For World Collage Day: On The Beatles’ “Revolver”

Everyone else will be writing about the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road and the Let It Be sessions this year, but I’m only now catching up with Revolver (although I did manage to squeeze Help!, Rubber Soul, The White Album and Sgt. Pepper in there, though the Pepper one is way more perfunctory than I would like; a more extensive one awaits). But when I heard that today would be World Collage Day the inspiration clicked. Collage is the perfect lens (if a fractured, kaleidoscopic one) through which to view Revolver. 

One of the countless things about The Beatles that makes them fascinating is a constant tension between centrifugal and centripetal organizing principles, i.e., “pieces flying apart” vs. artistic unity. Most bands have one clear leader, or a single close partnership at the core. The Beatles had four strong personalities at work, each with their own enthusiasms and predilections, which sometimes coincided but sometimes didn’t, making for this constant rhythm of alternating expansion and consolidation. It’s what makes their work beguiling; it also contains the seeds of their eventual break-up.  Their most streamlined and unified records in terms of sound were Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. More often, going all the way back to their earliest days, their sets were eclectic, ranging from rockabilly to Tin Pan Alley. The tension I think arises on account of the fact that, as we’ve written, Paul McCartney only ever dabbled in rock and roll; he was completely comfortable in the wider world of pop and other forms that preceded it. Thus you get things like “‘Til There Was You” and “Your Feets Too Big” in sets alongside Buddy Holly covers in the early years. Almost all of the Beatles’ albums are restlessly venturesome from song to song, trying on new styles like hats. Only on two albums do these random collections seem to hang together as a conscious statement beyond an impulse to entertain: Revolver and the White Album (accepting that, as we suggested, Rubber Soul, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road are self-conscious attempts to speak with a more unified voice). In the White Album, of course, the band came very far apart indeed; it comes perilously close to being a compendium of the work of four solo artists, the beginning of the end. But Revolver, quite gloriously, manages to pursue an intense diversity of visions while maintaining the close involvement of all the group’s members. It would be easy to argue the case that it is their best album.

One could also make the case that it the last Beatles album. It is pivotal for the group in that way. Revolver is of a type with the records that preceded it as a pop song collection, with the added novelty that each of its components has swollen and blossomed into new conceptual space. By their last two years as a band something was lost, a cohesion, even in determined attempts to regain it, such as the Let it Be sessions. Logically, this has to do with the emergence of McCartney as a dominating presence. Competing with him must have been exhausting, especially for someone as constitutionally lazy as the band’s founder John Lennon.  But on Revolver, everything is not only still in balance, but still palpably collaborative.

The excellence of Revolver came at the cost of an equally beloved part of the Beatles creative output unfortunately. As they had done in 1964 and 1965, they were originally scheduled by their manager Brian Epstein to make a movie in early ’66. We wrote a bit about their projected third film here. But the Beatles didn’t like the filmmaking process and were dissatisfied by the results. This is unthinkable to us fans, who love those movies so much, but there it is. Fortunately, we have a wonderful cinematic consolation prize. There are promotional films for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” made by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Orson Welles’ son, who later directed Let It Be) that help to fill the visual void between Help! and the “Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane” promotional films, which are themselves works of art.

Fortunately, the weeks and months spent not making a third film in 1966 were tacked onto the time they would normally spend on making a record. The downtime allowed for an R&D period they would ordinarily have been too busy to pursue: reading books, going to art openings, socializing with other performers and artists, and attending concerts. Thus, in addition to the new sounds they would absorb and incorporate, the band members would reflect influences outside music, with their new songs at times resembling works of fiction, poetry, sacred scripture, journalism, radio, or cinema. Also, the group was now able to spend a lot more time on recording. Making Revolver took nearly three times as long as Rubber Soul. No other band had these kind of resources at its disposal. Their huge financial success gave them the expensive luxury of nearly endless studio time, plus access to the latest technology, and additional personnel. Revolver marked the first time the Beatles’ pallette truly expanded beyond the confines of a four member rock band line-up of guitars, bass and drums. It was able to follow the imagination practically to its furthest extent. Horns, strings, Indian instruments, sound effects, and newly invented gadgets were now at their disposal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Lennon who cleaved closest to the band’s traditional sound, at least in terms of instrumentation. As a general rule, Lennon’s experimentation tended to do with expanded lyrical content, trippy shifts in time signature not unlike those employed by Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (as in “She Said She Said”) and the use of backwards guitar and sound effects. The folk-rock of Bob Dylan and the Byrds were his biggest influences of the time and he allowed himself to become poetical, satirical and even oracular. Still, somehow, to my mind, he seems somewhat eclipsed by his bandmates on this record, not to mention the influences we just mentioned. Lennon seems a curiously passive and static figure at this stage, someone who is “leading from behind”. And while my favorite of his work dates from the Sgt. Pepper era, it must be admitted that HIS big growth spurt, where he truly achieved his full flowering, came with the White Album, where he briefly regained something like dominance over the group again (now with ally Yoko Ono at his side).

