A Fab 4 acid test


December 16, 2001



As the avalanche of coverage following the death of George Harrison proved once again, the Beatles' most significant musical accomplishments generally mean little or nothing in the mass media's constant mythologizing of the band--a fact that infuriated both Harrison and John Lennon.

In elevating the musicians to the status of gods, Baby Boomers do the music a massive disservice. Beatles tunes are ubiquitous in elevators, offices, and television commercials; the squarest journalists drop their professional facades to mourn one of them passing (when they're really bemoaning their own lost youth), and amid all of the sanctimonious blather, the group's best rock 'n' roll is rarely discussed or even heard.

When Generations X and Y are told there will never be another band as great as the Beatles (something the Beatles themselves--with the possible exception of Paul McCartney--found absurd), the effect is to alienate young listeners as thoroughly as the Frank Sinatra crowd alienated Boomers during the Beatles' heyday. Which is a shame, because their best album (usually mentioned in passing, if at all) retains the power to transport listeners to a complex and spiritual world beyond everyday mundanities--a place where you can see the color of your dreams, as Lennon sings in "Tomorrow Never Knows."

"Revolver" is often mischaracterized as an album about the desire to escape, but it is really the exact opposite. In their own distinctive ways as musicians and songwriters (Harrison comes to the fore for the first time by contributing three songs), the Beatles are each exploring different methods of peeling back surface realities to expose a deeper, more meaningful way of life. This is heady stuff that still makes some people uncomfortable--especially when mentioning the role of drugs in the group's pursuit is absolutely unavoidable.

Though the Beatles' earliest psychedelic experiences were unfulfilling--Harrison and Lennon took LSD for the second time with Los Angeles hipsters in August 1965, and actor Peter Fonda prompted a bad trip when he wouldn't stop babbling about death--they eventually embraced psychedelics as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment. (An obligatory note from a sober new millennium: Hey, kids, it was the '60s! We now know that music is a more potent drug than any other--end of public service announcement.)

Through the first few years of their career, the Beatles had been struggling to cope with their explosive fame while meeting a ridiculous schedule imposed by the record industry. With "Rubber Soul" in late 1965, their carefully constructed image as lovable moptops began to disintegrate, their world view started to expand, and their music matured by leaps and bounds. Biographer Nicholas Schaffner likened that album to the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy's world goes from black and white to Technicolor. If that's so, then "Revolver" marks the addition of Dolby, Sensurround, and ultra-vivid IMAX technology.

Although it closes the album and provides the powerful climax (filling the same role as "A Day in the Life" on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" the following year), "Tomorrow Never Knows" was actually the first song recorded for the disc. Originally entitled "The Void" (the new name came from one of Ringo's typically mangled pet phrases), Lennon drew the lyrics from The Psychedelic Experience , Timothy Leary's how-to manual, which in turn had been adapted from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, ancient advice to a dying soul about how to travel to heaven.

"Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream," Lennon sings. His voice is both intimate and distant, as if he's whispering in your ear from somewhere over the horizon. An insistent drum beat folds in on itself again and again--a tribal trance groove long before the advent of computer loops--while an ominous organ drones in the background. Strange bird calls of backwards guitars mock the monotone vocals, which Lennon recorded while laying flat on his back and fed through a rotating Leslie speaker. (He wanted to evoke the sound of a thousand chanting Tibetan monks--top that, you Tibet-loving Beastie Boys!)

For all the baroque filigree that would be added to "Sgt. Pepper's," true Beatles fans maintain that this song stands as their greatest studio achievement. "It is to pop what Berlioz's 'Symphonie fantastique' was to 19th-century orchestral music," Ian MacDonald writes in his fascinating song-by-song analysis, Revolution in the Head. It set the tone for an entire album that's pregnant with possibilities--for the then-new techniques of multitrack recording, for personal enlightenment through music, and for the boundaries of rock itself.

Released the same month that the Beatles ended their last concert tour, the album calls attention to the fact it is a studio creation--a tour of a landscape that does not exist outside the headphones. It opens with a voice counting off the intro to "Taxman," as if the Beatles are inviting listeners inside the recording process. The album title is an in-joke referring to the revolving slab of vinyl that carried these sounds in the days before CDs, while the cover art evokes the creative process with a collage of images flowing out of the musicians' heads.

