Monday 13 July 2009

The BEATLES: Revolver

 (#46: 13 August 1966, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Taxman/Eleanor Rigby/I’m Only Sleeping/Love You To/Here, There And Everywhere/Yellow Submarine/She Said She Said/Good Day Sunshine/And Your Bird Can Sing/For No One/Dr Robert/I Want To Tell You/Got To Get You Into My Life/Tomorrow Never Knows

“Evading any form of literal interpretation, Rothko's huge, indistinct, darkly vibrant blocks of colour are all about feeling and transcendence, about things beyond words.”
(Richard Williams, “Sounds Like Mark Rothko,” The Guardian, 1 February 2002)

“You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte.”
(JMW Turner)

Over the weekend we visited Tate Britain; for Lena this was an especial pleasure as she had not visited it since 1988, when it was still the solitary Tate Gallery. The current creative rejig of the gallery’s Turner stock centres upon direct comparisons with Turner’s late flow(er)ing work and Rothko’s Seagram murals. Looking at both sets of paintings anew (as is always the case every time I revisit them, in whatever setting or order), a presumably very facile point of comparison sprung into my mind. The point of disturbance in the otherwise unrelenting red and black m(or)ass of the Seagram appears in two examples; in one, there are not quite faint tinges of sky blue over which the black paint seems to have been applied particularly aggressively. The impression is of someone screamingly anxious to evade and erase the light of the day, the outside world, to imprison himself in their tormenting but secure world. In another there is what looks like daylight, purplish, but with such scrambled indistinctness that the light seems three dimensional, alive, challenging.

Whereas in Turner’s late seascapes in particular the painting is always directed towards this central beacon of light, indistinct but never harshly so. The details are scored down to a minimum of perceptibility – the crowds, the cliffs, are felt rather than explicitly explained – and all leads to this light, even the two-in-one reversible seascape (turn it upside down and it tells you the same story, or a parallel one). This world welcomes the light into its fibres, indeed cannot seem to function or even exist without it. Where Rothko’s world is all red and black, Turner’s is shiny and yellow.

In his cover collage for Revolver, Klaus Voormann – an old pal of the group from their Hamburg days, then playing bass with Manfred Mann – details the Beatles’ world as a black and white one, but its jumble is a challenge on account of its cheerful solemnity. The album itself – think of that title for a moment; a revolver can mean a long playing record, or the axis of gravity, or a gun – seems better equipped than most to embody both of the worlds described above. Turner’s cynosure of revelatory light is “the void” into which Lennon happily tumbles in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (so much so that the song was originally titled “The Void”). The Rothko darkness reflects Eleanor Rigby, or the self-denying, defeated protagonist of “For No One”; worlds carefully and deliberately sealed off from the outside; the dissolvable crowds cheering at Turner’s Portsmouth Harbour represent the hallucinatory coach parties of “Yellow Submarine.” Or it may simply be the case that Revolver presents fourteen different ways of looking at the world, every one of them wanting to make the world different, or invisible, or irrelevant.

In other ways, even before we penetrate the cover of Revolver and reach for the record, the Beatles are now definitively announcing themselves as somehow above the rest of us, while simultaneously sitting right by us. Voormann’s huge, rockface sketches of the four faces resemble a pop Rushmore – an allegory aided further by Lennon’s remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln in his central snapshot – and the glum, bean counting “one, two, three, four”s which kick off “Taxman,” and the album as a whole, contrasts sharply with the throwaway time beginning of the “1-2-3-4!” which introduced “I Saw Her Standing There” just over three years previously.

Readers will have noticed the quite staggering speed at which this tale is currently progressing; we are now only a baker’s dozen of entries away from Summer Holiday but the world seems to have sped up to a point barely comprehensible; already we have arrived at Revolver, and it seems indecent that a year as abundant in radical long playing records as 1966 should only be touched upon twice (although most of these will be mentioned in more than passing as the story progresses), not to mention the fact that the rapid pace of this survey is in inverse proportion to the slow movement predominant in the album charts of the mid-sixties. Still, the speed seems to suit Revolver; the shaded back cover group portrait (with George bearing an uncanny resemblance to Keith Richards) helps nail it down as the Beatles’ “Mod” record, even if “Taxman” is its only really obvious link to that movement.

