In 1966, people were out in the streets. It was a parade.
“GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE!”
It was an enthralling drama.
“Waits at the window… wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door… who is it for?”
And alone, the most alone that there is, it was a shuffling of old photos.
“No sign of love behind the tears, cried for no one…”
But also a tilting, shifting cable car hanging on by one hook.
“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream…”
There are albums, and there are Beatles albums. In many ways, the latter set the standard for the former. It is while listening to a Beatles album that you feel yourself spinning in an office chair, only to find that, when it stops, you are in fact on the ceiling. You look around and reckon it’s probably the better vantage point after all.
Fifty years ago, the Beatles gave us Revolver. Here I celebrate its triumphs.
By 1966, the Beatles had achieved an other-worldly status of celebrity. Their previous album, Rubber Soul, presented thoughtful gems among their most charming, and resoundingly critically acclaimed, works. Their massive following was not a fluke, and as they put more effort into the purely musical aspect of their artistry, they became increasingly disenchanted with touring. It is rumored that none of the band members could hear himself in a live setting over the screams of their young and largely female audience, a fun but evidently frustrating experience for such serious musicians. No, surely music had more in store for them — and the Beatles had more in store for music.
People often divide the lifespan of the Beatles into two very different phases. The first being a time of sing-songy sensation, during which the members were very young, excited, and maybe naïve; and the second, a time of considerable philosophical division among the musicians, who had been affected differently by years of global exposure. 1966 was about the halfway point of the Beatles’ arc. The drug use of lead guitarist George Harrison and frontman John Lennon — and later drummer Ringo Starr — challenged the unity of the band. Weed and LSD served as robust influences in Revolver, but the songwriting, previously largely dominated by Lennon, began to spread more equitably amongst the other songwriters in George and bassist Paul McCartney.
The recording process for the album was also radically different from their sessions for Rubber Soul and Help!. Revolver used multiple tracks and brilliant effects that would be difficult to replicate outside of the studio. The seemingly impossible live rendition of the album was not once attempted that same year during their subsequent and final Stateside tour.
With Revolver, the Beatles transitioned from being a pop band to something much bigger.
In contrast to its predecessors, Revolver is a patchwork of minds in various states of consciousness. It finds an odd theme, one that lends itself both to a painful intimacy and a shouting exuberance. Like in its cover artwork, Revolver’s architects gazed in different directions, backed by the tumult of their surroundings. With new influences, including aforementioned use of increasingly popular drugs and Harrison’s fascination with the culture of India, the recording of Revolver was bound to be slightly contentious. This new palette of sounds and ideas required the technical ability to portray them. With McCartney and Harrison having a stronger bearing on the direction of the album, Revolver became an amalgam of starkly contrasting works that somehow sounded like they each belonged to some solitary, agonized psyche. The voice of the finished Revolver speaks from a much larger body than its predecessors. Its command of specific niche styles, the kind of styles that have become timeless, remains a stunning triumph of both engineering and composition.
“There’s one for you, nineteen for me…”
The sound quality of the Beatles, throughout their later albums, is quintessential to their art. But the quality of the vocal performances on Revolver is par excellence. The late George Martin is to praise for this accomplishment. Not only “Taxman,” but also “She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” display the waxy, crisp texture of the Beatles’ vocals (principally provided by Lennon). “Taxman” begins the album with the sneering, swaggering Harrison tune. Its pristine balance, which sets the standard for all subsequent instrumentation,is achieved and surpassed by the second number, “Eleanor Rigby,” which revisits the string instrumentation that McCartney and Martin settled on with “Yesterday,” this time utilizing a deeper, sadder string octet. This time, the ensemble refuses to set a soft background for a wanting ballad, instead biting maliciously to the tune of McCartney’s dark short story. Without the expectation of live performance, this is the first instance of the Beatles abandoning the requirement. This is one of Paul’s finest songs, even though there are just a few of his “best of”s on this album. It exists in a very different dream than the carefree reveries of albums past. A love song this is not.
Moving through the once-again contrasting dream of Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” we approach one of the most important transitions of modern music. Harrison and Lennon welcome us to their own unique East. Through a sitar solo and riff, the strength of the Indian influence rises abruptly to the surface. With a plaintive lyric, “Love You To,” although a rather forgettable song in the midst of all-time classics, serves as one of the most important cornerstones of the new Beatles sound. After this, expectations can be discarded. There’s nothing left to predict, and so we can explore the rest of the album with fresh context. Ordinary band sounds are now a decision, rather than a default. The oeuvre has instantly doubled in size.
