Classic Albums: My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello (1977)

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Elvis Costello’s debut LP occupies an intriguing space in the classic rock narrative, by many accounts, it’s prototypical New Wave at the genre’s finest, but such distinction also ameliorates Costello’s defining portrait, sacrificing the teeth of Costello’s anger as merely sign of the times, a succinct songwriter who championed a form.Yet Costello’s educated social frustration is equally relevant today as it was in the turbulent 70s for British youth. 

Drugs, Fame, and Rock & Roll

 Then, The Beatles were relegated to ceremonial deities of a record store, their records sold but their relevance was limited to that of the old guard, their intrinsic parts had been revealed human; Lennon had turned his well earned clout into a social pariah, releasing few albums to limited success before becoming a “househusband” raising his son, McCartney had disowned his turbulent breakup (which had fueled his first two albums to a new band that was content to say nothing at all, Harrison’s celebrated success had turned into myopic platitudes about God, and Ringo desperately clinged to being “the luckiest drummer alive”  while his career disintegrated in the excess of success.  The Rolling Stones had released Exile On Main Street in 1972 and seemed content to rest on their laurels of rock & roll debauchery without making another significant record until Some Girls some six years later.  

The radio seemed content with the new trope of singer-songwriters that played sweet sounding melodies that overwhelmed whatever societal message might have been present.  Rock had become old, and simply unable to keep up with social progressivism. Woodstock may be looked upon fondly now, but it’s impact was limited by the time the mid 70’s rolled around; Dylan was in hiding, Hendrix dead, the Dead firmly entrenched in their increasingly digressive celebration of 60’s counter-culture.

From The Ashes, An Echo

Then, in the echoes of the sus law, which was facing more turbulence from a growing immigrant population in Great Britain, punk was born. British youth, disillusioned with the government, had formed a new kind of protest song; direct, simple, succinct, Punk became anthemic because it could be so quickly made and so easily played. Borrowing from the most basic of rock forms, three chords was often the only route needed for British youth to seethe at the societal oppression of the government (most famously in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”) The Clash released their debut in 1977, and while London Calling would be their definitive triumph (and a paradigm shift in punk rock form) their first LP captured punk rock in its rumbling youth, braggadocio with a call to arms with numbers like “I Fought The Law”, “White Riot” and Junior Murvin cover “Police and Thieves”. It would be a matter of time before Elvis Costello, then known as Declan Patrick MacManus, would transform a demo and a single into one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

MacManus had begun his musical career in a folk duo, but soon moved onto a more pub rock vein with a band called Flip City where he adapted his stage name to D.P. Costello, the surname being his father’s stage name. During the day, MacManus switched from rote job to rote job, working as a data entry clerk and a computer operator, only fueling his discontent with the meaningless work force and pushing him to find a record contract. Stiff Records, a label founded in 1976, would end up being his saving grace.

The demos that MacManus submitted to the label were bare acoustic numbers that nowadays would have been lauded as lo-fi and bedroom pop, but the truth of the matter was MacManus had no other venue with which to record his songs other than his bedroom armed with a tape recorder. (The remains of this can still be found on “Mystery Dance” but I’ll get to that later) Still for an upcoming label, MacManus’s name carried no sway and they initially wished him to be a songwriter for Dave Edmunds. Luck found that Edmunds wasn’t pleased with Costello’s style, a reaction that provoked the recording of the album in its present form in an effort to convince Edmunds to change his mind.

Armed with six four-hour sessions, and no artist to reinterpret the material, Stiff Records decided to give MacManus his chance, but wished to promote a more marketable name.  Thus Elvis (from Elvis Presley) Costello (from his dad’s stage name) was born.  

“Less Than Zero” was the first single released from the recordings, though it made no impact on the charts, it showcased the songwriting ability that Costello had to offer. Brash, compact guitar riffs and a scathing social commentary that center around Oswald Mosley, the former head of the British Union of Facists.  It’s a thrilling attack on the powers of propaganda right from the get-go, “Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo/there is a vacancy waiting with the English voodoo” that isn’t afraid to call out society as well “Turn up the TV/ No one listening will suspect, even your mother won’t detect it/so your father won’t know” alluding to both teenage sex and governmental apathy.  

Still, Costello wasn’t a star yet when “Alison” became the second single released and the sheer discrepancy in style between “Less Than Zero” and “Alison” gave a taste of the immense talent that was waiting to be recognized.  To this day, “Alison” remains one of Costello’s definitive songs, and one of his most thought provoking lyrical narratives.  A mid-tempo ballad out of nowhere, the flourishing lead guitar lines belie the cynical and at times sinister story line. Costello’s narrator is a man who time has passed by, whose love has gone unrequited, and whose fury is barely contained by surface commentary “From the way you look l understand that you are not impressed/But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress” it’s conversational, yet the nature of how it unfolds gives the sense that the narrator is backed into a corner “Cause I don’t know if you are loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine”. Near the end when the narrator cries out “I think somebody better put out the big light/ cause I can’t stand to see you this way” it can be equally interpreted that he’s either thinking of killing her or himself, which makes “my aim is true” an even darker ending.

Stiff Records decided to release the full album in the summer of 1977, with My Aim Is True as the title. The first song, "Welcome to the Working Week"  is Costello at his most sarcastic and concise, coming in at a brisk 1:24 clip and directly addresses his distaste for jobs taken for the sake of having a wage.

With Nick Lowe behind the boards for production, the overall sound of My Aim Is True is frenetic, with caustic electric guitars, rollicking keyboards and booming drums, and clearly the work of a man energized by his shot to say what he believes to a greater audience, if he were JFK it would be called vigor, but really it’s just rock & roll.  

