The Beatles: Abbey Road

Abbey Road

After the tension-filled sessions that created the White Album, the Beatles went back into the studio with a film crew in tow. The idea was to film a documentary about the making of the next album, provisionally called Get Back. It was a move to fulfill their old contractual obligation to make movies, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The concept was to go into the studio and “get back” to their roots as a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band. Lennon, especially, wanted to avoid what he saw as the overproduction on albums like Sgt. Pepper.

The result was a disaster.

The rehearsals for the sessions were not done in their home base of EMI Studios, but in Twickenham Film Studios. Lennon, deeply in thrall to his new partner Yoko Ono, refusing ever to be apart from her, addicted to heroin, and creatively empty, was looking to break from the Beatles and was, at best, disinterested in the recording. Harrison was blossoming as a songwriter, turning out many of the best songs he ever wrote, and was frustrated that Lennon and McCartney were still treating him as an inferior. At one point he briefly quit the band. Ringo, too, felt apart from the band. McCartney was the only member who could still be called a Beatles fan. He tried desperately to rally the group into making a great album, but by taking over in the studio he became insufferable. Arguments abounded. Brian Epstein was dead and the band had no direction or focus. Even George Martin, their guiding light in the studio, was out of sorts when Paul brought in the producer Glyn Johns as an engineer. All of it was caught on film.

There was a brief bright spot. On the roof of EMI Studios, on a cold January day, the Beatles played one last live show. They only got through a few songs before the police shut them down, but for that brief period they were a band again: locked in, happy, and functioning as a single unit.

That moment was not enough. The music they had recorded in the studio was, as Lennon rightfully described it, “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever”.

Shortly after the rooftop concert, the band gave up and went their separate ways.

It was, of course, McCartney who reached out to the others, including George Martin, and got them to agree to give it one more try. Martin agreed on one condition: “We go in and do it like we used to.” The Beatles agreed.

The result was a triumph.

Abbey Road, the final album the Beatles recorded and thus their true swan song, is not without some flaws but it is a far more cohesive album than its all-white predecessor. It begins with John Lennon’s last famous Beatles song. “Come Together” started life as a campaign song for LSD-guru Timothy Leary’s brief attempt to become the governor of California with the slogan “Come together, join the party”, but Lennon was never able to get past the “come together” phrase. When Leary’s run ended as the result of a drug bust, Lennon scrapped the idea, kept the slogan, and crafted the song as we know it today. Beginning, and laced throughout, with John whispering the now creepily ironic line “Shoot me”, the lyrics are a hodgepodge of non sequiturs though there is speculation that each verse has cryptic allusions to the members of the band. The third verse clearly is about Lennon: “Bag Productions“, “walrus gumboot”, “Ono sideboard” can all easily be seen as self-referencing, but the theory falls apart when it gets to the other Beatles. Non sequiturs or not, it’s the music and the tagline (“Come together/Right now/Over me”) that make the song. Originally meant to be faster, it was McCartney who suggested they slow it down and add a swampy, bluesy feel to the track. Propelled by McCartney’s extraordinary bass line, and Lennon’s sublime vocal, it’s a devastating salvo to lead off the album. As wildly eclectic as the White Album was, there was nothing like “Come Together” in the band’s canon. The true tragedy of the song is that Lennon decided to nick a lyric from “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry: “Here come a flat top/He was movin’ up with me” was modified into “Here come old flat top/He come groovin’ up with me.” Lennon was sued by Berry’s publisher and, as part of the setttlement, ended up being forced to record his sloppy, cocaine-fueled, largely uninspired solo album of covers, Rock ‘n’ Roll, in 1975.

As good as Lennon’s song was, it was immediately outclassed in every way by the song that followed. “Something” was George Harrison’s finest moment as a Beatle (though all votes for “Here Comes The Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will be counted). Upon hearing it none other than the Chairman of the Board (and no fan of rock music), Frank Sinatra, dubbed it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years” (though for years he gave the songwriting credit to Lennon and McCartney). Ironically, George also stole a key lyric, though he wasn’t sued. James Taylor, then a new recording artist signed to Apple Records, had a song on his fairly obscure first album called “Something In The Way She Moves” from which George blatantly, and admittedly, lifted his opening line. From there the songs parted. Taylor’s mid-tempo ballad, with a terribly cheesy harpsichord introduction, sounds like something Simon and Garfunkel might have done as album filler (though Taylor’s guitar playing shines far brighter than Simon’s ever did). Harrison’s “Something”, with its elegant guitar (bent strings, not a slide as many people think) and rocked up bridge, are immediately recognizable and timeless. Indeed, “Something” was so strong that even Lennon and McCartney conceded that it should be the A-side of their next single, a first for a George Harrison song. Lennon called it “the best on the album” and McCartney thought it the best song Harrison had written to that point. The song also contains one of the very best performances on a Beatles record from both Ringo, whose cascading rolls and fills both punctuate and push the ballad into rockier territory, and, especially, McCartney, whose wildly intricate bass line is one of the best he’s ever done.