Ah, yes, “Taxman,” for many years this listener’s personal barrier to identifying Revolver as the best Beatles album. Musically it whacks the Pickett/Dorsey stop-start strut of “The Word” into narrower trousers; the track is almost bare save for McCartney’s juddering bass riff (and his subsequent psychogeometric guitar outburst) and was one of the most ferocious and unforgiving tracks the group had so far laid down. But while the notion of starting a Beatles album with a George composition was an admittedly pretty radical one, his sourly griping lyric and delivery are not in keeping with a helpful or useful revolution; the late Steven Wells summed it up, not entirely unreasonably, as saying, “Why should we pay for the upkeep of schools and hospitals when we could just shove it up our noses?” Instead of 1963’s four cheery chaps, here are a quartet of 1966 grumps holed up in Weybridge and Esher, moaning about the top rate of income tax to the pinched strains of Hefti’s Batman theme. Then again, Harrison has a go, however grudgingly, at both Wilson and Heath so as not to make the song sound like a Tory election manifesto, and it is arguable that the song’s mean spiritedness is gradually undermined by what happens on the remainder of the album.

And why, of all couplings, were “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” released as a double A-side single two months after Revolver came out, in direct contravention of accepted record company policy of the period? Partly it was because EMI needed a single and the group was then in the middle of an extended break following their retirement from touring and therefore without any new material to hand. But the nearness of the two songs helped demonstrate in microcosm the dichotomy that Revolver was trying to unravel; the division between hiding from the world (which results in death, either physical or mental) or deciding to join the world (which results in life, in all of its stripes). Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie live for nothing because they do not meet until it is too late; Rigby because she has cut herself off from the world so fully and definitively, McKenzie because no one listens to his sermons since religion has lost its meaning – some people in 1966, not necessarily excluding John Lennon, supposed the Beatles to be “bigger” than Jesus. Neither has the ability to communicate directly with the world as a whole, and the only memorial to either is McCartney’s song, with his unusual Home Counties-accented “lonely,” and the strings remorselessly scraping away, suggesting either Rigby placing her face back in the jar or McKenzie gloomily – or indifferently - sweeping away the dirt from the grave; something about the speed of their sweep also subliminally suggests Herrmann’s music for Psycho. As with “Yesterday,” climactic poignancy is reached with a prolonged high A over (the first half of) the final verse on lead violin (performed by the same violinist, Sidney Sax), though this too is brushed away by the brisk, matter-of-fact 4/4 and the final, coldly rationalist five downward steps into nothing.

“Yellow Submarine,” in contrast, could only have been given to Ringo to sing; its dead end is a more colourful one than anything Rigby could have dreamed up but it is happy, embracing, inclusive; the drinks party plays like the introduction to Cliff’s 21 Today gone seriously askew, Brian Jones and Marianne Faithfull clink glasses, everyone sings along and (through the assorted sound effects and brass band clip) George Martin introduces sampling to the world of number one singles. Isn’t this, the song cries, far more attractive a future than the no future we described on the other side? Furthermore, thanks to his lyric suggestion of “sky of blue, sea of green,” Donovan makes his long overdue debut in this story (see the latter’s 1968 McCartney-produced “Atlantis” for the sequel).

Meanwhile, in Lennon’s world, “I’m Only Sleeping” – some people think he’s bonkers but Lennon clearly doesn’t. Musically a development from “Girl,” in every other sense an immense step forward, Lennon floats upstream in innocuous ignorance of whatever the world – any world – might demand of him (a state of mind, as with so many stated on this record, not unconnected with Lennon’s then-recent introduction to LSD). Another track bearing the clear influence of Ray Davies, Lennon takes it slowly and sneakily; the chilling tinge of backwards Harrison guitar which answers Lennon’s “touch of speed,” McCartney’s dutiful, Boswellesque bass pauses, the unexpected jumpcut from the middle eight’s “taking my time” back to the verse, and the fast gat that concludes the track (and links it directly to the next) – nothing here is “as played on stage”; every move a trompe l’oeil.

