About 41 months elapsed between the release of the Beatles’ first album in 1963 please make me happy and their seventh album, Revolver, in August 1966. To put that into perspective, 41 months ago from the time of this writing, it was late May 2019 when the Toronto Raptors were on the verge of winning the NBA title, Avengers: Endgame was in theaters, and game of thrones had just ended. Pandemic whirlwinds aside, 41 months isn’t very long. The release of seven albums of mostly original material during this period, along with a steady turnover of chart-topping singles that did not appear on these LPs, is extraordinary in itself. That the Beatles changed the entire landscape of popular music in the process makes it all the more breathtaking.
Revolver is the latest Beatles album to receive the deluxe boxed treatment that has been given to sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 2017. The new set includes five CDs of material, headlined by a new stereo mix by Giles Martin (son of Sir George), and a lavish coffee table book that includes an expansive and charming essay by Questlove. The new mix, which seeks to transpose the album’s original mono mix into a less superficial stereo setting than the Beatles’ original stereo mix, generally seems superfluous and is not as revealing as the younger Martin’s mix. sergeant. peppers, an album where the discrepancy between mono and stereo mixes had long been criminally flagrant. The multitude of outtakes and alternate arrangements are sure to delight hardcore fans, many of which are new (official) releases, others of which have appeared in other settings such as 1996. Anthology 2.
Revolver has become such a sacred work that it can be easy to forget the context of its release, which was loaded to say the least. In the USA, RevolverThe release of was overshadowed by waves of protest against the band following John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark. The week that Revolver when they hit stores, American newspapers carried headlines such as “Quote on Christ Gives Beatles Woe”, “Beatles’ Manager Flies to US as Furor Over Slur Melts”, and “Klan Puts Match to Beatles Records”. For a time it also seemed to many that Revolver would be the last Beatles album. When reports began circulating in late 1966 that the Beatles were taking an indefinite hiatus from touring, much of the press assumed this meant they were finished. “Beatles Going Their Own Ways,” declared the Washington Post, and “Beatles Reported Breaking Up,” announced the Los Angeles Times. It was as if the concept of a rock ‘n’ roll band turning away from live performance was some kind of conceptual contradiction, an existential impossibility.
The Beatles, of course, weren’t breaking up. But 1966 was a grueling and largely miserable year for the band. Besides outrage over Lennon’s “Jesus” quip, the band weathered another controversy in the US for the infamous “butcher” cover of Yesterday and today (which featured the band in white coats, surrounded by decapitated dolls and pieces of raw meat, in a gesture whose meaning remains unclear), endured a heartbreaking episode in the Philippines (during which the band and its crew were assaulted by a mob of Imelda Marcos loyalists for allegedly “snubbing” the First Lady), and generally appeared to be collapsing under the weight of what was now the fourth year of historic overexposure levels around the world. The decision to leave the road was necessary, if only for simple survival.
The seeds of this transition were already there in Revolver. It was the first album released by the Beatles that did not contain any songs the band had, or would ever, perform live. Part of that was no doubt due to pure logistics: trying to lug a string octet around to play “Eleanor Rigby” at various ballparks without speakers. But it also reflected a growing obsession with the creative possibilities of the recording studio itself. A song like “Tomorrow Never Knows” can’t really be performed live because it’s not meant to be.
In retrospect, it is difficult not to consider Revolver as a turning point in the history of the Beatles, and by extension the music of the 1960s more broadly. There’s some truth in that, but it’s also likely to hear Revolver in terms of what followed, rather than listening to the music on its own terms. In his heart, Revolver is a groundbreaking R&B album, a work that represented the Beatles’ most compelling and comprehensive engagement with contemporary black American music to date: more than the jaw-dropping rendition of “Twist and Shout” from the Isley Brothers that ended please make me happythan the trio of Motown covers on With the Beatlessame as their previous record, rubber corewho announced his debt to soul music on his behalf.
The band originally planned to record Revolver at the Stax studios in Memphis.
The band originally planned to record Revolver at Stax’s studios in Memphis, a plan which, according to accounts, failed either because of security concerns or because Stax owner Jim Stewart asked for too much money. You can clearly hear Stax’s influence on Revolver, from the growling groove of the album’s opener, “Taxman,” to the brassy lines of its penultimate track, “Got to Get You Into My Life.” But the Memphis influence is most prominent in Ringo Starr’s drumming, where the backbeat is as solid as anything this side of Al Jackson, Jr., Stax’s great studio drummer. There’s long been a joking idea that Ringo Starr is a second-rate drummer, an idea that likely grew out of his affable willingness to serve as a source of comic relief in early press conferences and movies like A hard day’s Night and To help! This idea is stupid, to put it mildly. Ringo Starr is a great drummer, and in 1966 he was at the top of his game
Ringo playing on “Taxman”, “Dr. Robert” and “I Want to Tell You” has a tacky funky feel that feels much closer to the Mississippi than the Mersey. The drums on “I’m Only Sleeping” swing like a hell, as she does on Ringo’s vocal star tour, “Yellow Submarine. To my ears, the boldest drum performance on Revolver is “She Said She Said”, which finds Ringo holding a killer groove while simultaneously providing an attack of cascading drum fills and over the bar. There was simply no one else who played drums like that in pop music. (Ringo’s friend Keith Moon’s similar style evolved a bit later, and Moon was never in control of Ringo’s time.) The song that contains what Ringo considers his greatest performance of drums, “Rain”, was recorded during the Revolver sessions but was left out on the album, released instead as the B-side of “Paperback Writer”; several versions of this remarkable track appear on the new box set, including the instrumental track “actual speed”. (The Beatles slowed down the tape speed on the track for the single’s release.)
Perhaps even more important than Stax’s influence on Revolver is the influence of Motown, especially that label’s incomparable bassist, James Jamerson. Jamerson still isn’t a household name among casual music fans, but he’s one of the most important musicians of the 20e century. There is electric bass before James Jamerson, and electric bass after him: it is no exaggeration to say that he is to his instrument what Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar. By the mid-1960s, Jamerson was exploding the possibilities of electric bass playing, pioneering a style defined by intricate syncopation and intricate, brilliantly melodic phrasing.
Jamerson’s name wouldn’t appear on a Motown record cover until 1971, but by 1966 every serious bass player on earth was taking notice of what was happening on the bottom of Tamla-Motown records. One of those players was Paul McCartney. Jamerson’s influence is everywhere Revolver, notably on “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the so-called middle finger from John Lennon to Frank Sinatra, several versions of which are included in the new set. McCartney is a musical monster by nature whose best work always has the thrilling joy of a self-taught prodigy. The bass plays on Revolver is imbued with that feeling, like a musical version of Peter Parker the morning after the spider bit him. The combination of McCartney’s almost hyperactive inventiveness with Ringo’s incredible rhythmic grounding is the true soul of Revolver.
As I have written at some length elsewhere, the late 1960s were marked by a growing insistence by audiences, critics and even some musicians that white rock music and black R&B music were separate entities, and at the same time, it was often a racist insinuation that rock had evolved beyond its black origins. When I was growing up in the 1990s, the “classic rock” radio stations that played “Paperback Writer” and “Taxman” seemingly every hour almost never played the Supremes or Wilson Pickett, even though those artists the Beatles were listening to at the time where they made these recordings. The Beatles’ entire career belies this senseless segregation, and nowhere more than Revolver. In hindsight, Revolver was a turning point, but in the present there remains the sound of endless possibility.
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