One of the major themes of this album is social apathy; why work being one of the first questions Costello asks while remarking that “your family had to kill to survive”, yet Costello is precocious in framing most of his work around traditional boy/girl love song narratives. In “Miracle Man”, he comments on a girl who keeps wanting, nay, expecting her man to deliver anything she wants to which he quips “But don’t you think that I know that walking on water won’t make me a miracle man”  There’s a dig at society’s reliance and acceptance on Jesus/God as savior and only good.  He furthers the social/religious undertones on “Blame It On Cain”, imploring the government to not blame their need for money on him, but on Cain, the Bible’s ultimate example of the perils of man. Change the C to a B, and you might as well have the GOP campaign slogan “it’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn” with all their false niceties about Obama being a good guy but ineffective leader.  The trio of “No Dancing”, “Sneaky Feelings” and “Mystery Dance” play into the mindset of a narrator who doesn’t know how to handle love, the first being a Phil Spector send up, the second lays down a cynical groove that treats love as a “sneaky feeling” while “Mystery Dance” is a not so subtle tongue-in-cheek reference to sex.

It’s telling of just how cynical the 22 year old Costello was when he juxtaposes songs of sex and lust with a Faustian deal with Angels in “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”.  In the song, Costello chooses to make a bargain with the angels for eternal youth in hopes of keeping the affection of a lover, while the angels want to live a mortal life.  The idea seems like a boon for Costello until his lover grows tired of him and tells him to drop dead when that’s all but impossible.  So he’s left disgusted with youth, forever trying to become bemused with his “deal with the devil”.  

“Pay It Back” may just be the finest B-side on Costello’s debut with a groove that nimbly switches between lock-step and swing and a lyrical message that finds Elvis at his most direct and personal. A kiss-off to record companies that turned him down from being a star while he worked nights as a computer operator.  The origin of this song dates back to his work with Flip City, including an early demo circa 1975 that shows some surprising Springsteen influence. The evolution both in the song’s rhythm and Costello’s cynical delivery is incredible.

Costello’s songwriting at the time of My Aim Is True was not only polished, it was prolific, he had finished the majority of the songs for Next Year’s Model by the time My Aim Is True hit the shelves.

It was “Watching The Detectives” that first introduced me to Costello, even though it wouldn’t be included on the original UK version of the LP, being released a solid 3 months after.  Whereas “Alison” found Costello ever so slightly holding back, veering on a daggers edge of subtlety, “Watching The Detectives” throws more menace into the equation and begs the audience not only to notice the double meanings, but to actively seek out what the true story is.  Whether it’s a woman just watching some creepy detective show on the television, or a woman being stalked and murdered is really up to you. Still, it would be a quirky but forgotten number in Costello’s repertoire if not for the unforgettable melody with a drum line that would make Stewart Copeland jealous.  Not even The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” comes close to how apt this reggata de blanc fits the intent of the stuff from the islands.  

An Overnight Success After A Seven Year Delay

Costello’s debut hasn’t exactly faded into obscurity, it’s properly lauded by critics and consumers alike and it launched Costello’s career.  Still, listening to the album some 37 years after its release, you can’t help but note how timeless it still sounds.  Perhaps that’s because it was recorded on such a small budget that demonstrates a simple rock backing is all you need. 

Review: Modern Vampires Of The City, Vampire Weekend

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tried to hate Vampire Weekend. Like many, I found their twee/hyper-literate sensibilities a little too gratingly self-aware.  They would know of mansard roofs, kwassa-kwassa, and Oxford commas. Yet it’s truly hard to absolutely fault a band for their background. So what if they had graduated from Columbia?  Certainly abstract ideas and world influenced rhythms had exploited pop music before, a la The Talking Heads.  Vampire Weekend’s problem seemed to be more of an affectation; they weren’t so much the snooty educated vanguard as they were beloved by the people that were.  Music thrives with identity after all, and those grammatical shindigs found at summer homes in Cape Cod had found a place on the radio. 

There was a temporal and spatial reasoning as well.  The Strokes had become New York City’s musical darlings overnight but had faded just as quickly, their avoidance of emotion, their committal to being non-committal had caught up with them.   2008 was a long time to wait for a new buzz band, and NYC underwent a cultural renaissance. Gone was the romanticism of skeevy lounges and frenetic punk fantasy, in its place a more marketable youth heaven. Shows such as Sex in the City and Gossip Girl not only brought out the high society of NYC life, they made it acceptable, accessible, and lusted after.  Vampire Weekend perfectly fit the mold, thrust into the landscape of hipsterdom, Upper West Side obsession and the ever growing backlash.

Aside from a brief dash of an affair with “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, “Oxford Comma”, and “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”, my strong dislike was successful, they couldn’t be songs that I could delve into, obsess over, rinse and repeat. Their follow-up album, Contra, was little more than a blip of my attention, and even then mostly due to the squabble over the album cover.

Vampire Weekend is almost incessantly tuneful– you need only hear the opening guitar riff to CCKK once before you have it stuck in your head for life. Unfortunately, it infers something worse than a guilty pleasure because you don’t want to be associated with the people (who, it should be said, are derided in the actual song) who are its main subject.  Even the most opined detractors can’t akin Vampire Weekend to talentless hacks. However, on the wave of their debut they were easy to pigeonhole. Koenig recounted in a recent interview “we were essentially the preppy African guitar band.” They’ve been trying to avoid the label ever since.

Vampire Weekend certainly knows their audience. The cheeky urbane types that would delight in showing their friends that Vampire Weekend announced their latest album through an ad in the New York Times, or that they teamed up with Steve Buscemi to venture on psuedo-awkward adventures across the GIF-able city. That’s really the only thing that bothers me, but it is arguably no worse window dressing than many a pop album uses for promotion.  

Here’s the thing, the music trumps all of it. Whereas their debut found them trying to sound different from the pack, Modern Vampires Of The City (horrible title and all) succeeds with pure ambition. 

