About 41 months passed between the release of the Beatles’ 1963 debut LP Please Please Me and their seventh album, Revolver, in August 1966. To put this in perspective, 41 months ago from the time I’m writing this was late May of 2019, when the Toronto Raptors were about to win the NBA title, Avengers: Endgame was in theaters, and Game of Thrones had just ended. Pandemic vortices aside, 41 months isn’t a very long time. Releasing seven albums’ worth of mostly original material in that span, along with a steady churn of chart-topping singles that weren’t included on those LPs, is extraordinary on its own. That the Beatles changed the entire landscape of popular music in the process makes it all the more mind-boggling.
revolver is the latest Beatle album to receive the deluxe boxed-set treatment that was lavished on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band back in 2017. The new set boasts five CDs’ worth of material, headlined by a new stereo mix by Giles Martin (son of Sir George), and a sumptuous coffee-table book that includes an expansive and lovely essay by Questlove. The new mix, which seeks to transpose the album’s original mono mix into a stereo setting that’s less perfunctory than the Beatles’ own original stereo mix, feels mostly superfluous, and isn’t as revelatory as the younger Martin’s mix of Sgt. Pepper’s, an album where the discrepancy between the mono and stereo mixes had long been criminally glaring. The bevy of outtakes and alternate arrangements will surely delight hardcore fans, many of which are new (official) releases, others of which have appeared in other settings like 1996’s Anthology 2.
revolver has become such a hallowed work that it can be easy to overlook the context of its release, which was fraught to say the least. In the US, revolver‘s release was overshadowed by waves of protests against the band over John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark. The week that revolver arrived in stores, American newspapers contained headlines like “Quote on Christ Gives Beatles Woe,” “Beatles’ Manager Flies to US as Furor Over Slur Melts,” and “Klan Puts Match to Beatles Records.” For a while it also seemed to many that revolver would be the Beatles’ final album. When reports began circulating in late 1966 that the Beatles were taking an indefinite hiatus from touring, a lot of the press assumed that meant they were finished. “Beatles Going Their Own Ways,” declared the Washington Post, and “Beatles Reported Breaking Up,” announced the Los Angeles Times. It was as if the concept of a rock ‘n’ roll band turning away from live performance was a sort of conceptual contradiction, an existential impossibility.
The Beatles, of course, weren’t breaking up. But 1966 was a grueling and largely miserable year for the band. Beside the outrage over Lennon’s “Jesus” quip, the band weathered another Stateside controversy for the infamous “butcher” cover of Yesterday and Today (which featured the band in white coats, surrounded by decapitated baby dolls and hunks of raw meat, in a gesture whose meaning remains unclear), endured a harrowing episode in the Philippines (in which the band and its crew were assaulted by a mob of Imelda Marcos’ loyalists for allegedly “snubbing” the First Lady), and generally seemed to be collapsing under the weight of what was now year four of world-historical levels of overexposure. The decision to leave the road was a necessary one, if only for sheer survival.
The seeds of this transition were already there revolver. It was the first album the Beatles released that contained no songs that the band had, or ever would, perform live. Part of this was undoubtedly due to sheer logistics: try lugging around a string octet to play “Eleanor Rigby” in various baseball stadiums with no monitor speakers. But it also reflected an increasing obsession with the creative possibilities of the recording studio itself. A song like “Tomorrow Never Knows” can’t really be performed live because it isn’t meant to be.
In retrospect it’s hard not to consider revolver as a hinge point in the history of the Beatles, and by extension the music of the 1960s more broadly. There’s some truth to this, but it also runs the risk of hearing revolver in terms of what came after it, rather than listening to the music on its own terms. At its heart, revolver is an avant-garde R&B album, a work that represented the Beatles’ most compelling and complete engagement with contemporary Black American music to date: more so than the throat-shredding rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” that ended Please Please Methan the trio of Motown covers on With the Beatleseven than their previous record, Rubber Soulwhich advertised its debt to soul music in its name.
The band initially planned to record revolver at Stax’s studios in Memphis.
The band initially planned to record revolver at Stax’s studios in Memphis, a plan that, depending on the telling, fell through either due to security concerns or because Stax owner Jim Stewart asked for too much money. You can clearly hear the influence of Stax on revolver, from the snarling groove of the album’s opening cut, “Taxman,” all the way through to the horn lines on its penultimate track, “Got to Get You Into My Life.” But the Memphis influence is most prominent in Ringo Starr’s drumming, where the backbeat is as rock-solid as anything this side of Al Jackson, Jr., the great Stax session drummer. There’s long been a jokey idea that Ringo Starr is a second-rate drummer, one that probably originated with his affable willingness to serve as the source of comic relief in early press conferences and films like A Hard Day’s Night and Help! This notion is stupid, to put it mildly. Ringo Starr is a great drummer, and in 1966 he was at the top of his craft
Ringo’s playing on “Taxman,” “Dr. Robert,” and “I Want to Tell You” has a sticky funkiness that feels a lot closer to the Mississippi than the Mersey. The drums on “I’m Only Sleeping” swing like hell, as they do on Ringo’s own vocal star turn, “Yellow Submarine.” To my ears the most daring drum performance on revolver is “She Said She Said,” which finds Ringo holding down a murderous groove while simultaneously providing an onslaught of cascading, over-the-bar drum fills. There was simply no one else playing drums quite like this in pop music. (Ringo’s friend Keith Moon’s similar style evolved slightly later, and Moon never had Ringo’s sheer command of time.) The song that contains what Ringo considers his greatest drum performance, “Rain,” was recorded during the revolver sessions but was left off the album, released instead as the B-side to “Paperback Writer”; multiple versions of that remarkable track appear on the new box set, including the “actual speed” instrumental track. (The Beatles slowed down the tape speed on the track for the single release.)
Perhaps even more prominent than the influence of Stax on revolver is the influence of Motown, in particular that label’s incomparable bass player James Jamerson. Jamerson still isn’t a household name among casual music fans, but he’s one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. There is electric bass playing before James Jamerson, and there is electric bass playing after him: It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that he is to his instrument what Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar. In the mid-1960s, Jamerson was exploding the possibilities of electric bass playing, pioneering a style defined by intricate syncopation and complex, brilliantly melodic phrasing.
Jamerson’s name wouldn’t appear on a Motown record sleeve until 1971, but by 1966, every serious bass player on earth was taking note of what was happening on the low end of Tamla-Motown records. One of these players was Paul McCartney. Jamerson’s influence is all over Revolver, most notably on “And Your Bird Can Sing,” John Lennon’s alleged middle-finger to Frank Sinatra, multiple versions of which are included on the new set. McCartney is a musical freak of nature whose best work always has the thrilling joy of a self-taught prodigy. The bass playing on revolver is steeped in this feeling, like a musical version of Peter Parker the morning after the spider bit him. The combination of McCartney’s near-hyperactive inventiveness with Ringo’s stunning rhythmic anchor is the true soul of revolver.
As I’ve written about at some length elsewhere, the later part of the 1960s was marked by a growing insistence among audiences, critics, and even some musicians that white rock music and Black R&B music were separate entities, and alongside this was often a racist insinuation that rock had evolved past its Black origins. When I was growing up in the 1990s, the “classic rock” radio stations that played “Paperback Writer” and “Taxman” on a seemingly hourly basis almost never played the Supremes or Wilson Pickett, even though those artists where the Beatles were listening to when they made those recordings. The Beatles’ entire career gives the lie to this foolish segregation, and nowhere more so than that revolver. In hindsight, revolver was a turning point, but in the present, it remains the sound of endless possibility.