[10 November 2009]
When they released their seventh album in August of 1966, the Beatles were distinctly restless. The rosy patina of Beatlemania was dulled, but its attendant expectations still weighed them down. Though their aesthetic palette had grown much richer with Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul, it became increasingly clear that their fickle teenaged fanbase was not absorbing the shifts.
The band’s final tour in America was not only overshadowed by the furor of the Bible-thumping right-wing over John Lennon’s infamous “more popular than Jesus” interview, but it was also a profound professional disappointment. The technology of live music was still lagging behind the realities of the Beatles’ unprecedented popularity, and neither the Fab Four nor the audiences who attended their shows could hear a single note over the deafening fangirl screams. Lennon gave voice to the group’s collective frustration with characteristic frankness: by the end of the tour, he was shouting obscenities into his microphone rather than lyrics, certain that they would be inaudible in any case.
So, Revolver was specifically designed not to be played live. This we know from the volumes upon volumes of Beatles-dissecting publications that seem to stretch on ad infinitum like Borges’ Library of Babel. They also tell us about Paul McCartney’s friendly artistic rivalry with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who released his pop masterpiece Pet Sounds in May of 1966, while the Beatles and producer George Martin were recording Revolver. And, of course, they tell us all about the animating influence that the emergent psychedelic drug counterculture had on the band’s work.
It’s impossible to talk about Revolver without recognizing the importance of these elements, true. But as explanatory paradigms, they are overstretched and inefficient. What does this information really tell us about “Eleanor Rigby”, “Yellow Submarine”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, or “Tomorrow Never Knows”? It’s clear that there must be more to the discussion of this undoubtedly seminal Beatles album than what’s been said, but how do we overcome the ingrained and ossified analyses that come down to us like family heirlooms? This is the difficult task ahead, to tap into Revolver’s burgeoning consciousness.
“Consciousness”, I think, is just the right word for it. For all of Revolver‘s tangible steps forward in sonic and technological terms, what was really unprecedented about the record was its active metaphorical mind. Though Rubber Soul had begun the process, this was the first Beatles record (and maybe the first genuinely mass-market pop record) to fully accomplish what the Fab Four would soon become known for: grasping at the tangled strands of the evolving culture and fashioning crisp, efficient, cleverly-tied pop-music knots out of them.
One of the clearest signs of the evolution of the erstwhile Liverpool lads’ artistic voice came before Revolver was even released. “Paperback Writer”, the non-album single from that same summer, was a punchy slice of guitar pop that cheekily lampooned the breathless hucksterism of a pulp-lit hack-wannabe. Certainly, the song is technically accomplished: McCartney’s bassline is both relentless and ambitious in scope, and the Beach Boys-influenced vocal harmony breakdowns are pristine showcases for the new automatic double tracking (ADT) technique invented by Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend just before the song was recorded. Beyond the sparkling surface, though, is a canny bit of pop sociology. McCartney’s lyric registers both the revolution in publishing set off by paperbacks and the concomitant rise of a new “creative class” in Western democracies like Britain. And it does so with a gentle touch of humor characteristic of McCartney, so that we laugh at the pathetic eagerness of the paperback writer rather than sneer at the poor fool.
For those who wanted to sneer at fools, there was the single’s b-side, “Rain”. Its lyrics bear out the truism that Lennon’s engagement with his era’s cultural shifts was always more direct and antagonistic than McCartney’s. The titular metaphor for encroaching change may have been borrowed from Bob Dylan, but the brusque dismissal of the comfortable reactionaries who “slip into the shade / and sip their lemonade” is pure Lennon. Musically, it’s both psychedelic and beat, all sharply-chiming Rickenbackers over McCartney’s astounding bass ascensions and Ringo Starr’s all-world performance of constant fills. Even without the legendary backwards vocal line near the end, “Rain” was the group’s most striking piece of pop production yet, as well as a clear sign that they had no qualms about being mouthpieces for contemporary cultural upheaval.