“Obvious Bicycle” starts the album with spare instrumentation, a compressed piano and a shuffling drum beat that hints at unconventional ( A drum beat that comes from an obscure reggae artist Ras Michael’s “Keep Cool Babylon”). Mortality has already been discussed at length as a theme for this album, but time is also important, as Koenig sarcastically chides his friend “You oughta spare your face the razor/ because no one’s gonna spare the time for you.” The chorus comes across as a soaring hymnal aimed at the reluctant Carpe Diem millennials, “Listen, don’t wait." 

The second song on the album, "Unbelievers”, reminds me of Billy Joel.  Not surprising given Koenig’s proclivity for defending the man.  Especially the harmonizing on the refrain “We know the fire awaits unbelievers/ all of the sinners, the same.” The droning organ and drum interplay also make nice bedfellows with the rising and falling vocals.

“Step” has been glowingly reviewed so far, and it’s easy to see why, with its homespun yet ornate sound collage that could perfectly back a Wes Anderson film. Here, Koenig is perhaps at his most referential and reverential, quoting Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl” (in turn a quote of Grover Washington Jr’s “Aubrey” which is a cover of Bread’s original) The iterations of iterations are telling of the song’s theme, music, and how each generation shapes it and believes their own to be better.  So too does Koenig relate the universality of music, from Dar es Salaam to Berkeley.

“Diane Young”, an obvious homophone of dying young, is Modern Vampires Of The City at its most energetic. Koenig’s vocal jumps like Buddy Holly on speed while the whiplash rhythm section whirls around him.  There’s even a nice bit of vocal manipulation at play here on the chorus (Koenig explained this as an attempt to simulate vocal changes through aging) but the bridge, an apoplectic electronic approximation of a car crash, is a bit jarring. It’s still a tremendously engaging song, even if the Kennedy reference is a little too macabre, considering two of them were assassinated.

The booming organ and drum combination is back on “Don’t Lie”, kissing cousins of J. Giels Band’s “Love Stinks” . The descending bass line is a star here, with a catchy refrain to boot.  "Don’t Lie" is a nice breather after the frenetic “Diane Young” and the build of the arrangement, dashes of harpsichord, strident string arrangements that compliment the cooing vocals, its all here.

“Hannah Hunt” finds Koenig at his most vulnerable, a tale of a relationship that was doomed to fail. The lyrics are heavy on double meanings here, particularly on the refrain where Koenig relates “ Though we live on the US dollar/ you and me, we got our own sense of time.” Time is money, but the homophone (sense, cents) is a nice choice of words as well.  Again, locations are littered, from Providence to Phoenix, Waverly/Lincoln, and Santa Barbara. In that framework, “Hannah tore the New York Times into pieces,” could just as well be the time they spent in New York as the typical paper.  "Hannah Hunt" also features one of the prettier bridges on the album and is an easy favorite on the album.

“Everlasting Arms” might be Modern Vampires Of The City’s most direct confrontation with religion.  Opening with the stark "I took your counsel and I came to ruin, leave me to myself, leave me to myself.“ Koenig quotes the "Dies Irae” a famous hymn of death and destruction, and even models the vocal melody after it in apposition to “Hallelujah”.  It’s a song of contradicting patterns, the sharp dark strings, the soothing vocals. The sense of being alone in the world and begging for a different explanation.

Strangely, I saw one reviewer liken “Worship You” to a hyperactive “I’m Looking Through You”, but if I were to nail a Beatle reference to one song on the album, it would be “Finger Back” with an unholy amalgamation of “I Am The Walrus” and “Hello Goodbye.” Koenig again puts human emotion and religious propriety at odds with the telling spoken bridge “Cuz this Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop/ And why not? Should she have averted her eyes and/ Just stared at the laminated poster of The Dome of The Rock?” Just as Koenig was at odds with strict grammarians in “Oxford Comma”, he feels the rules are meant to be bent in “Finger Back” too.

“Worship You” is an exercise in vocal calisthenics, not really my favorite on the album, but interesting nonetheless. In an interview, Koenig described it as an attempt at “some kind of celtic song (about 3:44 in)”.  Given that “Worship You” has also been described as “arabesque”, it’s almost uncanny that Koenig had mentioned this nearly eight years ago. 

Many reviewers have also picked up on the fact that “Ya Hey” has managed to both reference God (Yahweh), and one of the most popular songs in the last ten years: Outkast’s “Hey Ya”. It’s a neat parlor trick, and the song is indeed catchy, but the zealous railing against religion is starting to get a little tiresome by this point.

“Hudson” however, throws the album completely on its head: there’s no song quite like it in Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre. It’s a city gone completely dark, apocalyptic, haunting choral arrangements, and intriguingly, a tale of human failures in light of all of the religious foreboding.  Koenig not so subtly implies that the time or place don’t matter, conflicts will always be the same.

“Young Lion” emerges like the dawn after “Hudson”’s dark night, after a flourish of classically styled piano, Vampire Weekend’s harmonies take over, repeating just one simple line “You take your time, young lion” over and over again. Backed only by an upright bass and choral harmonies, “Young Lion” is a sudden, and stunningly gorgeous end to the album.

Vampire Weekend have proven that they are more than just a one-trick pony, highly capable of melody and encompassing darker themes. I really did try to avoid listening to Vampire Weekend once, but with Modern Vampires Of The City, I may have finally stopped worrying and learned to love the music.

Top Songs:

Hannah Hunt

Finger Back

Find Modern Vampires Of The City on:

Amazon (LP)

iTunes

XL Recordings

If You Like Modern Vampires Of The City, try Big Echo by The Morning Benders

Album Review: Stories Don’t End, Dawes

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Dawes is not a group of ingenue folksters, trying to chase the Mumford & Sons bandwagon until it inevitably crashes into the WOMP-WOMP of bullshit dub-step. Yet they too have been cast into the sepia-toned “revivalist Americana” bandwagon because– to many– music is sounds and opinions, and Dawes sounded like CSNY, The Eagles, and Jackson Browne furtively conceived love-children with each other (the miracles of science!) to create the unassuming North Hills, Dawes’ debut LP.  The “Y” of CSNY and the Jackson Browne would seemingly renew their vows on the follow-up, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong. “Laurel Canyon” would be thrown around a lot too, because the indie music scene is desperate to prove connections to music’s past, while avoiding music’s present.


