1966 is widely, and rightly, seen as a pivotal year for the Beatles, and for popular music generally. ‘Rubber Soul’ had stirred things up, and bands everywhere were rising to the challenge – it’s surely no coincidence that the Rolling Stones’ 1966 album,’Aftermath’ contains, for the first time, only Jagger / Richards songs – which meant that whatever came next was also going to have to be a raising of the bar. It’s therefore not so surprising that the period between ‘Rubber Soul’ coming out in December 1965, and ‘Revolver’ in August 1966 was mainly taken up with recording sessions rather than globe-spanning tours. Record companies still hadn’t quite shaken off the ‘singles make money’ model, but they had enthusiastically embraced the ‘albums make even more money’ idea, and the band weren’t exactly heartbroken that their main source of income was no longer playing hundreds of concerts a year.
There was a plan to tour Japan and the Philippines in the early summer, but before that, the band were free to explore Abbey Road Studios and figure out just what else they could do with all the toys now at their disposal. Make no mistake, while this was a time of incredible change in songwriting and music-making generally, the technology was keeping pace. ‘Please Please Me’ had been recorded in mono on two tracks; ‘Revolver’ had two four-track machines, as well as any number of technical innovations, including the now-ubiquitous, but invented on the spot for this album, ADT, or automatic double tracking. ‘Revolver’ ensured that popular music would never sound the same again – you could use tape to create sounds no-one had heard before; you could make pianos sound like guitars, and vice versa; you could record a Beatles song on which the only trace of an actual Beatle were the voices. There were new amps and new instruments, and – crucially – a new young recording engineer called Geoff Emerick, who was up for anything the band could throw at him.
Outside, the atmosphere was as fevered as it was in EMI Studio 3. This was the year of Swinging London, of Carnaby Street, Biba and Mary Quant as well as the World Cup and the shift of the working man’s sport into the national consciousness. For the first time, the notion of ‘celebrity’ being something other than the record of Great Men doing Great Deeds took proper hold; until the mid-sixties, pop stars could cause a passing sensation, but otherwise the great and the good were bound up with the doings of the upper classes and royalty – to be a famous fashion designer, you had to have dressed the Queen – that had all changed, and apparently in the blink of an eye. The image of London went from sober businessmen in pinstripes with bowler hats and tightly-furled umbrellas to hip young people with outrageously loud and colourful clothes, wild haircuts, no hats at all, and a Beatles album under their arm. All eyes were on London, and as the artists and musicians came to perform, to see and be seen, the Beatles were right there in the middle of it all – hanging out with Bob Dylan, attending exhibitions and avant-garde plays; taking all the trendy drugs, and using all of it to construct an album unlike anything ever attempted before. Without the pressure of touring, the band gave expansive press interviews, in which they would expound at length on all the philosophical and creative ideas which were going into their music, as well as making the odd comment which would come back to bite them.
Meanwhile, in the US, Capitol records had a bit of a dilemma. Sticking rigidly to their policy that UK albums were just too damn long for the American attention span, they still had a pile of offcuts which had never appeared on an album over there. Oh, and they had ‘Yesterday’, which had been an enormous hit single, but its absence from ‘Help’ was beginning to look more and more like a mistake. There needed to be another album to take up the slack, and they called it ‘Yesterday And Today’. It was the twelfth Beatles album released since early 1964, and – ignoring all the controversy about the cover, which I’m coming to – it’s a decent compilation covering everything from ‘Help!’ to ‘Revolver’. If by some mad chance you ever get a chance to grab a copy, you should – it’s full of cracking songs, including three from the as yet unreleased ‘Revolver’ which Capitol had already decided weren’t going on the US version. This madness is about to stop, but of all the butchered albums released in the first three years of Beatles releases in the US, the one which had the butchered babies cover is the one worth bothering with.
The original cover of ‘Yesterday and Today’, which can only have been approved by a madman, is indicative of a definite change in how the band wanted to be perceived, and that change in attitude came with attendant risk. Lennon’s interview with Maureen Cleave in which he compared the band’s popularity to the decline in Christianity sparked outrage and record burning parties when it was published in the US; the cover of ‘Yesterday and Today’ featuring raw meat and dismembered dolls, was hastily replaced with something more anodyne; even the trip to the far east was not without its problems as the band – deliberately or otherwise – stood up Imelda Marcos and left in a hurry when people started protesting. Being in the Beatles wasn’t all sunshine and happy tunes any more – if it had ever been – they were in the spotlight, they didn’t want to be seen as the loveable moptops any more, but the new, more grown-up path was trickier to navigate than anyone expected, and – just as they’d appeared to be in control of everything, they discovered that this entity they’d inadvertently created had a life of its own, and there was no reining it in.
Fortunately, there was always the music. Prior to ‘Revolver’ coming out, there was the now customary advance single: ‘Paperback Writer’:
‘Paperback Writer’ and its fantastic B side ‘Rain’ didn’t just whet people’s appetites for the new album, they surely raised expectation levels to a place they could never hope to exceed. Yet, we’re dealing not just with The Beatles, but with 1966 Beatles. ‘Revolver’ isn’t just better than you’d hope from the single, it’s so much better that it’s on another planet.
In 1966, the Beatles reached a rarefied place where none had gone before, and made music so indelible that the only way I can describe it is like this:
With many albums, there’s a run of songs which just works – the first three tracks, or that run from the middle of side one to about ten minutes into side two, or the last couple of tracks which just make you want to listen to them over and over again. ‘Revolver’ has a run like that. It lasts from the false count-in at the start of ‘Taxman’ to the final fading looped note of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Words really aren’t adequate to describe ‘Revolver’ – it exists as an experience; a place in time and space all its own. You wouldn’t change a note, even of the songs which might not work on their own, because to do so would upset the delicate, intricate balance of what it surely one of the very, very few perfectly realised records.
What struck me listening to it in preparation for doing this is the sheer overwhelming strength of the melodies. Of the 14 songs on here, roughly 14 of them have standout, still singing them fifty years on, melodies. You might be lost in the wonder of Eleanor Rigby, only to glance at the track list and realise that the incredible tune which is ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is up next. Every song is like that; almost all of them scurry out of the way at the end, ushering in something equally amazing – there’s not a wasted minute; not a track on here which you could improve. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it is that, after having listened to it for most of my life, I can still find new things in it, I can still catch myself laughing out loud at the sheer joyful audacity of it, and I can listen to and think about the way ‘For No One’ works and how it compares and contrasts to ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and be caught up in my own contemplation right up until the moment when that French Horn breaks into my reverie and the hairs on my arms are standing to attention. Only genuinely great music can do that.
There’s so much to say about all of it that I could easily write a post on each track, but let me instead point you to someone who really knows what he’s talking about. You should watch the entire thing, but I’ve (at least I hope I have) cued this up to the part where Howard Goodall talks about ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and tries to explain how the tunesmiths responsible for ‘Love Me Do’ only four years before created one of the timeless classics with no formal training; just a natural instinct for what would work.
There will be individual songs to come better than some of the individual songs on here; there will be long stretches of Beatles albums which perhaps reach heights loftier than ‘Revolver’ does, but there won’t be anything which is consistently, unarguably better than all of it. If you have the opportunity to demonstrate to someone – as I did with my children – what was so special about the Beatles, you could of course plough through all the singles in order, and they’d get the idea, but if you really want to know the full breadth and depth of this extraordinary band, just sit down with their most extraordinary album.