As for McCartney, while his contributions seem outwardly more conventional and accessible, they are ambitious in other ways. He assumes other voices, composes in unfamiliar styles. Beyond the George Martin-arranged string octet in “Eleanor Rigby”, his major influence of the time was the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and not just in the overt homage “Here, There and Everywhere”. While “Good Day Sunshine” is the first of McCartney’s many subsequent music hall tributes, also drawing from the Lovin’ Spoonful, its energy, arrangement and lyrical content all owe much to the Beach Boys. That single, repetitive piano note that opens the tune is textbook psychedelic era Brian Wilson — the Smile sessions are full of such minimalist pulsations. Ringo’s wave-like crash cymbals evoke those of Dennis Wilson. And what is singing a song about sunshine in the first place but working the Beach Boys’ side of the street? (Do they even have sunshine in Liverpool?) While it’s seldom remarked upon, I also think I hear Wilson’s influence in the depressing dirge “For No One” which employs the same kind of descending progressions one finds in profusion on Pet Sounds. Believe it or not the earlier takes of “Got to Get You Into My Life” (later released on the Anthology album) also sound VERY much like the Beach Boys experiments of the period. The final version of the tune however veered away from the original vision, adding a horn section (the first ever on a Beatles’ record), going for more of a Stax/Volt sound. I first knew the tune when it was released as a single in 1976, making it the first Revolver song I ever heard, with the possible exception of “Yellow Submarine”. A couple of the psychedelic touches remain in “Got to Get You Into My Life”, as in the fade out section, where the sound of an organ comes to the fore. I’m an especial fan of the way the song seems to kick into a new gear just as it’s fading out, with this funny, springing little guitar figure. McCartney starts to swing and improvise on the vocal…and then it fades out, and you’re like “Hey, where you going? Don’t go away now!”

Revolver is also considered to be the album on which George Harrison closes the gap with his senior bandmates in large measure. He is granted an unprecedented three songs (to Paul and John’s five each). And at least two of them are linchpins: “Taxman” makes a lasting impression by kicking off the album (with witty verve and punch), and “Love You To” is the first of his classical Indian compositions. Even his third tune “I Want to Tell You” is a highlight of the record. Harrison had a liking for dissonance, usually slight, just enough to make it sometimes sound (as he sang in a later song)  “a little dark and out of key”. McCartney’s relentless piano part in “I Want to Tell You” has that quality — it almost takes the song to a Weimar era Kurt Weill kind of place.

Revolver finds all of the Beatles, with George at the forefront, reflecting the influence of Eastern mysticism. There’s Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”, with its exhortation to “turn off your mind” and “float downstream”. Paul adds his own touches — his sitar-like guitar solo in Harrison’s “Taxman”, his melisma at the end of “I Want to Tell You”. All the bandmates are singing about elements of nature throughout the record: rain, sun, life, death. Even McCartney sings about “another road” where one might encounter “another kind of mind”. Importantly, at this stage they are all on this journey together, not yet as encroached upon by George Martin as they would be on Sgt. Pepper. Some observations of how they are still together at this stage, and what the trajectory of their dissolution was like:

Harrison’s early Indian songs “Love You To” (1966), “Within You Without You” (1967) and “The Inner Light” (1968) all feature some involvement by his fellow Beatles, if only in the form of some backing vocals or percussion. But by the White Album he contributes no Indian music at all; that year all his Indian music went on his solo record Wonderwall Music.

Similarly one of the best aspects of “Good Day Sunshine” is the joyful sound of the Beatles all singing together. It’s sometimes overlooked what a key part of their appeal that was — the sound of them harmonizing. That’s still a major part of what they do throughout Revolver. We later learned that Lennon felt McCartney’s vaudeville types number were “granny music” and Harrison thought it was “fruity” (used with reference to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”). But they both still sing along with McCartney on “Good Day Sunshine” and “When I’m 64”. It was still unthinkable not to! Yet on the White Album’s “Honey Pie”, Paul couldn’t sound more isolated. That same year he recorded his composition “Thingumybob” with the Black Dyke Mills band — no other Beatles involved.

Conceivably, McCartney’s pseudo-classical “Eleanor Rigby” might have been done without the other Beatles, as had “Yesterday” the previous year. The sound of them all together on the chorus makes a statement. Perhaps the high point of the entire record is the delirious effect of the four Beatles singing along to the children’s song “Yellow Submarine.” With its jolly spirit and imaginative sound effects, it sounds very much in the vein of that missing third movie…which it would prove to be the basis of a couple of years later. The humor on this song, and in others such as “Taxman”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, and “Dr. Robert” is a welcome counterpoint to the references to death, cosmos, and loss of identity that characterize a lot of the rest of the album.

While Revolver bounces around in all directions in terms of content and style, it maintains a cohesiveness as a single work of art. The album’s cover by the Beatles’ old Hamburg friend Klaus Voorman, part line drawing, part photocollage hints at this tension between variety and a unified voice. Cut-out pieces pasted together to form a new work of art, collage, is a modernist impulse, a structural strategy that stimulates the ear, the eye, and the mind. It is the organizing principle of vaudeville, and it’s also what made the Beatles tick.