[10 June 2012]
Robert Rodriquez opens this volume with an assertion that few are probably willing to utter few places outside of the darkened corners of their basements while in the company of only their closest—and well vetted—friends: The Beatles actually recorded an album better than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Some find Abbey Road a more loveable work, he writes, and for many, Meet the Beatles zeitgeist lightning in a bottle. (To these ears Let It Be has always been the definitive statement from the Fab Four, a messy bit of work that meanders here, there, and everywhere is unlike any of the other records because its failures render John, Paul, George, and Ringo so utterly human.)
Rodriquez argues that although the 1966 release of Revolver received little of its 1967 successor’s fanfare, it’s more representative of the band as a band. Ringo Starr has offered that he learned to play chess during the Sgt. Pepper sessions and George Harrison let it be known that he had all but lost interest in being Fab come 1967. Lennon didn’t have the competitive edge of his pal McCartney, who was finding his stride as a writer, engaged in an impressive creative sprint.
For the creative zeniths reached on Revolver, the record is remarkable for its technical innovations, as well. It was during those sessions that the band really began to exploit recording technology in earnest. Others have pointed out that, stylistically speaking, virtually every track represented something new and inspired future waves of musical freedom—from punk to electronica to Baroque ‘n’ roll.
Lennon presented songs that were distinctly his own and forward thinking. Harrison found his footing as a writer (with just a little help from Lennon on “Taxman”) and McCartney rolled out many of the songs that revealed his individual style and how it cooperated and diverged from Lennon’s. One might say that they were four men working all together but setting the stage for the moment when, a few years later, they would be all alone.
Rodriguez doesn’t admonish us for having missed the mark on Revolver for all these years. Instead, he’s gentle in his persuasion and his willingness to suggest that we’ve forgotten that the lads from Liverpool were not without their peers. They were as much a part of a pack as musicians at any other time. And they were part of a class of musicians for whom technological advancements were increasingly important—these evolving tools allowed these young men to bring their visions to fruition.
Thus, to speak of the Beatles as forerunners or as some singular force in popular music—at least in the sense of being anything like sole innovators—is to be disingenuous. This was a band well aware of its competition and it always sought to do better than whatever else was out there. That alone is part of what makes Revolver an exemplary album.
The Beatles had already tested the experimental waters with Rubber Soul the year before via “Norwegian Wood”, “In My Life”, and “Girl” and the band members knew their audience would follow them even deeper into uncharted territory. But 1966 brought about changes that were bound to influence each man’s art. Lennon made his famous “more popular than Jesus Christ” statement, Harrison married model Pattie Boyd, and McCartney was dabbling with London’s avant garde scene.
There were plans for a new movie staring the Beatles in 1966 that never came to fruition, and that’s perhaps just as well—the group was moving increasingly away from the cute and cuddly image that had dominated earlier in its career. Nowhere was this better exemplified than with the infamous “butcher cover” photos taken by Robert Whitaker. Photos of the Fabs, dressed in white butcher smocks and surrounded by baby doll parts and raw meat, appeared on the cover of the US and Canada-only compilation album “Yesterday” and Today in the summer of 1966, slamming the lid shut on that oh-so-adorable image of the Beatles once and for all. Unpleasant as that image may have been, it remains indelible. Its replacement, less so.
Attempting to place the Beatles and the Stones at poles no doubt became more difficult from that moment forward. The Stones were not as musically adventurous as the Beatles, no were they as interested in being as innovative. Lennon even quipped that the Stones did everything the Beatles did—–only six months later and, we might conclude, not as well.
Still, those “lesser” bands left their mark, too. It was Byrd David Crosby who first introduced George Harrison to the music of Ravi Shankar, something that would shape the entirety of Harrison’s life from that moment forward. The group’s one genuine peer—Bob Dylan, who had turned them on to marijuana—remained an acerbic wit that John Lennon still admired.
In the Beatle camp, grass and LSD walked hand in hand by 1966. Although McCartney and Starr are both still adamant that the group preferred to work free of drugs in the studio and, generally, in the writing process, experimentation and use outside the studio were welcome and, especially in the case of LSD, encouraged.
Harrison and Lennon had already been dosed by a dentist friend in the first quarter of 1965 while McCartney held out for more than year before he took his first trip. So prevalent were those drugs during the latter years of the Beatles that Lennon would come to refer to Rubber Soul as the grass album and Revolver as the acid album. LSD would inspire two of the most prominent songs on the latter album: Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said She Said”. McCartney offered a far less forward sounding “Got To Get You Into My Life”, an ode to Mary Jane.
Although source studies for some pop records can become exercises in tedium, Rodriquez’s discussion of the Revolver tracks and their origins is never less than fascinating. The discussion moves beyond the scope of mere trivia and speculation and instead informs not only our understanding of these numbers, but also our understanding of the four musicians who performed them and the collective and individual experiences that shaped these men and their thinking in early 1966.