Dawes first burst onto the scene in 2009, recording their debut album on such a shoestring budget that bass player Wylie Gelber had to use a guitar amp to record his lines. Their dedication to analog–and their monstrous touring efforts– brought an energetic sound to the affair, and an “old” one.  People claim that sound is warmer, richer on analog, or at least more natural, and so North Hills was imbued with a sound of the California groups of old, guitars crackling, the bass striding with warm tones and the imperfect cracks of the snare, muddled, not the digital isolated noise we’ve come to accept. It was a fly on the wall record of a live band–it could have been a lost outtake of The Band–and it won the hearts and minds.


Of course, the relentless touring schedule played a large part of that, and the choice of “When My Time Comes” as a featured song in a Chevrolet commercial didn’t hurt either.  Goldsmith and company wanted to reflect the touring life in their next LP, Nothing Is Wrong, not romanticizing it, but observations from a life on the road, and the inevitable breaks and bonds along the way. Musically, this truly was an album they could take on the road, energetic ballads with space for solos and sing-alongs, “If I Wanted Someone”, “Fire Away”, “My Way Back Home”, “Time Spent In Los Angeles” all harnessed Dawes instrumental capability and their passion.


One of Dawes’ not so secret weapons is Taylor Goldsmith’s younger brother Griffin, who plays drums, far more than just a capable harmonizer (he’s usually the one who gets backing vocal credit), he’s a fastidious player, practicing for hours and hours on end.  I saw that perfectionism in person when he absolutely nailed a cover of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” while playing drums simultaneously. Wylie Gelber is probably the heir apparent to John “The Ox” Entwistle, both in playing ability and in stoic demeanor onstage and keyboardist Tay Strathairn is– in his young thirties– the band’s elder statesman, helping anchor the group that seems determined to be the hardest working rock band in show business.  


Energy and sound can go a long way in a group’s success, but Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics are the foundation.  He’s arguably the best rock music couplet writer of our time. At least part of this owes to his method – Goldsmith will usually have a title in mind first, and he doesn’t play around with nonsense words to fit a melody. Each line is written to the overall theme, and if it doesn’t fit, it’s forgotten.  It’s of little surprise knowing this, that Goldsmith writes his lyrics on a typewriter.  A computer is prone, almost welcome, to mistakes and flights of fancy, with a typewriter you have to be succinct.  A voracious reader, Goldsmith titled their latest LP, Stories Don’t End from a line in Joan Didion’s novel Democracy


It’s a peculiar choice for those who don’t know what drives Goldsmith– those who like me– were at first drawn to the music, and only slowly let the lyrics sink in.  But Goldsmith has always been a writer fascinated by the intricacy of relationships and the human condition.  The paraphrasing of a Nietzche line– “You can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back”– in “When My Time Comes” isn’t chosen to sound educated, or bring in abstract ideas for the “coolness” of it,(In contrast, “Oxford Comma” off Vampire Weekend’s debut LP very much sounds like a band playing up the fact that they’re Columbia students) but to echo where Goldsmith is coming from.  


He’s been glowingly referred to as profound for his age, 27 as of this album, but for Dawes’ past couple albums, this has been skewed by the relatively bright sonic landscape Goldsmith brought with his songwriting.  Frustrated by constantly being labelled as “vintage”, Goldsmith decided to drop the facade on Stories Don’t End.  It’s a much darker album, atmosphere plays a much more heightened role here, laying Goldsmith’s thoughts bare.  The theme of Democracy looms large as well, with Goldsmith’s narrators not so much inconsistent, as aware of the incongruity of narration.  “From A Window Seat”, the first single released from the album, is as much a tale about Goldsmith writing a song about his fears of flight, as it is a song about the fear of flying.  


Perception is a constant theme, on “Most People”, Goldsmith writes of a woman whose thoughts on life  “makes up an image which resists interpretation which is lately how she likes to see herself” and that alone in her thoughts she believes that her hope and despair is unique when “she doesn’t know that most people feel that same way”.  “Just Beneath The Surface” carries the same burden where ostensibly Goldsmith admits there’s always a part of him that will doubt the true intentions behind his actions.  It becomes exceedingly obvious through the course of the album that a relationship is responsible for Goldsmith’s devastation, or a sequence of many that followed the same path.  But Goldsmith manages to–like the most talented songwriters- make the personal universal and give emotional depth to the characters.


Despondent as it may well be, the arrangements are no one-trick pony.  They could have, as Goldsmith amply demonstrated on “Love Is All I Am” and “God Rest My Soul” from North Hills, been successful with a stark acoustic affair.  But there’s an infectious propulsion to combat the somber mood, “From A Window Seat” sparkles with a frenetic Warren Zevonesque piano hook, “Someone Will” (my favorite on the album) bounces along an unexpectedly great rhythm section and a jaunting acoustic guitar melody.  “Most People”’s arrangement probably bears the most resemblance to their sophomore Nothing Is Wrong, but with a great twist in using harmonics as part of the key guitar hook.  “Side Effects” might be the most beautiful arrangement of the bunch, and there isn’t really a weak one, but the dynamics here are exactly what the song calls for; tense and awe-inspiring in all the right places.


This stylistic evolution isn’t without a few stumbles, “Bear Witness” means well, and the arrangement is intriguing, but the lyrical detail sounds ridiculous at parts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a better song than many could write, and ambitious, but it doesn’t stand up as well among the album. “Hey Lover” is an intriguing choice, a song written by former bandmate Blake Mills. It would be hard to improve on that original, but its nice to see Griffin and Taylor swap verses and have a little fun on the album.


