By Robert Rodriguez
Exclusively for Beatle Brunch
For the Beatles, 1966 was not going according to plan.
As originally sketched out, the group was expected to follow the pattern established two years before: recording sessions for the soundtrack to their next film; shooting of the film; live dates; more recording sessions; more shows, and so forth. But these plans were scrapped when a script that they could agree upon proved elusive.
The good news was that it gave them a little breathing room when it came to developing their next album. Heretofore, the Beatles managed to sustain almost impossibly high standards under the weight of tight deadlines. Now, they had the luxury of taking more time than previous to get their musical ideas into shape.
It so happened that this expanded window coincided with a discernible rise in ambition during the past year. Help!, the soundtrack album to their second film, was–for the most part–the last in their series of beat group releases, containing almost nothing that could not be reproduced onstage.
The exceptions were John’s Dylan-esque “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” a recording very much in the straight folk tradition, and “Yesterday,” Paul’s melancholy ballad. The latter arrived cloaked in a simple string arrangement for quartet, tastefully mounted atop his acoustic guitar backing. Though such finery on pop records was scarcely unknown, it did mark a departure from their standard operating procedure, which heretofore mandated that their songs translate well to live performance.
Rubber Soul, released at the end of 1965, upped the ante. A touch of exoticism came with the addition of a sitar line to “Norwegian Wood,” while “In My Life” introduced vari-speed, an effect that enabled one to manipulate the tape to capture the optimum performance. Its use here was purely practical, allowing George Martin to nail the solo at a speed he could handle, but going forward, vari-speed would be implemented to achieve certain aesthetic goals.
It did not go unnoticed by the Beatles that Brian Wilson, creative leader of the Beach Boys, had retired from the road to concentrate on producing the ambitious backings to their records. The first results came with the single, “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” John uncharacteristically gushed about Wilson in the pages of Beatles Monthly: “He just sits at home thinking up fantastic arrangements out of his head.”
For the Beatles, their own “fantastic ideas” were being prompted by a combination of artistic competition, the desire to never repeat themselves and frankly, the introduction of “heightened consciousness” into their worldview: in a word, tripping.
John and George had been unwittingly dosed with LSD in March 1965, an experience they repeated deliberately in August that year while on tour in the states. While Rubber Soul bore no overt indication of the influence acid was having on their creativity, the next project would be steeped in it. The very first song they laid down what became Revolver was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an elaborately-produced avant-garde track directly inspired by John’s reading of The Psychedelic Experience (essentially a user’s manual co-authored by Dr. Timothy Leary). It was one of several songs containing a subtext familiar to LSD users: that the material world was an illusion and that what people needed to tap was the inner world of the mind, one that could be accessed by careful use of chemical facilitators.
This was heady stuff for artists that, not much earlier, were filling their albums with songs advising young men to treat their women better (“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”) or threatening to move on if their current love interest didn’t shape up (“Another Girl”). A current of maturity and sophistication surfaced increasingly in their lyrics, evident in such songs as John’s introspective “Help!” and George’s conflicted “If I Needed Someone.”
As they raised their compositional game, inspired by the work of Bob Dylan, who at last had broken through to Top Ten success with the stunning allegory, “Like A Rolling Stone” in the summer of ’65, the Beatles were likewise taking cues from Brian Wilson to not simply settle for the sounds that their standard line-up could produce. Instead, why not make full use of the musicality that lay at their disposal with the use of outside musicians?
With Revolver, the Beatles were prepared to embrace this approach and build upon it. Not only would brass and strings become a standard tool in their arsenal, but so too would full use of the studio itself. Double-tracking–the doubling up of a vocal or instrumental part by recording two performances and laying them atop each other to fatten the sound–became automated by the Beatles’ demand, when engineer Ken Townsend invented ADT for their use.
Not content merely to widen their scope of technique, the Beatles were now determined to produce sounds nobody had heard before. Tape was manipulated by speeding it up, slowing it down and turning it backwards, as heard on “Rain,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “I’m Only Sleeping.” Non-traditional audio artifacts–“tape loops” of found sounds–made their way into the recordings. George would contribute a full-blown piece of “raga rock” to the album with “Love You To,” while “Yellow Submarine” showed that the Beatles could create a novelty tune that managed to be a cut above the work of their peers, blending lyrics that worked on multiple levels with a sonic ambience that was as fun as it was engaging.
Revolver showed the Beatles at the top of their creative game, with all four thoroughly invested in forging the best Beatle music they could. There was no hint of the individual indulgences found on every album afterward, where three Beatles acted as support for the fourth’s ambitions. “Eleanor Rigby,” for instance, regarded as Paul’s baby, contained key contributions from both George (“Ah, look at all the lonely people”) and Ringo (“darning his socks in the night”). “Taxman,” likewise: lyrical input from John and a stinging lead guitar from Paul.
While the album explored themes of darkness (and even death) with abandon, this was no joyless undertaking; freshness permeates every Revolver track. There’s a spirited energy that comes with the unmistakable sense that the group is as excited about their discoveries as they expected listeners to be. Even “For No One”–a bittersweet tale of broken romance–is so rife with melodic invention that it’s impossible not to be moved.
With their seventh album, the Beatles reached a zenith of creativity that would never again be matched. In contrast, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, held by conventional wisdom to be their “masterpiece,” reeked of self-consciousness, as though the group was deliberately trying to craft capital ‘A’ art rather than let it flow organically the way it had on Revolver.
Much of the reverence attached to Pepper speaks to its inextricable tie to the time in which it was created and the impact felt when it arrived. The Beatles’ first LP after retiring from performing (which simultaneously showcased their new non-moptop look), was seen as an event. Arriving nearly a year after its predecessor, it coincided with the start of the “Summer of Love,” becoming its de facto soundtrack. Revolver, by comparison, came along as business as usual, without the attendant hype and overshadowed by their latest tour and the “bigger than Jesus” controversy.
What should’ve been seen as an artistic breakthrough was instead smothered by bad press. True, such a diverse and challenging work would take some time for the public to wrap their heads around. Nowadays, Revolver is rightly viewed as a diverse and challenging work; with it, the Beatles demonstrated a seemingly limitless capacity for growth, coupled with a staggering gift for commercial appeal that few other innovators possessed.
Had it really been only three years since “She Loves You”?