Putting the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ in perspective

What does it say about the Beatles’ seemingly bottomless well of inspiration that their most creative and cohesive album, full of dash, daring, musical innovation and a brilliant explosion of unexpected colors, came packaged in an austere, black and white jacket with a simple line drawing of their four famous faces and a single word – Revolver, the title of the album?

What does it say about Revolver that many consider it the Beatles’ greatest achievement, stronger even than the vaunted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which followed it less than a year later inside a multicolor, summer-of-love, look-at-me cover?

And what does it say about Revolver that more than five decades after it arrived in 1966, and nearly as long since the band split up, that people are still talking about it as if nobody has yet to make a better pop record?

That last, of course, is arguable, but one thing is without question: Revolver was a watershed in rock ‘n’ roll, and a supernova in pop culture.

Rattle off a few of the song titles: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and the groundbreaking – more like ground-shattering – “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was famously used in an episode of Mad Men to point an otherwise clueless Don Draper, 1960s advertising shill, towards the future of popular music.

These songs are still very much with us today.

Revolver was re-issued this week in what’s known as an SDE (Super Deluxe Edition), over five CDs in one boxed iteration, and four vinyl LPs in another. Each comes with an oversized history-of-the-album book.

Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, has re-mixed the album (it’s his fifth such project with the group’s archives). This means he returned to the original 1966 session tapes, separated out each instrument, voices and other effects, and re-assembled them using his father’s much-loved original as a blueprint.

Happily, this doesn’t result in a “re-imagining” of Revolver – it hasn’t been turned into a hip hop record, for example, with suddenly thumping bass-and-drums – but a sort of clean-and-scrub job. The sonic palette in 2022 is infinitely broader than it was back in the day, and Martin the Younger has made use of better studio reproduction equipment (and a new “separation” technology developed by Peter Jackson and his team while tweaking the audio for last year’s Get Back documentary) to make the space between the instruments broader and brighter.

It’s still Revolver. And, somehow, it’s bigger than ever.

As with Martin’s SDEs for Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be, the big draw for Beatles fanatics (and completists) is the inclusion of session outtakes, peeks behind the creative curtain as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – in their mid 20s at this stage – work (alongside the irreplaceable Sir George) through various arrangements of the songs that would become Revolver.

Such was the Beatles’ level of success that the company bosses at EMI Records granted them unlimited studio time, which they were only too happy to use. This was the album where experimentation became the motus operandi: Guitars recorded and then played backwards, Indian drones, tapes sped up or slowed down, strings, horns, tape loops and eerie sound effects.

On paper, that all sounds terribly pretentious. Without songs this good, maybe it might have been.

What does it say about Revolver that it’s as fresh and inviting as it was in 1966?

Ten top takeaways from Revolver Sessions, included in the Super Deluxe Edition:

Got To Get You Into My Life (Second version) – Unnumbered mix. Before somebody got the idea to add a fiery Motown brass section, this propulsive McCartney number was thick with guitars. Here is an astonishing glimpse into the group’s creative process: It’s already a great recording, but – perhaps because it almost sounds like an outtake from Rubber Soul, their previous album – they decided to take it several steps further.

Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 1). A short demo, discovered among Lennon’s home recordings, in which he mournfully sings the lines “In the place where I was born, no one cared, no one cared …” That, of course, morphed into the opening to the Beatles’ iconic kiddie singalong.

Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 2). Lennon and McCartney, on acoustic guitars, work out the chords and the lyrics, joined at the musical hip. Since “Yellow Submarine” was always thought to be a mostly-McCartney composition – happy and go-lucky – this and the previous track are revelations.

Yellow Submarine (Highlighted sound effects). A remix of the finished, familiar track with the homemade underwater and shipboard sound effects brought to the fore. There are many, and this version sounds oddly like a scene from the 1968 Yellow Submarine cartoon film, with which the Beatles were barely involved. Maybe it gave the filmmakers an idea.

Here, There And Everywhere (Take 6). To this day, McCartney believes this is the best song he ever came up with (Lennon, incidentally, loved it too). Here he’s singing a lovely guide vocal, almost in falsetto, making the song even more delicate. This was released in 1995, as a bonus track on a CD single from the Beatles Anthology project, along with the “sound effects” version of “Yellow Submarine.”

Love You To (Take 1). Harrison’s droning Indian song is a highlight of Revolver, because it works beautifully set against McCartney’s melodicism and Lennon’s glibness. Without its sitar, tabla, tamboura and buzzing electric guitar, this draft is utterly different – it’s just George, playing two chords on an acoustic guitar and singing. (A later take includes a dissonant harmony from McCartney that was ultimately rejected.)

Rain (Take 5 – Actual speed). One of Lennon’s dreamiest, druggiest psychedelic pop numbers came about because the instrumental backing track, packed with jangling folk-rock guitars, loopy bass and Starr’s best falling-down-the-stairs drumming, was recorded at breakneck speed and then slowed down before the lead vocals and harmonies were added. This is the backing as it was performed. (“Rain” and “Paperback Writer,” while recorded during the album sessions, were released as a single and were not part of Revolver.)