The proper album that followed this single was every bit as innovative technically and musically, and displayed an even greater width and breadth of cultural consciousness. George Harrison’s legendarily bored count-in heralds the album’s opening cut and his compositional quantum leap, “Taxman”. Of course, Harrison’s coming-out party as a songwriter is a self-interested swipe at progressive taxation, that bane of a whole generation of British rock stars. And it was just naïve and caustic enough to score the #2 spot on a dubious list of the 50 greatest “conservative” rock songs compiled by John J. Miller of the arch-right-wing National Review Online. Still, we can forgive Harrison for going Galt by virtue of his sly wit and McCartney’s razor-sharp guitar solo, maybe the most famous in the Beatles’ catalogue.
Harrison’s other contributions are less celebrated but every bit as indicative of his evolution as a composer. “I Want to Tell You” features a fade-in riff that’s been ripped off countless times since, and Harrison’s admittedly thin melody is punched up considerably by Lennon and McCartney’s explosive harmonizing. The latter’s raga melismas over the fade-out are a call-back to Harrison’s other, much more trailblazing effort, “Love You To”. The Beatles’ interest in Indian music and culture is something of a joke now, another link in a long chain of self-satisfied British orientalism that stretched back to Arthur Conan Doyle and Madame Blavatsky and forward to M.I.A., Slumdog Millionaire, and the melting-pot London of the 21st century. But it must have been amazing (and still is, if only a little) to hear something so baldly exotic on a pop record, even if our post-colonial scepticism causes us to demur over terms like “exotic”.
Faced with actual stiff competition from inside the group for the first time in their writing careers, Lennon and McCartney upped their own games in response. Lennon certainly tends to get pigeonholed for his acerbic cynicism in this period, just as McCartney is so often dinged for his excessively sunny sanguinity. It goes without saying that these persistent stereotypes undersell the outsized and diverse talents of both, but Lennon tends to skew closer to this typecast image in the Revolver period.
For example, the jagged edges that mark the guitar work in “She Said She Said” connect it to “Rain”, but also evoke Lennon’s prickly view of the world around him. The lyrics are gnomic but also intensely modernist in their existential bafflement. The assertion that anyone could “know what it’s like to be dead” sends Lennon off the deep end into seemingly contradictory reactions of self-negation (“She’s making me feel like I’ve never been born”) and rosy nostalgia (“when I was a boy / everything was right”).
The same Kafkaesque malaise animates that timeless paean to unconsciousness, “I’m Only Sleeping”. Most notable for the disorienting backwards guitar solo that Harrison and Martin worked out over many hours, the song’s lyrics are often dismissed as either LSD-tinged escapism or a feting of lethargy from the man once dubbed “the laziest person in England”. In truth, they’re both, and Lennon feels little or no impulse to distinguish between them; all that matters is that he’s “miles away” from the madness of the modern world, “float(ing) upstream”.
Both this dreamy escapism and the rosy nostalgia hinted at in “She Said She Said” make a further irruption in the much more collaboratory “Yellow Submarine”, with its primary colors and kindergarten sing-alongs. The multichromatic film of the same name did much to encourage the connections between the children’s novelty song and psychedelic drugs, but what tends to be elided about this connection is that a return to the bucolic innocence of wide-eyed childish imagination was always at the ideological heart of the drug culture. It wasn’t so much an escape that was desired as a revisiting.
McCartney’s escapes (or revisitings) are jauntier and more superficially light, but beneath the glimmering veneer was a thin edge of subversion. The rolling, jolly piano of “Good Day Sunshine” greets us with a grin, but McCartney’s vocals spiral briefly downwards when the sun “burns my feet as they touch the ground”. The same effect is absent from the gauzily romantic “Here, There and Everywhere”, but “For No One” seems to be the earlier ballad’s sober fulfillment. What’s so wrenching about it (besides the mournful French horn solo, of course) is the casualness of it all. McCartney places the dramatic emotions of a break-up squarely in the midst of numbing everyday routine, and implicates us directly with his use of the second-person; when he notes that “she doesn’t feel she has to hurry / she no longer needs you”, the juxtaposition is cruel in its resigned ordinariness. There’s “no sign of love behind the tears”, but really, there’s no need to get too worked up about it.
