1966: The Beatles / Revolver
by J A Gray
Is starting with The Beatles horribly predictable? Theirs wasn’t the first music I heard (I recall a major fixation on Elton John’s Crocodile Rock), but it was the first music to get completely under my skin. Before I heard The Beatles, I really liked pop music. After I heard The Beatles, music became an all-consuming obsession.
I do remember a time when I didn’t know who The Beatles were. I recall my older brother, Marcus, having one of those cheap and cheerful teen magazines that consisted solely of pictures of pop stars and the words to current chart hits. Yes, folks, in the days before the internet, that’s how we found out what on earth it was that these people were singing. I remember Marcus being in the room, and also a girl/young lady who was either a neighbour or a baby sitter. I was hanging around and making a nuisance of myself as usual. They came across a picture of a man called Ringo Starr, and the words to his latest 45 smash. I think it was Back Off Boogaloo. I declared that I didn’t know the song and also that I didn’t know who Ringo Starr was. The girl/young lady was particularly stunned. He was, you know, the drummer from The Beatles. “Who are The Beatles?” I asked. Jaws hit the floor. This was 1972. The Beatles had broken up just 2 or 3 years previously, but to my 5-and-a-bit year old brain it was as if the most legendary of all pop groups had never existed. By the time I arrived at pop music consciousness, they were long gone.
Anyway, my parents were now brought in to behold the spectacle of the poor child who didn’t know what a Beatle was. As luck would have it they owned a solitary Beatle single. You have no idea how unlikely this was. My parents listened to comedy, easy listening singers and, occasionally, opera, but they didn’t really do pop. Certainly not music made by long haired types. My dad’s interest in current pop music had pretty much died at about the same time that The Beatles came onto the scene. My mum, though, hung on in just a little while longer. She had a bit of a fancy for some of these young men and John Lennon, Ray Davies and Mick Jagger were alright by her (she had a cigarette card of John Lennon which she had kept safely tucked away in her knicker drawer all these years). My dad sneered at The Beatles and The Stones, but he thought The Hollies were good (it was probably no coincidence that they came from Manchester as he did) and The Kinks were OK, but that was about it. Anyway, I digress. They had a Beatles 45rpm record. It was She Loves You, backed with I’ll Get You. The single was located and the mono record player was brought down from…actually I can’t remember where it lived, but it was brought down from whatever that place was. Both sides of the record were put on for me. Over the next few days that little disc got a lot of plays. It came in a paper sleeve with a hole in it where you could read the label. There was no picture of The Beatles to look at. I imagined them dressed in black suits, probably because the word ‘beetle’ made me think of black insects. That was pretty accurate as it turned out. But in another respect my visualisation of the group was hopelessly adrift, because based on those youthful chirping harmonies I was convinced that The Beatles had at least one, possibly two female members. I pictured them as boys and girls. Looking back on this memory now, I think how strange to not know what The Beatles looked like.
And so my Beatles education began in earnest. My mum and dad told me what they knew, so I was soon put right on the gender issue. They weren’t sure which Beatle sang what, but soon I had the names John, Paul, George and Ringo committed to memory. My dad, bless him, also went foraging around in the attic and came back downstairs with a reel-to-reel tape player (if you’re under 30 you may need to Google this) and a couple of old tapes. On one tape he had recorded a whole Beatles LP from a friend. It was A Hard Day’s Night. Recording an LP from a friend in those days was a primitive business. He had sat in front of another mono record player, turned his reel-to-reel machine on, and held a microphone in front of the speaker of said record player. We didn’t understand the concept of “hi-fi” in our family in those far off days. But no matter, it sounded absolutely wonderful to me. Another tape had The Beatles recorded off the radio playing three songs in session. This was absolutely dynamite! Scorching versions of I Feel Fine, She’s A Woman, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.* And they spoke too – I got to hear those curious Liverpool accents for the first time. Another chunk of the tape had a radio chart show from 1967. I’m pretty sure that the first song was The Move’s Flowers In The Rain. I think now that my dad had recorded some early Radio 1 broadcasts. At the time we were told it was a Top Of The Pops TV show, but I don’t think this was right, I think it was from the radio. Anyway, this had The Beatles singing Hello, Goodbye on it. Everything I had heard so far had been from the mop-top years of 1963/4, but here I was suddenly being transported to a whole other era. The appetite was more than whetted – both Marcus and myself were now fully committed fans, and we wanted more!
