Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Seven)

REVOLVER
 
A bubblegum act.  During the first three years of their recording career, time was so precious there was never enough of it to be more than that.  As a result, their melodies were always stronger than their lyrics.  By the middle of the 1960s, though, they began to develop a split personality.  On the road, they maintained their cleancut, spiffy image playing R&B covers mixed in with those mostly straightforward originals recorded between 1962 and 1965.  But in the studio, ambition took over.  By the summer of 1966, the old identity would be tossed aside for good as they made the fateful decision to spend their remaining years together creatively hibernating in Abbey Road.  From this point forward, there would be no more road trips.  Writing and recording great music became their sole priority.
 
300 hours.  That’s how long it took The Beatles to put together the follow-up to Rubber Soul, a record that impressed Brian Wilson so much he was determined to top it with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.  By the time Paul McCartney got his hands on a copy, Revolver was almost complete.  Only one song would be directly influenced by it.  However, Pet Sounds would play a major role in the evolution of their next album.  With fewer distractions to impede their progress, gung-ho experimentation would be the order of the day.
 
It takes only 34 minutes and 45 seconds to listen to The Beatles’ seventh studio album in its entirety.  But while it plays, you can’t help but marvel at how free spirited it all sounds.  The guitars have become louder and more abrasive.  There’s more room here for classical instruments than on previous albums.  Like its predecessor, the lyrics at times evoke darker imagery and real feelings in more pronounced ways.  New sounds, like a guitar lick being played backwards, are creeping their way into the arrangements.  And yet, amongst all these significant changes to their musical palette, there remains a general sense of joy and wit set against a consistently strong line-up of melodies.  This is easily one of the best collection of songs the band ever released.
 
For the first time ever, a George Harrison original kicks things off.  And what a song it is.  Taxman is a brilliant satire that every English rock star of the 1960s and 70s can easily relate to.  With ridiculously high tax rates eating away so much of their hard-earned fortunes, it’s no wonder many of them, like The Rolling Stones, became tax exiles for extended periods of time back then.  Using first person narrative, Harrison infuses the title character with enough greedy cynicism to make even low-income earners appreciate the plight of rich, overtaxed rock stars.  With its dynamite hook at the forefront, Taxman warns the listener of the remarkable power government officials have over your money, regardless of your financial status.  With tongue firmly in cheek, Harrison’s snide lyrics and superb melody are personal breakthroughs.  The references to then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (the then-leader of The Labour Party who, ironically, had pushed for The Beatles to receive those MBE (Members Of The British Empire) medals in 1965) and then-Conservative Leader Edward Heath, who both wanted to impose a 95% supertax on the rich (hence the lyric “should 5% appear too small”), mark the first time any Beatles song entered the realm of politics.  One of Harrison’s greatest achievements, with or without The Beatles.  Believe it or not, that’s Paul McCartney playing that awesome solo twice.
 
Eleanor Rigby maintains the level of excellence established by Taxman.  With rock instruments replaced by an outstanding string octet, McCartney’s moving character study of two forgotten souls both lost in isolation might be the saddest song The Beatles ever recorded.  (Ironically, Ringo Starr, Harrison and friend of the band, Pete Shotton, offered important lyrical ideas and suggestions while Lennon’s contributions were generally agreed to be very little.  Lennon is the only one who ever disputed this.)  The title character (originally named Daisy Hawkins) is a lonely spinster secretly pining for love and affection as she waits in vain for a suitor who never arrives.  Father MacKenzie (originally Father McCartney) is a priest who is so unappreciated by his congregation, “no one comes near” and he wastes his time “writing the words of a sermon no one will hear”.  Because of the strict celebacy rule for Catholic men of faith, the most exciting non-work related aspect of his life is “darning his socks at night when there’s nobody there”.  Like Rigby, he has no idea how to connect.  In the final verse, one character buries the other but “no one was saved”.  If the roles were reversed, the result would be just as heartbreaking.  One of those Beatles songs that stays with you long after you hear it.
 
John Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping is an acoustic sing along about the pleasures of pulling away from the hustle and bustle of society by enjoying some peaceful, solitary slumber, the polar opposite of Rigby.  Sounding very innocent in a mostly higher register, Lennon finds solace in dreaming and defends himself from accusations of procrastination (“Everybody seems to think I’m lazy/I don’t mind/I think they’re crazy/Running everywhere at such a speed/Til they find there’s no need”).  A very European sentiment.  If you listen closely, you can hear him yawning late in the track.
 
Love You To is George Harrison’s splendid Indian-flavoured paean to the sexual revolution and a possible shout-out to the many Beatle groupies.  In the first three lines of the first verse, though, he appears to be indirectly referencing the amazingly quick musical transformation of The Beatles to the point of absolutely refusing to be described in a simplistic manner (“Each day just goes so fast/I turn around, it’s past/You don’t get time to hang a sign on me”).  But then, he instructs potential paramours to cut right to the chase “before I’m a dead old man”.  In the second verse, after advising listeners to appreciate their limited lifespan because “a new one can’t be bought”, he suggests day-long sex and sing alongs to fill our days.  Sounds good to me.  The last verse offers one last bit of wisdom.  Beware of bad influences because they’ll “screw you in the ground” and “fill you in with all their sins”.  Great lyrics in this one.
 
Here, There And Everywhere is one pretty love song greatly inspired by The Beach Boys.  With elegant backing vocals steering him throughout, Paul McCartney sweetly sings of contentment whenever he’s with his lady love.  They’re so in tune with each other than when another man tries to speak to his girlfriend, “she doesn’t know he’s there”.  Now that’s commitment!  The feeling is mutual as McCartney insists on being with her all the time no matter where she is.  You could argue that times of separation to do other things is always good for couples but the song nonetheless accurately captures how a new love becomes the total focus of your life. Nothing else matters unless you have that special someone to lean on always.  The idea of being apart for just a second is agony.
 
The album turns whimsical with the endearing Yellow Submarine.  Leave it to The Beatles to make the idea of living underwater in a giant tube sound like fun rather than the claustrophobic torture it would actually be.  A goofy detour from the heavier tracks, it’s a song that clearly couldn’t have come together three years earlier.  The sound effects add to the production without taking anything away from Ringo’s singing and the warm acoustic arrangement.  Listen closely during the chorus and you can hear George Harrison’s rather unusual harmony vocals.  It’s quirky but it works.  Even on a kid-friendly number like this, the band and producer George Martin are still able to carry forth with their winning experimentation.
 
She Said She Said brings back the edgy, electric guitars as John Lennon is eager to get away from a wacky broad who freaks him out with her odd comments (“I know what it’s like to be dead”).  Stuck in a dead-end conversation and feeling less and less comfortable as time goes on, Lennon is eager to pull away from her (“I know that I’m ready to leave”).  With its sly time signature changes and strong drumming, the song is more evidence of the band embracing harder material, both lyrically and musically.
 
The cheerfulness returns on Good Day Sunshine, another light and breezy romp led by a forthright piano.  The spare arrangement demonstrates the musical versatility of the band.  While many songs are loaded with various instrumentation and unusual sounds, here’s one so unfettered it doesn’t even have an electric guitar on it.  McCartney really was the only member of the band who could sing this with conviction.  The overlapping vocals in the dying seconds allow for a memorable ending.
 
And Your Bird Can Sing is a clever rocker about a woman more interested in her personal effects and the sights and sounds of the world than John Lennon.  He hopes once she’s bored with the former that she’ll give him a chance (“When your prized possessions/Start to weigh you down/Look in my direction/I’ll be round”)  Lennon wrongly dismissed this in subsequent years.  The lyrics are quite good.
 
For No One feels like a prequel to Yesterday as it portrays the sad deterioration of a once loving relationship but from an outside point of view.  McCartney’s all-knowing narrator sympathizes with the crestfallen boyfriend (“A love that should’ve lasted years”) who, despite being in denial during one verse, is growing all too aware of the inevitable.  Nothing is softened or sugarcoated here.  (Even the superb french horn solo is oozing with pathos.)  This couple is on the verge of severing their partnership for good.  With the woman constantly crying and the boyfriend in endless agony (“Your day breaks/Your mind aches”), in less than two minutes it paints a painful picture of love in complete disarray.  Without a doubt, For No One is one of the best songs on the album.
 
