Thursday, November 12, 2009

Album project: Revolver

The Beatles, Revolver (1966): All of the creative strands that The Beatles had been diligently collecting over the past months came together in a dazzling whole in 1966 with the release of an album considered by many as the greatest of all time. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had reached a pinnacle achieved by few popular artists, and they began to use their success to leverage independence from the music industry machinery. They used the first three months of 1966 to take a well-earned break, returning to the studio in April refreshed and concentrated at the peak of their creative powers.

The first fruits from these sessions released to the public were found on the single "Paperback Writer"/"Rain". A dichotomy seemed to be forming in the Lennon-McCartney partnership where Paul was responsible for keeping the group at the top of the charts, while John expanded listeners' perceptions with ever-imaginative flights of whimsy. "Paperback Writer" features an imaginative vocal arrangement, one of the Fab Four's most powerful riffs, and a newly boosted bass sound. Allegedly, Lennon demanded a bass sound as powerful as on the Wilson Pickett records he was listening to. "Rain" previewed some of the recording tricks that would surface later on Revolver. Of particular note was the use of backwards vocal tracks. According to Lennon, "After we'd done the session on that particular song—it ended at about four or five in the morning—I went home with a tape to see what else you could do with it. And I was sort of very tired, you know, not knowing what I was doing, and I just happened to put it on my own tape recorder and it came out backwards. And I liked it better. So that's how it happened."

The "Paperback Writer" clip features stills from The Beatles' performance of the song on the venerable UK TV series Top Of The Pops. This was the Fab Four's only live TOTP appearance; the tape was unceremoniously erased by the BBC in the 70's.

Revolver was the product of an unprecedented 300 hours of work in the studio, as The Beatles and producer George Martin used their clout to camp out in the EMI studios for whatever amount of time they required, without regard for the label's schedules. This allowed the Fab Four all the time they needed to develop their increasingly complex songwriting ideas, as well as allowing themselves to take advantage of the latest in recording technology. They were particularly fond of automatic double tracking, which used two linked tape recorders to create an automatically doubled vocal track. This innovation, along with use of backwards tapes and a wide range of instrumentation, from sitars to string quartets, greatly expanded the band's musical palette.

The first surprise on Revolver is that it opens with a George Harrison composition. The snarling "Taxman" is George's complaint about the British tax system, backed up by an aggressive guitar solo from McCartney. Those hearing the LP for the first time in 1966 might have though that "Taxman" was signaling a return to the earlier, raw sounds of Beatles For Sale, and would have been surprised by the strings opening the next track. "Eleanor Rigby", with its classical overtones, broke more new ground for The Beatles and rock music in general. McCartney's then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, had interested Paul in classical music, and he had taken an interest in Vivaldi's work for string quartets. "Eleanor Rigby" uses two string quartets, the parts doubled, playing a George Martin-composed score. McCartney came up with the basic idea for the song, with the other Beatles assisting in its final composition. The song's protagonists originally had different names, as McCartney explained: "I was sitting at the piano when I thought of it. The first few bars just came to me, and I got this name in my head... 'Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church'. I don't know why. I couldn't think of much more so I put it away for a day. Then the name Father McCartney came to me, and all the lonely people. But I thought that people would think it was supposed to be about my Dad sitting knitting his socks. Dad's a happy lad. So I went through the telephone book and I got the name McKenzie."

In many ways, Revolver is as much a coming-of-age album for McCartney as Rubber Soul was for Lennon. The fabled songwriting partnership was breaking up; as John was pursuing his increasingly psychedelic visions, Paul was honing a descriptive songwriting style that often produced brilliant results, but at times would come off as embarrassingly trite. McCartney hits the mark every time on Revolver. The punchy brass on "Got To Get You Into My Life" was Paul's homage to Motown; as a tribute to The Beatles' enduring popularity, it reached the Top Ten when finally released as a single in 1976. "Good Day Sunshine" was endearingly optimistic, the warmth of "Here, There, And Everywhere" recalls The Beach Boys, and "For No One", with its distinctive French horn solo, details the breakup of a relationship. He also was primarily responsible for "Yellow Submarine". Although essentially a children's tune, notably in Ringo Starr's treatment of the vocal, it was also inspired by an LSD trip of Lennon's and Harrison's.

For the first time, George Harrison contributes three compositions to a Beatles album. Along with "Taxman", he also adds the straightforward rocker "I Want To Tell You", with lyrics that refer to George's difficulties in putting his feelings into words. But on "Love You To", Harrison takes his craft to a higher level. The track highlights his interest in Indian music forms, establishing an exotic sound that would become a trademark of future Beatles recordings, and of much of George's solo career as well. Harrison by this point had become an adept sitar player, aided by an apprenticeship with virtuoso Ravi Shankar that would help give Harrison a mastery of the instrument achieved by few Westerners.

John Lennon's tracks reflect his continuing search for self-fulfillment, which had taken him to psychedelia and LSD-inspired explorations of his mind. Lennon downplayed the influence drug-taking had on his songwriting, saying "The drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. They don't make you write any better. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid." LSD was, though, figuring implicitly in much of John's songwriting at this point, and explicitly in some of his tunes. The uptempo "Dr. Robert" referred to a drug dealer, while "She Said She Said", with its swirling guitars and agile drum patterns (this is the track to play anyone who tries to tell you Ringo Starr was a mediocre drummer) was inspired by an acid trip the group took with Peter Fonda where the actor kept repeating the words "I know what it's like to be dead". Lennon closes Revolver with the remarkable "Tomorrow Never Knows", a trippy mix of tape loops, psychedelic guitars, and multi-tracked vocals rooted in Indian music. Lennon told George Martin that he wanted the song to sound like a hundred chanting monks. The lyrics were inspired by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner's The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to McCartney, John and Paul were browsing in a bookstore when they saw the book. John noted the lines "When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream". Paul said that John bought the book, went home, dropped LSD, and proceeded to follow those instructions to the letter.

For me, it's a tough call whether Revolver or Rubber Soul is the greatest Beatles album. The songs on the former are more direct, and the progress the band makes is breathtaking. But it's hard to deny the grand sweep of Revolver, its diversity of musical forms, and the undeniable mark the LP left upon nearly everything that followed it during the rest of the decade. Few creative artists in any genre have ever reached the creative peak these two discs represent. Although much popular music is forgotten within months of its creation, The Beatles, with Rubber Soul and Revolver, created works that will endure in the minds and hearts of music lovers many generations from now.

(Edited 11/13.)