Sometimes the cover art and the sound of a record tie together beautifully well. Rubber Soul sounds deep brown and woodsy, Sgt. Pepper’s sounds like every color in the rainbow, and Revolver resolutely sounds black and white. It announces with stark slashing pen strokes that this is a new way to record a rock and roll band. We can do that because we’re the Beatles, and we don’t tolerate being bored. Please, George Martin, distort my voice.
Revolver was the first Beatles album where the inmates took over the asylum for good. And they weren’t looking to make any more pretty, delicately recorded sounds that sold well. This time, John, Paul, George and Ringo were lockstep in pursuit of aggressive squawks of distorted guitar, seagulls, squashed and compressed and distorted drums, tape loops of weird shit and backward parts, and would George Martin please sir make a string quartet sound like a wall?
There’s nothing “pretty” about Revolver. Beautiful, yes. Pretty, no. There is no reverb on anything. It’s dry as dust. Every tone is in your face. There isn’t much of any room sound. You’re not IN a room when you listen to it. You might not even really exist. Did you ever think about that? Revolver is designed to lure you in with the bold strokes and great catchy songs and while you’re there, let’s mess with your head a little.
Let’s start with a rocker about taxes with the baddest rhythm section in rock and roll, and we’ll follow that by depressing the shit out of you with a story about two lonely people who die, to the minor-key blasts of a steamroller string quartet. Then we get our first taste of feel-good Beatles music with “I’m Only Sleeping,” which is an earnest and beautifully performed track but with an acoustic guitar pegging the tape machine needle in the red.
Even the smiles on this album are roomless, such as on one of Paul’s masterpieces, the gorgeous “Here, There and Everywhere,” and even the happy brass on “Got to Get You into My Life” sounds dark and threatening somehow. They’re making you smile with “I Want to Tell You” and “Good Day Sunshine,” but at the same time your eyelids are narrowed. Let’s let George off the leash with his first full-on Indian music with tablas and sitars played by guys who sound really pissed off.
And where does it end? It ends at the beginning. “Tomorrow Never Knows” did as much to crack the sixties in half as anything. The last lines—of the beginning, of the beginning, of the beginning…—signal that, while this might be the last song on the album, it’s really the beginning of something new. A drone never leaves a C chord, and there’s an incredible, insistent drumbeat. Wild sounds dart in and out of the song like bats flitting in and out of a streetlight—backward trumpets, the aforementioned seagulls, backward guitars, and John’s distorted voice singing lyrics full of quotes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The moptops are dead. Long live the moptops.
It’s a tip of the hat to the techies that they happily followed the Beatles into the mist. Use a speaker as a microphone and jam it up in Ringo’s bass drum and see what it sounds like? Okay, we’ll get right to work on that. That would be the recording engineer Geoff Emerick and George Martin himself who intrepidly hacked into innovation’s jungle.
Like Rubber Soul, which inexplicably ends with O.J.’s theme song (“Run for Your Life”), Revolver also has its tragic flaw. In and amongst so many timeless tunes with bright and shining melodies that rise above the sparseness of the recordings, there is the execrable “Yellow Submarine.” They should have sold it to a children’s show. The cartoon movie was alright, but the song? It makes “Honey Pie” sound like solid gold. Whoever said they HAD to let Ringo sing one?
Better to leave you with some fun facts to know and tell. The twin lead guitars on “And Your Bird Can Sing” were recorded at the same time by John and George playing onto the same track. “She Said She Said” is probably the only Beatles rock track on which Paul does not appear. The day they recorded it, there was an argument about something and Paul stormed out in a hissy fit like he’s done more often than people think. The others said to heck with him and finished the track on their own, with George dubbing on the bass guitar.
And, in what could have only made things worse, “Yellow Submarine” had a piece of narration they decided not to use. Forget that one. Forget all of it. Just smoke something and listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows” over and over. It’s the end and the beginning.
Tommy Womack is a 30A Songwriters Festival veteran who has played in the bands Government Cheese, the bis-quits, Daddy, and Todd Snider and the Nervous Wrecks. A two-time winner of the Nashville Scene Critics Poll’s Best Song award, Mr. Womack is also the author of Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of and The Lavender Boys and Elsie.
His latest book, dust bunnies, is out now and you should drop whatever you’re doing and read it. Discover more at tommywomack.com.