McCartney’s keen eye for the heartbreakingly tragic in the invisibly mundane is most powerfully exemplified in the legendary “Eleanor Rigby”. Driven on by Martin’s compressed, imperative strings, McCartney’s narrative of the buttoned-up loneliness of post-war Britain rushes along with potent velocity, taking in just the right biting details along the way. “Eleanor Rigby” is not unempathetic, but its images have an unforgiving bluntness that almost takes your breath away; in the final analysis, “no one was saved”, not even the listener. What’s most impressive about the song is how much it evokes in such a compact package; absolutely nothing is wasted. There is a whole generation or three of indie songwriters who have taken a swing at their own “Eleanor Rigby” and largely failed to approximate its microcosmic heft; Colin Meloy has indeed carved an entire career out of this effort. What they miss is the fellow-feeling that McCartney sells completely. When he asks where “all the lonely people” belong, he’s not smugly opining on it; he’s openly asking it about himself too.
Lennon, as usual, saw such situations differently, but with slight similarities. Although he dismissed “And Your Bird Can Sing” as “fancy paper around an empty box”, it’s of a pair with “Rain” as not only a wonder of circular twelve-string guitars but also as a righteous put-down of the well-heeled established classes. When he was denied escape from the world, Lennon invariably coped by ragging on the rich and pretentious; this was perhaps not as extroverted a reaction as it seemed, as these may well have been qualities that he recognized and reviled in himself. At the heart of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, though, is an affirmation of self; Lennon’s trump card is that no matter what the wealthy conservative establishment has seen, done or heard, they “don’t get me”.
While “Doctor Robert” is often identified with drug culture concerns, it’s another cheeky mock on the upper-middle-class attempts to approximate the hepness of youth. Lennon’s sense of humor was obviously tickled by the idea of a respectable physician eagerly dispensing uppers, but what he finds more amusing is the benefit that the doctor gets out of it, not the patient; you will, after all “pay money just to see yourself with Doctor Robert”, not for him to see you. This detached amusement meets its opposite in “Got to Get You Into My Life”, McCartney’s effusive love song to marijuana. Although, like Lennon, he uses the drug in search of “another kind of mind”, his zeal is much more pure and untempered than that of his writing partner.
All of these songs only serve to set the stage for Lennon’s true tour-de-force, the magnificent, trippy, Timothy Leary-quoting prayer to consciousness expansion “Tomorrow Never Knows”. More than anything else on the album, it reflected the group’s pesky desire to stretch boundaries beyond their previous delineations, especially in sonic terms, with its tape loops, Leslie-cabinet vocals, chopped up guitar solos, and droning rhythms. That the sure hand of the staid George Martin was behind so many of these wild innovations definitely made them go over more easily, but the Beatles’ experimental impulse was central.
Though it was Bob Dylan who pushed pop lyrics into new realms of signification (an influence that told strongly on the Beatles in this period), it was the Fab Four and their collaborators who began to nudge the music over the established horizons of pop. This, more than anything else, is the key to Revolver‘s status as a classic. For possibly the first time in mass-market pop music, what the listener was hearing was more important than what the artist was saying; what was intended didn’t matter nearly as much as what was being achieved. If it’s not too radical to say so, Revolver is the sound of four brash kids from Liverpool (and a middle-aged classical music enthusiast) dreaming our current pop cultural landscape into being.
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.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned on 23 November for the essay “Sgt. Pepper Sets the Stage: The Album as a Work of Art”.
