Pros: Maybe the greatest album ever.
(Note: Review originally appeared on Epinions)
Around the beginning of the 2000s VH1 did a listing of the greatest albums of all-time. The number one pick was Revolver by The Beatles.
Is it the greatest of all-time? Better than Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue? That can be legitimately debated. Is it the greatest of all the Beatles albums? Close to it (other contenders for that title include Abbey Road, A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul). I’m not going to talk about its immediate follow-up right now. I’ll get to it eventually*.
In 1966, the Beatles were evolving so fast that it was probably hard for people to keep up with them. They’d debuted with Please Please Me, built on that with With The Beatles, matured with A Hard Day’s Night, paid their dues with Beatles For Sal, started to embrace the songwriting of Dylan with Help and embraced full maturity while still rocking out on Rubber Soul. So where to go from there.
The result was an album that would elevate rock and roll to the level of art, one that would start a revolution in music. That album was…
At this point, if you own the album, I’d suggest putting it on whether you have it on vinyl, tape, CD, iPod or whatever. Let those sounds wash over you.
And if you don’t own it, get yourself a copy as soon as possible.
Listen as the album opens with the George Harrison penned and sung “Taxman”. Listen to the count in we hear at the beginning and the sound of Paul McCartney clearing his throat. Listen as the springing groove starts which works perfectly as a contrast to Harrison’s lyrics which are some of the best anti-government ones ever set to music. Catchy rebellion that rocks.
A modern standard follows in McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”. Aside from Paul’s singing, none of the Beatles played on it. But unlike most corporate rock bands that would use this approach and sound soulless and overproduced, this one still sounds fresh. The scraping cellos and violins sync perfectly with Paul’s resigned singing and the lyrics which depict a dire portrait of suburban loneliness. To illustrate how well the music works here listen to the strings only version on The Beatles Anthology II. If Paul had remained silent throughout the whole song his point would have come across.
The feeling also comes to the forefront on John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. The song has the feel of being asleep. But not a drowsy feeling: One more of resting peacefully.
Feeling is also evoked on the brilliant “She Said She Said” the finest song on the album and my personal all-time greatest Beatles song. Over a ringing guitar groove inspired by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds Lennon sings lyrics about an acid trip he and the other Beatles went on in LA, along with Peter Fonda. The lyrics though are universal “She said you don’t understand what I said I said no no no you’re wrong/When I was a boy everything was right”. I remember writing them on the back of my English notebook in 12th grade.
Almost as effective is McCartney’s “For No One”. The slow minimalist backing on here works perfectly well with McCartney’s lyrics which depict a collapsing relationship. Likewise the love song “Here There And Everywhere” perfectly captures the feelings of being in love and does not fall victim to the mawkishness that would drown many of McCartney’s post Beatles songs.
George Harrison makes his first full on foray (after contributing some sitar to “Norwegian Wood” the previous year) into Eastern music with “Love You To”. The lyrics seem to depict an Eastern view of love and they succeed. One of the lesser ones on Revolver. But the lesser ones here are better than the top songs on many albums.
Another relatively lesser one is “McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine”. It may seem lightweight compared to the rest of the album. But the sing along chorus doesn’t want to make one vomit and it’s an entertaining ditty. Likewise the McCartney penned Ringo Starr sung “Yellow Submarine” perfectly evokes childhood innocence. Easy enough for kids to learn yet still fun enough for adults to enjoy as well.
Harrison’s “I Want To Tell You” is bouncy with lyrics about communication or lack thereof. Lennon gives us an ode to a drug dealer with “Dr. Robert” which innocently draws you in while not hiding the subject matter and the somewhat humorous “And Your Bird Can Sing”. Both are great.
But let’s focus on the two closing songs on the album. First up, McCartney’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”. Lyrically it’s well-done with it’s story of being alone, taking a ride and meeting someone. But the music is beyond that. The horns on here give the song a pure soulful feel. In fact, it sounds funky at times (Ironically Earth Wind And Fire’s pretty great cover would have more of a jazz sound (I say ironic given as EW&F were a funk band themselves and the Beatles version sounded more funky).
To cap off the album we have Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. If “She Said” was inspired by an acid trip, this one sets out to bring the experience home to the listener. Does it do it? It sure does. From the sound effects which open it to the distortion on Lennon’s vocals, everything here meshes perfectly. You feel sucked right into it and come out spent but happy.
With Revolver, The Beatles reached a peak of sorts. It was this album, not Sgt Pepper, that helped elevate rock to the level of art. It was this, not Sgt Pepper, that tore down the constraints of rock and pop. It was this album that showed the Beatles at their artistic peak.
*So why am I ranking it ahead of Sgt Pepper? First off all, it’s musically superior and more diverse. The other reason is harder to articulate. But I’ll try.
There are some people who believe that Pepper nearly killed rock and roll, that it elevated things to a level of pretentiousness we’ve been unable to escape from. I won’t say Pepper did that directly. But consider this quote from an NME article:
“We can look beyond the blues as a blueprint!’ It ushered in a new way of thinking for bands – for the first time, they didn’t have to worry about recreating things live. ”
Sgt Pepper in some ways was the first rock and roll album to have no blues elements at all. No, I’m not saying it needed BB King on slide guitar and harmonica playing from the Beatles. What I mean is that it lacked the spontaneity that drives the best blues, best rock, best soul, best jazz, best hip-hop. It replaced it with an overly processed sound that lacked feeling. If “Eleanor Rigby” perfectly evoked the ache of loneliness, “When I’m 64” comes off like nothing more than an attempt to make a piece of English Music Hall theater.
Sgt Pepper didn’t kill rock. But the overly processed formula it introduced almost did. It opened the door for abominations like ELP, Kansas, Styx and numerous others (Jethro Tull is excused as Aqualung is a fantastic album). It took the arrival of punk and new wave to help pull it out of that rut. Sure there are certain groups that have done experimental rock since then and have succeeded brilliantly ranging from The Flaming Lips to Wilco to Green Day, to Arcade Fire to Company Flow to Outkast. But they still manage to bring way more of an edge and still keep the spontaneity. In fact, the influence of Revolver is felt more in the experimental and indie music worlds today than Pepper is. Hence why it’s the better and more influential album.