And Your Bird Can Sing (Second version) – Take 5. Revolver was created through trial and error. If something didn’t work, they simply changed the approach. The first and quite different arrangement of this punchy Lennon number was released on Anthology 2 all those years ago (it’s included here, too) but the real gem is this early run-through of the second arrangement – the one we know and love. Lennon’s single-tracked vocal is front and center, the bass and drums pulse underneath, and the famous twin lead guitars are still being worked out. And there’s an “ahhhhh” section over the instrumental break, later eliminated, that brings to mind the breathtaking “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul.

Eleanor Rigby (Speech before Take 2). Here, George Martin talks with his hired string octet, asking if they prefer playing with vibrato, or without? They try it both ways, and decide it’s better without. McCartney, from the upstairs control room, tells them he can’t hear the difference. But Sir George can, and moments later he and the players cut one of the most enduring strident string arrangements in pop music history.

She Said She Said (Take 15) – Backing track rehearsal. On the last day of the Revolver sessions – they were about to leave for their final European tour – the Beatles cut, in a single session, Lennon’s searing, guitar-drenched psychedelic childhood dream song. There are no vocals on this take, just a cocksure rock ‘n’ roll band making a joyful noise and sending it across the universe.

‘This will be my statement’: Watching the wheels in New York

With his pudgy hands shackled in front of him, Mark David Chapman sat at his defense attorney’s table, facing the judge who would decide his fate. Inside the crowded federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, the man who murdered John Lennon rarely looked up from his lap, where he clutched a dog-eared paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, calmly turning the pages as best he could against the steel tug of the handcuffs.

Chapman didn’t really look like the deranged killers you see in the movies, although his hair was barely crew-cut length – he’d recently shaved his head in prison – and there were deep black circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

He was just some overweight loser. A bulletproof vest under his dingy brown sweatshirt made him look stockier than he was, like he was wearing football pads.

It was the summer of 1981, just eight months after the murder. A buddy of mine was living in Brooklyn Heights, working as a production assistant on the soap opera The Guiding Light. I’d accompanied him to the studio the day before, and watched them tape the show. Got a script autographed for my mom, who was a fan.

During an afternoon of sight-seeing, he accompanied me to the Dakota, the gothic mansion where Lennon had lived – and died – on Central Park West. I’ve stopped by there many times over the years, but that first visit, when the shock and the anger were still fresh, hanging in the air like gunpowder smoke, has stayed with me.

Bob was about to leave for the studio the next morning; if I had plans, I don’t remember what they were. In his little kitchenette, I perused Time magazine over my morning coffee – and I saw, under Milestones, the item about Chapman. He’d pled guilty in June – “God instructed me to do it” – and was to be sentenced on August 24.

That very day.

So whatever I was going to do, I didn’t do it, and I went to the federal courthouse instead. Bob convinced me to take his CBS ID badge, so I could get into the journalist section in case there were too many “regular people” there, taking up the cheap seats. I wouldn’t start writing professionally for another year or two.

Here’s the thing about John Lennon. And I’m well aware that millions of people feel exactly the same way. Let’s take the Beatles out of it for a moment – the incredible artistry, the unparalleled songs, the amazing cultural saga that publicity guru Derek Taylor called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Romance.”

The Beatles. Yeah. You get it.

I’m not one of those people who think Lennon, in hindsight, was a genius or a visionary or a deep philosopher or any of that stuff. I find it amusing when people quote him – or, more often, misquote him – with those goofy Facebook memes.

What he was, was charismatic, brilliant, quick-witted and extraordinarily talented. Lennon was so, so funny, and despite the fact that he often said ridiculous things, it was hard – impossible – to give up on him. You could not look away.

The indisputable magic of a celebrity like his was that you felt like you knew him, even though you didn’t really, and it was a really good feeling.

When that guy shot him in the back, he’d just made a new record, and started giving interviews again, after a self-imposed five years off the radar. When John “returned,” I – like so many others around the world – was just so fucking glad he was back in my life.

So it was weird to hear the prosecutor’s clinical description of the crime, step by step, and to hear the word “victim” followed by “John Winston Ono Lennon.” It brought it all home, you know? Now he was another statistic.

Two psychiatrists who had examined Chapman at length spent hours on the stand, describing his childhood fantasies about the armies of “little men” who lived in the armchairs and sofas of his family’s living room. This testimony is described in detail in the excellent book Let Me Take You Down.

I didn’t follow much of it. Sitting in the media gallery, behind the sketch artists who were drawing like mad, I watched Chapman. His puffy black eyes remained fixed on the ratty red book in his lap.

When the testimony was over, the judge asked if Chapman wished to make a statement before sentence was imposed. When the reply came – “yes, your honor,” in a hoarse whisper – you could feel the intake of air as everybody in the courtroom gasped. The woman in the seat in front of mine held her pencil at the ready over her sketch pad.

