Friday, August 5, 2011

The Best Shot: Revolver’s Legacy

The Beatles kept up a grueling schedule during their first few years as recording artists. Along with their countless concert, television, radio, and personal commitments, they recorded six albums, ten singles, and an E.P. in little over three years. It had all caught up with them by 1966, the year that saw naïve Beatlemania weathered by its first scandals: Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comment and its subsequent backlash, and an unintentional snub against the Marcos family that turned a trip to the Philippians volatile and dangerous. The guys’ decreased enthusiasm for live performance and increased fascination with studio work put them off the road for good. A full nine months lapsed between the release of Rubber Soul in December ’65 and Revolver the following August—the longest span between new Beatles records yet. Certainly the band’s schedule and fatigue factored into the delay, but the amount of work The Beatles put into their sixth album was also significant. Proof of that is in the grooves.

Today the significance of Revolver is indisputable. The album is often regarded as The Beatles’ best, and nearly as often, Rock & Roll’s best, as evidenced by polls conducted by Mojo, Q, VH-1, and of all things, The Vatican’s official newspaper. The situation in 1966 tells a different tale. According to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, Revolver received generally positive, if less than ecstatic, reviews upon its release. In the U.S., Capitol Records continued to treat The Beatles’ mounting sophistication with sloppy cynicism, issuing three Revolver tracks (“I’m Only Sleeping”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Dr. Robert”) on the Yesterday… and Today compilation a couple of months earlier, and leaving the proper record almost completely neutered of Lennon’s involvement. Regardless of their own stunning inventiveness, The Beatles didn’t seem extraordinarily impressed by the record. Four years later, Lennon couldn’t even remember its title, referring to Revolver as “the one… with the drawing on it.” In a ‘90s-era interview captured for The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison referred to Revolver as one of his favorites, yet couldn’t really distinguish it from Rubber Soul. Drugs, of course, could be a factor in such dodgy recollections.



Until more recent reevaluations, Revolver tended to get overshadowed by The Beatles' most epochal records: the Beatlemania-sparking With the Beatles/Meet the Beatles and the Rock-is-now-Art phenomenon Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Four sprawling sides of “The White Album” and the overly polished farewell statement Abbey Road, with its sidelong suite, tended to usurp Revolver too. True, the L.P. has no controlling concept. The Beatles were not consciously trying to innovate or inspire awe. It is an album of fourteen unrelated and rather dissimilar songs. Almost any track could have been pulled from the record and swapped with a side of the band’s latest single (“Paperback Writer”/”Rain”) without really disrupting its flow or quality. Yet, decades removed from the ‘60s and its increasingly meaningless milestones, Revolver does stand forth as The Beatles' best album because it captures them on the thrilling cusp between their earlier days as a raw, electric four piece (“Taxman”, “She Said, She Said”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”) and their new status as rule-defying, capital-“A” pop Artists (“Eleanor Rigby”, “Love You To”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”). The album remains fresh in a way the band’s more self-conscious records do not. Sgt. Pepper’s may have long been considered an innovation without precedent, but notice how often it repeats Revolver to lesser effect. “She’s Leaving Home” recycles the vocals and strings arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby”. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is another tape-loop frenzy à la “Tomorrow Never Knows”. “Within You, Without You” is more “Love You To”-style raga rock. Indeed, The Beatles seemed to be profoundly influenced by their own album. They weren’t the only ones.



Revolver introduced a trove of new riches to the pop treasure chest. The Monkees appropriated the octave-hopping bassline of “Taxman” (not to mention George Harrison’s time-signature flouting count in) for “You Told Me”. In 1980, Elvis Costello and the Attractions borrowed that bassline on “Beaten to the Punch”, while The Jam used it twice: first on the B-side “Dreams of Children” then on “Start!”, which also nicked the offbeat rhythm guitar and McCartney’s ragged, raga guitar solo.

Paul Revere and the Raiders absorbed the arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” for their “Undecided Man”. The Zombies used its message of isolation as inspiration for “A Rose for Emily”. Harrison’s backwards guitar work on “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” became a new trope of the psychedelic age (The Byrds’ “Mind Gardens”, Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand”, The Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky”) rivaled only by the Indian orchestrations of “Love You To” (Donovan’s “Three Kingfishers”, “Girl in Your Eye” by Spirit, any number of songs by The Incredible String Band). If the Pet Sounds-inspired “Here, There, and Everywhere” was more homage than trend-setter, “Yellow Submarine” more than made up for that by setting off a strain of psychedelic children’s music picked up by Rock’s most child-like (The Hollies’ “Pegasus”, Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden and HMS Donovan, The Kinks’ “Tin Soldier Man” and “Phenomenal Cat”) and toughest (The Who’s “Happy Jack”, The Stones’ “Dandelion”, Cream’s “Anyone for Tennis”) leaders. “She Said, She Said” was perhaps the first psychedelic song to explore the scary alienation of the acid experience, prefiguring The Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home” and Jefferson Airplane’s “The House at Pooneil Corners”. “And Your Bird Can Sing” looked at acid-induced, superhuman delusions concurrently with Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” but before The Who’s “I Can See For Miles”. Celebrations of drug peddlers such as Small Faces’ “Here Comes the Nice” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Mexico” followed in the footsteps of “Dr. Robert”, which also beat The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” to vinyl. The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is built around a descending riff pinched from “I Want to Tell You”. The juxtaposing of random cacophony over a metronomic beat first heard on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sprang up again and again: “Armenia City in the Sky”, Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, Matthew Sweet’s “Lost My Mind”, The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”. Revolver’s reputation continues to grow as The Beatles’ later work ages with less grace. Great as they are, the four albums that followed reveal a band consciously reaching for artistic credibility while crumbling apart. Take a listen to the outtake of “And Your Bird Can Sing” included on the second volume of The Beatles Anthology. All of that giggling probably followed a trip to the loo for a few puffs off an “herbal jazz cigarette,” but it’s also indicative of something more profound: John and Paul still really liked each other while they were making Revolver. George and Ringo still felt like valuable members of the team, not yet left to twiddle their thumbs for hours on end, as they would during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions they both characterized as boring. The physical excitement of performing live had just been replaced by the intellectual excitement of running wild in the studio. Imaginative, influential, fresh, freaky, and fabulous, Revolver found The Beatles at their peak and pop music at the threshold of endless possibilities. Revolver was released 45 years ago today.
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