Monday, August 10, 2009
Revolver captured the Beatles with their feet straddled between two camps. One was trapped on a platform in the middle of a stadium filled with screaming idiots, unable to reach their audience. The other was planted firmly in the studio, free to experiment without restriction. Fittingly, the title was an ode to the black circle itself, though their own "revolving" door of the past few years (circling the globe with touring, recording, filming etc.) was about to come to a close. 1966 would be a year of summation for the quartet on a number of fronts. Curiously, another, much darker, theme hovered over their activities during this period.
Indeed, the skeletal hand of the Reaper reached out for the group on many occasions during their tumultuous summer tour.
Let's back up a bit.
Beatles '66 began quietly as the four most famous faces in the world took the first three months off. Shattered by the endless work schedule that had dragged them around the world several times over, they must have been glad for the reprieve. John Lennon would begin a journey into inner space, whiling away his time under the influence of psychedelics. Cracking open another door that would only lead to more questions, the experiences radically altered his writing. Eager to smash the phony image that he felt was inhibiting the band, he told Brian Epstein that he and the others would not be feeding bullshit lines to reporters in upcoming press conferences.
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Lennon's thoughts appeared as part of an extensive interview that he gave to Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard. The feature was called "How Does a Beatle Live?" and the quote garnered little notice in England. He had been reading Hugh Schonfield's book, "The Passover Plot", which re-examined the life of Christ and his teachings. What's important here is that the second half of his discourse focused on how Jesus's original message and purpose may have become transformed during the century after his death. So John merely provided his own extreme precis on this scholarly tome. Think of the unbelievable command that his group had over millions of kids. Couple that with the revelatory effects of acid and it's really not a big shock that he would equate the Beatles with any type of mass belief system, Christianity being but one example.
What's more, he was right.
These remarks would be reprinted in one of those glossy teen rags (Datebook) in the US several months later. Death rubbed his bony hands together and gleefully waited for the band to arrive in the States.
Insert conversational marker here, as we'll revisit this shortly.
Upon reconvening in the spring, one of the first things on the agenda was a photo shoot. This would provide the public with up to date pictures of the foursome. Robert Whitaker set everything up and photographed the band in a variety of bizarre poses and settings. You can read all about this in someone's book, if you care to. The most infamous shot involved the lads dressed in butcher smocks, with raw meat and decapitated baby dolls placed on them strategically. George stood behind the others, leering and holding up the head of a doll for the camera.
Capitol Records had requested an image that they could plaster on their next fake Beatles album, comprised of tunes left off the American versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. Against the wishes of Brian Epstein, this arty but gruesome picture was chosen.
Yesterday and Today would be the last patchwork release in the States. After this, there would be no further corruption of their work in the interest of crass commercialism. (OK, that was hard to write with a straight face) Let's just say that Capitol ceased their practice of fabricating new Beatle product. Closure, of sorts.
When the original LP was shipped to DJs and retail outlets, there was a collective gasp.
Long story short, public outcry forced the Beatles to furnish EMI America with a more acceptable picture. So in place of dead babies and meat they gave them this.
Look at their eyes! Everyone (especially Paul) looks extremely stoned. It was glaringly obvious that the "cute" Beatles were dead.
Just to put another myth to rest, the "butcher shot" was not intended as a message to the US division of EMI to stop chopping up their recordings and repackaging them. It was entirely the brainchild of photographer Robert Whitaker and was not even considered for use as cover art until well after the pictures were taken. The "Butcher Cover" saga could fill a short book of its own. Pop over here for further info.
When do we get to Revolver?
Patience is a virtue.
1966: Last Gasp of a Touring Band.
First time back in Hamburg since 1962. The Star Club is gone, boarded up along with many of their old haunts. You can't go home again. The live shows there and in Munich are perfunctory, devoid of any real fire or energy. McCartney forgets the words to "I'm Down" at the Munich show. He asks Lennon and is fed the wrong first line. Not scheduling rehearsals pre-tour was not the best idea.
Next stop was an absolute nightmare. Delayed by the military following their arrival in Manila, they are certain that they'll be busted for the drugs they are carrying. They aren't, but the promoters screwed them over on the gate for their concerts. First lady Imelda Marcos had invited them to a luncheon, though It was politely declined by their manager. Apparently, this was ignored and the perceived slight caused a small scale international incident. All amenities were immediately withdrawn and the group literally had to flee the country, with the locals/army trying to beat them to death at the airport. They narrowly escaped with their lives.
