Category: Revolver

Changing the Game

From the time they were teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been credited together for songs that either of them had written. They commonly wrote together, with John writing the verse-chorus part and Paul adding the middle eight, or some such thing, but they just as commonly wrote songs completely on their own. Their collaboration was such that most of the time they paid no real mind to who wrote what. It was the song that was important, not where it came from. So the Lennon/McCartney credit was very prolific by 1965.

By Rubber Soul, however, they had started to distinguish themselves from their songwriting partner. From the beginning, you could usually tell which of them took the lead in the writing from who had the lead vocal. Starting with Rubber Soul and Revolver, though, it really started to show with the style of the lyrics. John was usually more acerbic and sarcastic than Paul, having had a more difficult childhood. Paul was a little more of a child of privilege, and thus had a more optimistic outlook on life than John did. Those different outlooks eventually became undeniable.

Lord Byron (club foot not pictured)

Take the songs “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Doctor Robert.” The Paul McCartney tune is a gentle, soothing love song, unabashed in its overarching sweetness. Like an Elizabeth Barrett-Browning poem, it doesn’t pull any punches on the gooey feelings. It has a splendid beginning-middle-end structure to it, anchored on three points (“here,” “there,” and “everywhere”). It works on the same level as a Shakespearian sonnet, and reveals that Paul McCartney is just a little lovesick puppy. He’s like a modern day Lord Byron, without the club foot or the penchant for choir boys.

“Doctor Robert,” on the other hand, is about drugs.  On all the band’s tours, John Lennon was the keeper of all the pills, and the other band members went to him when they wanted a fix. He wrote “Doctor Robert” about the band’s drug dealer, which was himself.  It’s acerbic, witty, and filled with John’s crooked sense of humor. It stands in direct contrast to Paul’s personality, which is sunny and optimistic. John wrote a lot of love songs (“If I Fell,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Please Please Me”), but Paul has a mastery of that material John could never fathom. On the other hand, Paul could never write a song like “Doctor Robert.”

On Revolver, the Beatles were breaking out of their previous mold, and even showing a little disrespect for it. While the girls who were going gaga over them had probably never tried an illegal drug in their lives, the Beatles released one of their druggiest songs up to that point with “She Said She Said.” John wrote it about Peter Fonda, who said he knew “what it’s like to be dead” while Peter, John, George and many others were sitting in a giant bathtub in an estate in Beverley Hills, all of them tripping on acid. Fonda, who was showing them his old bullet wounds, was thought of by George as being “very uncool.” This incident is probably also the basis for “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which John described as “another of my throwaways… fancy paper around an empty box.”

Amidst the swirl and confusion that most of the album is mired in, we have “For No One,” a moment of surprising maturity and sophistication. Paul actually cuts deeper than he normally does with this song. He describes the end of a relationship with some rather poignant insight. Later comes the Paul song “Got to Get You Into My Life,” where Paul’s twee tendencies crystallize perfectly. Sung with passion and optimism, it’s active instead of passive, if a bit of a backwards step from the bold new direction the Beatles were clearly going in.

The album finishes off with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a twisting, gyre-and-gimble type of song. Written by John and with lyrics largely based on Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience, it’s the single boldest statement by the Beatles up to this point. It says, “Throw away everything that you know about the Beatles.” From here on out, all bets were off.

The Beatles changed the game when they first came on the scene, making it suddenly plausible for all those snot-nosed rock and roll kids playing in garages to make it, and make it big. Revolver was another game-changer, shifting the public’s idea of them as simply the Fab Four. And it prepared the world (although insufficiently) for the far-out freakishness of Sgt. Pepper.


Listening to Revolver now, I’m struck by the amazing stance that the Beatles had at this particular time. The back foot was lifting off from their pop past and moptop heyday, while the front foot was just about to touch down on the strange ground they would travel on Sgt. Pepper. They were keenly aware of everyone who was expecting – in some cases demanding – that they be exactly the same as they had been since they first set foot on American shores. And for those people, you have tracks like “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “For No One.” But the majority of the music takes forays into the strange and groundbreaking. In that, the Beatles are saying,” Look, we’re changing. We’re in the process of it. So you can either come along for the ride, or get left behind.”

