In 1966 The Beatles were at a crossroads. Facing a backlash in the US due to John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comments, and physically exhausted by a punishing touring schedule, they chose to retreat to the studio. LSD had entered their lives some months before, and the creative opportunities they envisaged were impossible while they were still locked into a cycle of recording, touring and endless public appearances.
Revolver came at the pivotal point: the early dominance of John Lennon was giving way to the creative boldness of Paul McCartney. Drugs were firing the imaginations of all four men, and they had the power over EMI to spend weeks in the studio abusing the facilities in increasingly audacious attempts to create new sounds.
This isn’t the first book written about Revolver. 2002’s Every Sound There Is featured 14 musicologists’ insights into the albums compositions in terms of music theory, lyrical meaning, and historical and cultural context. A few years later, Ray Newman’s self-published Abracadabra was a more accessible exploration of how The Beatles’ interests in LSD, India, religion and art came together to signal the group’s birth as experimental rock stars.
Robert Rodriguez’s Revolver is closer to Newman’s ebook. His central premise is that Revolver was the creative high watermark of The Beatles’ career, but was overshadowed for a variety of reasons by the following year’s Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He also puts to bed some often-repeated Beatles myths, and reveals plenty of little known details.
Rodriguez begins by putting the album into context, both within The Beatles’ career and within the wider music industry. Much is written about the songwriting and recording innovations of The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys, and how inter-band rivalry and a quest for innovation coalesced to form one of the most creatively febrile periods in modern music.
Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison were all writing some of their strongest material. It was the first time Harrison was given three cuts on a record, including Taxman, considered good enough to be the album’s lead cut. That it was written with a little help from Lennon and featured a blistering guitar solo by McCartney probably didn’t harm its chances.
Indeed, Revolver was arguably the final long player for which all four Beatles worked in harmony. Subsequent releases were marked by varying degrees of disinterest by the key players, although this did little to harm their popular appeal.
Lennon is portrayed as the group’s chief psychonaut, a man eager to expand his consciousness and look within. Among the results were I’m Only Sleeping, Rain and Tomorrow Never Knows, each one groundbreaking in their use of studio technology, and all full of introspection borne of drug experimentation and physical inaction.
Paul McCartney was also feeding from the world around him, though in circumstances poles apart from Lennon’s quiet seclusion in Weybridge. The only Beatle living in London, by 1966 McCartney was fully immersed in the contemporary art scene, spending time in the Indica and Robert Fraser galleries, an autodidact grasping every strand and thread and weaving them back into his music.
Once the cultural context is well established, the book takes the reader through each individual track in order of recording, from Tomorrow Never Knows via the standalone single Paperback Writer/Rain, through to the last-minute addition of She Said She Said.
Rodriguez balances anecdotes with technical details, never treating matters too drily. We learn that Revolver was very nearly recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis, but word leaked out and security concerns led to the cancellation of the sessions. Alternative names for the album, the mystery of McCartney’s broken tooth and the distorted picture of Ringo Starr on Klaus Voormann’s cover artwork are all covered.
Rodriguez also proposes that Bernard Hermann’s strident music for Hitchcock’s Psycho was the likely inspiration behind George Martin’s score for Eleanor Rigby. Martin’s claims that he was drawing from Hermann’s score for Farenheit 451 are likely to be misremembered, Rodriguez suggests, as that film wasn’t released until some months after Revolver.
Curiously, however, Rodriguez misses one key aspect of the Revolver period. The Beatles’ contract with EMI expired in June 1966, and the group essentially gave away Revolver and the Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine single without using them as bargaining chips against the label. They eventually re-signed in January 1967, but their manager Brian Epstein failed to use the creative leap of Revolver to strengthen his hand in negotiations. The Beatles were flying blind, not knowing what financial rewards – as well as public and critical reception – they might receive for their work.
The final third of the book is perhaps the least successful, documenting the critical and public reception to Revolver, the recording of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, and from then on to Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love. The section feels unnecessarily overlong, not least the detailed comparisons of The Monkees, The Turtles and The Bee Gees to The Beatles in 1967.
The purpose of all this is Rodriguez’s takedown of Sgt Pepper as The Beatles’ creative highpoint. His central tenet is that Pepper was an ornate production masking a collection of songs which, A Day In The Life excepted, hardly rank among The Beatles’ best. It’s not a new theory by any means – most Beatles fans would indicate a preference for Revolver, Abbey Road or the White Album over Pepper – but Rodriguez puts up a good case.
However, his final conclusion – that Revolver is no less of a concept album than Sgt Pepper, with themes of death and taxes running throughout its songs – feels forced and unconvincing. Revolver was indubitably a sonic leap forward, but it is no more than a collection of great songs with no unifying theme. Its disparate nature is one of its greatest strengths.
Nonetheless, Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll is well-researched and written, and a lively, informative read. Rodriguez writes with the enthusiasm of a fan, but with the knowledge of a scholar immersed in his subject. That he can bring new life into such familiar recordings, 47 years after they were first released, is reason alone to acquire a copy.