*Click here for my series on the great Beatles albums,
In 1966, only a year after Rubber soul, the Beatles released Revolver. In a 1996 interview, George found the two albums quite similar: “to me, they could be Volume 1 and Volume 2”. But it is Revolver that is increasingly recognised as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music.
Here it is as a playlist, again in the 2009 remastered version:
As love songs become subsidiary, studio technology and psychedelia are coming to the fore. Yet again I’ll cite Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Mellers opens:
Though Revolver still contains ritual elements, one can no longer discuss it in terms of adolescent ceremonial, nor is it relatable to the conventions of commercialised pop music. Halfway between ritual and art, it’s both verbally and musically an extraordinary breakthrough; and since the songs complement one another without forming a sequence, one cannot avoid some comment on each.
I won’t do so, but some songs most dear to me are;
- Eleanor Rigby, the polar opposite of the satirical opening Taxman, is accompanied only by string octet—an innovation that one might hardly notice (cf. She’s leaving home on Sgt Pepper). Mellers is in fine form again:
It is about compassion, loneliness, and implicitly about the generation gap—three basic themes of second period Beatle music—and there is no precedent for its musical idiom, which has nothing to do with jazz, but is an amalgam of rural folk and urban music-hall. The tonality is a dorian E minor, though the initial invocation of “all the lonely people” is a rising and falling scale (with sharpened fourth) over a C minor triad, with a rocking and chugging accompaniment. The song proper is narrative ballad, and the words are poetry, evoking with precise economy Eleanor Rigby, the middle-aged spinster who picks up the rice at somebody else’s wedding, lives in a dream, keeps her face “in a jar by the door”; and Father Mackenzie, the priest who lives alone, darns his socks in the empty night, writes the sermon that no-one wants to listen to, wipes off his hands the dirt from the grave where he’s buried Eleanor Rigby after administering the last rites by which “no-one was saved”. The words reverberate through their very plainness; and manage to characterise not only those two lonely people but also (as George Melly has put it) “the big soot-black sandstone Catholic churches with the trams rattling past, the redbrick terraced houses with laced curtains and holy-stoned steps” of the Beatles’ boyhood Liverpool. The tune, lyrically sung by Paul, never modulates but has a tentative, groping tenderness as it stretches up the scale to those modally sharpened sixths, only to droop again, in a flexible rhythm that often overrides the barlines; so when it returns to the choric introductory phrase as a refrain, the scope of the song is marvellously extended. Miss Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the soaring refrain tells us, may be founded on real characters from the Beatles’ childhood, yet none the less represent all the lonely people; and that includes us, and the young Beatles (who were soon to be members of Sgt Pepper’s LONELY HEARTS club band). Yet there is never a suspicion of emotional indulgence in this song; that is belied by the rigidity of the chugging accompaniment, even though it is given to emotive strings. Occasionally (after that dismayed octave leap for “where do they all come from”) the violins wing up scalewise; more often they reinforce the thumping crotchet pulse, or the rocking quavers. In the final phrase of the tune and in the coda the “where do they all come from” query reaches up not through an octave but through a tenth. This makes something like a climax, and the song has an end which is not, however, decisive. The final cadence is the only V I progression in the piece, and even here the dominant chord is in second inversion. All the other cadences reinforce the tonal ambiguity of the submediant introduction, an effect the more disturbing because the C major triads conflict with the sharpened Cs in the modal tune.
You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesised. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.
Having first played sitar for Norwegian wood, George now developed the sound more prominently—the soundscape now augmented by tabla:
- Love you to was “the Beatles’ first unambiguous exploration of orientalism”. Their use of Indian timbres was influential; indeed, it only strikes me now that this was the beginning of my own youthful fascination with raga. Introduced by the briefest quasi-alap, the song soon launches into a regular metre. Mellers:
The vocal line oscillates around G, moving up to B♭, the flattened seventh, down to F♮; and the music convinces not because it is “like” genuine Indian music (it is by Indian standards rudimentary), but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme we have seen to be endemic in Beatle music. Though George seems to be singing (as did all the early Beatle songs) of sexual love and presumably of coitus itself, his point is that the act of love can destroy the temporal sense (“make love all day, making love singing songs”) which is what happens in the drone-coda and fade-out.