There’s a lot to like here, and Dawes have proven themselves capable of being more than just a “vintage” band, Goldsmith’s songwriting is on full display, and the band amply backs enough intriguing arrangements to keep the affair from being too dark.


Top Picks: “Someone Will”, “Most People”, “Stories Don’t End”, “From A Window Seat”, “Side Effects”


Stories Don’t End comes out April 9th, 2013


Grab Stories Don’t End (digital) on iTunes

Grab Stories Don’t End (Vinyl, CD, and digital) on Amazon

Classic Albums: Revolver, The Beatles (1966)

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It was April of 1966, and like Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changin’.”  Dylan himself had just gone electric, The Vietnam war was expanding, and along with it, numerous counter-culture movements among the youth.  The Beatles had released their first “adult” album, Rubber Soul, barely five months prior, with music critics blustering about teenagers listening to songs about lesbians and prostitutes while fellow contemporary musicians regarded it as a landmark achievement, an open invitation to write songs that weren’t just love songs.  Rubber Soul gets unfortunately labeled as a folk-rock album, and while it not might have reached the experimental heights of their later work, it’s certainly no Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This was amplified somewhat by the butchered American releases that would plague The Beatles until Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; gone was the Stax muscle of “Drive My Car,” Lennon’s emerging psychedelia on “Nowhere Man,” the country music ode of “What Goes On,” and perhaps most confusingly, Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” which channeled The Byrds electric folk-rock just then coming into form.  In its place were two previous UK releases, “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”  Looking back, the surprise of how much The Beatles advanced with Revolver was certainly helped by the “dumbing down” of the American product of Rubber Soul.

Music critics have a tough time deciding what changed popular music more; the release of Sgt. Pepper, or the magnum opus of psychedelic music, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Looking back almost 50 years later, it’s safe to say that no band, certainly not one in popular music circles, could attempt a track as experimental as this one without losing its audience.  For a song so devilishly complex in its creation, it could not have gone far without the unlimited technical ability of its creator.  George Martin would always fondly remember Lennon for his outlandish requests in the studio; he would wish a song “to sound orange” or, in the case of the later “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” he wanted “to smell the sawdust.”  Seeing as most of his requests were rewarded, mostly by technical innovation that always brought The Beatles more critical praise, Martin and the engineers at EMI always went to great lengths to accommodate Lennon’s abstract requests and bring them to recorded reality.

The stakes Lennon had set for “Tomorrow Never Knows” were absurd, even for his standards.  "I want to sound like I’m the Dalai Lama singing a chant from the mountain-top,“ Lennon said, insisting that the only reasonable way to accomplish the feat was to hang him upside down from a rope so he could swing around precariously over a microphone.  While Martin and Emerick sent out for the requisite rope they pleaded with Lennon to change his mind, surely they could find a reasonable solution that didn’t endanger the musician’s life.  It was the concept of a rotating Lennon that got Emerick’s attention.

The Leslie speaker, a loudspeaker that made use of the Doppler effect to manipulate the soundwave, had enjoyed immense success in the 1950’s as an integral part of many jazz organ trios, and had begun to make a resurgence on psychedelic records for its trademark whirling sound.  No one however, had thought to put a voice behind it.  Emerick quickly found a Leslie speaker cabinet in the studio and physically broke into the back to adjust the wiring for a microphone.  Lennon also tasked his bandmates with bringing in experimental tape loops for the song, at the time little more than a drone around C.  In the end, they would keep only McCartney’s contributions: (1) the haunting, seagull call (actually McCartney laughing through a tape recorder), (2) an extended note from Sibelius 7th Symphony in B flat, (3) a Mellotron (an early precursor to the synthesizer) on its flute setting reversed, (4) another Mellotron oscillating in 6/8 time from B flat to C on its string setting, and lastly (5) a rising scalar phrase on the sitar.  Starr’s contribution on drums can not be overlooked either, a cacophonic boom of tom-toms that had been loosened by Emerick, and subsequently stuffed with cloth and close-miked with a massive echo effect.  It’s said that many an American studio, though technically superior, would be torn down and rebuilt in an attempt to get the drum sound that The Beatles were getting in the primitive EMI studios. It’s safe to say that nobody came close.

Concurrently, the engineers were working on another innovation that would change how pop music was made, the invention of ADT, or Artificial Double Tracking.  The Beatles, and Lennon especially, hated the process of manual double tracking, requiring multiple takes to double their vocals. Ken Townsend found through use of a tape delay, one vocal track could be fed through another tape recorder to produce a wider soundstage and give the impression of two vocal takes.  At the time, technology only allowed it to be done in the final mixing stage where the recording head of the tape would be fed through the second tape recorder, manipulated to a different speed through an oscillator, and fed back into a fader on the mixing board.  Lennon was so impressed that he demanded to know how it was done and was told by Martin that it was produced through a “double-bifurcated sploshing flange”

The Beatles had always used drugs in some form or another, from their barbiturate days in Hamburg* to their famous introduction to pot by Bob Dylan.  The popular story goes that Dylan was impressed that their single "I Want To Hold Your Hand” had snuck in the line “I get high, I get high, I get highhhhh” only to be told they were saying “I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hideeee” and, surprised that they hadn’t done it before, invited them to smoke a joint at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City.

The first song that The Beatles ended up working on for the Revolver sessions was “Got To Get You Into My Life,” which featured a strong soul sound, and odd for them at the time, a simple love song lyric.  Some may have smelled something funny right away with lines like “I was alone I took a ride I didn’t know what I would find there”, but McCartney only admitted some thirty years later that “it was an ode to pot.” Even on this relatively straight-forward arrangement, producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick had a couple tricks up their sleeves to bring out the punchy sound of the final recording.  Martin arranged a horn quintet, made up of three trumpets and two tenor saxophones, and Emerick placed the microphones right into the horn bells and pushed the results through a limiter.  And despite the commonplace critique that The Beatles were lacking in instrumental ability, the band really swings here, helped by a quite nimble McCartney bassline.

