I never had that moment with the Beatles. The one where you hear a song of theirs and your whole musical world shifts and you can tell people the song, the lyric, the melody that changed everything. The “Ed Sullivan Moment”, for lack of a better word. The Beatles were always just there, in the background of my life. I knew them before I knew I did; so many of their songs already long seeped into my subconscious. The closest I had to the moment was when I first got myself a copy of Revolver.
For the uninitiated the two best known tracks couldn’t have been more different: the nursery rhyme silliness and joviality of “Yellow Submarine”, set against the stark, austere tones of “Eleanor Rigby” was at time the only knowledge I had of the album despite the familiarity of the title “Got to Get You into My Life”.
The Beatles were at a crossroads. Tired of their constant touring and adherence to a mop-top image they were fast outgrowing, the Beatles ambitions were clashing with the everyday drudgery of their lifestyle. Fame and fortune was all well and good but the band worked incredibly hard for what they earned. The simplicity, some might say naiveté, of their early output was being lost as their song narratives began to deepen and take on more complex themes. Rubber Soul had already pointed the way, refining their craft while fundamentally laying to rest their old personas. The band was developing in such ways that they could no longer reproduce their songs live; touring would be suspended and the band would become a studio animal. This freed the creative impulses of all the members, as the constant trials of Beatlemania were beginning to take their toll personally.
Now, unencumbered by the desire to recreate something live, the band dove headfirst into the avant garde. Lennon led the way: the first track he wrote for the album was the sprawling and manic “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a landmark not only for the Beatles themselves but for popular music. A bubbling cauldron of tape loops, effects and non sequiturs the track is the primary influence on experimental music, paving the way for electronica, and progressive rock. Music at this time was full of groundbreaking singles, from the likes of The Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones et al, but while every new week seemed to bring innovations on the pop formula, the Beatles were in their own stratosphere making music unlike any of their contemporaries. Reasons for their creative bursts are varied. The band had discovered LSD and its influence is obvious throughout the album. It was cradling and encouraging some of the band’s most daring sound experiments to date, and while the impetus came directly from the four band members, in George Martin they had the perfect conduit for their every musical whim.
Martin was the solid anchor, making the most sonically adventurous passages work as proper production pieces, while his steady hand and experience cannot be overstated. It helped that the band were writing some of their best material for the record. Unlike the flashy, yet often insubstantial, Sgt. Pepper’s, which hides somewhat behind its conceit, Revolver remains a straight collection of wonderful songs in no way burdened by a concept. In that way the songs are looser and able to just sit comfortably side by side; while not showcasing the band at their most mischievous or postmodern, it does feature their most consistent set of songs, 14 gems which got the best out of each member.
Harrison contributes an unheard of (at the time) three songs to the record—including the opening track!—which benefit from his developing interest in Indian culture at the time. The rollicking “Taxman”, which was much more topical and fun than his usual fare, was measured against the more introspective personal odes of “Love You To” and “I Want To Tell You”. Starr’s drumming, like Martin’s work, grounds the rougher and more unusual edges to which Lennon in particular could present; and his singing on “Submarine” is a perfect example of the everyman vocal, giving the song a communal feeling which mirrors the song’s bouncy story. Meanwhile, while Lennon was straining at the limits of what it meant to be a Beatle, his partner was developing his pop pieces into timeless confections. McCartney’s methodical and precise style emanates with joy one minute (“Good Day Sunshine”), bittersweet love in the next (“Here There and Everywhere”). And, finally, McCartney offers the cold hard reality of a soured relationship on the classically inspired “For No One”.
Unlike later albums where each member worked primarily on his own songs, the band was still pulling together to make sure each composition was produced perfectly. This attention to production detail would fade as the drugs blurred the lines between true creativity and random happenstance that characterised some of their later work. Minds were still sharp enough at this point to incorporate the new levels of understanding the drugs were providing into well crafted and stunning pieces of work—the quirky “I’m Only Sleeping” being a thinly veiled treatise on Lennon’s growing disinterest in a world without a drug induced Euphoria accompanying it. The album also features Lennon’s finely tuned cynicism as he grew out of certain fads, his “Doctor Robert” being read as an riposte to the teachings of Timothy ‘Doctor’ Leary, someone he once would have put great stock in.
No one Beatle dominates the album. It draws the defining qualities out of all of them, and this is what makes it their most cohesive and enjoyable record. It is not bogged down with internal dispute; if anything, a natural and healthy competitiveness and willingness to experiment permeate the album and gives the record its scope. Four unique personalities which had an almost psychic connection joined forces for the most focused, and one of the best, albums ever made. If Ed Sullivan was a starting pistol for the Beatles as a mop top hit machine, then this was the development of the group as auteurs of the album, a parting shot to their more innocent ways.
// Notes from the Road
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