An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback
Cover to the Beatles album Revolver, by Klaus Voorman
One… two… three… four… ONE TWO THREE FOUR!
The Beatles’ seventh album – and their last as a touring band – starts with a count-in, in a deliberate echo of the start of their first album, Please Please Me, recorded a whole three years and two months earlier. While nowadays people tend to think of Revolver as being very much of a piece with Rubber Soul, the eight month gap between the two albums was absolutely massive by the Beatles’ own standards, and this was at the time thought of very much as a reinvention of the band.
While Sergeant Pepper initially overshadowed it, for at least the last fifteen years or so the critical consensus has been that Revolver is far and away the better album. I’ve tended to disagree with that consensus in these posts, placing Please Please Me ahead of With The Beatles and finding a lot of merit in Help! and some filler in Rubber Soul. But for once I have to absolutely agree.
While the idea of a ‘best album ever’ is a fundamentally flawed one – it assumes that, say, Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, Trout Mask Replica and ABC’s Lexicon Of Love are all trying to do the same kind of thing and can be judged accurately against each other – Revolver is as non-ridiculous a candidate for that role as any could be. At least five of its songs are classics by my reckoning, and there’s not a single track that’s less than extremely good.
In part that’s because this is possibly the only Beatles album where the band are on more or less an equal footing. Lennon hit his peak (as far as his contributions to the Beatles go – he had a second peak in the very early 70s) with Rubber Soul and had started his very gentle decline in influence in the band, while McCartney had briefly surpassed his elder partner, being by far the dominant presence on the album, but was not yet overstretching himself and attempting to dictate every note to the rest of the band.
Harrison gets to contribute a greater proportion of the songs than he ever would again, and while Starr only gets to sing one song, he plays here better than he ever had before (or would again – once the Beatles stopped touring the live-in-the-studio backing tracks decreased in frequency, with a consequent loss of the interplay between bass and drums that made their mid-period records so interesting).
Harrison gets to open the album, with Taxman. It’s quite easy in retrospect to see this as an unworthy complaint – “aw, the poor millionaire’s complaining about having to pay taxes, boo hoo”. And indeed that is, in large part, how I do see the song. But in fairness to Harrison, at the time the top marginal rate of tax was 95%, meaning that the “one for you, nineteen for me” line was accurate. Even as an advocate of progressive taxation, I can see how he could consider that a little harsh. (And Harrison wasn’t the only one – around this time Ray Davies was singing ‘the taxman’s taken all my dough’ over a backing track that owed more than a little to the Beatles’ Michelle)
As will so often be the case with this album, though, McCartney makes all the difference on this track. While Harrison and Starr both turn in exemplary performances, just listen to McCartney’s bass triplets under the middle eight. NOBODY was playing like that back then. Rhythmically his bass part is actually quite close to McCartney’s One Drum Idea, but the way it bubbles and twists is astonishing. Add in his Indian-flavoured guitar solo, and you have a track that shows McCartney to be one of the great musicians of his generation.
It’s no surprise, listening to this, that more than a decade later the Jam could just outright steal McCartney’s bass and guitar parts and build a completely new, equally great, single around them.
This new remastering of the mono mix allows this playing to be heard properly for possibly the first time – the greater bass responsiveness allows the astonishing bass playing around the 0:58 mark to be appreciated properly. And many, many little touches in Starr’s percussion playing come out in the remaster.
Eleanor Rigby is another Indian-influenced song. This might not be immediately apparent – especially in the finished version with George Martin’s gorgeous Bernard Hermann-influenced string part – but it’s essentially written on a drone. The only chords in the entire song are Em, C, Em6 and Em7, meaning the E and G are held throughout the entire thing. While it was written on the guitar, you could chord it out on the piano and only have to move one finger (if you played the right inversions).
No-one needs to hear any more about how perfect this song is (although it’s not *quite* perfect – it’s very clear that the last verse was written later than the first two. It lacks their visual references, but does have an internal assonance (“died in the church and was buried along with her name”/”wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave”) missing from the earlier verses. It was no surprise to me when I discovered that this verse was written later at the suggestion of Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton), but it is an astonishing achievement – especially when you consider it was a collaborative work, with Ringo, Pete Shotton and George Martin all contributing to McCartney’s song (Lennon’s claim that he wrote 40% of the lyric appears to be nonsense).
One thing that is obvious listening to the mono mix (which is a much, much nicer mix than the stereo, not being panned stupidly, and not having the mistake where the ADT is left on McCartney’s voice for the first couple of syllables), even more than the stereo mix, is that this is a McCartney solo performance, with none of the other Beatles present. Lennon and Harrison stated this (rather bitterly) in interviews at the time, yet people persist in claiming that Lennon and Harrison contributed backing vocals. Listening to the ‘ah, look at all the lonely people’ sections, it does sound at times like Lennon and/or Harrison are in the mix, but if you actually listen to any individual voice, they’re all McCartney. Certainly the solo ‘ah look at all the lonely people’ in the last repeat of the chorus, which is often identified as Lennon, is McCartney.