The Beatles received a lot of credit for their incorporation of Indian music into the conventional pop form. Harrison had first been won over during the filming of Help! where one scene featured Indian musicians playing “Hard Day’s Night” on traditional instruments.   Harrison had gotten the ball rolling with his sitar work on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” but it’s really Revolver where his fully fledged love of Indian music comes into play.  Recorded only 4 days after “Got To Get You Into My Life,” Harrison’s first number for Revolver, “Love You Too,” was certainly ambitious for the time, but it hasn’t aged well.  Some of this may just be melocentrism; music is no doubt a reflection of one’s culture, and the Classical Indian music that Harrison loved seemed to be fit for introspection while Western music, especially rock music, tended to always be moving forward. I can’t really find fault with the musical arrangement, but Harrison’s caustic lyrics here, attempting to be both philosophical and Dylanesque, do little to move beyond the original ingenuity of hearing Classical Indian accompaniment on a Western Record for the first time.

Even for a band marked by such prodigious output at the time, the pressure was on for The Beatles to record singles for the hungry public, and their desire to shed the folk-rock label seemingly as quickly as they had adopted it led to the recording of McCartney’s “Paperback Writer” and Lennon’s “Rain” in a matter of two subsequent days. “Paperback Writer” was a show of their new found musical muscle, with a pulsing, punchy bassline and propulsive guitar riffs.  It was a wise move for McCartney to release the song prior to the album because the lyrical content was a little too straightforward for Revolver, focusing on a run of the mill novelist.  Musically however, the arrangement highlighted The Beatles’ desire for experimenting on the pop form, bound by an unexpected a capella intro and a clever, almost hidden use of “Frere Jacques” as a counter-melody harmony.  McCartney and Lennon, long fans of the bigger bass sound found on American records, implored Emerick to find a way to get a greater bass sound on their records, limited not only by EMI’s less than stellar mixing board but EMI’s strict rules on microphone placement as well.  Emerick, ever the innovator, and largely unsung hero of The Beatles greatest experimental efforts, devised a solution wherein a speaker was placed alongside the bass amp, and the signal reversed. It wasn’t quite direct injection (that would come with Sgt. Pepper), but it did the job well enough.  An interesting point of contention also arises with “Paperback Writer,” as no one is quite sure whether Harrison and McCartney swapped lead guitar and bass duties. If true, it’s a remarkable achievement for Harrison, who often bore the brunt of criticism for lack of instrumental skill.

“Rain” was a whole other animal.  Lennon was a cultural omnivore and wished to write a song that matched the cataclysm of counter-culture psychedelia vs traditional English propriety. The result: a track featuring washed out guitars, an inventive melody that mixed both pop and Indian raga, tightly tracked harmonies, and a rather ingenious use of studio trickery.

One has to realize that, though possible, studio experimentation was laborious and challenging.  There was no button to push, let alone a computer to manipulate the waveform; everything had to be done within the limits of analog tape.  Lennon, having no technical expertise, was challenging Martin and Emerick to make the music sound drug-induced, as if from another dimension and he was starting to hate the sound of his own voice.  The result was two-fold; the instrumental track would be played at a high speed, and the recording tape played back at a slower rate, while Lennon would sing the song in a lower pitch and have the tape sped up, creating the overall disconcerting track we know today.

I might call “Dr. Robert” a guilty pleasure, it’s certainly not an immediate favorite, or instantly recognizable as one of their better songs, but it is an exquisite piece of pop song-craft that acknowledges Lennon’s burgeoning talent as an observational songwriter.  Thematically, “Dr. Robert” is in line with the other more popular Lennon numbers from the album, poking fun at, if not directly questioning the blurred lines between traditional cultural hierarchy and counter-culture. There’s the obvious: he’s a doctor and he’s dealing illicit drugs; and the less so, “You’ll pay money just to see yourself with Dr. Robert,” an almost anti-materialism theme that Lennon comes back to with “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Elsewhere, it’s a clever concoction of mixed perspectives, odd imperative phrases like “Ring my friend I said you’d call Dr. Robert,” or “well well well, you’re feeling fine, well well well, he’ll make you, Dr. Robert,” not to mention the now trademark Beatle harmonies in their traditional thirds, giving the song a nice bluesy inflection in alternating verses. As for a bit of an ad-lib, there’s no doubt that Lennon liked his literary references, and there is a Doctor Robert character that works for National Health in Aldous Huxley’s Island, a novel about a proposed utopia.  Given that Lennon would later espouse his own idea of utopia (nutopia),  it’s not that much of a stretch that Lennon was making a conscious reference.

A couple short days later found The Beatles recording George Harrison’s attempt at social commentary with “Taxman.” The story goes that the insular Harrison had just stumbled upon the fact that the band’s earnings put them in the highest income tax (95%) bracket, thus the “there’s one for you, nineteen for me” line.  It’s also the first, and perhaps the only Beatle song to directly reference real people, as in the “Ah ah, Mr. Wilson,” “Ah ah, Mr. Heath,” backing vocal jabs at the respective leaders of the Labor and Conservative Party at the time.  Here, George Harrison’s natural sardonic delivery is pitch-perfect for the song, and though McCartney gets a lot of credit for the searing guitar solo and circular bassline (the run up before the guitar solo is something to behold), Harrison’s knack for mixed tempo song-work is emerging with his quick switch from 4/4 to 2/4 on the stinging guitar line ( an overall songwriting signature that not only peeks its head out on a couple of Lennon compositions here, but “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” as well).  The syncopation of the rhythm section, with McCartney and Starr firmly in the pocket, might only be outdone by “She Said, She Said” on Revolver.

