It had certainly been one hell of a ride for the Beatles in the few years they’d been a professional (and prolific) band with hit singles and albums. Considering their auspicious debut in the autumn of 1962, the two albums a year, the non-album singles, concerts, television and radio appearances, and two feature films, they’d done all this with rarely any time to unwind. It was a runaway train with way too many people at the switch, and something was due to go catastrophically wrong sometime soon. If they were going to continue as a band, the four boys would definitely need to gain some personal control pretty damn quick.
It seemed that the first half of 1966 would be relatively calm and pretty much the same as it had the last two years–go out on tour, do the usual media appearances, and somehow squeeze the recording of an album in there. This time they gave themselves some breathing room: three full months of vacation! From January to April, the public at large saw neither hide nor moptopped hair of the band. This time is for the most part unchronicled, but most biographies have the four going their separate ways and doing their own thing: John living at his home in Weybridge and weighing his future with Cynthia and son Julian; Paul with his on-again, off-again relationship with Jane Asher, George thinking about his future (and near the end of the year, post-tour, heading over to India to expand his knowledge of Indian music), and Ringo mainly hanging with family and everyone else. It was only three months, but it was a much needed escape from the nonstop insanity they could barely escape. By 6 April they were back in the studio, ready to record their next album. As they had no feature film to shoot this time out, they could afford to take their time on this, and they gave themselves a good two and a half months on this project, recording up until 21 June.
From there, they would go on yet another globe-trotting tour until August. They had not told anyone this (and had only mentioned it to the closest members of their inner circle), but at this point they had already decided that this was going to be their last ever tour, at least until further notice. It had ceased being fun for them. More often than not, they had little idea of what city they were in, given that they had become their own prisoners, locked up in hotels night after night. More importantly, the technology of live rock music had not caught up with the clamoring fans at this point; their amplifiers barely reached over the ear-splitting din of thousands of screaming teenagers. They’d admitted as much that their musicianship had faltered to the point of substandard because they couldn’t hear themselves play half the time. Even the ever-jovial John had become outright nasty at times on the tours, yelling at the crowd to shut up–not that they could hear him, of course.
But unhinged fans and the nonexistence of upgraded equipment weren’t the only problems during this touring season. In early April, John had been speaking with a journalist friend, Maureen Cleave, about music and life in general, and John relished this as an intelligent interview–instead of the ridiculously silly questions they were always hit with (about their hair, what kind of drinks they like–the same silly and inane questions they’d heard since 1963!), he was given a platform to talk about real things–what did he feel about the world in general? At that point, he’d been reading a lot about religion (more on this later), and he’d uttered the (in)famous words “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.” An off-the-cuff statement to be sure, but he hadn’t meant that as a slur at all; he’d meant that his fans were more excited and involved with popular media (and the Beatles in particular) than they were about religion. It has been published in the London Evening Standard soon after, with very little fanfare. It wasn’t until late July, that Datebook, a US teen magazine, reprinted the quote and blew it into a major scandal. The resulting outcry led to record banning and burning, angry fans (particularly in specific areas of the US). John later recanted and explained himself, but the damage had been done. Many of their remaining US dates were hit with suspiciously “accidental” problems such as lack of canopy during an outdoor show, locked gates at terminals, and halfhearted security.
That wasn’t all; in June they had played their only shows in Japan, a five-show/three-day event at Nippon Budokan–at that time a sacred arena only reserved for judo matches, which caused a major flap there. Their next show was on 4 July in the Philippines, which ended up a complete fiasco: they’d publicly been invited to visit President Marcos and a number of young fans at the Palace–which they had no prior knowledge of until the last minute–and had refused to commit due to it being scheduled under an hour before showtime. This was perceived as a slight against the country, and the government made sure their remaining time in the country was as hellish as possible. They’d been charged with not paying income taxes from the show’s receipts (which the promoter was currently withholding); the security that was to escort them from the hotel to the airport had curiously been withdrawn; the airport manager had refused to give them assistance; authorities had conveniently “lost” the records of the band arriving, thus making them potential illegal immigrants. And after all was said and done and the band and entourage had finally lifted off, the government sent out a Parthian shot to the press stating that the Beatles had meant no slight to the First Lady at all. By far, one of the worst touring experiences of any band, ever.