Tokyo: Militant groups stage demonstrations and utter death threats in response to the venue of choice for five planned Japanese concerts. The Budokhan was a stadium in the city's heart dedicated to the martial arts of kyudo, kendo, judo, karate and all disciplines associated with honor and the Shinto spirit. Sited between Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace, it was reportedly built on the site where soldiers pledged their lives to the Emperor before joining their wartime units. Not an ideal spot for a rock show, according to protesters. 35,000 police officers made sure that right wing nationalists would not turn the event into a blood bath. They still tried to.
When they arrived in the US, the "More popular than Jesus" furor was front and center. In Chicago, Lennon was asked repeatedly to apologize for what he had said. During the show there, someone threw a frozen steak at the stage, nearly taking off McCartney's head. (Could have been a soul brother showing solidarity for the butcher shot.) In the deep south, their records were burned by the truckload and in Memphis the Ku Klux Klan (cowards in bed sheets) promised some "surprises" for them when they arrived to play there. St. Louis was marred by rain and they were very nearly electrocuted playing under a canopy. Cleveland and Cincinnati saw massive riots, with the latter concert being canceled. Fans threw bottles, shoes, garbage, scissors, darts and various other projectiles at the them.
What happened to throwing jelly beans?
Definitely a far cry from the love that had been directed at them just two years before. Worse yet, the live set ups that they had to endure were criminally poor. They had commanded massive crowds, pioneered the stadium show but the technology of that era could not project the sound to their audiences. Adding to the impossible situation was the interminable screaming that made any hope of hearing anything null and void. Unable to to progress as a live act, still in matching suits and losing their edge they were beginning to look like yesterday's news. Decisions had to be made.
Candlestick Park in San Francisco would be the last proper Beatle concert of the sixties.
Arguments have been made that they could have at least tried to perform new songs, invest in better stage gear, etc. Why? The ugly truth was that many of these the so-called fans wanted nothing more than an outlet for ridiculous behavior. Would you throw dangerous objects at a band that you loved? This insanity, coupled with technical shortcomings, drove them offstage in their prime.
"That's it, I'm not a Beatle anymore."
The whole experience nearly killed the band, though they eluded the hand of death during what had to have been a very stressful summer. So why is all of this important? Simply put, had there been a poor critical/public response to Revolver, then their history would have likely ended here.
Jumping back to the April of '66, the group commenced sessions for what would become their seventh, brilliant release. The lyrics of many of the Revolver songs make mention of or deal directly with death. Prescience at work? Perhaps, as mortality seems to be an odd subject to occupy men so young.
Diving headlong into a radically different style, they took up a Lennon tune to work on first. Those that didn't quite "get" Rubber Soul, would have probably had a seizure if they were treated to the first take of "Tomorrow Never Knows". Futuristic and nightmarish, it was light years ahead of anything they had done to date.
"The Psychedelic Experience", which was devised by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert as a guide to steer people through the complexities of an LSD trip, and the drug itself were the two main inspirations for this unorthodox composition. Taking a page from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the lyrics deal with large concepts, though the author does not bother to break them down to a more granular form nor is there any attempt to detail any type of personal revelations. It is the music that conveys the startling heaviness of the journey taken by the soul when our earthly bodies die. That energy converging with the undying light of love is directed back to another host to start the trip all over again. ("play the game, existence to the end of the beginning")
Reincarnation. It's not just for breakfast anymore.
Scores of people who were already initiated, heard a familiar message and vibe upon first listen. Those that did not were perplexed. Achieving the otherworldly sounds was no easy task either. The drone of a tampura leads into the insistent drum track, played by Ringo with a sharp snare crack offset by broken hits on slack tuned toms. Backward guitar and a five separate tape loops (courtesy of McCartney's home experiments) were spooled and fed directly into the board as the basic recording played, with many pairs of hands guiding each strip of tape. No one knew what it would sound like. Add to this another trick, which involved breaking into the circuitry of a Leslie speaker that rotated inside the old Hammond organs to provide that swirling sound. Lennon's voice was put through the Leslie, resulting in that disembodied feel in the last verse. He had originally wanted to have a thousand monks chanting this part.
The end product was amazing for its time and had to be placed at the end of the album as it would have destroyed everything that followed.
