(Introduction: Robert Rodriguez' latest book, “Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll,” (also available from Amazon.co.uk) takes a deep look at the Beatles album from a different perspective that it was the turning point for the Fabs.)
(And in the video spot at left, you'll find a collection of "Revolver" outtakes. It goes very well with the interview.
Video: "Revolver" sessions
Robert Rodriguez: "Sgt. Pepper" was only the turning point for anyone not paying attention to The Beatles’ recorded output for the past year previous. But unlike "Revolver," it was impossible to escape or ignore. I think that a large part of what gave that album its buzz in 1967 was the entire atmosphere at the moment of its arrival, which included the months-long build-up, as well as its presentation and timing, as the world was ready and receptive.
"Revolver," in contrast, arrived under a cloud -- at least in the U.S. -- which I’ll discuss further. I think that anyone looking back at their recorded output can plainly see the great leap in artistic progress between 'Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" -- far more of an advance than between any other two albums of theirs. Though arguably a bigger turning point, it was largely overlooked, for several reasons.
First, for a large segment of their fan base, it may have been a baffling release, filled with an array of sounds that could not be readily reproduced by a beat group live onstage. It therefore might have taken some time for their audience to wrap their heads around it, as it were. By the Summer of Love, with many more experimental sounds becoming commonplace, what the Beatles were up to went down much easier. In 1966, the public just wasn’t ready.
Conspicuously significant about Revolver in terms of a “turning point” was their approach to both song craft and production. With the first, they were exploring new boundaries of what a pop song could be about, which in their case for the first time encompassed topical concerns (“Taxman”); social commentary (“Eleanor Rigby”); world music (“Love You To”); electronica (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and psychedelia (“Rain” - recorded during the Revolver sessions). These idioms were, in some instances, relegated to the fringe and not the mainstream at the time. Therefore, for the biggest act of the day to take them on was both significant and a departure.
Second, they were taking a huge -- and commercially dangerous -- risk in essentially tipping their hand as to where their future lay: as a studio act, fulfilling what is meant by being a “recording artist.” Conventional wisdom held that an act on their success level could not sustain itself purely by making records; in pop’s highly competitive world, you were only as relevant as your latest AM hit single. Thus, you were required to feed the beast with regular appearances before the public.
The Beatles not only crafted a long player that, by and large, they could not reproduce on stage, even if they had the will, but - once they hit the road for that last tour - performed a set that utterly ignored this brand new release, like it didn’t exist. It was as though they saw themselves as wearing two hats: one that placated fans longing for their “oldies”; and their own artistic destiny, which was satiated by re-writing the definition of what constituted “Beatle music.” Something had to give, and before that tour had ended, it was their will to play the game as expected anymore.
Thus, fans might not have been quick to embrace what was looking like the end of their chances to see the Beatles coming to town. Why reward something that will lead to denying you what you want: the chance to see the Beatles live?
Finally, there was the aspect of the album’s issue being drowned out by controversy which led to bans from airplay and even bonfires. I’ll address this further on.
Q: You discuss how the Beatles were given a preview of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds". How did that influence "Revolver"?
Robert Rodriguez: The Beach Boys’ influence, more specifically, that of Brian Wilson’s approach to the studio, had been something the Beatles were keeping close tabs on well before "Pet Sounds." He’d retired from the road in 1964 and began producing a series of ever more advanced backing tracks to their work. It was pretty clear that he was becoming less interested in sticking to the formula -- surfing and hot rod tunes -- than he was creating these Baroque tapestries, tapping the cream of L.A.’s session pool and broadening his palette instrumentally, well beyond what the group could pull off onstage.
John Lennon specifically commented on late 1965’s “The Little Girl I Once Knew” as an
example of what someone with creativity could produce when not bound by the demands of touring. Brian, in turn, took the challenge of "Rubber Soul" as the impetus to create "Pet Sounds" -- an album where, as he noted, “Every song is a gas!” Now "Pet Sounds" arrived at about the midway point in "Revolver’s" creation, therefore - as they heard it when everyone else did - its direct impact on their work may have been minimal.
“Here, There and Everywhere,” a Beach Boys pastiche if ever was, did get recorded after they’d heard "Pet Sounds," but beyond the stacked harmonies, I really don’t think there was much of an obvious influence. I think that the Beach Boys’ impact was more general, in terms of creating ambitious soundscapes not bound by the limitations of their conventional line-up.
By 1966, the Beach Boys were all about session players; Revolver was the first album where the Beatles went similarly all out. Perhaps "Sgt. Pepper" -- distinct from "Revolver" in that it framed the music as a sustained listening experience -- took a page from "Pet Sounds," but really, they were following their own muse by that time.
For that matter, how much pressure was the competition – the Stones, the Byrds,
the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Who, the Bee Gees and any other major players -
exerting on the group?
The Beatles were acutely aware of their position at the top of the musical food chain and recognized that raising their game and evolving was necessary to maintaining their supremacy; adhering to formula wasn’t going to do it. I therefore discuss throughout the book what was going on around them, as they did not create in a vacuum.
It’s important to know, for instance, that though we’re accustomed at this distance to see the Beatles, Stones and Dylan as the Holy Triumvirate from which all important musical developments in the '60s flowed, the Stones hadn’t really nailed the album thing by the time the Beatles were crafting "Revolver." Though popular, they were really an adept singles band at the time, and therefore, didn’t pose any more of a threat to the Beatles than did Herman’s Hermits, though that would not last.
John, Paul and George were always conscious of what was going on around them to see what could be re-purpose to their own ends: George offered a rather direct Byrds homage with "Rubber Soul’s" “If I Needed Someone,” while "Revolver’s" “And Your Bird Can Sing” nearly became likewise.
If you note the timing of when certain songs came into being, you can see what influenced what: Ray Davies’ series of Dylanesque character studies (“A Well-Respected Man,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”) certainly prompted Paul to try his hand at one around this time, with “Paperback Writer.” “Daydream,” from the Lovin’ Spoonful, inspired “Good Day Sunshine.”
The Byrds’ efforts at injecting a level of experimentation into work crafted for AM airplay, which they did with “Eight Miles High,” was a brave gamble, and the Beatles were watching. Dylan, at last arriving on the Beatles’ level commercially, was a significant influence. First, there was the aspect of raising their game composition-wise. By 1966, it was clear that John and George at least had taken note that Beatle music could become a form of personal self-expression and not just a commercial enterprise of purely standard pop craft.
Second -- perhaps not coincidentally -- it was John and George that were on hand at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1966, on the UK tour which saw Dylan being challenged by his audience (that earlier “Judas!” moment in Manchester). There was this battle of expectations between artist and audience, with Bob -- much like the Beatles at that time - seeking to pursue his artistic destiny while facing down a following not necessarily prepared to follow his new direction.
Perhaps fortified by his example, the Beatles did likewise with "Revolver," crafting an album’s worth of tunes that re-wrote the boundaries of pop, though possessing their gift of accessibility, rather than pure self-indulgence. They then went out on the road to fulfill their final performing duties, without even acknowledging their studio achievement.
(More to come in part 2 in this space soon.)
(Copyright Steve Marinucci. Please do not reprint in full on other sites without permission. Headlines with links, though, are fine. Posting any of our links to Twitter and Facebook is much appreciated.)