Not Fade Away: The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ Turns 50

Originally published with Radio.com on August 4, 2016.

Revolver and I first crossed paths in the second grade when my music teacher Ms. Soleil (what a perfect name) played “Yellow Submarine” one day during the remaining five minutes of class. I was struck—even at eight years old—by the song’s lyrical whimsy. “In the town where I was born/ Lived a man who sailed to sea/ And he told us of his life/ In the land of submarines,” Ringo Starr sang in the opening verse. I was no stranger to the Beatles—my father was a huge fan—but that song, in that moment, felt more organically “mine” than something I inherited from his appreciation.

It may seem like an odd introduction to one of the Beatles’ more important and experimental albums. Written as a children’s song, “Yellow Submarine” made an impression on me at the time, but my fondness for Revolver only grew as I did and learned about what it really meant, about the impact it had for the band and for music. Now that I’m a music writer and proudly own their albums—on vinyl, thank you very much—Revolver offers an entirely different listening experience. Hearing it now, “Yellow Submarine” doesn’t quite fit, and yet it somehow does. Revolver is an amalgamation of different styles and genres, and the Beatles excelled at all of them.

The band was heavily involved with drugs at the time—the most mild being marijuana with Lennon becoming more interested in LSD—and questioning their musical identities among other more existential inquisitions. Pair that metaphysical exploration with three months in the studio after they retired from touring and the result is an album that defies the limits often ascribed to music genres. In the current pop climate—with record cycles ranging between every two or three years—artists are often left penning their next album on the road, trading ideas with songwriters stationed back in Los Angeles, New York or Nashville via the internet. It’s a discombobulating process that finds creativity squeezed into stolen moment. The Beatles proved with Revolver that when a band has time to create, that kind of freedom can yield marvelous results.

Even though Revolver followed a pop song format, it challenged what it meant to write and record pop music. Between the colorful instrumentation the band sprinkled across songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Love You To” and even “For No One,” and the recording experimentation that yielded automatic double tracking (ADT), Revolver set the tone for what the Beatles would produce in the second half of their career. It also showcased what pop music could aspire to—and achieve. Ian MacDonald noted in his book Revolution in the Head that it marked “a radical new phase in the group’s recording career.”

“Tomorrow Never Knows” begins with a brief droning sitar before Starr’s tom-toms start up, and a backwards tape loop bursts forth in between John’s ADT vocals. The result is, to borrow a phrase from the band’s future work, a magical mystery tour. The now oft-quoted lyric, “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,” which John Lennon pulled from Timothy Leary’s LSD drug manual The Psychedelic Experience, presents a challenge to listeners used to albums being a certain way. Are you willing to let go of any preconceptions you have about pop music? Are you willing to do away with any categorized notion of ‘the Beatles’?  

For one, Paul McCartney had developed an interest in more classical sounds, which arise in the French horn on “For No One” and the orchestration in “Eleanor Rigby.” But George Harrison went in a different direction as well, preferring sounds that lay farther East. “Love You To” integrates Hidustani classical instrumentation and juxtaposes McCartney’s sound. Harrison said in 1980, “’Norwegian Wood’ was an accident as far as the sitar part was concerned, but [‘Love You To’] was the first song where I consciously tried to use the sitar and tabla on the basic track.”

That the world’s most popular pop band could explore such varying and digressive ideas in one album signalled the possibilities involved in letting loose rather than keeping an album to one strict theme, be it melodic or lyrical. Songs like “Doctor Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” seemed like the natural progression from Rubber Soul, but paired next to such strange and singular songs as “I’m Only Sleeping,” Revolver showed the potential of a band allowed the time and creative freedom to experiment. “We were really starting to find ourselves in the studio,” Starr said of their recording sessions.

Even though McCartney’s “For No One” feels closer to the typical pop structure the Beatles followed up to Revolver, it too is an exercise in meditation. French horn delivers the harmony John and George would’ve normally provided; their absence allows McCartney to weave his narrative, but he isn’t concerned with an ending. “And in her eyes, you see nothing/ No sign of love behind the tears, cried for no one/ A love that should have lasted years,” he sings before the horn closes the song. It would make more sense to include an ellipses at the end of his last line because the fade away is so sudden.

Every Beatles fan finds their own way into the music. “Yellow Submarine” may not be the typical entry point into the band’s lauded Revolver, but those early days in music class fostered an appreciation that grew from the album’s silliest song to an appreciation for what they ultimately crafted.

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