By the time they finished playing their last ever show in front of a paying audience at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on 31 August, George (supposedly) said it best as their plane took off: “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.” They had had enough.
It was time to become a full-fledged studio band.
* * *
Single: “Paperback Writer”/”Rain”
Released: 10 June 1966
The band’s latest recording sessions in 1966 continued the sonic exploration and invention they’d begun with the Rubber Soul sessions the year before, moving further into uncharted territories. They weren’t so much given carte blanche in the studio, as much as they’d just gone ahead and done it without asking to see if they could get away with it. April had been quite the month for inventing new sounds, and on the 14th and 16th of that month they worked on what would become their next non-album single. They’d stretched the boundaries lyrically and musically with their previous single “We Can Work It Out” with its multiple segments and changing time signatures, but now they began playing with sonic changes–variable speed, pumped up bass lines, and even reversed tape. This single would be the gateway to an all-new Beatles sound that would far outpace not just their previous efforts, but those of their peers.
Side A: Paperback Writer
The new Beatle sound invites us in with a glorious multilayered a capella vocal from Paul, John and George, and kicked into high gear with Ringo’s incredibly fast-paced drumming (listen closely to his high-hat triplets between the third and fourth beat) and a stellar riff from Paul that repeats throughout the song. There’s some question as to whether that’s also Paul on the bass (session worker Ian McDonald claims that’s Paul on bass and George on guitar, but session pictures show the opposite), but regardless, the bass line is the key here. Story goes that John had once questioned a few people as to why the bass guitar in a certain Wilson Pickett song sounded so much more up front than any Beatles track to that date, and this particular sound was the result. Historically, the bass at that time was mixed relatively low to avoid the stylus on record players from jumping from the vibrations, but thanks to a recent acquisition of equipment by EMI that could create louder and deeper master recordings, they were able to punch up the low end. The result was the first Beatles single mixed louder than anything they’d previously done.
Also of note is the link above to the official visual for the song–the band had previously toyed with proto-music videos in 1965, but they had all been shot on video with very little thought to quality or expense. With this song and its flipside, however, they’d hired director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to shoot visuals on film. The end result was a new unexpected visual for music at the time–in color and in higher definition, in a real setting instead of on a prefabricated stage. As they had decided not to tour anymore and would cut down considerably on media appearances, they had decided this would be the best form of promotion from here on in.
Side B: Rain
This stunning b-side has all sorts of interesting tricks up its sleeve, starting with its speed, of all things. Deep into their growing love for studio experimentation, they found that slowing tracks down often gave their songs a fuller, beefier sound (especially with the guitars–that low note just past the breakdown is one hell of a great gut-punch), and it’s quite evident on this track. The backing track was recorded nearly a half-step up and slowed down at normal speed, while John’s vocal was recorded at a slower speed to play faster in playback. There’s also the well-documented first appearance of a backwards recording in a Beatles song, the first line of the first verse inserted in backwards at the end of the song. Ringo often stated this was one of his personal favorites they recorded, and it’s not hard to see why–he shows quite a masterful sense of timing here, not just with the opening beats (that first double-hit is on the upbeat) but with the breakdown near the end of the song.
[Note: There were three promotional films shot for this–one is in color at Chiswick House, and two takes in black and white in an otherwise darkened studio. The version I’ve linked to here was shown during the Anthology TV series, and is an edit of all three.]