Not to be outdone, Lennon brings out the band’s next effort with “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Though (perhaps cloyingly) furnished with an ornate lead guitar line, the message is simple: “You tell me that you have everything you want, and your bird can sing, but you don’t get me, you don’t get me,” an ironic counter-statement to Harrison’s desire for money in the just finished “Taxman” (and they said he was spiritual!). Though Lennon would later call the song a “throwaway,” it’s another clear conveyance of Lennon’s clash with domesticity. Not openly acknowledged at the time, Lennon was having trouble adjusting to the “settled-down” life of marriage while his bandmates were out clubbing and enjoying “Swinging London,” and this number aptly fits Lennon’s desire of wanting to be a leader and wanting to escape the mundane.

“I’m Only Sleeping” continues Lennon’s creative assault on traditional values, content to lie in bed while the rest of the world seemed in a hurry to do everything and nothing all the same.  The recording process would borrow the concept from “Rain” wherein once again, Lennon’s vocals were sped up and the instrumentation was slowed down, giving the otherwise plain instrumentation a textural, almost chunky effect.  Also brought about by “Rain” was Lennon’s desire to have something played in reverse, which would decidedly be placed on Harrison’s shoulders with a backwards guitar solo.  Harrison rarely ad-libbed his guitar solos, most were transcribed and practiced to a polish before recording.  Further complicating matters was that the solo had to be thought out in a way that the initial recording would be reversed and sound logically forward, and for this effort it reportedly took Harrison 57 takes to get the required sound.  McCartney’s bass is the unsung hero here, stringing together the whole song’s odd melodic phrases with a walking bass line that makes it work.

“Eleanor Rigby” followed two short days later.  McCartney had apparently become obsessed with the new classical movement (evidenced before in his musique concrete collage in Tomorrow Never Knows) and wanted Martin to arrange something “sounding like Vivaldi” for a new observational piece he had been working on.  The outline had come together after McCartney met his then-girlfriend Jane Asher at Rigby’s, a clothing store, and patched on the name Eleanor from the lead actress in Help!, Eleanor Bron.  Strange for a Beatles effort, and perhaps even more strange given the lonely circumstances of the song, McCartney sought out his bandmates to flesh out the song. The image of “darning his socks in the night” was actually Ringo’s, and “Ah look at all the lonely people” appears to have been ad-libbed at the studio when they were in need of a final verse.  Martin seemed to take note from Bernard Hermann’s Fahrenheit 451 score, or perhaps (quite chillingly) Psycho, with the string octet often alternating between strident, almost discordant phrases and more soothing, intimate ones.  As an overall lyric, it’s one of McCartney’s best, not only in the subject matter of abject loneliness in society (a topic rarely touched in pop music) but in the memorable imagery, especially in the line “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door, who is it for?” Lennon may have been taking the loud approach to embracing counter-cultural themes, but McCartney’s “Rigby” is much more striking in noting the wrongs of traditional English culture, “No one is saved.“

Next would be “Eleanor Rigby”’s despondent twin, “For No One,” which features one of the most bare arrangements in their later period. As a slow, almost painful waltz, the arrangement is bolstered by some of the most poignant end of relationship lyrics ever committed to pop music.  For the common critique that McCartney didn’t have facility equal to Lennon’s as a writer, “For No One” is one of the finest counterpoints you could have.  The descending nature of the melody that is intertwined with McCartney’s succinct phrasing evokes the feeling of loneliness and despair as an inescapable reality.  “Your day breaks/ Your mind aches/ You find that all her words of kindness linger on when she no longer needs you.”  McCartney would later attribute the inspiration for the song from an argument with his then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher; even though the relationship would go on another two years, the seeds of doubt were already there from that desperate admission that ends the song: “a love that should have lasted years.”

By and large, Lennon and McCartney had always found a song to give to Ringo on each of their albums, from “Boys” on Please Please Me, to most recently “What Goes On” on Rubber Soul, but “Yellow Submarine” remains perhaps his most well known, a whimsical number that daringly combines child fantasy with drug undertones, a tale of escapism and collectivism.  The defining characteristic of “Yellow Submarine” has to be its ingenious and organic usage of sound collage. Far from the wildly psychedelic usage in “Tomorrow Never Knows,“ “Yellow Submarine” was inspired by Bob Dylan’s recent “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” for its ramshackle charm sounding, like a live cut from some underground bar. Certainly this is evident in the marching band riff (purportedly a 15 second loop from “La Reve passe”), and to perpetuate the nautical theme, the band went about gathering whistles, hoses, chains, buckets of water, and even an old tin bath.   

Harrison’s third number, then unprecedented for any Beatle album, was the dissonant “I Want To Tell You,” inspired both by his recent love for Eastern-flavored music and, in a subtle way, his appreciation of Lennon’s songwriting.  Beginning with a circular guitar line, a la “Day Tripper,“ the seemingly unfinished riff echoes the circular thoughts mooring around Harrison’s head and the self-doubt that goes with expressing them: “It’s only me, it’s not my mind/ that is confusing things” being perhaps the best example of the loaded meanings Harrison could find within a simple phrase (and perhaps a skeleton of Lennon’s later “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”). In his own way, Harrison was still trying to find music to be able to mold to his thoughts, unlike what seemed vice-versa for McCartney and Lennon, and the choice of overall dissonance not only fulfills this purpose but amplifies it.

McCartney’s last two numbers for the album, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Here, There, And Everywhere” are perhaps best understood as McCartney’s desire to be a songwriter of old while keeping in with the new.  “Good Day Sunshine” is bursting with life, from the vibrant choice of key (A, arguably the happiest sounding key), and mirrors the impact the summer of ‘66 was having; The Lovin’ Spoonful would release “Daydream” and later the darker “Summer in the City,” The Kinks “Sunny Afternoon,“ and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”  Though not as outright an outlet of escapism, McCartney’s detail of a naive and blissful sunny afternoon belies the turbulence of counter-culture that was beginning to emerge and yet express the joie de vivre of a Cole Porter song.  Unusual for its pronounced piano-dominated arrangement on an album so otherwise brimming with experimentation, it’s no doubt a conscious choice of McCartney to bring things back to the good old days.

