Five years previously, the revolution had begun under the national radar, in noisy, sweaty, cramped, claustrophobic clubs of a kind that would provoke a coronary in today’s average Health & Safety inspector; when it broke over-ground, it transplanted the treadmill to the theatres, where it topped bills still in the tradition of variety packages, sharing a stage with wartime crooners and comics. By 1966, Music Hall was dead and something once dismissed by the highbrow as pubescent bubblegum had become the most inventive mainstream in pop culture history as well as usurping Jazz, Folk and Avant-Garde Classical as the critical choice; and it was time for its troubadours to catch their breaths, to enjoy the hard-won fruits of their labours and take on the personas of foppish aristocrats. Thankfully for the listener, this pause as performing seals enabled the acts in question to redraw the landscape and remove the limits on the sky.
It was into this fertile cultural environment that the four young men who had spearheaded the revolution unleashed their most adventurous and enduring contribution to it, exactly half-a-century ago today. Competition was fierce the day ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks. The Rolling Stones had released ‘Aftermath’ four months earlier, breaking the 11-minute mark with the track ‘Goin’ Home’ and shaking off the R&B straitjacket courtesy of Brian Jones’ mastery of unusual instrumentation such as the marimba and dulcimer; meanwhile, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan had thrown down an awesome gauntlet on the same day in May, with ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ respectively. Only eight months had passed since The Beatles had taken a great leap forward with ‘Rubber Soul’, and pop was still coming to terms with that when its follow-up appeared.
If the distorted, unsmiling faces gracing the sleeve of ‘Rubber Soul’ had called time on the gurning mop-tops, ‘Revolver’ hammered the final nail in the Beatlemania coffin. Not only was the disarming monochrome collage on its cover a signifier that the Fab Four had moved on, but much of the music contained within it had a cold, sneering harshness both in its lyrical content and its spiky guitar sound. The warmth-free guitars were merely one element of a beguiling sonic tapestry, however – one that defied the limitations that prompted the band to quit the grinding touring circuit shortly after its release. Sitars, saxophones, French horns, cellos, and most significantly of all, tape loops ala Musique Concrete, were poured into a melting pot that captured the sound of artists whose withdrawal into lysergic escape pods had sharpened their edges rather than softened them.
Bravely giving George Harrison the album’s opener, Lennon and McCartney encouraged their junior partner to let rip on ‘Taxman’, a snarling critique of the Labour Government’s punitive tax regime that appeared to be punishing the generation that was selling the country abroad as the Swinging capital of the western world; Harrison even name-checked both Wilson and Heath in the lyrics. ‘Eleanor Rigby’, track No.2, was once compared to a Thomas Hardy novel by poet Allen Ginsberg, and the fact that the uncrowned kings of the new social aristocracy could take time out to acknowledge the lonely, unloved and left behind is to their credit. Perhaps the most radical chart-topper of the decade, the wretched life condensed into ‘Eleanor Rigby’ also reflects the vogue for characteristically English social commentary in the pop lyric as the leading lights turned away from America and looked inwards; the Stones and (especially) The Kinks were doing likewise at the same time.
‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is Lennon at his most lethargic and simultaneously inspired, an ode to doing bugger all after five years of working his arse off. At a point when he was being crucified across the Atlantic for daring to compare the global adulation of his band to Christ-like devotion, Lennon revelled in a rare moment of LSD-assisted idleness and produced a hazy, reverse-tape masterpiece in the process. He is similarly detached from reality in ‘She Said, She Said’, a precursor to the following year’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in its dreamy evocation of childhood innocence recaptured via some recreational mind expansion. McCartney’s two standout tracks after ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – ‘Here There and Everywhere’ and ‘For No One’ – both display a melodic genius that was McCartney’s answer to The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’, as well as setting Brian Wilson yet another challenge – albeit one he was sadly unable to rise to, courtesy of a mental breakdown in 1967.
Much-maligned, yet actually a song that grows more likeable in its charming, nursery rhyme simplicity with age, ‘Yellow Submarine’ couldn’t have been sung by anyone other than Ringo Starr, while ‘Good Day Sunshine’ evokes the unique beauty of an English summer’s day with the same throwback to old-school Tin Pan Alley as Ray Davies had employed on ‘Sunny Afternoon’ the same summer as ‘Revolver’ appeared. Lennon’s ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, as with Harrison’s ‘I Want to Tell You’ and sitar-heavy raga-rocker ‘Love You To’, all exhibit an icy alienation from the loveable mop-top image that must have stopped the screaming knicker-wetters in their tracks in 1966. No wonder they turned to The Monkees six months later.
McCartney’s ‘Got To Get You into My Life’ is allegedly him addressing the peer pressure within The Beatles regarding delving into Acid, whereas Lennon’s ‘Doctor Robert’ is supposedly describing the man who dispensed the drug to the pop stars of the day; the former is a brilliant example of how influential contemporary black music continued to be on the band, especially Motown and Stax – something that is backed up by the story that The Beatles toyed with relocating to the Deep South when preparing to record the album.
The icing on the ‘Revolver’ cake was the closing track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, a song in which John Lennon never sounded more removed from the everyman persona he and the band had represented during their initial rise. His own request to producer George Martin was that he wanted his voice to resemble the Dalai Lama calling to his followers from a mountain top, but the mosaic of unearthly sounds that surround his disembodied vocal point the way towards Psychedelia. Within pop culture at the time, only the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and its most visionary member, Delia Derbyshire) were experimenting with similarly surreal soundscapes; that the biggest pop group in the world, who only a year before had produced the standard ‘Yesterday’, chose to close their most ambitious album to date with such an ‘out there’ track is typical of how The Beatles gleefully abused their position as Members of the British Empire.
England had won the World Cup six days before ‘Revolver’ was released; a sense that the country was riding a wave of optimism for the first time since the demoralising experience of Suez ten years previously runs through the record, yet the band equally never sounded more contemptuous or cynical of their status and of the monster they had created. That said, The Beatles were approaching the peak of their creative powers and the world was listening; it gave them carte-blanche to go where no band had gone before; and no member of the band was older than 26. Fifty years on, one cannot but be impressed.
© The Editor