So we raided the further reaches of the family. Every school holiday we crossed the Pennines to Lancashire. My grandma’s sister had lost a daughter in a car crash when I was too young to know what was going on. Upstairs, her bedroom was kept as it was when she’d been alive, and downstairs in the rarely used sitting room (only used for “best”) were her records. Unlike the rest of the family, my Auntie Dorothy had been pretty hip, and she had Beatles records! We were given permission to play her copies of With The Beatles, Beatles For Sale, and A Hard Day’s Night (yes we already knew the latter, but this was on vinyl and we could read the cover notes!). At some point Marcus went one bolder and came away clutching a copy of the Twist And Shout EP, for keeps. Then we went to our other grandma’s house in Manchester and completely demolished her prized back issues of the movie magazine Photoplay. She also, for reasons that were hard to fathom, had old copies of music and teen culture magazines from the sixties. Some of them were even American. They’d be worth a small fortune now, but we cut those to pieces as well. Every single article or photograph on The Beatles was snipped out. We ran a scorched earth policy and soon there was nothing else for it – we’d actually have to start getting our own records.
There were two ways to acheive this goal: saving up pocket money; and waiting until birthdays or Christmas came around and asking for record tokens or, even better, money from relatives. Marcus hit upon a cunning plan – we would get a Beatles LP whenever we could and pool the collection. This way we would avoid duplication and maximise our Beatles archive. In truth it never quite worked out like that. Marcus kept his records in his room, and I kept mine in my room. Also, at some six years my senior, Marcus was craftier than I was, and better informed. He went for the LPs with the critical kudos. I think I went for the ones with what I judged to be the nicest pictures on the front. I was still only 7 or 8 years old at this time. So before too long I was the proud owner of Help! and Abbey Road. Marcus had Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and later still, a clutch of 45s containing songs not found on any of the LPs. This state of affairs continued for a few years. I got Let It Be, he got “The White Album”. I was mostly stumbling around in the dark in terms of my choices.
Now, due to the aforementioned territorial issues, I tended to play my records more than his, and I think I also tended to prefer mine back then because I had a more intimate relationship with them I would often find Marcus’s albums a bit…well…a bit “Marcus”. Fast forward to 1978 and he left home to go to university, and of course he took his records with him. My half-a-Beatles record collection now looked pretty miserable. There was nothing else for it – I would now have to go out and fill in the Marcus-sized gaps. In fact I was slow to do so. Heck, it was more pressing to buy a new LP by somebody I was just getting into than go back and buy a copy of something I’d already heard, but John Lennon’s murder changed all that.
I was 14 when John Lennon was killed. It floored me. I don’t recall anyone else of my age being so affected by it. After all I was somewhat unusual for listening to music that had been recorded before I reached pop consciousness. My peers liked music well enough, and some of them loved it maybe as much as I did, but I don’t think anyone at my school loved John Lennon like I loved John Lennon. He was my first hero. I used to stand in the tiny bedroom at my grandma’s house (not the Manchester one, the one whose sister had lost her daughter – my mum’s mum) with a toy guitar singing into a “microphone” (actually a bicycle lamp) attached to a “mike stand” (actually the lamp had been taped to a stick of some kind by Marcus), and I would be John Lennon. Back home in my own bedroom, a big room which had been Marcus’s until he left home, I strummed a tennis racket or a golf club, and re-enacted the Let It Be rooftop concert. When John was killed I covered the walls of both rooms with pictures of John clipped from the many tribute magazines which flooded Britain’s newsagents in the aftermath of his death. I also wore an ever changing series of pictures of him on the lapel of my school blazer in an adapted plastic key fob. I wore my heart very close to my actual sleeve and I was mercilessly mocked and bullied for doing so. For about six months I was utterly inconsolable. Shamefully, I don’t think I’ve ever felt anyone’s death as keenly since, but I guess you can put much of that down to my teenage hormones, and the fact that real life death hadn’t come knocking to anyone particularly close to me by that age. Eventually I started to get over it, but in the meantime I bought my own copy of Revolver. Finally I would get to discover the record on my own terms.
Once upon a time, Revolver was thought of as Sgt. Pepper‘s little brother, or its understudy. The John the Baptist to Pepper‘s Christ-like status as pop’s most deified creation. As the years passed then their relative standings swapped places, and today you are most likely to find Revolver topping not just the lists of people’s favourite Beatles albums, but often their lists of all-time favourite albums by anyone ever. Revolver has an iconic status. It is almost untouchable.