Although the four were starting to pull apart as individuals, they still functioned as a tight-knit group while recording. Every member added the perfect sonic coloring needed to take the song to a higher level, and the joy they still felt while working together is palpable in the grooves. "Revolver" finds the Beatles at their best as a band and as individual players--especially on the original British LP, which was truncated in America but has been restored to its full running order on CD reissues.

McCartney's "Here, There and Everywhere" is sweet and romantic without being saccharine, while "Eleanor Rigby" is sharp social commentary. (The lives of its subjects are centered around the church, where people gather to pray, but this religious community does nothing to quell their loneliness.) Melancholy in a good way, "For No One" boasts the single finest addition producer George Martin ever made to a Beatles track, via a regal French horn solo. "Good Day Sunshine" is as ebullient as a glorious sunrise (none other than Leonard Bernstein praised its musical sophistication), and "Got to Get You Into My Life" is a soulful Motown homage with resplendent brass.

Harrison has often been mocked for whining about the bite from his paycheck on "Taxman," but this is the first Beatles song to openly question governmental authority. ("Don't ask me what I want it for," comes the bureaucratic reply.) "Love You To" is the best of his Eastern ragas because it's the most frantic, with the sitar chasing the vocals through the song. And the elastic guitar and bass interplay on "I Want to Tell You" nicely evokes the circular philosophy of karma that the guitarist had newly embraced.

A dreamy tune about floating upstream, Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" foreshadows the full-blown psychedelic voyage of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and boasts more extraordinary backwards guitar by Harrison. With its underwater sound effects and singalong chorus, "Yellow Submarine" is a whimsical children's ditty with a touch of perversity (if you believe Lennon biographer Albert Goldman's contention that it's about yellow, sub-shaped Nembutals). The soaring guitar, rolling drums, and flowing bass of "She Said She Said" carry on a spirited discussion that recalls the non-stop babble of the L.A. acid trip, with lyrics inspired by Fonda's monologue. ("He said, 'I know what it's like to be dead.'")

"Doctor Robert" may be a jaunty throwaway, but it's a great one, with a lyric that tackles New York's speed-dispensing Dr. Feelgood as well as the carnival-barker shtick of the self-appointed acid apostle Leary. Finally, the ringing acoustic guitars explode from the mix on "And Your Bird Can Sing," the best song left off "Rubber Soul," with a lyric that's similar to "Rain" in its mocking of the limitations of analytical thought.

The most creative single in the Beatles' catalog, "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" was to have been included on "Revolver," but it was separated and rushed out as a 45 to satisfy the label. Ah, technology! We can now use our CD burners or cassette decks to restore it to its rightful place, making the Beatles' psychedelic masterpiece even more mind-blowing.

Both of these songs take a harsh view of people caught up in the rat race. "Paperback Writer" features a trippy, droning melody, a thorny lyrical swipe at careerists and the press, and vocal harmonies that nod to the Beach Boys. "Rain" uses a stuttering rhythm (it's Ringo's finest moment) and an expanding and contracting melody to portray the sense of timelessness induced by psychedelic drugs. (The lyrics were inspired by Lennon's reading of philosopher Alan Watts, whose experiences with LSD prompted him to question such basic assumptions as whether we can really tell if it's raining or the sun is shining.)

Rock criticism was in its infancy in 1966, with only a handful of practitioners, but the most perceptive recognized the importance of "Revolver" upon its release, and they were disappointed by the followup some 10 months later--even though "Sgt. Pepper's" is the album that has gone down in the history books as the Beatles' high point (in both senses of that term).

Novelist Aldous Huxley coined the word "psychedelic" from Greek roots meaning "mind-revealing" or "soul-manifesting." On any list of rock albums embodying those goals, "Revolver" places at or near the top. "Like an over-attended child, 'Sgt. Pepper's' is spoiled," Richard Goldstein wrote during the Summer of Love. "It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises, and a 41-piece orchestra. ... When the Beatles' work as a whole is viewed in retrospect, 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver' will stand as their major contributions."

As evidenced by the post-Harrison media onslaught, this has sadly not been the case. But for those of us who care more about music than myths, it is indeed true, regardless of whether we experienced psychedelic drugs, the '60s, or the Fabs during their heyday. After "There'll never be a band as great as the Beatles again," the biggest lie in rock history is "You really had to be there!" Great albums stand the test of time and transcend it, and "Revolver" is every bit as potent today as it was 35 years ago.