At the time it seemed like many people who, just the week before, had never seen a sitar or heard of Ravi Shankar, were running out, overnight, to buy what we nowadays call “world music” recordings, tickets to rug concerts, and even authentic instruments.
But as he goes on to note, it was a rather fickle fad:
It’s a chutzpah for the Westerner to expect to confront this stuff without sincere and patient preparation.
The only merit of attempts to suggest a specific raga as the basis for the scale of George’s Indian-based songs (such as Within you, without you on Sgt Pepper) is to draw us to the complexities of raga in its native form. Much as Pollack admires the experiment, he’s not entirely convinced by the result here; the connoisseur of raga may be still less convinced by some of these Indian-inspired songs.
And George was still a beginner on sitar; even supposing that he might have played the opening, the player for the rest of the track remains unidentified; it seems most unlikely that it is George that we hear.
As Mellers notes in a later chapter,
The Beatles’ tinkering with oriental metaphysics, even if sincere, as was certainly the case with George, hardly amounts to more than an alleviatory game if contrasted with the late music of John Coltrane, who might genuinely be said to have prayed with and through his horn.
Ravi Shankar liked both Trane and George; but he was perplexed by the disturbed results of the former’s immersion in Indian music and philosophy, whereas he seems to have looked more favourably on George’s experiments (for more, see e.g. here, here, and here).
Love you to is followed by the gorgeous ballad
- Here, there, and everywhere—as Mellers observes, deceptively simple: love as revelation, with tonal as well as metrical metamorphosis, further unpacked by Pollack.
- Yellow submarine (cf. Octopus’s garden in Abbey road) is too easily taken for granted. Mellers hits the spot again:
Typically, the Beatles then torpedo this lyrical tenderness… Ringo’s blunt Liverpudlianism brings us back to earth, or anyway to “the town where I was born”, in a rhythm as strictly circumscribed, a diatonicism as plain, as that of the Celebrated Working Man’s Band. Yet the banality is as deceptive as was the simplicity of Here, there, and everywhere. For the song turns out to be a revocation of childhood memory that is also a liberation into dream—an “instant nursery rhyme”, as George Melly has put it, “as unselfconscious as a children’s street song, but true to their own experience… It’s not American comic book heroes who climb aboard the Yellow submarine but Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and his pals. The departure for the Sea of Dreams is from the Liverpool pierhead.” On might even say that the song’s human triviality sets off the mystery of the “acquatic unknown tongues” we then hear bobbing on and in the waters; in which sense regression is prelude to another rebirth. If there’s nothing in the music that is memorable in itself—except the fact that it’s easy to memorise and so stays in the mind—we’re soon aware that the experience isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, purely musical. A hubbub of friends is heard on the quay, the town band blasts its blatant farewell, and we’re in a mythical world—to be more deeply explored in Sgt Pepper—which cannot be adequately realised in concert hall or on stage. The music has, again, a talismantic function, recalling a Liverpudlian childhood, launching the Beatles on a submarine voyage into the unconscious: out of which their later and greater music was to spring.
As Pollack observes, the musical simplicity
provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.
The extraordinary final track
- Tomorrow never knows is again tinged with the Indian influence. Mellers:
Drums and a tambura drone on C re-establish an oriental atmosphere, while the melody alternates a non-metrical phrase on the triad of C major with a triplet on the fifth, rising to the flat seventh, then to the tonic. “It is not dying, it is shining, it is the end of the beginning”, we’re told, with sundry references to the Tibetan Book of the dead culled from Timothy Leary. […] The singing voice, which is here the mind alone, is gradually engulfed in an electronic hubbub emulating the cries of birds and beasts, the hurly-burly of the natural world. Having begun with adolescent regression, the Beatles conclude the first work of their young maturity with an almost-literal aural synonym for return to the womb. There are parallels to this in avant-garde jazz (the jungle noises possibly derive from Mingus) as well as in “art” music, but this doesn’t weaken the impact of the song.
Listeners may find some of these Indian-inspired songs more successful than others, but here the Beatles create an effective sound-world. Pollack notes that while Tomorrow never knows is a “kitchen sink” of the Beatles’ repertoire at the time, the effect is unified.
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Revolver is indeed a great album. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, Call Me Old-fashioned, but I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road more consistent, and more cohesive as song-cycles—but hey, like Mahler symphonies, rather than making a futile attempt to rank them, let’s just rejoice in them all.