“Here, There, And Everywhere” accomplishes this theme even better. Here, McCartney takes a melody that sounds so natural (yet the changes are unusual for any pop number) and makes it breathe, as if the song is wistful for itself.  There is a common belief that “Here, There, And Everywhere” was where the influence of The Beach Boys began to take hold, with the cooing, wide harmonies and simple instrumentation, and McCartney would later acknowledge the same, but everywhere was it apparent that McCartney had made the transformation, seemingly overnight, from ably transforming influences, to becoming an influence of his own right.

The last song recorded for Revolver would be an onerous 9-hour session, the result of which would be “She Said She Said.“  The content stemmed from a drug-induced conversation between Lennon and actor Peter Fonda, who had claimed to have a near-death experience while undergoing an operation, but, in typical Lennon fashion, and then morphed into a multi-rhythmic odyssey bent on doubt and self-discovery.  Largely unrecognized in this, and later Lennon numbers of similar tempo reflexivity, Harrison played a huge role in fleshing Lennon’s ideas out in musical form. It would be Harrison’s idea to juxtapose the darkly chaotic “I know what it’s like to be dead” to the childhood reminiscence of “When I was a boy, everything was right,” including the idea of switching from 4/4 to ¾.  What may also contribute to the strong tonal flavor of the song is the fact that it is one of the few songs that McCartney doesn’t play on at all, with Harrison taking over bass guitar duties.  Most lauded however was Starr’s drumming, as cataclysmic as “Tomorrow Never Knows,“ never again would Starr’s drumming sound as energetic, or creative as this last all-out number recorded for Revolver.

Sequencing
The album was finished. However, a remarkable amount of The Beatles’ longevity should not just be limited to their songwriting ability, but to their perseverance to the album form. Although Revolver would be bastardized in its North American incarnation ( Yesterday and Today would include songs left off the North American versions from as far back as Help! and included “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Dr. Robert”, and “And Your Bird Can Sing”), it would be the last time The Beatles would allow it, while the British editions would be what the group truly intended (an error corrected when their entire discography was released on CD).  A lot of what factored into what-went-where for The Beatles, and what makes their albums stick out in our minds, was the placement of key.

Side A:
Taxman- D major
Eleanor Rigby – E minor (2nd)
I’m Only Sleeping- E flat minor
Love You Too-  C minor
Here, There, And Everywhere –  G Major
Yellow Submarine – G Major
She Said She Said – B flat Major (flat-3rd)

Side B:
Good Day Sunshine – A Major
And Your Bird Can Sing – E Major
For No One – B Major
Doctor Robert- B Major
I Want To Tell You – A Major
Got To Get You Into My Life – G Major
Tomorrow Never Knows – C Major

George Martin was labelled “the fifth Beatle” for many reasons, and his experience with classical music may be the most important factor he brought with him to the group.  There is little doubt the sequencing is influenced by movements within a classical piece, the keys either resolving one another (“Good Day Sunshine” into “And Your Bird Can Sing”), or bringing it into unresolved territory (“Eleanor Rigby” into “I’m Only Sleeping”), or both by sheer virtue of the instrumentation involved (“Got To Get You Into My Life” into “Tomorrow Never Knows”). The particular choice of "Taxman” as the first song on the album is inspired, not only due to the fact that it is the only song in its respective key, but that it is the first, and only song ever written by Harrison to open a Beatle album.  It is a more practical choice in the light that it’s one of the harder driving songs on the record and Beatle releases up to this point always started with a bang. (The fake count-in is a peculiar play on “I Saw Her Standing There.”) To then go into classical music territory with “Eleanor Rigby,“ its sadness amplified by the fact that it is the minor second of the previous key, was certainly a conscious choice, bolstered by the next song, “I’m Only Sleeping,” which was also recorded in the same key (though retroactively slowed down a half step before going into the key’s parallel major’s relative minor (C minor) on “Love You Too”). Though on the surface level, a transition between hard rock, classical, psychedelic rock, and Indian raga could hardly be a discernable pattern, the key pattern gives a balanced structure to the overall affair. The album then undergoes a melodic lift by going to “Love You Too”’s parallel major’s perfect 4th (G major) on “Here, There, And Everywhere,” an effect that it holds onto with “Yellow Submarine.”  The overall strange tone of “She Said She Said,“ the last song on Side A, flips the pattern on its head by taking the relative major of “Yellow Submarine”’s parallel minor ( a pattern already played out in the chord changes of “Here, There, And Everywhere”) for the almost unheard of use of B flat major.

Side B starts out with the uplifting “Good Day Sunshine” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” mirrored by the latter being a perfect fifth of the former’s key (A major to E major).  That the very next song “For No One” again takes the perfect 5th of the previous “And Your Bird Can Sing” (E major to B major), with a drastically different overall tone, exemplifies The Beatles’ ability to lull the audience into a pattern to unexpected results. Though “Dr. Robert” is in the same key (mirroring the previous sequence of “Here, There And Everywhere” and “Yellow Submarine), it makes a curious choice of A (the flat seventh) as the dominant tone of the song, serving as a harmonic bridge to “I Want To Tell You”’s key of A major.

It would seem out of place to have “Got To Get You Into My Life” (in the key of G major) follow a song in the key of A major, if not for the D chord undertones that arrive at the end of “I Want To Tell You,” which is the perfect 5th in the key of G.  The last song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” despite its wild arrangement, plays out in the key of C.

Today, Revolver still stands as one of the most remarkably crafted albums of all time, breaking all expectations for what a rock album should, or even could accomplish.  Where the 60’s was a decade that by and large contained albums that pushed singles amongst filler, The Beatles launched headlong into evolving the art of the album into its highest form.  

Revolver was recorded from April 6th to June 21st, 1966 and subsequently released August 5th,1966