Revolver: The Beatles At Their Collaborative and Creative Best
On Recording the Greatest Record Album of All-Time
The Beatles album Revolver, forever in the shadow of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (or even Abbey Road), remains for me the Beatles’ best creation of recorded music. And since the Beatles are the gold standard of popular music, Revolver is therefore the greatest album ever recorded. I have never wavered in that belief.
Released on August 8, 1966, to critical and commercial acclaim, Revolver hit the top of the Billboard charts for seven weeks and was certified 5x platinum…despite the fact that the band immediately went on tour (their ill-fated last due to John Lennon’s “Jesus” remark) after its release, and didn’t perform a single cut from the album.
Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn put it masterly: “Revolver…shows the Beatles at the peak of their creativity, welding very strong, economical but lyrically incisive song material with brave studio experimentation…Revolver is a pop masterpiece.”
Author Robert Rodriguez wrote a book about it: Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll. Among his praises, Rodriguez distinguished Revolver as “the Beatles’ artistic high-water mark” and noted that the album was a supremely collaborative effort, “with the group as a whole fully vested in creating Beatles music.”
Rolling Stone ranked Revolver #3 among its top 500 albums. Naturally, Sgt. Pepper was number one; the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds number two. Two more Beatles albums–Rubber Soul and the White Album–populated Rolling Stone’s top 10.
The band members’ commitment to Revolver began as pure luck. After the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965, the Beatles, at manager Brian Epstein’s command, were poised to shoot their third movie. But no script was deemed suitable. So, instead of being caught in the hectic whirlwind of filming on location, the Beatles had three months to recharge, relax and create.
According to Abbey Road sound engineer Geoff Emerick, in his book Here, There and Everywhere, the Beatles were focused, methodical and self-assured. Emerick:
Incredibly, all the tracks on the album were created in the studio before my very eyes. The Beatles had done no rehearsing beforehand…Almost every afternoon, John or Paul or George Harrison would come in with a scrap of paper that had a lyric or chord sequence scribbled on it, and within a day or two, we’d have another unbelievable track down on tape.
I should add one more attribute to the Beatles’ demeanor: inquisitive. They became quite willing to experiment with new sounds.
Tomorrow Never Knows
The band began working on Revolver on April 6, 1966. Incredibly, they chose as their first song one that would be the most difficult to record. The song “Tomorrow Never Knows” satisfied the Beatles’ hunger to set new boundaries in popular music. Each band member got into the habit of taking home open-reel tape recorders to conduct their own sonic experiments.
Some of the experimentation included playing tracks backwards, speeded up or slowed down, overdubs, tape loops and the technique of Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), in which sounds are laid perfectly on top of each other and then the second sound is moved by a millisecond to create a completely unique sonic image. The song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” last song on the album but the first one recorded in the Revolver sessions, was a harbinger of things to come.
Among the bounty of melodic masterpieces on Revolver, there are a couple that deserve special mention. Significantly, George Harrison got three of his songs on the album, including the first cut on side one, Taxman. George’s songwriting prowess was finally getting recognized.
Got To Get You Into My Life
George Martin hired a brass section, the Blue Flames, to give this song a “definite jazz feel,” according to tenor sax player Peter Coe. The Motown-inspired tune (covered beautifully by the very un-Motown Earth, Wind & Fire) was a McCartney composition, with Paul vocalizing up a storm. The production also set a marker for Beatles togetherness. Geoff Emerick:
I loved Paul’s singing on that song, too–he really let loose. At one point when Paul was recording the lead vocal, John actually burst out of the control room to shout his encouragement–evidence of the comradery and teamwork that was so pervasive during the Revolver sessions.
Here’s a current version of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” performed by its songwriter, courtesy of YouTube:
Here, There and Everywhere
Such a beautiful ditty, rumored to be inspired by the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Paul McCartney confided to both Mark Lewisohn and Emerick that the song was his personal favorite. But it was producer George Martin who put together the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” that became the song’s signature. Mark Lewisohn: “George’s [Martin] real expertise was and still is vocal harmony work. That is his forte, grooming and working out those great harmonies.”
Revolver was recorded in just over 10 weeks (with weekends off), and then the Beatles departed Abbey Road for an international tour, which turned out to be their last live performances (save the rooftop “Get Back” lark). According to Geoff Emerick, the feeling in the studio and in the public’s mind was, how on earth could they top that?
A gentleman lurking in the wings, a one Sgt. Pepper, would have a say in that.