I’m Only Sleeping, Lennon’s first song on the album, is also his first instrumental contribution (having so far contributed only backing vocals to Taxman). A minor piece compared to the earlier two, it’s still interesting – it wasn’t until I really listened for these posts, for example, that I noticed the verse is nine bars long rather than the customary eight. It’s also been so varispeeded that it ended up in E-flat minor, a key which no guitar band would ever normally record in.
The most interesting aspect though is George’s backwards guitar part, which took five hours to record, involving George Martin transcribing the solo Harrison had worked out, writing it out backwards, and then Harrison attempting to play that. The effect works surprisingly well (having a ‘yawning’ effect which goes well with the actual yawn at 2:04 (which comes after a spoken ‘yawn, Paul’, which I’d never heard before – don’t know if that’s down to the mono mix or the improved sound quality). Harrison’s solo yet again has an Indian tonality to it, and the free noodling at the end (sounding like a random cut-up of several bits of the solo) leads nicely into
Love You To, Harrison’s second song on the album, is quite astonishing. Featuring only Starr of the other Beatles, playing tambourine (though it’s *possible* that one of the three voices I can hear on the word ‘me’ in the line ‘what you’ve got means such a lot to me’ is McCartney), it’s a serious attempt to write a raga. I know little about Indian classical music, but it’s instantly obvious to me that metrically and harmonically this owes little or nothing to Western pop music. On the other hand, though, it is informed by a Western pop sensibility – this is clearly written by someone who thinks in terms of two minute pop songs written for dancing. As far as I can tell (and I’m wary of my ignorance of Indian music here) it brings the two different forms together without compromising either, and does so in spectacular fashion. Just lovely.
As is Here, There And Everywhere, McCartney’s first ‘answer’ to Pet Sounds. Until hearing this reissue I tended to go along with Ian MacDonald in his view that the song wasn’t inspired by Pet Sounds at all (though MacDonald is simply wrong in his assertion that this track was recorded before that album was released – Pet Sounds was released nearly a month before the recording date) because the harmonies, while vaguely Beach Boys-y, are simple block triads rather than the complex parts the BBs were doing by that time. But what swung me the other way on this reissue is the percussion.
There’s a large, hollow, drum sound (e.g. at 0:10, 0:34 and especially 0:56) which just sounds like a normal tom on the stereo vinyl, but here is a fairly obvious attempt to replicate the big timpani sound Wilson got on tracks like Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me and I’m Waiting For The Day. It’s such a distinctive sound that it absolutely must have been a deliberate attempt to emulate specifically that album.
Yellow Submarine is what it is – a fun, jolly little singalong of the kind McCartney’s brother Mike McGear would later specialise in with his band The Scaffold. The sound effects hark back to Martin’s days producing the Goons, while there’s a slight Rainy Day Women feel to the track (with the combination of stompy, loose singalong and brass band). Paying too much attention to this would be to miss the point, but the fact that this can go on the same album as Eleanor Rigby and Tomorrow Never Knows improves both.
She Said, She Said is Lennon’s response to a bad acid trip, when Peter Fonda kept annoying him at a party. One of Lennon’s most metrically-irregular songs, this as always brings out the best in Starr, who manages to guide the band (minus McCartney – Harrison took the bass part on this one, as well as providing some astonishing lead work) through this labyrinth while managing to play an inventive fill almost every other bar.
Lyrically, this bumps up the references to childhood in Lennon’s lyrics another notch, being a clear precursor to the obsession with childhood that would come in ’67 and ’68. Musically, it’s a close cousin of Rain, having much the same supercompressed sound, processed vocals, and bravura drumming. Much like Love You To this was an avenue the Beatles experimented with briefly around this time but never followed up on – other bands could have built entire careers around this sound.
Good Day Sunshine, the opener of side 2, is the most 1966 song possible – a loose reworking of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream, it was recorded during one of the hottest summers on record, at a time when almost everyone was recording songs about the sun of one kind or another. It actually sounds like it was also inspired by She Said She Said, with its metrical trickery ( one can listen to the ‘Good Day Sunshine’s in the chorus as either two bars of 4/4 with phrases crossing bar lines and some unusual syncopation, or as one bar of 3/4 and one of 5/4) and vocal canon ending – but in fact this was recorded some time before the previous song.
I suspect the reason (other than placement) it sounds like the derivative work is that while She Said She Said sounds intuitive, Good Day Sunshine sounds calculated. It’s still an enjoyable track, but it’s a let-down after the musical fireworks of Lennon’s song.
This is also yet another song to only feature McCartney and Starr (plus George Martin on the piano solo) instrumentally – Lennon and Harrison only contribute backing vocals.
And Your Bird Can Sing is another of the ultra-compressed jangly Lennon songs a la She Said She Said. The early version of this song on Anthology Two clearly shows the influence of the Byrds, with Harrison’s lead being played on a 12-string rather than the distorted six-string he is using on the finished version. McCartney’s bass calls back rather nicely to his part on Taxman. A minor track, but a great minor track.