When this album was released in June of 1967, suddenly it seemed as if the always forward-thinking Beatles had revealed an entire new world of musical possibilities. The group was at the apex of their musical collaboration and enjoying renewed inspiration following their permanent move to the studio amid the chaos and despair of their final year as a live band. But while Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as one of the most revered and influential records of all time (musically, technically, and visually), it is certainly a very flawed release, especially following such a monumental watershed as the previous year’s Revolver.
Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting partnership was in full bloom during the last few months of 1966 and the first half of 1967, yet also beginning to show telltale signs of strain. The two songwriters were slowly beginning to part ways musically, as evidenced by the changing dynamics of each Beatle’s songs. Songs such as “A Day in the Life” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” begin to foster Lennon’s more personal approach to lyric writing, while McCartney’s invented characters abound in his compositions, and his conceptual approach seems to dominate the album. Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You, Without You”, was conceived with virtually no input from any other members and played entirely (with the exception of Harrison’s tambura and vocal) by Indian musicians and a string section brought in by producer George Martin.
Although their union was fracturing, on much of Sgt. Pepper it never seemed stronger. “Getting Better”, “With a Little Help From My Friends”, and the title track reprise benefit from playful, rocking arrangements that demonstrate that although they’ve moved to the studio, they can still rock. This creativity and studio-enhanced spontaneity is expressed best through definitively epic closer, “A Day in the Life”, a musical tour de force that seems to compound the many awe-inspiring technical successes achieved on Revolver and its accompanying singles. The song’s lyrics and music at once sum up the band’s development and point the way into the future, as if the group is demonstrating they’ve only just begun to turn us on.
Despite such grand musical achievements, songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Fixing a Hole,” and “Mr. Kite” now sound hopelessly dated; throwbacks to the “Summer of Love”. Although groundbreaking in its incorporation of Indian classical instruments and composition, “Within You, Without You” also falls victim to the potential label of “period piece”, despite its influence over much of popular music throughout the remainder of the psychedelic ‘60s. But, although some songs on the record are relics of a bygone psychedelic age, it’s also easy to forget that these were the songs, along with others by Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention, which gave birth to psychedelic music as a cultural force. The radical changes in the world that were underway in 1967 are summarized in the bizarre genre fusion taking place on Sgt. Pepper; music that anybody could listen to no matter what kind of music happened to be their favorite, no matter where they lived.
The idea, however, of Sgt. Pepper “the album” might just be more important than the music contained therein. The structure of the modern pop/rock album was introduced, with colossal, rousing openers and even more epic closers. The further realization of the “concept album”, utilizing characters, loose story lines, and artwork and lyrics to tie musical and conceptual ideas together became commonplace after Sgt. Pepper, inspiring an entire generation of progressive rock. The use of media hype to sell records to the public was also born out of the Beatles’ lengthy public absence while recording Pepper. The album’s revolutionary packaging also changed the game; never before had record buyers seen something so outrageous in terms of artwork production. Suddenly, album artwork could seem iconic; it could be a spectacle unto itself. When one thinks of a rock n roll album, what it means, the song sequence, the artwork, the lyrics, concepts, one thinks of the prototype set forth by Pepper.
Yet for all the pomp and circumstance associated with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles would continue to evolve, but once again in an unpredictable fashion. Later that year with the Magical Mystery Tour film and double EP, the group would further expand upon the psychedelic sounds and imagery, before becoming disillusioned with this approach in the wake of the film’s failure. The group abandoned most of the gadgets, audio effects and hippie subject matter for 1968’s mammoth double album, The Beatles, a work that showcased more the songs of four songwriters than the work of a unified band.
