I read a review on Pitchfork for Love, The Beatles’ remix/mashup/cashin album, and it mentioned how exciting it was to have The Beatles recontextualised, to have songs so familiar redone and reworked so that we, the great unwashed, could hear them afresh.
Time for an autobiographical detour.
As a kid, we used to listen to oldies radio in the car (now, my parents listen to classical radio, and I tend to listen to podcasts, more out of laziness than being high-tech), and the early Beatles singles were massive staples, with their locked in harmonies, simple tales of wanting to hold her hand, watching her standing there and admitting that money can’t buy him love. The weird, freaky, dark, crazy stuff was ignored, and at home, the Beatles stopped with A Hard Day’s Night. Freaky in our house was Cream, Hendrix, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Yardbirds, that sort of kidney.
Dad saw The Beatles, at the height of Beatlemania, and his main memory of it was the fear in their eyes at the screaming women – my ‘memory’ of the band is the folk montage in my mind, the transition from wide-eyed wonder to terror, the descent through booze to weed, to LSD, to cocaine and heroin, through folk-rock and India and Dylan and Yoko Ono to finally hiring Billy Preston, Phil Spector, setting up Apple and then imploding.
I think it helped that I did elementary cultural studies and some basic reading on musicology before I got into The Beatles, and by getting into I mean listening to every album back to back in the University library, and Revolver more than most. Sgt Pepper was massive and wonderful and swirling and broke down all the barriers, and the White Album is just huge, full of imagination, indulgence, tension and the like, but Revolver is just such a change. Beforehand, they weren’t exactly wholesome, but it was all a nod and a wink. Revolver just destroyed the Beatles’s image as pop-rockers and made them weird.
Harrison got three songs, and I want to write about them first, as they actually end up being three of the best songs on the album, if not in the entire canon. Love To You is a weird, droning Indian influenced thing, heavily drawing on his time with Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi, and unlike Within You Without You, on Sgt Pepper, this has a bit more of a groove to it, being almost funky. However, the heavier rock of I Want To Tell You, with its piano pound and big bass sounds is a bit more traditional than most of the album, but still solid. It’s Harrison’s opening punch, the astounding Taxman, that not only sets the tone of the album, but announced to the world that hey, George Harrison is one of the team now.
Pity that Paul McCartney played that solo, which sounds like the guitar suddenly got very excited, and spent its load, all over the mixing desk. Sorry for the graphic image, but the sheer power, force and nearly unstoppable burst of wild noise in the middle of a sneering, jeering, jerky but controlled songwriting and arranging tour de force is surprising, if not perfectly judged. I heard a podcast that revealed the fact that McCartney just took the guitar from Harrison, who had been working on a solo for hours and hours, and just improvised it, straight into the mixing desk.
Starting with a weird tape effect and a processed “1,2,3,4”, the oddly Thatcherite sentiment of the perceived hippy Harrison fades out and then, hang on a minute, is that a string quartet? No, it’s an octet, but that’s Paul singing about lonely people and Roman Catholic padres in what you can only imagine is a grubby tenement somewhere in the back end of Liverpool. It’s so ingrained in the popular psyche, there’s nothing much one can say about it, apart from urge everyone to listen to it again, in the context of the album, and not as a standalone song, as it sets up Lennon’s first entry on the album perfectly.
I keep harping on about McCartney, but the bass playing on Revolver is something that has to be mentioned: it’s more upfront, more in your face, more melodic than previously. The guitars on I’m Only Sleeping map the chord progression, but the main motif that remains is the four note riff at the end of each verse. One mustn’t forget the crazy backwards guitars, but somehow, in retrospect, that doesn’t seem all that surprising. What does is the descending haze and shimmer of Harrison’s sitar in Love To You.
It’s a bit of a departure from the weirdness on the first listen of Here, There and Everywhere. Coo-ing backing vocals, soft music, gentle singing, Lennon is lulling me to sleep, until you listen to the words, and realise that this is a seriously bad trip. It’s the arpeggios the guitars make occasionally, the slightly unsettling feeling of this being slipped in after Love To You and the weird, weird experiment of Yellow Submarine. As a kid, I loved it – it was funny, Ringo was the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine and it had a nice oom-pah rhythm, as well as great samples. Now, it’s a sick carnival of avant-garde sound experiments and a freaky trip into the recesses of The Beatles’s psyches.
The buzzing guitars of She Said She Said and the double tracked vocals that Lennon laid down, along with that really high pitched drone pushed the studio to its limits, according to the engineer (once again, check out this podcast) also push me to more drug references. It’s not explicit, but I think the lines about her knowing what it’s like to be dead point to a song later on the album. Still, I can’t be entirely sure (but of course, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat).
Two quite happy songs follow: Good Day Sunshine, then And Your Bird Can Sing. A bouncing pop arrangement, and then a defiant rocker rush by in a burst of exuberance, guitars, pianos and head bobbing grooviness, but then we’re shot back to the ground by For No One, a bit of a depressant (a barbiturate?) and to be honest, the weakest link on the whole album. Then again, whilst one song is always going to be the weakest, it’s still better than the vast majority of crass rubbish placed before the altar of taste, so hey, let’s not get hung up on this. It’s over in two minutes, anyway.
The most nakedly naughty song here is Doctor Robert – “he makes you a better man, he helps you understand… if you’re down he helps pick you up” – could this possibly be a song about Lennon’s dealer? The organ in the middle is almost painfully stereotypical for psychedelic music, and would make me sick if this wasn’t made in 1966, as opposed to three years later. There’s nothing snide here, or even vaguely admonitory – Doctor Robert is the man, according to Lennon. Pity he just couldn’t say it, so he wrote a song about it instead it.
I Want To Tell You is the ultimate modern teenage love song: “I feel so hung up, I don’t know why… I could wait forever, I’ve got time”, and the yearning! Oh! The yearning! It’s not the most memorable of songs, but it’s a wormer, a little nugget of a song that buries itself in your cranium and works its way into your cerebral cortex to bloom anew. Unlike Got To Get You Into My Life, which is the musical equivalent of Michael Caine’s men blowing the bloody doors off. Over the top, brash, big, bold, and many another large, single syllable word beginning with B, it’s a soul song that found its way onto an album about, informed by, and written on drugs. Surprisingly, this is not about drugs, but sounds like an old Beatles staple – covering something originally by a black artist from America.
Nothing, I suppose, could fully prepare you for Tomorrow Never Knows, but coming straight after Got To Get You Into My Life’s fadeout, the drone lulls you into thinking Harrison was on the sitar again. That is, until the backwards tape effects and the weird eldritch noises chirp before Lennon sings through a Leslie speaker and recites the Tibetan Book of the Dead along with Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience. It’s like watching the insides of someone’s brain get turned inside out, put through a blender and being recorded. The backwards guitars don’t sound like a tape effect, but more like time is being played backwards for a few seconds, like Lennon had some kind of celestial rewind button. Underpinning this, of course, is the monumental beat that Ringo laid down for this cut. It’s hip-hop, it’s metal, it’s rawk, it’s just this massive, epic monster of a drum beat. Finishing with those cries from beyond the grave (perhaps it’s what Buddhist monks hear when they meditate) the album shudders to a close, and your mind is never the same again.
9/10 – two tracks too long, this is nevertheless the best collection of songs The Beatles released, but not as cohesive an album as Sgt Pepper.