In terms of its songs and it sound, Revolver stands as the bridge between the fairly straightforward guitar pop of The Beatles’ moptop years, and the psychedelic sophistication of Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. The studio experimenting was already underway on tracks as diverse as Tomorrow Never Knows and Yellow Submarine. But for me the heart of the album lies in the razor sharp power pop of songs such as Doctor Robert, Taxman, And Your Bird Can Sing and She Said, She Said**. The guitars on these songs are so wonderfully bright and trebly that they cut clean through even when heard via the most basic of sound systems. Further examples of this style of song were Paperback Writer and Rain, issued on a 45rpm single that same year, and recorded during the same sessions. Those two songs just beg to be heard alongside Revolver, and most likely every Beatles nut out there has made a CDR which added them to its running order. I’d place them at the very start myself, so that the otherwordly Tomorrow Never Knows remains standing as the last word. Tomorrow Never Knows has probably received the greatest amount of unstinting praise of all of the songs on Revolver over the years. In many ways it’s ground zero for psychedelic pop. It still sounds absolutely barking. I must admit it was never a great favourite of mine, then or now. I admire it enormously, and it was clearly a bold step into unknown territories, but I’m a melody man first and foremost, and Tomorrow Never Knows mostly happens on one chord. This is probably sacrilege and I apologise if I just offended you. OK, no I don’t, but at least I tried.
Alongside these shiny, trebly guitar-driven things, Paul McCartney was continuing to infuse his songs with the flavours and tones of classical chamber music. Eleanor Rigby, For No One and Here There And Everywhere give Revolver further depth and scope as a listening experience. Chuck in the Indian exotica of George’s Love You To, and John’s dreamily tripping I’m Only Sleeping and you have a pretty heady brew. This was streets ahead of what anybody else was doing in pop music in 1966, at least sonically. Bob Dylan may have been sharper with his language, but The Beatles were otherwise in a class of their own.***
And then there’s Ringo’s song, Yellow Submarine. The song most likely to be skipped over when playing Revolver on a CD. Unless you have small children, because they like it. It’s amusing and strangely charming that this far into their career as boundary-pushing music artists, they still gave the doleful-voiced drummer a vehicle on (almost) every album. A tradition from a simpler, earlier age that they seemed to never consider letting go of. Ringo had his fans too, so he got a song. A lovely idea, in theory at least.
And, yes, there was also George Martin. It has become customary (and rightly so) when discussing The Beatles’ stunning hothouse progression during the 1960s to make special mention of George, their incredibly gifted and sympathetic producer. They may have been able to write those songs without him, but they’d never have been able to make the records we know and love without him. For me he’ll always be the greatest of all the many Fifth Beatles.
The Beatles recorded Revolver before I was born, but by the time it was released I was screeching and bawling away like a good ‘un. I was born in the Summer of 1966. England won the World Cup. The Kinks were at number one with Sunny Afternoon. I’ll bet you could almost smell the optimism in the air.
* We played that tape so often that one day it snapped. I remember Marcus having to splice it back together part way through She’s A Woman. He tried very hard to do a seamless edit, but I was always a fussy and petulant little bugger and remained utterly distraught about the whole business.
** Back in the vinyl days, Americans didn’t find the songs I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Doctor Robert on their copies of Revolver. In their crassest move to date, American label Capitol had used those tracks already to make up the numbers for their “Yesterday” …and Today compilation which left Revolver with just two contributions from John (She Said, She Said and Tomorrow Never Knows) completely upsetting the album’s balance. Capitol were never allowed to do this sort of thing again and the only time in the future that they deviated from the UK model was to turn Magical Mystery Tour from a double EP pack into a full length album which has now become the standard version. Thankfully in the CD age such Capitol monstrosities as the depleted Revolver have been effectively erased from history and the UK Parlophone versions are now the sole versions worldwide.
*** One exception to this is arguably Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson was directing some wonderful and musically complex recordings, but The Beach Boys never seemed to be able to…well…rock. The Beach Boys could do beauty, but they couldn’t do sexy grooves, at least not back in ’66. Compared to The Beatles they seemed somehow wooden and awkward. It’s no coincidence then that Paul’s more ethereal contributions Revolver bore hints of Wilson’s influence, but that these songs, though easy to love, don’t engender much in the way of excitement.
N.B. Revolver is currently available, in remastered form, as a stereo CD. The original mono mix is also available, but only within the The Beatles In Mono box set. I do recommend trying to hear this album in its mono mix though if you possibly can. This is the mix the group themselves signed off on – the stereo mixes were often done later and with notably less care and time spent getting it right. Besides nobody, not even the great George Martin, knew what they were doing with pop groups in stereo mixes back in the 1960s. You often get the drums in one channel, or sometimes a vocal in one channel. It can sound horribly off-kilter to modern ears.
My other nominations for 1966 albums of merit:
Bob Dylan / Blonde On Blonde
The Beach Boys / Pet Sounds
The Kinks / Face To Face
Donovan / Sunshine Superman
The Rolling Stones / Aftermath