For No One may be McCartney’s greatest track. Another one featuring only McCartney and Starr, plus horn player Alan Civil, it’s an exercise in taking what McCartney has learned from baroque music and applying it to the pop song form. This is more obvious in the mono mix, where the clavichord is higher in the mix, and sounds more like a harpsichord, with McCartney’s bass doubling the clavi in a very formal, stepwise bass melody.
It’s one of the great shames in musical history that McCartney never realised his own strengths. Songs like this or Eleanor Rigby, with their very sparse, formal, simple melodies, are moving precisely because they don’t tug at the heartstrings – the lyrics are simple statements of fact, in second or third person, and the music is restrained almost to the point of callousness. Within a couple of years, McCartney would become ensnared by the Big Ballad, and after late 1968 could never again write a song as simply moving as those on this album (Here Today comes close, and Calico Skies has something of the same feel to it, though in a happy rather than sad mood, but those are the only examples I can think of from the last 40 years of his writing).
Doctor Robert is another of Lennon’s jangly, super-compressed tracks, this time with an interesting break where the instrumentation drops down to just an organ, and the lyrics are sung in a semi-choral manner.
While I actually prefer Lennon’s songs on here to McCartney’s and Harrison’s, there’s less to say about them in general. Any of them would have made a fine single, and they are all superb tracks, but there’s a rather odd thing going on here – Lennon’s tracks *sound* more experimental, but that’s largely just down to Lennon’s songwriting ‘voice’ and the recording techniques. The actual tracks tend to be pretty much two guitars, bass and drums with some ‘trippy’ ADT and compression. McCartney on the other hand is consciously trying for different effects both in his songwriting and in the production on his tracks. Lennon’s stuff is inspired, but McCartney’s stuff is worked on, and the latter is easier to pull apart and talk about.
I Want To Tell You, Harrison’s last song on the album, is another one where the production touches make a big difference, and are mostly McCartney. The rolling Good Day Sunshine piano adds a huge amount to the sound of the record, as does McCartney’s wailing melisma at the end of the track. The mono mix is much more percussion-heavy than the stereo mix, with the tambourine and handclaps pushed right up, and also has the piano dominating even the vocal.
Got To Get You Into My Life seems a somewhat more successful attempt at doing the same kind of thing as Good Day Sunshine, but with some influence from Stax (in the horns) and Holland/Dozier/Holland (in the writing) rather than the Lovin’ Spoonful. While still a minor track in comparison to McCartney’s ballads, it’s a great little rocker. It’s also one where the mono mix is most clearly superior to the stereo one, actually having some care taken over it (and thus not having, for example, the studio chat under early parts of the song). The guitar part appears to have effects on it that I never noticed on the stereo version (though again please note I’m not doing A-B comparisons with this album) , the fade lasts longer, and Sounds Incorporated’s horns are higher in the mix (and thus more dissonant sounding and exciting).
The final track, Tomorrow Never Knows, actually had two mono mixes – one on the first pressing, one on later pressings. My friend Tilt kindly sent me an MP3 copy of the original mono mix, knowing I was going to do this, and that was extremely different to the stereo mix, with a much extended piano coda, tambourine higher in the mix, different effects on Lennon’s vocals at points, and much more of the loops.
It’s a real shame that that version was not included as an extra track in the mono box, as in comparison the second mono mix (the one that’s included here) is closer to the stereo mix. However, the two do have numerous significant differences (and here I *am* doing an A-B comparison – for a while anyway):
The orchestra swell at 0:19 (on the first ‘it is not dying’) isn’t present in the mono version.
The ‘seagull’ sound comes in at 0:30 in the mono mix, and not the stereo.
The tambourine is much higher around 0:40 in the stereo mix than in the mono.
The orchestra swell and tambourine are both there around the ‘it is being’ in stereo and not in mono…
And so on. In general the stereo mix is rather overloaded with tape loops, compared to the mono mix. The ones you notice (those that ‘answer’ vocal phrases or whatever) are in the same places, generally, but the stereo mix is very much a kitchen-sink affair, while the loops are used more sparingly in the mono mix, to greater effect.
There’s not much to say about this track that hasn’t already been said – while Lennon’s been very much the junior partner on the album as a whole, here he really comes into his own, even though this track too has a huge amount of input from McCartney (including, yes, the return of McCartney’s One Drum Idea!, as well as the creation of many of the loops). It’s a track which has been talked about so much that anything I could say would be redundant. So I’ll leave this there.
In a totally unrelated note, everyone spare a thought for David at Vibrational Match, one of my favourite blogs. He’s just announced that his blog is on extended hiatus as both his parents are very ill (one with cancer, one with MS). I was going to link the post directly, but got some odd warnings when I visited the site just now – it may have some kind of Windows virus embedded. Despite that, though, David’s a good bloke and a fine writer, and while no-one deserves that kind of shit in their life, he deserves it less than most. Send whatever small amount of support you can his way.