* * *
Released: 5 August 1966
This album was destined from the start to be unlike any other album out there. They had always kept their public appearances and their personal creations separate, always aiming to write and record music on their own terms and not others’. With very few exceptions–the written-to-order “A Hard Day’s Night” and the occasional song written specifically for another performer–they catered only to their own whims. This was especially important as all four were uniquely and actively creative in their own ways, and were always keen on trying something new…especially if it hadn’t been done before by anyone else. Setting the tone for the entire sessions, the first track recorded would sound unlike anything else out there at the time. And given that they’d only recorded “She Loves You” just shy of three years previous, it was indeed a step in a direction no one else would have expected of the band at all.
The album set the standard for electric guitar-based rock, inspired thousands of musicians, consistently reaches a high placing in any “best albums of all time” charts, and is often touted as the top favorite Beatles album of many fans (including myself). The whole album is bursting with creativity, even down to the collage-and-drawing cover done by their Hamburg friend Klaus Voormann. There’s also the introduction of a new recording technique–artificial double-tracking, or ADT–which would automatically double-track their vocals, leaving the laborious task of double-tracking themselves to the tape operator. In short, the vocals would be slightly altered by an oscillator and thus creating a second, perfectly-matched vocal line that would fill out the vocal delivery. It’s an album full of classic Beatle moments, fresh new ideas, and hardly a weak filler song in the bunch. It’s a record so perfect for the band that even the four members considered it one of their best achievements.
Track 1: Taxman
The album starts out with the first of three Harrison tunes, this time a clever (and literal) dig at the price of fame. It’s an incredibly tight recording–so tight it sounds sparse, full of clipped notes and short, harsh guitar fills with sixth and ninth chords, and a scathing attack of a guitar solo. It was recorded a few weeks into the new sessions (started 21 April and finished sometime later), and while it doesn’t contain any real experimentation, it does benefit from the new louder sound mixing. This turned into a fan favorite many years down the road, to the point that The Jam “borrowed” the sound for their single “Start!” in 1980.
Track 2: Eleanor Rigby
Paul’s first track is a hauntingly beautiful ballad that, like “Yesterday”, features only himself on vocals (with John and George only contributing to the “ahh look at all the lonely people” chorus), but bypasses that song on a number of levels. While the former song is a sad lament, this is a bleak character study of missed opportunities and, yes, lonely people–another example of songwriting they’d never tried before. George Martin scored the string octet (four violins, two violas and two cellos), giving the song a baroque feel. Interestingly it was agreed by not just Paul and Martin but the session musicians that playing sans vibrato gave the track an even sadder feel. [Another one of my top favorite tracks of theirs for quite a few reasons!]
Track 3: I’m Only Sleeping
This trippy song of John’s is another good example of his writing a song about nothing…but in this case, it’s inspired by his purposely doing nothing. The three month respite had seen him do little but hang out in his Weybridge home, watching television, napping, and doing little else (aside from some recreational drug use), and it was a blessedly needed change from the frenetic pace of the last few years. In retrospect, this could be a parallel to his much later solo song “Watching the Wheels”–the theme is nearly the same, dismissing the nonstop movement of society and instead accepting his own leisurely pace. Of note here is another appearance of reversed recording–this time it’s Paul and George noodling around in the studio to create a backwards guitar solo.
[In another example of always finding something new every time I listen to this band, I always thought that sound at exactly 2:00 in was Paul or John making an odd noise in the studio, but it’s actually Paul yawning!]
Track 4: Love You To
George returns with a second track, and his first song directly inspired by his growing love for Indian music. Recorded in a single evening, it features George as the sole Beatle on nearly the entire track; Ringo is present on tambourine and Paul provided early takes on backing vocals (which did not make the final mix). Nearly everything else is played and sung by George alone, with only session musician Anil Bhagwat playing the tabla. It’s a phenomenal track that mixes the mystical sound of Indian instruments (a gorgeous alap intro holds the song for a full half minute before everything else joins in) with a distinctly English electric guitar providing counterpoint. Certainly an incredible step from three years previous when he wrote “Don’t Bother Me”.
