The Beatles — Revolver

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Well and this time the market failed Capitol. Having already placed “I’m Only Sleeping” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert” on Yesterday and Today, the label elected not to include them on Revolver and thus neutered one of the greatest records in pop history.[1] Not that the U.S. version of Revolver isn’t fantastic–there were still eleven tracks left, after all–but “I’m Only Sleeping” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are among the group’s very best work. Backwards-masked guitar seeps through the former’s narcotic haze, while the dueling riff and pounding drums that kick off the latter are arguably the best opening lines in the group’s catalogue. I burnt a copy of the U.K. version of Revolver to play in my car my freshman year of college, and it remains the version that sounds most correct and complete to my ears. It’s been years since I’ve listened to the LP, but it was still jarring to hear the final string pulls of “Eleanor Rigby” give way to the fluttering sitar run that opens “Love You To.”

But time has been good to me, and to the way that I hear this record. Years ago, driving around New Orleans in my Jeep, blasting “Taxman” and damning the man, I’d skip George Harrison’s sitars and tablas, recalling something my dad had once told me about the ways George had tested their patience in the mid-sixties.[2] But now, “Love You To”’s pulsing rhythm and cresting volumes sound thrilling, and far more relevant than anything happening in “Taxman,” McCartney’s proto-Nels-Cline guitar solo notwithstanding.

Even in its abridged form, Revolver is an incredible achievement, both in terms of its breadth and its depth. In late 2012, it’s not really revolutionary for a band to attempt soul, folk-rock, and tape loops on the same slab of vinyl, but for the Beatles to have done so in 1966, and to have spent the popular capital they’d spent the past few years amassing in order to do so, is unreal. That they manage to pull the entire thing off, for McCartney to sound just as convincing showboating his way through “Got to Get You Into My Life” as he does delivering “Eleanor Rigby,” is stunning. Even now, sitting among the pine needles that our Christmas tree has already begun to drop, it’s hard for me to fathom it.

What’s strange, though, is that Revolver has become such a part of my history that I hardly feel any emotional connection to it at all, other than deep admiration. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I ever have. I’ve got a close friend who abhors the Beatles’ records, his point being that they were terrible interpreters of their own material. And as I spun my way through Revolver, it can be difficult not to agree with him. Talking about music is subjective to the point of lunacy, and speculating as to whether a band is playing with feeling is lunacy that rarely borders back on prescience, so it seems silly to even think about–or care about–just how attached the Beatles were to their performances. What if what’s shining through on Revolver, the heart of that record, isn’t the Beatles’ belief in the songs as autonomous units, but in themselves as creators? This is hairsplitting to the grossest degree, the kind of argument that makes people hate music criticism (but also challenging music) even at its best. The way you fall in the ongoing critical debate over the primacy of perceived authenticity in pop music will determine the way you feel about Revolver, assuming you, too, need to think in order to feel.

Whether they felt their creation or simply themselves is beside the point, though. Revolver made possible things that hadn’t even been considered to that point. There are half a dozen genres being created across the album’s eleven songs. The cartoonish romp of “Yellow Submarine” would make the Unicorns possible thirty-five years later. So would the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” but the Beatles invented the Velvets on Revolver’s back cover. The sunny-day horn section that bolsters “Got to Get You Into My Life”’s precious verses set the template for the next decade’s TV themes, finally giving itself over to raw desire in the chorus.[3]

“Tomorrow Never Knows” obliterates all of it. Ten years ago, I was the one skipping back to the beginning after “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I was bored, and wrote the closing track off as dull and pretentious (“dull,” yes, actually, seriously, and people let me write about music then anyway), purposefully obtuse. If I’d been pinned down, I might have said I felt like the whole song was a giant snub directed at me, and (though I wouldn’t have been so charitable) all Beatles fans, to the kids who’d grown up making out to “Love Me Do.” It seemed designed to alienate in a way that even “Love You To” didn’t. Though foreign, that song was at least built within a traditional pop framework; “Tomorrow Never Knows” drifts across the surface of a single droning chord. Hearing it now, though, it seems like the greatest thing the Beatles ever achieved. Maybe it’s that hypnotic rhythm, and the way those loops ignore it as they dart in and out of the song, or maybe it’s the emotional ballast of the orchestral horns that ascend and descend behind the beat, but “Tomorrow Never Knows” is the sound of the Beatles doing something that they know is bigger than themselves. They are lost in the confluence of their creation and the studio that is shaping it. It’s the album’s most relatable moment.

NOTES:

1. Failure being relative to artistic success here, obviously. Back to post.

2. To be fair to my dad, he was a fifteen-year-old living in Shreveport, Louisiana, when Revolver came out; it might be a bit much to expect him to have swallowed “Love You To” on release. I assume he and millions of other kids flipped back to side one after “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Back to post.

3. Somewhere out there, there has to be a version that does justice to that song’s chorus. Because it ain’t on Revolver. Back to post.

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