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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Beatles, "Revolver"

The Beatles
Parlophone (1966)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Stepping back from the recent barrage of Beatles records we've looked at, I realized that I used "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as a reference point for just about everything. It's sensible enough, considering that the album is probably the most highly regarded record of all time. That being said, "Revolver" still stands (in my opinion) as THE seminal Beatles album.

Each stage of the band is present on this album: the skiffle band of the early '60s, the psychedelic hippies, the world music explorers. "Revolver" is like a gallery, with each moment in the band's history framed and on display. At first, I was going to attribute this to the group's "experimentation," but it felt wrong. For one, many of the albums featured in this blog are here because of "experimentation," and perhaps you're getting sick of reading about it. But more importantly, I don't feel that "Revolver" is experimentation, such as "Rubber Soul" and "A Hard Day's Night" were.

Take for example the songs "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" from "Soul" and "Love To You" from "Revolver." On the former, George Harrison is truly experimenting with the sitar, adding its distinct melodic style to Western pop music. On the latter, Harrison is not experimenting, but rather playing actual, Indian classical ragas as he is accompanied on the tablas (played by a professional, not Ringo Starr). It's only pop in that Harrison's lyrics are English and rooted in pop sensibility. The same cannot be said for the album's biggest trip, "Tomorrow Never Knows," where a dense wall of sound, including the drone of Harrison's tambura, back John Lennon as he recites text from the Tibetan Book of The Dead. The Beatles were in a fortunate position as the biggest band in history, to do whatever the heck they wanted and not be punished commercially for it.

Also consider Paul McCartney's biggest contribution to "Revolver," the classic "Eleanor Rigby." For one, it marked a decidedly downcast mood for the band, but is even more notable for the group's approach in the studio. The contribution of strings was not particularly groundbreaking; McCartney was undoubtedly influenced by Brian Wilson's work on "Pet Sounds." However, Wilson was much more experimental in his methods. The Beach Boy recorded countless instrumental parts for every song, namely the famed "God Only Knows," and then rearranged it all to his liking, casting aside whatever didn't fit. The Beatles on the other hand never bothered to record any instrumental bits for "Eleanor Rigby." They contributed vocal harmonies and left it alone. It seems less like an experiment and more like a carefully planned assault on pop music.

As the band's musical stages are fitted onto "Revolver," so are its historical stages. The band never played any of "Revolver" live because its last show was in San Francisco, 1966, before its release. "Revolver" was the first of six albums The Beatles would release sans tour. It was just as well. Songs like "Eleanor Rigby" and "Love to You" aren't built for live performances. They are, however, built perfectly for The Beatles.

INTERESTING FACT: McCartney claimed that no actual "Eleanor Rigby" existed until a grave bearing the same name was unearthed (metaphorically) in Liverpool. McCartney and Lennon had met in the very same cemetery, and McCartney admitted that perhaps his sub-conscience had remembered the headstone. He maintains that the song is in no way based on the real Rigby's life.

"Eleanor Rigby"

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