A uniformed, armed officer moved in behind him as Chapman stood up at the table. “I’d like to read from The Catcher in the Rye,” he said loudly. “This will be my statement.”

And he did. With the paperback open in front of him, he read that famous paragraph from J.D. Salinger’s teen-alienation novel, the one about little kids falling off a cliff:

I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

We all sat back, slack-jawed. The judge gave him 20-to-life. They led him away.

And that was that.

The White Album in context

People who remember when vinyl records were the only option often complain about how streaming or downloading music denies the listener the total experience – no graphics, no photos, no lyrics, no nothing. The same people said that about CDs, too, and now that CDs are on the way out, we seem to be left with downloads and streaming. And reissued vinyl, I suppose, but to me reissuing vintage albums seems like putting the cart after the horse. As it were. The point of this eludes me. And they’re so bloody expensive.

Coming in Nov. 9 – on CD and vinyl and download – is the 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles, the 93-minute magnum opus everyone has always referred to as The White Album.

All you hipsters, allow me to put The Beatles in context. The year 1968 had been a difficult one for the Fabs. Their journey to India in the spring, to study transcendental meditation, had ended badly. On his return, John Lennon immediately hooked up with Yoko Ono, and the press – notably Britain’s famous Fleet Street – had a field day.

They hated her. The slant-eyed jokes and insulting editorial cartoons were vicious. Our John left his sweet blonde Liverpool wife for this? Understand that England saw the Beatles as public property, and divorce, and a very public affair with a married Japanese “artist,” were not in the least acceptable.

When they got a look at the full-frontal cover for John and Yoko’s experimental album Two Virgins, the press really released the hounds on the Beatles. This was some freaky shit, man.

Into this atmosphere came the Paul McCartney-penned “Hey Jude,” such a wonderful, exhilarating and unexpectedly happy single, with John’s ferocious “Revolution” on the B-side. This record was impossible to ignore, Yoko or no Yoko, and it not only became the soundtrack for the fall of 1968, it became the best-selling single the group ever had.

Nobody could have predicted what would come next.

Albums had pictures on them. Happy-go-lucky photos of the Fab Four (in the early days), smart and arty-looking designs (Rubber Soul and Revolver) and multi-colored pastiches (during the band’s psychedelic period).

The Beatles appeared on November 22, almost exactly five years to the day after “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

This album jacket was all white. No pictures, no printing. The title, The Beatles, was embossed on the cover in awkward block letters, and each cover was individually numbered, like a lithograph. When you were a kid, and you knew nothing about art, you didn’t understand any of it. In those days, after all the media attention given Two Virgins, we were sure the record company had whitewashed another naked album cover.

The song titles were not revealed until you tossed the shrink wrap and opened the cover up. And there were those four individual black and white photos, simple as block prints. Inside there was a big folded poster with a bunch of tiny photos spread out, collage style.

It was an ugly poster. It’s still an ugly poster. The lyrics were printed on the back. It was all very mysterious.

The four photos were included, too, as full color 8x10s. You’ve seen them here and there over the years, reprinted everywhere.

So The Beatles, as you played the two records, had no visual reference points. Like you would put on Sgt. Pepper and marvel at all the weird stuff photographed on the front cover, or wonder what all those dumb cartoons were about inside Magical Mystery Tour.

The music, from the first note to the last, was sublime. It was all over the place. It was different. It was great to hear John still at the top of his game, and not crashed in some opium den with his freaky girlfriend. He contributed “Julia,” a love song to Yoko. And the bitter “Sexy Sadie,” a dig at his Indian guru. And “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” And “Dear Prudence.” And “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” which made zero sense to us, but was one of the most joyous, exhilarating songs on the record.

The music is sharp, pointed, and occasionally angry. The snarling electric guitars had never been better recorded. The drums pounded and resounded.

McCartney is both whimsical and fierce (see the bookends “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Martha My Dear,” “Blackbird” and “Helter Skelter”) and even George Harrison is on fire, turning in four fine songs. None of them, I remember being glad to discover, were dreary like his ’67 dirge “Blue Jay Way.” There was no filtered Indian pseudo-mysticism on display.

The whole point seemed to be, LISTEN TO IT and don’t focus on what we look like, or whether we look happy (they weren’t, as we all found out later, but so great were the Beatles that they could turn their bitterness towards one another into cool creative music). There was absolutely NOTHING predictable about this album.

Each record label had a bright green apple on one side, a sliced apple on the other. That was different, too.

These days, I still don’t think the White Album songs belong on compilations next to “Penny Lane” or “Yellow Submarine.” It is its own experience.

The Beatles seemed to think so too, as “Hey Jude/Revolution” – remember, THE BIGGEST SINGLE THEY EVER HAD – was not included on the album. Instead, they put 30 more songs on it. And none of the LP tracks were issued as singles.

I can’t explain what it meant to be a 10-year-old kid, staring at that blank cover and listening to “Revolution 9” for the first time. Frankly, it scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t know why. There were no smiling Beatles looking back, reassuring me that the world was still OK.

@2014 and 2018