The band had come along way in three short years. In 1963 they’d been allotted one day to record the album Please Please Me. By 1966 they had great latitude and time to experiment, hone tracks to their finest points, and connect vision with reality.
Advances in recording equipment meant that the writers in the band were more aware of the possibilities of recorded sound and that they knew how to ask the engineering team questions that would help achieve the unusual or specific sounds they heard in their mind’s ear. McCartney’s discovery that he could create “tape loops”, something that had existed outside the realm of pop records before Revolver, was especially key to the new sounds heard on the record. Accounts of how engineers—especially Geoff Emerick—created many of the new sounds heard on Revolver, as written in these pages, are fascinating, even if you’ve heard or read them before.
Rodriquez’s detailed account of each track on the album is worthy of multiple reads alone. Another author recently dismissed some of the creative notions behind Revolver—in particular the short hand that the band used to communicate with producer George Martin and the engineering staff—as somehow bumbling or the result of excessive chemical refreshment. But Rodriquez understands that what the Beatles were striving for was to create something they had not heard on record before and therefore had no nomenclature yet to describe. In short, he understands the artistic process and how to convey that process to a readership that may or may not itself be engaged in the creative process.
The song-by-song analysis is not only the author uncovering the mysteries for the listener, he’s also revealing what made Revolver a superior album, not just in terms of the material present but in terms of the strides made in songwriting and the group’s ability to crystallize its vision. McCartney shines especially bright with “Got to Get You Into My Life”, “Paperback Writer”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” but one must also recognize the beauty and lasting impact of Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “She Said She Said” and “Rain”, all of these among the last great songs he’d write as a Beatle. (He apparently told McCartney that he felt he’d been outshined by his bass-playing pal on Revolver—he certainly would be on Sgt. Pepper.)
Some of the album’s greatness may have been lost at the time as controversy swept up around the group in the US as Lennon’s comments about the waning of Christianity and the group’s popular compared to that of the Messiah gained traction in the press. Attendance at the group’s live performances, although by no means atrocious, had dipped and the ultimate decision to take the band off the road was one that would take on major significance in the group’s remaining years.
The band itself didn’t seem to think much of Revolver as a major statement—Harrison would later claim that he couldn’t quite differentiate it from Rubber Soul (an observation that has some merit)—and the sure hype surrounding the albums that came after 1967 does little to draw attention back to this gem.
Rodriquez follows the group into the studio for Sgt. Pepper and the fanfare that announces its release, reminding us, as does McCartney, that the long stretch without Beatle activity—save for the “Strawberry Fields”/“Penny Lane” single at the end of 1966—set in motion speculation that the Beatles had dried up creatively. Without the aid of a tour or momentum from a recent record to help Sgt. Pepper along, it was required that the Beatles and manager Brian Epstein needed to turn to the press, just as they’d done a few years earlier when planning their invasion of America. It was perhaps the first time the mainstream press embraced a rock ‘n’ roll record. Thanks to massive radio play and kudos from band peers such as Jimi Hendrix, it was impossible to ignore Sgt. Pepper and thus its place in pop music history was cemented almost at birth.
Rodriquez closes this volume with a look at the imitative records which followed Sgt. Pepper (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and misconceptions that persisted (that Sgt. Pepper was a concept album) and an ultimate assessment of both it and Revolver as the pair of final great albums from the Fab Four. Abbey Road, one might argue, is largely a McCartney solo effort with the others along for the ride, and 1968’s “White Album” gave evidence of the fragmentary nature of Camp Beatle after the 1967 death of Brian Epstein; moreover, there are a number of the tracks that lack the presence of all four Beatles.
One must quibble with the author’s assertion that the Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! (1966) is a concept piece (it’s not). Further, his belief that Zappa was skewering the Beatles for co-opting the counterculture on the 1968 release We’re Only In It for the Money rings false. Although that album’s cover is a direct nod to Sgt. Pepper, Zappa’s wit and razor are directed specifically at the counterculture itself and its own deadly idealism and willingness to co-opt itself.
There are a few other errors that future editions will correct: that Lennon told Playboy magazine anything in 1981 would, of course, be a miracle; rather, he offered opinions in 1980 that were published in Playboy after his death in December of that year. The book’s index has several gaps and anyone using the book for research may find this frustrating. It might also be said that although it’s important for us to understand how Pepper stood in relief to Revolver we might also need to better understand how Revolver stands in relief to Rubber Soul.
Still, of the umpteen books written and published about the Beatles in 2012, this will undoubtedly hold as one of the best. It’s well-written, well-researched, and presented to us by an author with a sense of authority that makes you eager to read—and listen to—what he has to say.