The electric guitar is out in full force for Dr. Robert, a crackling rocker that comes across as a two-minute musical infomercial.  Lennon shills away for a man who’s always at one’s beck and call when needed (“Day or night, he’ll be there any time at all”), a layman (“He helps you to understand”) and is the best in the business (“No one can succeed like Dr. Robert”).  Sounding at times like Bob Dylan, Lennon is a master pitchman for what sounds like a shady character.  Not sure I’d want to drink from the guy’s “special cup” but never mind.  The track still works.  As an aside, one wonders why it fades out when you can clearly hear it ending cold.
 
I Want To Tell You is the third and final George Harrison composition, yet another track bolstered by the appearance of a piano.  Slithering maracas, occasional fits of percussion madness, rhythmic hand claps and unusual vocal harmonies help spin a tale about a guy too tongue tied to declare his love to a young lady.  (The Police produced the similiarly themed Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic many years later.)  A universal tale well told, the track fades out with some cool Indian-style singing from Paul McCartney.
 
The brassy Got To Get You Into My Life is a love song for Mary Jane.  Subtle and cheeky, a smitten McCartney declares his devotion to his favourite drug.  Harold & Kumar’s favourite song. 
 
Without question, the most unusual track on Revolver is the last one.  Tomorrow Never Knows (something Ringo said during a 1964 interview) is the musical equivalent of an acid trip as John Lennon instructs listeners on how to derive the most pleasure from that little tab.  Loosely based on The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, even stone cold sober you can appreciate the sheer weirdness of its structure, mainly the otherworldly tape loops and that halting, distinctive drum pattern.  I still get chills when the tamborine makes its first appearance.  Featuring spectacular lyrics, the song ensures that the album ends the same way it begins, with The Beatles reaching the full potential of their creative powers.
 
Although I always liked the way the original 1987 CD sounded, this 2009 update also sounds great.  It’s not too loud and not too soft.  There’s absolutely no reason to complain.
 
Early pressings are enhanced with a mini documentary about the making of the album which is only accessible by computer.  (To view it, PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  If you have a Mac, check the back cover for more requirements.)  You’ll hear all four Beatles and producer George Martin offer commentary while shots of the band at Abbey Road are edited together with short clips of the Paperback Writer video.  (All of this can also be seen and heard in The Beatles On Record.)  It’s neat to see how the editors enhance the photography to give it a three-dimensional look as they transition from one part of a picture to something else within the same shot.  Once again, the audio can be glitchy at times but I was able to get through a complete viewing eventually without incident.  (During the problematic screenings the audio sounds gargly and in the beginning, you can barely hear George Harrison and Ringo Starr as the music is playing.)  Not much relevation here, although there’s a brief shot of a smiling Mick Jagger hanging out with Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the control booth.  Harrison talks about how pleased he was with his songwriting progress during this period feeling like the songs he was contributing “fit in” with the others he didn’t write.  (He was correct.)  McCartney talks about how a tape operator accidentally put a tape in backwards so that when it played back it sounded like far out Indian music which led to accidental genius.  (He does a very good impersonation of that sound.)  Lennon claims The Beatles did that on record before The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience along with all the other “fuckers”.  (In The Beatles On Record, that word was bleeped.  It’s uncensored here.)  Lots of clips of notable Revolver tracks play throughout the documentary which just makes you want to play the album again.
 
The liner notes present the usual mix of pics and Historical & Recording information.  The photos are great but you’re not going to learn anything new about the album, unless you haven’t read any of the hundreds and hundreds of books already devoted to the band’s music.  Newbies, on the other hand, will be enlightened. 
 
After years of being rushed out the door to do another tour or a TV appearance or be interviewed by a music magazine, like Rubber Soul, Revolver benefits greatly from deeper focus and fewer distractions as The Beatles allow more room to play around with new ideas.  It was a wonderful sign of even better music to come.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 7, 2010 
12:02 a.m. 
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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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