“Yellow Submarine” caused me a lot of grief. Back when I was a Beatles Hater, I would say “I can’t get into a band whose most significant contribution to the world was ‘we all live in a yellow submarine.’” It was a wrong step saying that was their biggest contribution when it obviously isn’t so. Again, though, I didn’t care whether what I was saying was true, only that it distinguished me from everyone else. I still think the lyrics are silly and a little ridiculous, but the song fits right in with the fantastical and bizarre tone this album has.

Songs like “Yellow Submarine” inject some fun, whimsy, and just-plain wackiness. Granted, the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” probably inspire more scratched heads than wide smiles, but the bouncy, sing-along rhythm is pretty infectious, and that’s really why it has endured.

That infectiousness is what made the Beatles big in the first place, and it is part of what keeps us talking about their music to this day. I would say that no living person has more of a gift for writing superglue-in your-head songs than Paul McCartney. Sometimes they’re instantaneous things, and sometimes they wear you down with their undefeatable catchiness. “Good Day Sunshine” is one such song. Paul’s blazing optimism and way-too-twee sense of the world being a wonderful place is all over this track. It almost made me gag the first time I heard it.

Let me give you an example. You know how if you eat too many Oreos all at once, your stomach rebels against you and you don’t feel like eating for the rest of the day? The first time you do that, your Oreo limit is about 6 or 7. “Good Day Sunshine” is like having a month’s worth of Oreos all at once. It’s loaded with calories and a ton of the most useless kind of fat, all in just over two minutes. But here’s the thing. For whatever reason, you do the Oreo binge a second time. And then a third, fourth and fifth time. And then a 10th. And then a 20th. Eventually, your Oreo limit is about 45. You’re sucking down the whole bag without batting an eye. “Good Day Sunshine” (and the larger part of Paul’s Beatles catalog) works the same way. You keep coming back to it, and you don’t even know why. Eventually, the sappy , sugary sweetness that Paul does so well is not only tolerable, but expected – nay, needed.

The Beatles – Revolver – 8/5/1966

Even though the Beatles became the most popular band in the world once they cleaned themselves up and started doing sappy love songs, it wasn’t until later that they became great. Around 1967 they shocked the world with their daring (and out-of-left-field) originality by having one of the most famous identity crises of all time. With the release of Revolver, they were right on the cusp.

“One, two, three, four:” a standard opening for a song, especially for Paul McCartney, who had done that on many Beatles recordings previously. But this time, there was a strange tape loop in the background, and the voice counting sounded like it had emphysema, or like an alien. Then, the harsh, stabbing guitar licks that open “Taxman.” To a listener in 1966, this must have been a naturally uncomfortable moment. He must have thought, “Wait a sec. What happened to ‘baby you can drive my car?’ Where did this ‘one for you, nineteen for me’ stuff come from?” Instead of sweet but rocking love songs, we get George Harrison being angry that he’s paying about 95% of his earnings in taxes. I can see people being very confused.

Then “Eleanor Rigby,” and the confusion increases tenfold. Completely orchestral music, and lyrics about an insane dead woman and the minister who was the sole attendant to her funeral; grim stuff.  More than that, “Eleanor Rigby” was unlike any pop song released as a single that had ever come out. It didn’t actually feature any of the Beatles on instruments; only Paul singing lead, John and George singing some harmonies, and an orchestra performing all the instrumentation. Clearly, there’s no sign of the Beatles as listeners knew them.

“I’m Only Sleeping” is at least a slight return to Beatles normalcy, with an at once bouncy and laconic rhythm, and lyrics about laziness. But with “Love You To,” we’re right back where we started in a song driven by a sitar, of all things. What the hell happened? There’s no squishy love, no simple romanticism, no “’Til There Was You”-esque moments at all.

None of this was on my mind the first time I listened to Revolver. In fact, when I first checked the Beatles out in college, I didn’t even bother with anything pre-Sgt. Pepper. I missed out on some real revelation, since familiarizing myself with their bubble-gum catalog would have given me a deeper appreciation for the turn they took in 1966. Besides that, I would have actually known that they took that turn in ’66, not ’67. It’s only a difference of ten months, but it’s significant.