The psychedelic trilogy -- Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour -- stands as the artistic peak of a band that had retreated into the studio and found untold riches there.
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.