The story is legend. Brian Wilson hears Rubber Soul, and is so blown away that he gets his Beach Boys together and makes Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney, in turn, hears Pet Sounds and is so blown away that he and his fellow Beatles make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Three of the definitive rock albums of all time, and they were transatlantic vinyl love letters.
And, smack dab in the middle of those three albums, is the best of the bunch, the letter that went unanswered.
Released in August of 1966, Revolver is the sound of good times and better drugs, of the individual members of the greatest band in the history of pop music peaking at the exact same time, and knowing it. They wrote with unwavering confidence, and they played with reckless disregard for any and all rules that ever existed of what pop music was supposed to be. And it can all be traced to one simple instruction from their infallible producer George Martin: “Think symphonic.”
The noted prophet Bill Hicks once joked that the Beatles were so high that you had to pull them off the ceiling with a rake. That would certainly explain Help! and Rubber Soul, where they even mimicked the sound of toking a joint on one song (“Girl”). The drugs of choice on Revolver, however, were slightly stronger. LSD is everywhere, from the night John spent tripping with the Byrds and Peter Fonda (“She Said She Said”) to John’s musical interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (“Tomorrow Never Knows”, which still sounds light years ahead of this or any other time). Meanwhile, George delivers his first full-fledged Indian song on “Love You To”, and rock’s first backward guitar solo on his seething “Taxman”.
But if you want to know just how high the Beatles were in 1966, look no further than “Yellow Submarine”. Inspired by an acid trip John and George took, where George imagined his house as a yellow submarine, “Yellow Submarine” is arguably the #1 drug song of all time, made all the more absurd by the fact that they let Ringo sing lead. It’s perhaps the most dated moment on Revolver, but it is also useful in that it offers the best glimpse of what it was like to be in a rock band in the mid ’60s. It carries a certain freedom of the human spirit that is still intoxicating, if a tad silly.
And we haven’t even gotten to Paul yet.
John and George’s work may have made significant leaps forward in songwriting prowess, but Paul’s contributions are nothing short of astounding, in terms of both quality and variety. His songs covered the musical landscape of hundreds of years, from Elizabethan balladry (“Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One”; Paul clearly took Martin’s symphonic suggestion the most literally) to the Motown tribute “Got to Get You into My Life”. Nestled in between, however, was two minutes of 3-part harmonic brilliance known as “Here There and Everywhere”, one of the best love songs of all time and a wedding reception staple (mine included) forevermore.
It’s taken almost 30 years for music historians to put the Beatles work into proper perspective. Sgt. Pepper carried the title of best album of all time for ages, when in fact it’s not even the best Beatles album of all time. In the last couple years, however, revisionist history has actually changed things for the better. Revolver is king.