Much of the innovation in sound came from their new engineer. Geoff Emerick was just twenty when he was promoted from the disc cutting department of EMI and brought on board to replace Norman Smith as George Martin's right hand man. His initial move was to actually close-mike the drums (moving the microphone within inches of the bass drum was against EMI policy) to give them a greater presence in the mix. Paul had just acquired a long-scale Rickenbacker 4001S bass. Good news for him as the pickups in the older model Hoffners were horrible, resulting in a muddy sound. His style changed dramatically as he explored the higher reaches of the fretboard. Emerick aided in this transformative process by rolling off the treble (those Ricks are noisy bastards), adding compression and putting a mic in front of his bass cabinet. Ringo and Paul were pretty tight as a rhythm section. Now you could actually appreciate that fact.
"Taxman" marks the first (and last) time that a Harrison tune would lead off a Beatles LP. Dynamic and sharp, the song is highlighted by an Indian-styled lead break by McCartney and a rant against the Labour government's recently introduced 95 percent tax grab on top earners. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath were both named for balance, being the prime minister and opposition leader of that period. Lennon contributed to the scathing lyric. Paul turns in some fine bass playing, especially in the bridge. The count-in was a far cry from the one that kicked off their first album, being robotic and edited in after the fact, though you do hear (faintly) McCartney shouting in the manner of that long ago intro to "I Saw Her Standing There". Another subtle goodbye to the past.
"And my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes"
Death and taxes.
Speaking of joining "the choir invisible", "Eleanor Rigby" told a desolate tale of the mundane existence and passing of a spinster who was but one of many that were simply labeled as "lonely people" in the chorus. Another solitary character takes the form of a minister (Father Mackenzie) who preaches to an indifferent (or absent) congregation and comes to bury this poor soul in the end. Not one Beatle needed to play a note as a string octet was scored and conducted by George Martin. Paul, John and George merely lend their voices to music set in the saddest of keys, woeful E minor.
Varying sources cite an array of different lyrics and title character names that were employed (Miss Daisy Hawkins, Eleanor Bygraves) before the final draft coalesced. Lennon claimed to have written half the lyrics, which was later disputed by McCartney. Donovan recalls McCartney singing "Ola na Tungee, blowing his mind in the night with a pipe full of clay" while searching for lines that would scan. Released as a single, it could scarcely be farther removed from "She Loves You" and demonstrated the mind blowing progress they had made within three short years.
Taking a nap is often referred to as being "dead to the world". The heavy lidded, slow creep of pot hangs over "I'm Only Sleeping" as would an opaque cloud of smoke. Varispeeded down to an e flat minor, Lennon's ode to staying in bed is one of the best songs of this collection. Painstaking hours of work were put into producing the backward guitar parts that add so much to the feel and pace. Depending on which mix you're listening to (mono, stereo or US stereo remix) those key parts land in different places. One of the joys of collecting their records is the sheer number of alternative versions of songs due to competing formats (mono vs. stereo).
George Harrison had the privilege of getting an unprecedented three songs on Revolver. "I Want to Tell You" rides a bouncy, two fingered piano with a really inventive guitar figure. Having become infatuated with Indian music, he ditched conventional western pop and assembled a small group of east Indian musicians to perform "Love You To". Just how much listeners must have been jolted by this remarkable piece is hard to imagine. He was barely conversant with the form when he brought this to the sessions, which is all the more impressive.
"Love me while you can, before I'm a dead old man..."
Note that at what is arguably an important crossroads moment in their career, the writing styles of Lennon and McCartney are separated by an incredible divide. Paul's material was heavily influenced by the classical music that he was now listening to more frequently, while Lennon's became somewhat tangental. Overall, while the selections are multi faceted, there is a very cutting and abrasive tone that buzzes from the guitars ("Taxman", "She Said She Said", "And Your Bird Can Sing", "Dr. Robert") horns ("Got to Get You Into My Life") sitars/tablas ("Love You To") strings ("Eleanor Rigby") and just about everything piled on "Tomorrow Never Knows". Curious that it is three McCartney tunes ("Here There and Everywhere", "For No One" and "Good Day Sunshine") that provide gentle breaks in a sea of sharp assaults on the senses.
Surprisingly, though he was turning out conventionally structured work, he was the one leading the charge with sound collage experiments. Paul certainly supported Lennon's fantastical ideas with equally "out there" home taping marathons.