It’s the last act in an amazing trilogy that began with the highly experimental Revolver and found its pinnacle in the picturesque Sgt. Peppers. Yet even when put alongside those musical masterworks, this extended EP for the failed TV film clearly represents some of the Beatles best in-studio musings. In fact, everything that George Martin did to expand the boys’ creative recording repertoire comes to fore in this magnificent collection of tracks. Like the celebrated concept album before, Magical Mystery Tour tells its own story—the saga of how a band of upstarts from Liverpool became the biggest pop phenomenon of the decade and, so far, of all time.
It was also the lasting document of the band’s attempt to replace live performance with something equally satisfying. Since 1966, the group had sworn off touring, arguing that they were never appreciated in concert, since more times than not, the screaming of the crowd drowned out their playing. A little less than a year later, they decided that TV might be a good way to stay connected to their fans. The Beatles tended to enjoy their time making movies (outside of some of the more pragmatic elements like having to get up early, memorize lines, etc.) and so a new project was proposed—a home movie like holiday with the boys playing wizards who mix things up for a group of travelers. Mostly improvised and showcasing the group’s lack of cinematic acumen, many continuously point to Magical Mystery Tour, the movie, as the Beatles first outright flop.
Luckily, the music still retains its majesty. The actual LP release contains an odds and sods assortment of various Fab Four finery. The first six tracks represent the material forged specifically for the broadcast showcase. The rest is made up of classic singles (“Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love”), the equally brilliant “Hello, Goodbye” and “Love"s brooding B-Side “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (intended for the film Yellow Submarine). All present Peace generation psychedelia at its most potent and influential. Even when McCartney breaks out the music hall memorabilia for “Your Mother Should Know” or Lennon ratchets up the wordplay for “I Am the Walrus”, we wind up with the aural equivalent of an acid-induced trip through the band’s collective consciousness.
Those who’ve accused the compilation of being nothing more than a series of session outtakes, remnants and unrealized ideas, are clearly misguided. Aside from “Flying”, the rare instrumental in the group’s catalog (credited to all four members, by the way), the tunes here hold up as well—or in some cases better—than the so-called masterworks of Pepper. Indeed, “Walrus” matches “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in its intricate and playful language, while the clear carbon copies—“Fixing a Hole”/“Getting Better”—can’t match the title track, or anything from the “Strawberry Fields”/“Penny Lane” starting point.
Where it stumbles, if only slightly, is in the contextual department. Locked into the loony travelogue concept of the script, the band had to balance the needs of the narrative (thus the mandatory ‘dance’ number, “Your Mother…”) with the wants of the individual. This is clearly seen in George Harrison’s sole contribution, the plaintive private dirge “Blue Jay Way”. In the film itself, the fabled Beatles guitarist is viewed as a kind of street shaman, fingering a chalk drawing keyboard on the actual Hollywood Hills Boulevard that inspired the title. McCartney also wanted to celebrate his somber, saccharine love song “The Fool on the Hill”. Thus, a trip to the South of France was in order.
But there’s none of the resonance of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, no morbid mental clarity as in “A Day in the Life”. Instead, this is experimentation taken to its most commercial ends, a work of wondrous imagination that, ultimately, is often dismissed as an anthology of surplus. Still, the lessons learned from Pepper were polished and perfected here, so much so that the group would (mostly) abandon such aural opulence for the stripped down rock and roll of The White Album. And this is perhaps the Beatles last “happy” recording, a work that retains their endless optimism before the darkness descended and took over. By the time Abbey Road offered its own sunshine omnibus of sonic bits and pieces, the innocence of the ‘60s was long gone.
Today, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to “roll up” and prepare yourself for a trip through major musical history. While revisionists would like to somehow sell the Beatles as a boy band overrated by out of touch sound scholars, a melodic magnum opus like The Magical Mystery Tour reminds one of the actual truth. After the initial inroads of Revolver and the full bore embrace of Sgt. Peppers, the lads from Liverpool once again proved that there was no format they couldn’t master, no genre they couldn’t mimic and make better. While some still want to dismiss it as “second tier” Beatles, it says something about their enduring talent that such low rent material remains so memorable four decades later.