Today, the reminder of “Love You To” is doubly culturally paramount as it is musically. The second half of the Beatles’ discography is mired in meditation and the struggle of spiritual balance. The “Love You To” of today may sound relatively simple in comparison to the rest of the record, but its consequences on a global scale cannot be overlooked.
And then, as if the world changed season, “To lead a better life / I need my love to be here…”
Perhaps McCartney’s most charming ballad, “Here, There and Everywhere” is a gentle reminder that, yes, you can just smile and look at Her, and it’s all better. The song has the texture of a bath. It is similar to a sound of old, a fond recollection of giggling pillow talk, that leaked out of Rubber Soul. Perhaps it is the new context, but here, the song shines with a special veneer. Again, the sonic quality of McCartney’s voice is delectable. “Here, There and Everywhere” is a song that might cover your eyes from behind and have you guess its identity. And maybe it’s done it before, but you play along because it’s someone who cares about you. This is a 60s love, one that “never dies,” one that fifty years later still emanates warmth.
Revolver is also the one with “Yellow Submarine.”
“She Said She Said,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” come after “Yellow Submarine,” and together present another subset that follows the general rule of Revolver. The three songs build off ideas and feed more interesting quirks to the recipe of the record. McCartney and Lennon display their different approaches to the new Beatles, and each songwriter pretty much pulls it off. Remarkably, none of the three would work in either Rubber Soul or the succeeding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They belong to the same musical diary.
Another of McCartney’s great early ballads follows. In “For No One,” the instrumentation is fascinating, presenting Paul’s heartbreak with instruments that have seemingly broken hearts as well. It is more of a poem than a song, but fits elegantly with the neighboring Lennon rock songs. Once more, the disregard for the live rendition of the song creates a living, breathing piece of art which exists only in the studio. Followed by Harrison’s “I Want To Tell You” and Paul’s “Got To Get You Into My Life,” the whirlwind tour of the new Beatles’ sound seems endless. Listeners of today would probably be right in noting that these two are likely the weakest of the record. At the time, though, it was amazing that the Beatles were even capable of a turnaround like the one between “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life.” We know today that the Beatles are some of the most legendary musicians of all time, but at the time Revolver was released, it would be foolish to make such an assertion. These are probably statement tracks, which is probably the reason why they sound so dated. But Revolver isn’t finished just yet…
You’re on the ceiling.
The creativity has boiled over. The Beatles are running their records backwards, and fuck if it isn’t the coolest shit. There’s no way of knowing if you are now Hindu. You’re on the ceiling; no one’s judging you for being one with everything here. In fact, that’s how you got here in the first place.
“It is knowing. It is knowing.”
Yes, there is practically no song to it, but isn’t that partially the point? “Tomorrow Never Knows” still succeeds in razing everything in its path. Your impression of the Beatles is no exception. I believe this to be George Martin’s greatest accomplishment. “A Day In The Life” is a master work, but no more than is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” TNK launches itself and its creators into special, enduring place in legend. There are not many songs for which there is a corresponding “before” and “after.” TNK achieves this and more. This is not Indian classical music, this is not Britpop. This is music, as defined henceforth by the Beatles. It sounds just as groundbreaking today as ever.
It has been fifty years since this work was revealed to the world. The Beatles of 1966 stopped being a machine of love songs. They collected these broken, estranged pieces of their world and submitted them to their gravity. Revolver is a work not only of pleasant, progressive pop but also a work of dedicated exploration. This band had every intention to find doors and to permanently open them — and they succeeded. After Revolver, the world knew what it meant to assemble an album without a roof.
The Beatles have aged remarkably well, in spite of continually dated radio saturation. In fact, it is important — and timely — to revisit this work. The Beatles discography was recently released to streaming services, and so many listeners are exploring their collection with zero prior exposure, likely exclusively encountering their classics. Oddly enough, Revolver is not an album with many of the Beatles’ lasting masterpieces. In many respects, it is an intermediary between “Love Me Do” and “Helter Skelter.” But many regard Revolver as the Beatles’ most interesting deviation from the then-contemporary musical norm. Without Revolver, their next works, which are widely regarded as their most important, would not have been remotely possible.
The experience of listening to this album is as musically and temporally paramount now as ever. The thought of a world population hearing Revolver for the first time is chilling. It’s a pit in your stomach. But, instead of festering there, the pit blossoms and lives with you. It is the quiet hope of not knowing what will come next, the reminder that there is so much life in musical entropy.
A fifty year shift is certainly worth celebrating.
Written by Darius Kay
Artwork by Farida Radwan