Harrison follows with his second number, and his first Indian-flavoured Beatles song, “Love You To.” Recorded with members of the North London Asian Music Circle, and concomitant with important records such as the John Mayer/Joe Harriott Double Quartet’s Indo-Jazz Fusions – it is possible that some musicians played on both – the track signals Harrison’s increasing withdrawal from the banality of everyday “love” towards something more universal. “You don’t get time to hang a sign on me,” he sighs, still defiant. Lines like “love me while you can” suggest a mutation of the blues far beyond what the Stones or Mayall could visualise at the time. “Wake up all day long,” he dreamily chants in direct riposte to Lennon’s eternal sleeping, “Wake up singing songs.” Finally, he climaxes: “I’ll make love to you…if you want me to,” at which point the song speeds up from slow to a very bodily fast gat; perhaps the definition of “universal” here still has its roots in the earthy.

McCartney’s “Here, There And Everywhere” is likewise not quite as straightforward as it appears, with its author’s thin thirties croon (and the song’s old fashioned preface). Usually acknowledged as the point on Revolver where the Beatles meet the Beach Boys, it would not be quite correct to detect specific signs of a Pet Sounds influence (especially as that album had not yet been released while Revolver was being recorded), but the harmonies – particularly the descending ones heard in the final verse - and general air of disturbed stillness are clearly redolent of songs such as “In My Room” and “The Warmth Of The Sun.” Moreover, McCartney’s lyric moves almost imperceptibly from the first person (“Running my hands through her hair”) to a strange, unaccountable third person (“Someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there”). Structurally the song is immaculate, its quietly disturbing minor scale arch recalling both “Michelle” and the raga; Emmylou Harris would go on to record the definitive version of the song in 1976, every element a separate star connected in a convivial sky.

Lennon’s “She Said She Said” occasions the need to call up one of those crucial 1966 albums, Fifth Dimension by the Byrds, since this was another song inspired by a session (this time involving LSD and a disturbing Peter Fonda) with McGuinn and Crosby. Anticipating R.E.M. and the Paisley Underground as a whole by a generation, the song’s stuttering conversational nature dictates the paths of its melody; the diving refrain of “she said, I know what it’s like to be dead” suggests a ghostly conference with Eleanor Rigby, but the song’s gears constantly shift as Lennon’s mind wanders, most noticeably to the pained “When I was a BOY, everything was ALL RIGHT” – and Lennon would soon return to his childhood memories to fuel some of his greatest work.

McCartney begins side two with “Good Day Sunshine.” While the Lennon of “I’m Only Sleeping” stiffly admits dawn before abruptly dismissing it, McCartney welcomes in the rays, as evinced in the song’s introductory slow awakening of a low register piano/guitar throb. Inspired directly by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit “Daydream” – and recorded in the same week as “Sunny Afternoon,” in which the Kinks managed to fuse the disinterest of “I’m Only Sleeping” with “Good Day Sunshine”’s jolly barrelhouse canter, with a soupcon of “Taxman” real world cynicism added on the side – “Sunshine” jaunts down its lane with enviable confidence. Even McCartney’s “Burn my feet as they touch the ground” doesn’t come across as amiss.

Thereafter Lennon takes up the reigns again with “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the starting point for Big Star and power pop in general, and maybe also for Lindsey Buckingham – the cunning acidity of Lennon’s vocal and guitar work in particular – in which Lennon begins to subvert the whine of “Taxman” (“When your prized possessions start to bring you down”) and assert a new lightness and simplicity of approach. This is followed by the mainstream darkness of McCartney’s “For No One”; meanwhile, in this other, “straight” world, she’s finished with him and he wanders desolately up and down his snakes and ladders board, looking for a reason or resolution, but the song’s maze-like structure defeats him every time. As with Eleanor Rigby, he will not recover – “You stay in. She goes out,” intones McCartney in one of his most knowingly dispassionate vocal performances – and maybe he turns into Father McKenzie (closeted cloisters summoned up by Alan Civil’s magnificently irrelevant French horn figure).

