“Of the beginning, of the beginning…”

In some ways, Revolver’s both the transition album and the second part of a loose trilogy, benefiting in the way many middle parts do. Or it could be, if only The Beatles’ work was so easy to define. Between the brilliant, punchy and generally far more joyously listenable Rubber Soul, that had already seen The Beatles leap forward in their trade, and the ground-breaking concept of the album that followed, they were working at an extraordinary level. Catching them at their peak, all causes of future separation and sources of inspiration were in these  14 tracks.

Revolver emerged in early August 1966.

By the autumn The Beatles would have re-emerged as a different band altogether. McCartney and Lennon’s perfect alignment on the likes of Doctor Robert splitting into two perfect sides of the same single. And of course, only managing a number two in their homeland.

The black tops and bowl cuts were gone, touring was out the picture… Sgt Pepper had arrived.

Return to May – 1966: Pet Sounds at 50

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