Recorded in the spring/early summer of 1966, Revolver — like every Beatles release — was a huge stride forward from its predecessor, not only for its technical innovations but also for the compositions included. If, as John Lennon once commented, the previous year’s Rubber Soul had been their pot-smoking album, this time it was LSD which provided the inspiration.
George Harrison was delighted to have three of his songs included on the LP, finally beginning to emerge as a writer from the monstrous shadow cast by the Lennon/McCartney partnership. In truth, few of that pair’s songs by this time were truly co-written: it’s not hard to distinguish a John tune from one of Paul’s. Nevertheless, both were still open to one another’s contributions and suggestions: anything to make every track as good as it could possibly be.
Producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick once again broke most of the established rules of recording, inventing several new ones in the process. The Beatles may have all been tripped out in their free time, but — aside from the odd joint on the roof between takes — they remained remarkably straight and focussed on their work at Abbey Road.
Listening to the complex combination of sounds on the album, it’s easy to understand why they were sick of playing at being “The Fab Four Live”, unable to even hear themselves through inadequate PAs over a barrage of screaming. Within a month of Revolver’s release in August, they had played their last gig.
The black and white photo-collage cover was designed by Klaus Voormann, an old friend from their apprenticeship days in Hamburg, and bass player with Manfred Mann. The photos were the work of longtime collaborator Robert Whitaker. While it isn’t exactly psychedelic in terms of swirling, day-glo colours, it certainly must have given its proto-hippie purchasers something interesting to roll a spliff on.
The Beatles — Revolver: Track-by-track review
With a count-in and a cough, the choppy riff of George’s “Taxman” opens the album. It’s an indignant protest against the UK Inland Revenue, who were claiming a staggering 95% of the band’s earnings at the time! An outraged Harrison points his finger directly at the UK’s leading contemporary political figures: Messrs. Wilson (Labour) and Heath (Tory). (He was to fall foul of The Taxman again in 1971 when Inland Revenue took most of the money raised by the Concert for Bangladesh, meant to aid refugees, considering it to be “personal income”.)
Perhaps in order to concentrate on the vocal, George limited himself to rhythm guitar on the track, giving the solo to Paul (who does a fine job, in addition to his chunky bassline). Ringo provides a typically solid drum-backing, with an insistent tambourine and cowbell supporting it.
John and Paul’s tight harmonies add their endorsement to the bitter irony of the song. “Should five percent appear too small, be thankful I don’t take it all!”
2. “Eleanor Rigby”
Paul McCartney’s elegant elegy to “all the lonely people” has none of the band playing on it, although Lennon and Harrison do sing backing vocals. Whereas Paul had at least contributed the acoustic guitar part to the previous year’s “Yesterday”, this time a double-tracked string quartet is the only instrumentation. “Eleanor Rigby” was released as a 45 (with “Yellow Submarine” as the double-A) simultaneously with the LP.
Although convinced that he had invented the names, Paul later found that both Eleanor Rigby and someone called McKenzie, like the priest in the song, appear on tombstones in a Liverpool cemetery he (and John) had known well as teenagers. Whether or not his inspiration came from the great beyond, it’s a mature and sophisticated piece of writing.
3. “I’m Only Sleeping”
Following on from “Nowhere Man” and anticipating the White Album’s “I’m So Tired”, Lennon continues to make his “nowhere plans”. Leave me alone with my dreams, I’m not hurting anyone else… You may say he was a dreamer, but he certainly wasn’t the only one.
The distorted echo on John’s voice and reversed guitar solos reflect the somnambulist sentiments perfectly. The backward sound had first been used on “Rain”, the B-side of “Paperback Writer”, recorded around the same time and released as a single in May. Lennon claimed to have invented the technique by loading a tape machine wrongly when he was stoned at home one night.
