I have already written exhaustively on this blog about Revolver, so for a long time it wasn’t on the list, but not writing about it would have been absurd – if this is an appreciation of the 12 inch vinyl album, then it pretty much has to start here.
It’s not, of course, the first rock album, not the first Beatles album, and it’s definitely not the first album I bought or knew – in my defence, I was three when it came out – but it is, I think, the template for pretty much all the other 59 albums in the list.
At this remove, I can’t tell you exactly when I heard it all the way through for the first time – did someone at school have a copy? Did I take it out of the library? Was it as late as some university student party? I can tell you that I remember Yellow Submarine from around the time the film came out in 1968, and that I knew easily half of the songs before I ever listened to the whole thing – at some point around the time that I was learning piano (I got to grade 2 or 3, but found the whole thing a little too much like hard work – sometimes I want to go back and give 11-year old me a good shake), I had a book about the Beatles with many songs illustrated with musical notation. I painstakingly taught myself to pick out the melodies on the keyboard, but only the ones I already knew. When I did finally hear Revolver, I was astounded to realize how many of the songs were already familiar.
So when I talk about a template, it’s not that every album for ever more had 14 tracks on it (11 if you were in North America); it’s more the way it is all put together – it has art direction; sleeve notes; songs exclusively written by the band members; it went off in interesting new directions every few minutes, and still managed to sound like a cohesive whole. For an album by four white boys with guitars, it has a hell of a lot of other stuff going on, from the strings on Eleanor Rigby to the French horn on For No One. There’s a brass band on Yellow Submarine, and Indian instruments all over the place. Some of the songs refuse to stick to one time signature; others fade away while they still appear to have something to say.
By the time I first sat down to properly listen to Revolver, I was able to understand it and – perhaps unlike many who heard it on its release – able to nod along with all the strange goings-on under all those famous melodies. Only later did I come to understand that I was hearing it filtered through dozens of weird and wonderful albums I had heard which had, in turn, been inspired by Revolver.
What does it sound like to me now, however many years after first hearing it all the way through? I’m listening to the 2009 remaster, and there’s a whole discussion to be had about whether the only way to hear albums of this vintage is to hear an original pressing on vinyl, but let’s leave the audiophilia aside for a moment and just hear the songs.
The most striking thing remains how it all just flows together – the track order didn’t happen by accident; like everything on this album, it was carefully considered and laid out for maximum effect, which makes the shorter North American version all the more puzzling. It’s not an album which sets a mood and sticks with it, it’s an album which gleefully hops from idea to idea without pausing for breath.
From the opening snarl of Taxman to the unprecedented infusion of Indian structure and instrumentation of Love You To is only four tracks, and the two in between are the radical Eleanor Rigby and the beautiful pure pop of I’m Only Sleeping.
And it gets better from there.
Because of all the music which has followed it and been inspired by it, it’s impossible to hear this with fresh ears; to hear the subtle way the lyric of Here, There and Everywhere pulls the structure of the song together, or be sideswiped by the French Horn in For No One for the first time. All I can do is imagine how it must have been, to reach the clearly drug-induced madness of Tomorrow Never Knows and know that nothing will ever be the same again – from here, pop stars became rock bands, and you could do anything you wanted. Anything at all.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Well, yes – all of them, to be honest, although if you missed out ‘Let It Be’ you’d be forgiven. You should listen to them in order, too – the growth of this band from the joyful count-in at the start of I Saw Her Standing There to The End on Abbey Road is unparalleled. In fact, if you didn’t read any of the rest of these entries, and just spent the rest of your life listening to those Beatles albums, I wouldn’t blame you one bit.
Compilations to consider?
Many, but I reckon you still can’t go wrong with the two classic ones, still known as the Red Album and the Blue Album. They contain all the singles which didn’t appear on the albums, and are as good a way in to the Beatles as anything.
No contemporary ones, but the remastered Live at the Hollywood Bowl from the soundtrack to Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week is spectacular, if not entirely representative of the entire Beatles catalogue (you’ll have to wait for a later entry for some of that).
Watch the movies – they’re all great in their own way; the aforementioned Eight Days A Week is terrific, and there are so many books, not all of which are worth the effort, but Hunter Davies’ official biography benefits from having been written at the time, while Philip Norman’s Shout! erases some of the sanitizing which Davies felt obliged to do while being somewhat unfair to anyone who was in the Beatles but not called John Lennon. Beyond those, if Mark Lewisohn ever finishes his colossal trilogy, I have no doubt those will become the definitive work on the Beatles phenomenon.
There’s so much Beatles stuff out there, that the Anything Else? could easily end up longer than the original post, so I’ll leave it there. You should take a walk down Abbey Road some day, though, if you ever get the opportunity. It’s impossible to explain why, but there’s something special about it.