The brilliance in sequencing keeps you from being lulled into any type of apathy while listening. Every cut is a jarring, rollercoaster-like drop straight down at high speed, then a rest, and another outrageous left turn. Two of McCartney's finest love songs are programmed well apart from one another. "Here There and Everywhere" is quite a brilliant mouthful of chords, with only the jagged rhythm guitar spoiling a good thing. Those backing harmonies are a highlight. "For No One" could be the best description of love gone cold in pop history. His economy with words, the chilly baroque atmosphere and Alan Civil's decorative French horn solo cap a very sad theme.
His original title for this was telling: "Why Did It Die?"
Graham Nash would later put this style to good use in constructing "Our House".
Paul's other contributions were more upbeat. Soulfully put together, "Got to Get You Into My Life" featured blaring horns (some of the guys from Georgie Fame's crew blowing their lungs out) that leap out of the speakers, solely due to Emerick putting mics down the bells of the brass section. It tends to overwhelm the other instruments, but succeeds in providing an electric thrill as the set races to the finish line. McCartney claims it was written in tribute to pot. Excellent it is, too.
"Yellow Submarine" was one of his most bizarre (but catchy) offerings. Ringo sings, while everyone else goes mad, yelling, bashing a large bass drum and creating one hell of a convincing party atmosphere. Paired with "Eleanor Rigby", it was a novelty smash in late summer, with many ingenious arts and crafts type sound effects.
Kids really took to it.
Everything else that John touches here features prominently distorted guitars. Not quite the "from outer space" tones of Hendrix, though still very effective. Ever wonder how many kids smashed their guitars trying to copy the twisting, multi-dubbed riff that drives "And Your Bird Can Sing"? I would suspect that Paul and George played a large part in shaping this one. The lyric is a cryptic take on the leg pulling that Dylan so often engaged in at the time. Strangely, Lennon later wrote this one off.
I don't agree. So what if it doesn't mean anything in particular? Certainly doesn't diminish it's worth. He has another private giggle in delivering "Dr. Robert". Drug dispensing physicians have always been around to scribble their signatures for the addicted. The guy he sings about here used to mix narcotics in with vitamin shots to keep his patients coming back for more. Harrison does a little blending of his own by playing a sitar-like licks within the bounds of a country-rock pattern. McCartney supports with a shit-kicking harmony.
Paul is nowhere to be found on "She Said She Said". He exited the studio after a heated argument, so George handles both bass and provided the eastern flavored guitar that makes the song. Harrison was also given a fair amount of room to contribute to the arrangement and does an admirable job in steering the ship. Ringo is quite busy on this track and remains solid throughout, though he keeps his fills tasteful, never overplaying.
Peter Fonda's recollection of the time he had accidentally shot himself as a kid was the main inspiration for the lyric. Trouble was that he picked a point where everyone was peaking on acid to share his anecdote. George was hitting a bad point on his trip and Fonda tried to intercede by telling him that he "had died but he came back and everything was alright." He "knew what it was like to be dead." Both John and George were sufficiently freaked out enough to have him tossed from the private, poolside event. Fonda was much more experienced than they with LSD and was probably trying to talk George out of the momentary trough that he had landed in.
Death is a real mood killer, though.
Out of strange circumstances a little greatness sometimes grows. Klaus Voormann's clever LP cover design would become another iconic portrait of a band that had now gone far beyond any lines previously drawn for rock artists. The Stones even made a cartoon appearance, tangled in their hair.
Revolver is the crown jewel in the Beatles' very impressive discography. It's not by chance that it has landed at or near the top of almost every list of the greatest rock albums ever made. Only the White Album comes close as a listening experience. Time was a factor in this, as sessions spread out over two months. Many ideas were completely reworked from first takes and much more care was exhibited with finding arrangements that worked to serve the song. Such luxuries would only benefit the final product.
Building the tracks methodically began to eclipse ensemble playing.
Widely lauded for its sonic impact, the disc remains as fresh now as it did when first unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.
It also spelled the end of the Beatles that the world had come to know. The music would be removed from the stage, the suits retired to the closet and the group would vanish for months before emerging as a completely different entity.
Death would be followed by spectacular rebirth.
Which Rolling Stones member appeared on "Yellow Submarine"? What other names were considered for the album?