Psych Album of the week: The Beatles’ Revolver (1966)

Revolver luxuriates in the freedom the band found in using the studio to its fullest as they were soon to retire from live performance

Beatles-Revolver

The Beatles, as captured in line drawing and collage by Klaus Voormann on the front cover of Revolver (left), and as photographed by Robert Whitaker for the back.

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear: the Beatles’ 1966 masterpiece, Revolver.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins has said that the world’s most famous Liverpudlians, the Beatles, have been “overexplained”. 

How right he is. From numerous biopics to hundreds of biographies and analyses of their lives and music, to magazine covers and fawning peer reviews, the Beatles are almost certainly the most important and most written-about rock band that ever was. 

The evolution of their sound from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963) to “I Am the Walrus” (1967) has to be heard to be believed.  Their contemporaries, the Rolling Stones, arrived more or less fully formed. They continue to pout, sneer and twitch in more or less the same way to this day. In contrast, the Beatles began their career as fresh-faced, sharp-dressing pop stars. They broke up in 1970 as world-weary messiahs of cultural enlightenment, instinctively following their muses to the end. 

Released in 1966, Revolver is a hugely important work in many ways. It finds the Beatles, as described retrospectively by Rolling Stone magazine, “at the peak of their powers, competing with one another because nobody else could touch them” and “the best album the Beatles ever made, which means the best album by anybody”. 

Studio innovations

In terms of the number of studio innovations alone (automatically doubled vocal tracks, singing through revolving organ cabinets, backwards guitar solos, close-miked drums, varying tape speeds and tape loops) many volumes can and have been written with Revolver engineer Geoff Emerick saying “…from the day it came out, Revolver changed the way that everyone else made records”. 

The album also shows the band fully entering their psychedelic period. This was driven by their continued experimentation with LSD and other drugs, their appreciation of avant-garde and experimental music, and their much-publicized interest in Eastern spirituality.

Their previous full-length, 1965’s Rubber Soul, features several tracks with psychedelic flavours both lyrically and sonically. Revolver continues the expansion of their sound and subject matter. It luxuriates in the freedom the band found in using the studio to its fullest as they were soon to retire from live performance. Less concerned than ever with reproducing this batch of songs in concert, the Beatles made their most diverse-sounding album yet. 

Revolutionary sonics

We find the snarling guitars of “Taxman” and the elegiac strings of “Eleanor Rigby”. The backwards dream shuffle of “I’m Only Sleeping” and the sitar-drenched erotica of “Love You To”. The chamber pop of “Here, There and Everywhere”. The unabashed fantasy of “Yellow Submarine”, the soaring melodies of “She Said She Said”, and the joyous “Good Day Sunshine”. The pre-indie-rock riffs of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the ache of “For No One”, and the explicitly druggy “Doctor Robert”. We also find the lysergic dissonance of “I Want to Tell You” and Paul McCartney’s “ode to pot” “Got to Get You Into My Life”. Finally, we find the triumphant cycle of life and death that is “Tomorrow Never Knows”, espousing us all to “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”. 

In addition to the revolutionary sonics of the album, the lyrics break new ground for the Beatles. For the first time, most of the songs are not about love between individuals. They focus instead on the revelations offered by LSD and the rejection of materialism. Love becomes a way to unify the many and achieve transcendence.

Appearing the following year, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is as renowned for its psychedelia and whimsy as Revolver. (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” anyone?) The former’s self-conscious fictional-band conceit and album concept, however, has been analyzed and overexplained perhaps more than any other recording in the history of popular music. 

Revolver shows the band firing on all cylinders together. According to Chicago Tribune music journalist Greg Kot, it “does everything that Sgt. Pepper did, except it did it first and often better. It just wasn’t as well-packaged and marketed”. 

Sonic psych-out

George Harrison’s backwards guitar moments in “I’m Only Sleeping” sent shockwaves of disorientation through music listeners all over the world at the time. They found themselves exposed to completely new sounds in popular music.

In their own words

“I think the drugs were kicking in a little more heavily on this album… [Al]though we did take certain substances, we never did it to a great extent at the session. We were really hard workers.”  (Ringo Starr)

“Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid.”  (John Lennon)

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