Track 5: Here, There and Everywhere
As Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to record the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, thus Pet Sounds inspired Paul to write this gentle but gorgeous ballad. It’s surprisingly simple all around–its lyrics harken back to their early love songs, and the vocal delivery is merely a shifting triad chord (the first, third and fifth notes in an octave). But its simplicity is what gives it its charm–it’s a beautifully crafted and timeless pop gem that could have been released at any point in time and still work. Both Paul and John considered this one of their top favorite Beatle tracks.
Track 6: Yellow Submarine
Ringo’s vocal turn this time out is an absolutely charming and lovable song written by Paul and John, specifically for him. This time out it’s an imaginative song of fantasy, a story of living in a fanciful submarine where everyone could come and live and play. Paul had envisioned it as an old fisherman telling tall tales to a youngster–the original version (found on the b-side of the “Real Love” single) has an spoken word introduction that captures the feel of nautical adventures. Even the recording itself sounds like a party–there’s whooshing waves, burbling bubbles, fleet calls, steamship noises, marching feet, clanging chains and a singalong at the end, all recorded 1 June. It might by a silly and slight song, but it’s still loved by many, and would be used as the theme (musically and plotwise) to their next film a few years later.
Track 7: She Said She Said
Another trippy song from John, this time a track inspired not just by LSD but by a strange poolside conversation he and George had had with actor Peter Fonda back in August of 1965. Multiple sources offer varying versions of what happened that day other than that nearly everyone had gotten wasted on the drug, and that Fonda had been saying increasingly weird things that alternately fascinated and bothered the band. This track is nearly a throwaway, as it had been hastily written and ended up being the last thing recorded for the sessions when they realized they were one song short.
Track 1: Good Day Sunshine
Paul opens up the second side with an upbeat vaudevillian-style pop song partly inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream”. While John might sing about sleeping, Paul prefers the great outdoors here, ready to take a lovely walk in the park. It’s a relatively sparse sing, with Paul on piano and bass, and Ringo on drums–George and John do not play on this song, only offering backing vocals. At the time, this was considered one of the quickest Beatle songs put to tape; after a number of taped but uncounted run-throughs, they recorded three takes of the backing track and chose Take 1 as the best, then sprinkled a few overdubs here and there over the following days. Of note is George Martin’s honky-tonk piano solo, recorded at a slower speed to make it sound peppier.
Track 2: And Your Bird Can Sing
There’s some speculation as to what (or who) this song of John’s is really about, but that’s secondary to what is probably some of the best guitar playing of the Beatles career up to this point. George and Paul play in tandem here, releasing a wonderfully chiming riff that opens the song and punctuates each verse, and comes to a ringing coda on an unexpected note. It’s an incredibly fun song that might not be about anything at all–so much so that the Anthology version has John and Paul breaking up into hysterics as they try to lay down vocals.
Track 3: For No One
As if to counterpoint the upbeat qualities of the two previous songs, Paul comes back with another ballad, this one a bitter take on a relationship nearing its end. The entire song sounds fragile: the high piano is doubled by an equally high clavichord (both played by Paul), with Ringo providing slight percussion duties. Session player Alan Civil plays a delicate French horn passage (Paul had heard him play on the radio a few nights previous and felt it would be a perfect fit) that’s both uplifting and melancholy at the same time. This one isn’t so much a song about regret, as it is about acceptance and relief, and enduring the pain.
Track 4: Doctor Robert
One thing can be said about John’s mid-era Beatles songs–he was able to write about something (or in this case, someone) in his life and hide it in plain sight. In this case, it’s a fun, lightweight pop song with innocuous lyrics about a doctor with the ability to make you feel better no matter what the ailment (and in reality, a paean to one or more people they knew who supplied them with drugs). The lyrics are very typical of the British folk movement, short melodramatic vignettes about one person or another, so if you weren’t aware of the band’s recreational drug use at the time, it would fit in perfectly alongside “Yellow Submarine” as nothing more than fluff.
