Released on August 5 1966, Revolver is considered by many to be The Beatles’ finest work. In the latest instalment of our Classics Revisited series, Tristan Phipps unravels the story behind The Fab Four’s iconic seventh studio album.
“We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity.”
In a time where snubbing religion, convention, and the establishment is part and parcel of being the world’s most famous pop star, a comment such as this simply could never make such a splash in this day and age. However, in 1966, John Lennon’s words marked the occurrence of a seismic shift in popular music and culture. The Beatles were more than just four working class lads from Liverpool.
That is a fact that has never been called into question. However, in a post-war world, The Beatles became agents of change, agents of liberation, and leaders of an emerging counter-culture which inevitably became part of the mainstream. Books have been penned surrounding their impact, essays written arguing that the key to their success was Paul McCartney and his interest in London’s underground art world, or Lennon’s art college liberations, or George Harrison discovering his own spirituality, or Ringo Starr’s, well, …sorry Ringo, you really were great though. The fact of the matter is that for The Beatles to change the world in the way that they did, factors of the political, cultural, and economic persuasion all came into play. In this writer’s opinion, Revolver was a masterstroke, and crucial if not to the bands impact, but in the formation of their lasting legacy.
Perhaps to understand the impact of Revolver, we must first analyse what came before. Prior to The Beatles, popular music could be described as unimaginative. England had Cliff Richard: an acceptable face of popular music, Cliff was un-daring and friendly. America had a rock ‘n’ roll boom of its own. However, it was short lived, and its artists left as soon as they had arrived – some moving to bigger and better things in the world of film and cinema, and some were drafted into the army before dying on the toilet. Either way, music was run by the establishment. In the mainstream, music largely conformed to what was expected of it. Raw talent was there, but it would not breach the mainstream without an acceptable face.
The bands that preceded The Beatles often didn’t write their own songs, nor play their own instruments: independent thoughts on freedom, love and spirituality were few and far between. Even The Beatles’ early work, comparatively spritely yet harmless, was a breath of fresh air to many. But finally, four plucky, young lads were on the scene, who dared to do, and say, things their way. With an air of political and economic change sweeping over Britain following the introduction of Harold Wilson’s new Labour government, finally returning a voice to the once prosperous north west, The Beatles were primed and ready, knowing the world was theirs for the taking.
"The world was waking up and listening to messages of enlightenment, previously confined to the underground"
As the years progressed, ‘Beatlemania’ set in. Extensive touring brought worldwide success, and the shattering of countless records. Taking America was hardly an obstacle, as The Beatles enjoyed unrivalled chart domination, as well as featuring in their own full-length feature films. The bar was high, and the quality never dropped. However, upon returning to the UK, the music scene had been revolutionised. Managers up and down the country had been scouting for “The Next Beatles”: London had The Rolling Stones, Manchester had The Hollies, Liverpool adopted Gerry And The Pacemakers. Despite being the catalysts for this great change, The Fab Four themselves were in danger of losing their edge. Despite its adequate popularity, 1964 album Beatles For Sale marked a turning point. Exhausted by their own success and endless touring, John, George, and Ringo sought pastures new out of the city, leaving Paul alone in London. Perhaps it was here, the spring of 1965, where Paul spearheaded The Beatles revolution, where they once again reinvented the face of popular music.
While a myriad of factors lead The Beatles in their restructuring of the face of popular music once again, it was in a South West London where Paul discovered the trendy Indica bookshop and gallery. Having become friendly with Indica owner Peter Asher through dating his sister, Jane Asher, Paul is regarded as one of the Indica’s first ever clients: helping Asher shift books in the early days as well as drawing up the flyers for their opening. Driven by an increasing desire to stay stimulated, Paul immersed himself in the heart of this underworld, absorbing influences from within the counter-culture, wherever they could be found.
“Revolver was a masterstroke, and crucial if not to the bands impact, but in the formation of their lasting legacy”
After weeks of immersion, Paul opened his new world up to John, the tricky, rebellious art-student. One evening, Paul took John along to the gallery and bookshop, where they stumbled across the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Psychologist turned author, Timothy Leary had fast become infamous in America, pioneering the use of LSD as a vehicle to free the self, mind and body – and had fast become a prominent figure in the counter-culture scene. Like a honey trap to John, who had been out of the city and out of artistic stimulation for too long, it was the opening few words that lead them to work on new track Mark X. This track, which later became Tomorrow Never Knows, was the first track from Revolver to be recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios.
“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”
And with those words, The Beatles changed the face of pop music forever. All of a sudden, powerful messages of spirituality had immersed themselves into the mainstream. Despite being stuck in a post-war slumber until relatively recently, the world was waking up and listening to messages of enlightenment, previously confined to the underground world. Lennon’s lyrical exploration began to revolutionise The Beatles yet again, setting them apart from the hordes of musicians that attempted to follow their early 1960s success. By revolutionising the face of popular music and culture in the early 1960s, and becoming agents of liberation and voices of change, The Beatles had earned the adoration of their fan-base. With Revolver, the Fab Four began to express their own creative desires, however untraditional:
“She said, I know what it’s like to be dead.”
The opening lyric of Revolver hit She Said She Said was an immediate window into the mind of a Beatle at this time: they had reached stardom, worldwide fame, and even cracked the establishment that they had long sought to antagonise - by deservedly receiving an MBE. However, upon the release of Revolver, it was time to do things their way, evidently clear as themes of anti-materialism began to breach mainstream interest, alongside previously unrepresented ideas of Eastern spirituality. To an outsider, this could have been perceived as risking everything, but perhaps one of the most controversial, unique albums to date had become one of the most popular of theirs to date, firmly gripping the number one slots across the world for weeks.
Under McCartney’s influence, John Lennon may have paved the way for a new Beatles era lyrically, but Paul had his own creative visions in the studio. Inspired by new instruments, ideas, and eastern influences, McCartney began to use the studio as an instrument of its own. By pioneering the use of tape manipulations and sampling, Paul had shown that, given the right attention and care, an album could be a work of art. This idea, potentially first confirmed with Revolver, but hinted at through Rubber Soul, ultimately paved the way for The Beatles’ most iconic work: the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A project that shattered every conceivable record, Sgt. Pepper… was a staggering hit, yet this success largely hinged on the techniques adopted and unorthodox themes so subtly integrated within Revolver. This chapter, however, ends here. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a mesmerising story for another day.
The Beatles pushed every conceivable boundary with Revolver. Challenging conventions with their lyrics, influences, and even how the studio should be used: nothing was off limit. It wasn’t daring for daring’s sake: it was simply time to do things their way.