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.
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.
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)
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