4. “Love You To”
George’s second contribution to the album and a clear indication of his growing interest in all things Indian. He had become fascinated with the music during the filming of Help! and had progressed as a sitar player (with Ravi Shankar as his teacher) well enough to play on “Norwegian Wood” just a few months later. Here he is accompanied by Anil Bhagwat on tabla, an Indian drum, with Ringo’s tambourine being the only non-vocal Beatle input.
The lyric, delivered in a double-tracked vocal, similarly reflects Harrison’s developing affinity with Eastern thinking:
Each day just goes so fast
I turn around it’s past
A lifetime is so short
A new one can’t be bought
Such themes would be further explored on Sgt Pepper’s “Within You, Without You” and remained central to Harrison’s philosophy for the rest of his life. It may be overstating things to say he was solely responsible for the hippie movement’s interest in the East, but if he could convince his band-mates of its attractions, he was certainly not without influence!
5. “Here, There And Everywhere”
Pure Paul: a bittersweet ballad which alternately has me wanting to stick my fingers down my throat and marvelling at the perfect crafting of it! There’s little recording trickery, apart from the echoed lead vocal: the track doesn’t really call for it. The “oooo-oooo” harmonies and George’s subtle guitar touches beautifully complement Macca’s sensitive vocal.
Lennon said at the time that it was the best track on the LP and, shortly before his death, re-acknowledged it as one of the band’s best songs ever. McCartney himself still claims it as one of his all-time favourites. He incorporated it into the set list of his Back in the World tour in 2002-3.
6. “Yellow Submarine”
Uncle Ringo’s singalong, love it or hate it, is one of the most enduring themes the band ever released; still a staple of primary school music classes!
It’s actually a much more complex composition than it first appears, with the sound effects borrowed from EMI’s library collection, and more than a hint of psychedelia in the lyrics. (John had described George’s house turning into “a big submarine” during their first (spiked) acid trip the year before.)
Though it’s predominantly Paul’s song, there were contributions — to the writing and recording — by a variety of people. Lennon and Donovan threw in lines, and the let’s-all-party chorus reputedly includes him, Brian Jones and the faithful roadies Neil and Mal (who also thumped the big-bass drum).
7. “She Said, She Said”
The last track recorded for the album is John’s account of a crazy day on LSD in California during their ’65 tour, with The Byrds, lots of birds, and Peter Fonda. The then little-known actor was freaking everyone out, repeatedly ranting that he knew what it was like to be dead, until Lennon shut him up by asking, with characteristic bluntness, “Who put all that shit in your head, man?!!”
The strident guitar sound is remeniscent of The Byrds (compare the track with “Eight Miles High”, released almost simultaneously on the other side of the pond).
Mr Starkey’s percussion is completely wild: maybe he was trying to re-live the intensity of what had been his first trip. The bass part was probably played by George, as McCartney had apparently stormed out of the studio in a huff after a row.
8. “Good Day Sunshine”
A booming crescendo of piano, drums and backward cymbal opens side two with Paul’s upbeat salute to a bright new morning and a beautiful girl. Another example of his eternal desire to dabble in all kinds of musical styles, the piano backing (diddly-dum in the verse and rinkety-tink for the chorus) give it an old-time music hall feel. His bass is the only guitar featured on the track.
The levity of the lyrics further emphasise the nostalgic tone:
I feel good in a special way
I’m in love and it’s a sunny day!
McCartney also confessed that the American band Lovin’ Spoonful’s happy-go-lucky “Daydream”, a hit single earlier in the year, had been a big influence.
9. “And Your Bird Can Sing”
John Lennon may have dismissed the song as “another of my throwaways”, but many another band — then and now — would have killed/would kill to come up with filler like this!
True, there’s little substance to the lyric (the kind of gobbledegook wordplay he’d used in his books) but the sheer energy of the music and vocals more than compensate.
Double-tracked guitars drive it along relentlessly, and the tightness of the harmonies gives it an intense urgency, especially as they jump up the scale for the final refrain:
You tell me that you’ve heard every sound there is
And your bird can swing
But you can’t hear meeeeee!