Lennon again sweeps all of this desolation away with the acerbic “Dr Robert,” the closest Revolver comes to the Monkees, where he has a pre-emptive go at the snake oil salesman he is already feeling that Timothy Leary really is, including the mock solemnitude of the harmonium-underscored “Well, well, well” like stranded penguins impersonating Flanders and Swann; but, as with “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the song’s swing is so irresistible – Harrison masterfully, if unexpectedly, fusing Ravi Shankar and Chet Atkins in his guitar work - that the meaning is communicated directly through its undeniable good humour.

“I Want To Tell You” was an unprecedented third George song on the same album and shows him already to be reaching out somewhat further than either Lennon or McCartney was prepared to do at the time, not in terms of music – though the repeated dissonant piano figures (played by McCartney) in the verses are disturbing enough – but in the wider scale of outlook; can he commit to love? Who, indeed, is he? “I don’t mind…I could wait forever…I’ve got TIME!” George declares as Oriental curlicues descend. The Motown handclaps are almost surreal in their juxtaposition, and as George works out who he is, constantly changing the perspective – at the same time as a bored Irish-American actor was beginning work, on the coast of North Wales, on a television series concerning the elusive nature of identity and self – McCartney accelerates his upper register piano work until the track sounds like Varese acupuncture.

The track leads directly, if improbably, into McCartney’s own “Got To Get You Into My Life,” his attempt at Holland-Dozier-Holland – although it should be noted that, by the composers’ own admission, the rhythmic arrangement of “Where Did Our Love Go?” was directly inspired by the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits And Pieces,” and indeed McCartney’s voice is hoarse and passionate enough to stand comparison with the DC5’s Mike Smith. Though Lennon later went on record as saying he reckoned that the song was about McCartney wanting to try LSD, the song’s open embrace of life, its desperate enthusiasm, sweeps away so many cobwebs, as does the sterling five-man horn section work, led by trumpeter Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton (later of Aswad, among many, many other enterprises) whose orgasmic high C on the point of fadeout suggests paradise regained.

Then we reach the final track, and the world comes apart, or, more accurately, reunites.

The practice for the release of Revolver was to issue out two or three tracks at a time to radio stations. As with the album, “Tomorrow Never Knows” was deliberately left until last (although it was in fact the first song recorded for the album). The experience of the nascent listener in 1966 can only, from my perspective, be imagined; suffice it to say that it was a very long way away from “She Loves You” and yet in other ways no way away from it at all.

The first thing to say is that “Tomorrow Never Knows” could not have existed without Ringo – he came up with the title, and his drumming holds the whole structure together. Anyone still labouring under the illusion that Ringo was no good as a drummer should listen to his work on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and be lifelong corrected. Insistent, yet strangely relaxed; forceful, but never overpowering, even though it sounded like the universe reshaping itself for a rebirth. Out front – or wherever planet or Himalayan mountaintop he’s radioing in from – Lennon cuts up Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead to reassure us that it is all illusion and that revelation is the only revolution that’s real. As his vision unfurls, the elements of the album all seem to converge into its central “void”; elements from McCartney’s “Taxman” solo, fugitive seagulls from “Yellow Submarine,” sitars, Mellotrons, backwards, reeled over, linked up live in the studio, and it is like some Northern/Eastern equivalent of Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham; Eleanor Rigby and the jilted lover are resuscitated (“It is not dying!”), the world reforms itself in a newly and more easily revolving shape. The upstream float of “I’m Only Sleeping” is superseded by the “relax and float downstream” of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and – George Martin’s final coup on an album of collaborative coups – the whole ends with the receding piano figure from the Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas” (and some reports state, if not MacDonald, that the piano part was played by Peter Sellers himself), the producer putting renewed vigour into those production ideas he’d come up with a decade earlier to accommodate Milligan’s world. There is some evidence of Who attack, but the overriding influence on the track is the Beatles’ own “Ticket To Ride”; the drone, the drums, are all accentuated and expanded here, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” became their key to the new kingdom; in now come Stockhausen (but don’t forget Joe Meek) and Cage (and the young Steve Reich), in (but of course!) comes India, and in comes a vision for which even the rest of 1966 hadn’t been prepared. The Beatles were now the mountain, and we were the awestruck monks at its foot, ready to worship and perhaps even to chant, however indistinct the words might at first seem.