Music

Counterbalance No. 2: The Beatles' 'Revolver'

In this installment of Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger's tag-team series Counterbalance, the pair take on the Beatles’ 1966 bellwether 'Revolver'. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream!


The Beatles

Revolver

Label: Parlophone
US Release Date: 1966-08-05
Amazon
iTunes

Mendelsohn: I have nothing bad to say about this album. Nothing. But I will suck it up and do my job as a critic and start critiquing. I have two words for you, Klinger: "Yellow Submarine". Without Ringo's dystopian little gem about a magical place where we all live in submarines and no one ever lapses into a claustrophobic rage, Revolver may very well be the perfect album. Prove me wrong.

Klinger: A bold statement, Mendelsohn, and one that's awfully hard to dispute. But let's take a Slate.com-like contrarian view here, if for no other reason than to generate some false controversy. After all, who doesn't find the devil's advocate delightful?

Even putting Ringo's kiddie number aside, the individual songs on Revolver are actually kind of slight. McCartney offers up a soap opera melodrama, a pleasant little love song, a highly controversial ode to sunshine and a tune about weed. George bitches about having to pay taxes and messes around on a sitar. Lennon is the record's MVP with two absolutely brilliant songs that would set the tone for the rest of the decade ("She Said, She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows"), but even he ends up writing a love song to his dealer.

And I've never liked the cover, either. There, I said it.

Mendelsohn: Seriously? You're going to attack the cover? C'mon, man. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds features a photo of the band feeding goats (a serious WTF moment). Graphic design didn't come into its own until sometime around 1976. And as much as I hate to say this, it was probably Boston's self-titled debut that helped turn the tide. Not the album itself, just the cover.

Klinger: Those goats are highly symbolic, man.

Mendelsohn: Sure. But as for Revolver, who cares what the songs were about? This record changed the way albums would be made going forward. Multiple tracks, chorus effects, tape loops. The technical innovation alone is amazing. Of course, it was 1966, and the world had only just stopped being black and white ten years before. So make of it what you will.

Klinger: Well, furthermore . . . Aargh! I can't keep this up! I don't know how those contrarian guys at Slate.com do it!

Yes, Revolver is very nearly a perfect album. The Beatles, as innovative as they were, really excelled at synthesizing the various influences that were all around them, so they could incorporate Stax-ish horns, Byrds-like guitars, and baroque sunshine pop, and in the end it all sounds like the Beatles.

I first bought Revolver when I was 12 (I bought it at K-Mart!). It's become so internalized in me that it's hard to listen to it with new ears. But as I've revisited it in preparation for this piece, I'm really struck by just how much it rocks. The guitars have more bite to them than on previous Beatles albums, and the rhythm section is punchier as well. A lot of the credit goes to engineer Geoff Emerick, who may well be the unsung hero of the Beatles' sonic evolution.

Mendelsohn: Sonically, this album is unmatched and a credit to the Beatles as true rock gods—not just mop-topped teeny bops. Thematically, this album is all over the map and while that could hurt a lesser band, I think the Beatles were finally realizing what sort of rock-body they possessed. If Rubber Soul was puberty, Revolver was young adulthood. Unfocused, energetic and brilliant, laying the groundwork for not only their future masterworks but for countless other artists and even whole genres.

Klinger: Agreed—despite my earlier attempt at satanic advocacy. The Beatles were coming into their own as songwriters, with Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison all digging in deeper and by extension pushing pop music forward. They did so not just sonically, but also lyrically. "For No One" is a keenly observed portrait of a relationship in its endgame, and the very idea of name-checking a sitting Prime Minister and opposition party leader (not to mention your dealer) pushes the boundaries of cheekiness in pop music. This was uncharted territory across the board.

I have to say, too, Mendelsohn, that this is a level of effusiveness I so seldom hear from you. It's quite refreshing. What was your relationship with this album before this Counterbalance project?

Mendelsohn: Honestly, I don't have much of a backstory with this album. Revolver came to me in a group package, along with Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, the "White Album", and Abbey Road, with little more instruction than, "The Beatles rock, man! Listen to these albums!" That's a lot to get through. It's taken me 15 years to come to the conclusion that Revolver, though a bit scattered, ranks highest for me in the Beatles pantheon. It seems that every musical road I've ever traveled down in my life has not only led back to the Beatles, but specifically to Revolver.

Pop and rock are the easiest lines to draw but Revolver also gave birth to psychedelia, thanks to "George messing around on the sitar", and—more importantly for me anyway—the seed of electronic music, in both form and function, was planted with "Tomorrow Never Knows." The 130 BPM, the obtuse lyrics, the tape loops—it's house music for hippies.

I fell hard for electronic music when I was younger. We've since gone our separate ways—let's call it a scheduling conflict—and while I've returned to my pop and rock roots, I will never forget those fleeting years of my youth spent behind the fader. It's no coincidence that my two favorite songs on Revolver are "Taxman" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," both rock out at the speed of house (the music, not the Hugh Laurie). I owe a lot to this album.

Klinger: I'd heard a bit about electronic music being shaped in part by "Tomorrow Never Knows", and that's a very interesting point. I think it's also worth noting that as experimental the Beatles were getting by 1966, they were still first and foremost pop guys. Look over the songs again; the longest song is 3:02! "Tomorrow Never Knows," with all its loops and noises and craziness, is in and out before three minutes are up. They knew the line between experimentation and self-indulgence—we'll see if they're still acknowledging that line when we get to Counterbalance No. 14.

I should also point out that the version I bought at K-Mart was the American LP, which cut three tracks to pad out Yesterday and Today. So it wasn't until later that I finally heard "I'm Only Sleeping", "And Your Bird Can Sing", and "Doctor Robert", and then not in the context of the album. Needless to say I had a somewhat skewed version of the Beatles' development.

Mendelsohn: Speaking of skewed and "Doctor Robert"—is that song about acid?

Klinger: Perish the thought! The song is clearly about noted televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller, whose weekly Hour of Power broadcast was a huge influence on the Beatles. In fact, in 1968 the Beatles were on their way to a pilgrimage to Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, when they got on the wrong plane and ended up in India. The Maharishi met them at the airport and never once corrected them when they called him "Bob".

The '60s were a strange time.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image