Track 5: I Want to Tell You
George’s third offering is a fabulous piece of subtlety–on the surface it sounds like a man in love at a loss for words, but the further you go, the song is really about the inability to truly express one’s thoughts and emotions, fighting for the right words to say that may or may not be there. To expand on the frustration in the lyrics, George “created” a new chord at the end of each verse, hitting an E-flat 7th chord with an F thrown in to give it a noticeable dissonance. It’s not just the chords, either; the drums are loud and loose, as is Paul’s piano playing, giving the mix a somewhat slippery feeling…making it just that much harder to grasp whatever it is George is trying to say.
Track 6: Got to Get You Into My Life
This could very well be yet another drug-inspired song (Paul, in his book Many Years from Now, casually mentions that it’s about marijuana), but musically, it’s a fabulous and energetic homage to the sounds of Tamla Motown soul. Three trumpets and two tenor saxophones almost take center stage on this song, miked with the pickups inside the bells, that it comes out as one impressive wall of noise. It took them some time to figure out exactly how they wanted this one to sound, as they’d recorded the main backing tracks on 7 April, but didn’t get around to adding the horns and vocals until 17 June. In turn, ended up an excellent and well-loved pop tune.
Track 7: Tomorrow Never Knows
It’s hard to find the best words for this track, as it’s considered one of the biggest defining moments in the Beatles catalogue. It’s just on the verge of avant-garde, just shy of being an Indian raga, and still manages to be a full-fledged rock song the likes of which no one had ever heard before. Inspired by the recent books on religion John was reading at the time, he came up with this absolutely stunning track. The first thing you hear is the droning tamboura, dizzily pulling you into a wild ride of metaphysical lyrics, a tape-looped jungle of unearthly sound effects, and some of the most unbridled instrument playing and sound production they’d ever put to tape. John’s voice is filtered through a rotating Leslie speaker on the last verse, Ringo beats the hell out of his kit with a jilted beat, Paul hammers on the bass and provides a reversed guitar solo, and George doubles himself on sitar. It’s just shy of three minutes long and never leaves the key of C, but it’s one hell of a ride. And consider this: the track was recorded on the first day of the Revolver sessions…a mere three years after they recorded “She Loves You”. For quite obvious reasons, this song is considered one a top favorite of quite a number of fans–including myself, of course–simply because it’s one of those songs that leaves you completely speechless.
* * *
Revolver can easily be considered the start of the next phase of the Beatles discography. While it might bear some slight resemblance to its predecessor–songs like “Doctor Robert” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” fit quite nicely on the US album Yesterday and Today alongside the singles and Rubber Soul tracks on that album–it remains its own entity as well. While the previous album was more acoustic and folk oriented, Revolver is most definitely a rock record, aimed at amplification. It also proved that if the band was given time and space and little disruption, they could stretch their boundaries even further. If they gave themselves two and a half months to work on a masterpiece, one could only wonder what would happen, now that they were no longer a touring band.
* * *
Single: “Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby”
Released: 5 August 1966
There’s not too much to add here that I haven’t already mentioned above, other than that this single ended up being their second deliberate “double A side” single (either song could be the radio hit), and the first single with Ringo on lead vocals. And despite the simplicity of the song (and the ongoing negative media frenzy due to John’s words on Christianity), it hit the top spot on the charts in the UK and hit number 2 in the US, blocked only by the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love”.
And on a more personal note, this was the first Beatles single I ever owned–I don’t exactly remember how or where I procured it, but I know it was soon after I bought 1967-1970 (aka ‘The Blue Album’), and right about the same time I started obsessing over them and watching Yellow Submarine on TV each time it came on. I also distinctly remember being somewhat frightened by “Eleanor Rigby” as a child due to its haunting sound and lyrics–but I’ve definitely come to love this song as a wonderful piece of history.
Next Up: A Collection of Beatles’ Oldies and Pantomime: Everywhere It’s Christmas