It Was 50 Years Ago Today: ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles

September 13, 2016
Revolver by The Beatles
#1 on the UK Albums Chart, August 7 – September 24, 1966
#1 on the Billboard 200, September 10 – October 21, 1966

revolverWhy did the Beatles go experimental in the mid-’60s? The oft-cited reason is drugs. Even the band itself pushed this narrative: in a 1971 interview, John Lennon proclaimed, “Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid.”

All four Beatles had tried LSD by the end of the recording sessions for Revolver — from early adherents John Lennon and George Harrison to johnny-come-lately Paul McCartney — and the drug’s influence can be heard in the backwards guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping” and the epic freakout of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” untethered from any sort of pop-music reality.

A less frequently discussed explanation for why the band’s creativity was sparked — although arguably more important — was that, for the first time in the group’s whirlwind career, the Beatles had some downtime.

The group declined to film another movie after 1965’s Help! and were paring down their demanding touring schedule. (In fact, they’d perform their final concert on August 29, 1966, shortly after Revolver’s release.) McCartney spent his time playing with tape loops and exploring London’s underground art scene. Lennon delved deeper into exploring LSD — not just experimenting with the drug, but also reading such works as acid guru Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Harrison, who had played sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” the previous year, devoted his time to learning more about Hindustani musical tradition, and ultimately the philosophy and theology that accompanied it. (Meanwhile, Ringo Starr ran his construction company Bricky Builders, which primarily worked on home improvement projects for the other Beatles.)

Beatles 1966This free time to imagine and create was also an important factor in the recording process. The Beatles had originally wanted to record their next album in America, specifically at Stax Records in Memphis, or possibly at Motown or Atlantic’s studios. Concerns over security and finances, however, found the band retiring to their usual lair at EMI Studios, Abbey Road.

While it’s a dazzling “what-if” to imagine the Fab Four recording among the hubs of soul music — imagine “Got to Get You Into My Life” backed by the Memphis Horns! — ultimately, the decision to stay closer to home served to the band’s advantage. At Abbey Road, the Beatles, producer George Martin, and various soundmen had the luxury of time and freedom of movement to try new things and attempt unlikely innovations.

Young engineer Geoff Emerick explored new microphone placements, both innovative (close-miking Starr’s drumkit) and daft (trying to record Lennon’s vocals through a bucket of water). Ken Townsend, EMI’s technical manager, aided Lennon’s reluctance to re-record his vocals by inventing ADT (artificial double tracking), a method that allowed a single recording to be split in two and off-synched slightly. If the two vocal tracks were separately far enough, it could veer into the unearthly, such as Lennon’s “Tibetan monks chanting on a mountaintop” sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

The baldy avant-garde “Tomorrow Never Knows” wasn’t Revolver‘s only go at stretching the limits of what a rock group could produce. While “Yesterday,” issued the previous year, had introduced strings to the Beatle sound, “Eleanor Rigby” cuts out all pop instrumentation completely, scored entirely by two string quartets.

Likewise, the hints of sitar on “Norwegian Wood” were expanded into full-scale Indian instrumentation for “Love You To,” on which Harrison was joined by tabla player Anil Bhagwat and members of the Asian Music Circle. “For No One” also dispenses with any attempt at conventional rock ‘n’ roll, instead underlined by a baroque-style piano and highlighted by a French horn solo. Those tracks’ spare, mature sound contrasts with that of “Yellow Submarine,” a silly, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink recording that finds the band trying out all sorts of new sounds and ideas in service of a children’s song.

This anything-goes culture during the recording of Revolver is perhaps what led to Harrison being given his biggest songwriting break yet — an unprecedented three songs, including not just “Love You To” but the antsy, piano-driven “I Want to Tell You” and the syncopated, bass-heavy album opener, “Taxman.”

But while Harrison was gaining prominence, a greater divide began developing between the members of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. The former’s songs tend to be rooted in standard, guitar-based rock — think “Doctor Robert” or “And Your Bird Can Sing” — with a heaping side of druggy experimentation, such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” or the creepy echoes of “She Said She Said.”

McCartney, on the other hand, branches out farther into un-Beatlesy genres: classical, soul, children’s music, Lovin’ Spoonful-influenced new vaudeville (“Good Day Sunshine”), and Beach Boys-inspired pop balladry (“Here, There, and Everywhere”). While on previous songs, the main songwriter could primarily be identified by whomever sang lead vocals, on Revolver the disparity between the two songwriting styles is so stark that there’s no mistaking Lennon as having written “Eleanor Rigby,” or McCartney as the author of “I’m Only Sleeping.”

Indeed, that ode to lethargy had a special resonance in terms of the Revolver sessions. Having spent the first half of the Beatles’ career as the nominal leader of the leaderless band, by the mid-’60s, Lennon had grown physically lazy, spending most of his free time in bed, and had begun losing interest in the band. Revolver’s emphasis on the eclectic illustrates the increasing influence that McCartney, the future brains behind the Sgt. Pepper’s concept and the Abbey Road suites, was having on the direction of the band. (That the American edition of Revolver excised three of Lennon’s tracks made him seem even more marginalized.)

But while a slight divergence of interests had begun to show on Revolver, the album was still very much the product of a united group, banding together to create a heterogeneous but coherent sound with no real parallel elsewhere in the pop world. Falling at the exact midpoint in the band’s studio career, between 1963’s Please Please Me and the 1969 recording of Abbey Road, it also marks the midpoint in their evolution from pop-rock hooksmiths to experimental pop pioneers.

Countless bands have based careers on the sound the Beatles touched on briefly on the album; individual songs have birthed entire new genres. Fifty years on, Revolver is routinely cited as the Beatles’ greatest album, and, as such, one of the greatest albums ever recorded. 

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.