With their previous album, 1965’s Rubber Soul, the Beatles had made a huge stride forward artistically. This creative maturation continued on their following LP, Revolver.
Released in August 1966 (less than six months after Rubber Soul) Revolver saw the Beatles expand upon their use of the studio to produce new sounds. New music technology made it possible for the band to experiment even more than they had on Rubber Soul; tape loops in particular were used to great effect.
The Beatles were afforded a great deal more creative liberty in the studio by the fact that they had enough commercial support to quit performing live. This meant they were innovative in using studio technology to create new sounds and styles for pop music. The studio and editing tools were just as much a part to their songwriting now as their instruments.
This can be found most clearly on Revolver in songs like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – an attempt by the Beatles’ to recreate an audio version of an acid trip. The song features tape loops being played backward and at high speed, while John Lennon’s distorted voice quotes the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
LSD was a major part of the writing sessions of Revolver. Just as marijauna had influenced the slow pace and mellow tone of Rubber Soul, LSD informed Revolver. Whereas Rubber Soul was languid folk rock, Revolver is faster, featuring prominent electric guitars, unorthodox sound effects and a wider range of instruments, including string arrangements. These aspects of Revolver would form the foundation for a new genre that would go on to be called psychedelic rock.
The album would spawn a legion of imitators over the next few years, and elements of it would influence a number of other genres: the abrasive quality of the political song ‘Taxman’ would be adopted by the punk rock genre in the 1970s, for example.
The sound itself wasn’t the only striking feature of the album. The lyrics had also grown in complexity. Rubber Soul had seen the Beatles beginning to explore more mature themes, like heartache and introspection. Revolver finds each band member now exploring their own particular worldview.
‘Love You To’, inspired by Eastern music, examines ideas influenced by Buddhism. ‘For No One’ is a tale about a failed relationship. But ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is perhaps the oddest.
The song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was inspired by the score to Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The song features a stabbing string section throughout, and recounts the story of an old woman dying alone, and the priest who is the sole attendant of her funeral. It’s an exploration of depression and loneliness, a commentary on life in post-war Britain, and perhaps the darkest pop song that had ever been written at that time (let alone one that had become a global hit.)
This is even more striking considering that two years previously, the Beatles’ music had largely been concerned with teenage relationships. They were one of the most popular bands in the world, but their main audience was teenagers, and teenage girls in particular. They were the original boy band, in many ways. Their popularity was increased by their sense of humour and the lack of seriousness with which they treated interviews and public appearances, which was highly unusual for pop musicians at that time. They were not, however, praised for their lyrical content. For example, this leap in songwriting is evident when you compare verses from older Beatles songs like 1962’s ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
Love Me do (1962):
“Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
Love me do”
Eleanor Rigby (1966):
“Eleanor Rigby died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved”
This a major leap. In the space of four years, the Beatles had gone from being one of the most commercially successful pop bands of their time to one of the most respected artists in their medium.
Even visually, Revolver was ahead of its peers. While the majority of album releases at the time featured covers with simple photos of the band, Revolver features a trippy image designed by Beatles collaborator and friend, Klaus Voorman. It would go on to greatly influence the way album covers have been designed since.
Revolver was also instrumental in bringing world music to popular attention. It influenced the evolution of rock music and opened the doorways for other artists to expand the genre. Even today, the essence of Revolver remains in the work of acts like Coldplay, Radiohead and Vampire Weekend.
Political critiques, recreations of psychedelic experiences, parables about depression, perspectives on Eastern philosophy. These are an odd mix of ideas for a pop album, even today.
Revolver is now ranked third on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All time, mainly because of the enormous influence it had over pop music, and how it made much more diversity of genres in the rock and pop world possible. It is also praised for its ground-breaking use of studio artifice, which is today the norm in the music industry.
It was maybe the Beatles’ largest creative leap forward, but it was by no means the last. There are five Beatles albums that consistently appear in critics ‘greatest albums’ lists and at the tops of public polls. The next of them would come a year later.
It features a song about a girl named Lucy, and something about diamonds. You may have heard of it.