There’s a hilarious outtake on Anthology 2, with McCartney virtually unable to sing for an attack of the giggles, presumably following a rooftop reefer.
10. “For No One”
Paul’s delicate reflection on a doomed love affair is another indication of the group’s ongoing quest to push the frontiers of contemporary pop/rock, incorporating instruments not usually associated with the genre.
The piano is accompanied by the clavichord, normally limited to classical baroque (Paul playing both), and a French Horn solo by Alan Civil of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (one of George Martin’s many contacts). Both McCartney and Martin pushed him to play higher than the instrument’s normal range, and the result is divine, juxtaposing with the down-stepping piano/bass accompaniment. Civil himself rated it as one of his best ever performances.
11. “Doctor Robert”
John pays tribute to a less than ethical medic:
Take a drink from his special cup
Well, well, well he’ll make you
One can only imagine what he was prescribing! Though Lennon claimed it was a celebration of pill-pushing physicians everywhere, the reference to the NHS does seem to place the demon doc in England; perhaps the “wicked dentist” who had spiked him and George with acid on their submarine trip.
It’s a lively little piece of guitar-driven pop (and boy do those guitars go off on some wild tangents!) with the chicka-chicka maracas backing up the drums to perfection. Then comes the “well, well, well” refrain: out with the jangly guitars and in with harmonium and cathedral-choir harmonies — just ever so briefly — then back to the groove… inspired! (Quite probably by one of the doc’s own potions.)
12. “I Want To Tell You”
Harrison’s guitar fades in to introduce his last song on the record, joined by Paul’s pounding piano and the drums, with Ringo sounding like he’d exchanged his sticks for a pair of sledgehammers. Macca’s overdubbed bass provides some of his most solid work on the entire LP. John’s only instrumental contribution was the insistent tambourine.
The lyric is about George’s frustration at his inability to adequately express his ideas:
My head is filled with things to say
All those words they seem to slip away
Given his input on the album and his growing influence both within and without the group, it seems like he was starting to get it together!
13. “Got To Get You Into My Life”
A belting Atlantic/Motown/Stax-style soul number, horn section ‘n’ all. McCartney’s vocal, smooth as silk for the verses and raucously ripping into the chorus, is spot-on and the ringing guitar towards the end gives it a further edge. Fine and funky though it is, Earth Wind & Fire’s 1978 disco cover doesn’t even come close to catching the original’s energy.
On a cursory listening it comes over as a straightforward exuberant love song:
I was alone
I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Where maybe I
Could see another kind of mind there
Once you know that the object of desire was actually marijuana, it takes on a completely new perspective!
14. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
If the recording innovations on the rest of the album were/are too subtle to be picked up by anyone but the most acute — or informed — of listeners, “Tomorrow Never Knows” stands out as pure experimentation.
From the droning introduction to John’s distant, tinny vocal (recorded through a spinning Hammond Organ speaker!) to Ringo’s surreal drum pattern, virtually none of the sounds was spared from electronic manipulation in some way. Not only that, there’s only one chord in the whole song!
Each of the band submitted homemade tape-loops, which were incorporated into the recording by engineers holding them with pencils into the studio machines. It is truly the bridge to “Strawberry Fields” and the whole of the subsequent Sgt Pepper album.
The words are taken from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, via American acid-guru Timothy Leary, and talk about universal consciousness, peace, harmony and love. Ringo provided the title (it was originally called “The Void”).
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is a soundtrack for the ideology of its generation and is, for me at least, one of the greatest of all The Beatles’ great songs.
Revolver by The Beatles
“I’m Only Sleeping”
“Love You To”
“Here, There And Everywhere”
“She Said, She Said”
“Good Day Sunshine”
“And Your Bird Can Sing”
“For No One”
“I Want To Tell You”
“Got To Get You Into My Life”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”