McCartney takes the lead on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, another of his English music hall pastiche songs, a sort of psychopathic cousin to “When I’m Sixty-Four”. It’s as cute as any other song about bludgeoning people to death, maybe even cuter, with some nice guitar fills from George and excellent piano from Paul. There’s also a Moog synthesizer solo that never should have been recorded (generally true for all Moog synthesizer solos). The earworm chorus, complete with a hammer striking an anvil (for Richard Starkey of Liverpool, opportunity clanks!), makes the song instantly memorable even though it’s really very lightweight. Far better is “Oh! Darling”, which follows. It’s also something of a pastiche, but this time it hearkens back to the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll the Beatles loved so much, and features a larynx-shredding vocal from Paul. Lennon had made a pitch that he should sing it, since it fit his raw vocal style better, but there’s simply no denying the visceral thrill of McCartney employing almost every weapon in his arsenal.

Ringo marks his presence with “Octopus’s Garden”, a quirky song that was inspired by a conversation with a boat captain, but also a comment on Ringo’s wish to get away from the tension that came with being a Beatle in 1969. In some ways it can be seen as a companion piece to Ringo’s other nautical adventure, “Yellow Submarine”, with underwater sound affects, but also employs some of the country music sound from “Don’t Pass Me By”, especially on the chorus and George’s superb guitar solo. It’s the best song Ringo wrote as a Beatle (granted, there’s only “Don’t Pass” for competition), and it’s quite charming, but it’s also a light piece of fluff. A perfect Ringo song.

Side one ends with one of the rare “love it or hate it” songs in the Beatles canon. While it’s nowhere near as controversial as something like “Revolution 9”, many fans are divided on the merits of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The lyrics are simple: “I want you/I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad” and “She’s so heavy” are pretty much the total of the words, but the song clocks in at nearly eight minutes. The critics say the lyrics are too simple, the music too repetitive, the song too unlike any other Beatles song. Put me in the “love it” side of the argument. Yes, the words are simple but Lennon wasn’t trying to intellectualize his feelings for Yoko Ono, he was simply howling his raw, unbridled, lust. The music is a circular motif that borders on heavy metal, slathered in washes of synthesizer and Paul McCartney’s astounding lead bass playing. Layered guitars make the song sound impossibly big, and the repetition makes the listener feel like he’s being sucked into a maelström. The effect is hypnotic and the ending, a sudden cut to silence that is impossible to accurately time even with repeated listens, is as shocking as the piano chord that ends “A Day In The Life”.

The swirling darkness and Lennon’s primal vocal on “I Want You” offer a stark contrast to “Here Comes The Sun”, which kicks off side two of the album with a gorgeous, gentle guitar lick. This is George’s second song on the album, and stiff competition for his first, and the title of “best George Beatle song”. Written in Eric Clapton’s garden on a beautiful sunny day, the theme actually mirrors “Octopus’s Garden”. It’s George’s sigh of relief that he is, at least for that moment, away from the crushing pressure of the Beatles. It’s unfortunate that Lennon, recovering from a car accident, doesn’t appear on the song. Musically, it’s George, Paul, and Ringo at their best. The gentle, but insistent, guitar from Harrrison is given a great deal of urgency by Ringo’s sterling drumming and McCartney’s melodic bass line. It’s also one of George’s best vocal performances ever. With some subtle touches of synthesizer, strings, and woodwinds, it’s a perfect song to capture that feeling of springtime breaking through the cold clutches of Old Man Winter.

“Because” is the sun fully arrived. Based loosely on the chords of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” played backwards, and with sparse instrumentation, it’s perhaps the best example of the three-part harmonies of which the Beatles were capable. Sung by John, Paul, and George in harmony, with the vocals later triple-tracked to give the impression of nine voices, over George Martin’s harpsichord and John’s matching guitar, and underpinned by Paul’s simple bass and Harrison’s Moog flourishes, “Because” is one of the loveliest songs the Beatles ever did.

“Because” ends on a sustained “ahhh” that trails off into the ether and segues into the understated piano chords that herald one of the greatest of all late-era Beatles songs. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is McCartney’s song about the tension of being in the Beatles, their legal and accounting issues, and the desire to get away from it all. “You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper”, Paul sang directly to Allen Klein, the ruthless and corrupt manager that the other Beatles wanted to fill the void left by Brian Epstein’s death (they didn’t know he was ruthless and corrupt yet, only that he managed the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger had provided a very tepid endorsement). From this understated beginning, the song rapidly switches to Paul doing his best boogie-woogie piano (recorded at half-speed and then sped up) and Elvis voice, singing about the joys of the early days of the band, when the future stretched out in front of them. He’s singing about the beginnings of the band, hitting the road, all the money gone, with no idea of what the future might hold but knowing it was going to be great: “But oh, that magic feeling/Nowhere to go/Nowhere to go!”, followed by a wordless three-part harmony that leads into a quick, but ripping, guitar solo.

The third part of the song is Paul looking to recapture those early days, but this time with his new love, Linda Eastman, and with boatloads of money: “One sweet dream/Pack up the bags/Get in the limousine/Soon we’ll be away from here/Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.” While the third part of the song looks forward, it’s also somewhat sad as it’s Paul essentially acknowledging that his future does not lie with the Beatles. As the song ends in a firestorm of guitar and piano, Paul sings the childhood chant “1-2-3-4-5-6-7/All good children go to Heaven”. The song is a nice contrast to Starr’s and Harrison’s similarly themed songs. Ringo just wanted to get away from it all, and George was so happy to be away from it all, but “You Never Give Me Your Money” is shot through with nostalgia for the past, sadness for the present, and a wistful melancholy for the future. While George’s and Ringo’s songs were snapshots of a moment in time, of how they felt at the precise moment they were writing the song, McCartney’s was a survey of all his conflicting emotions during this incredibly difficult time.

What follows is one of the greatest sustained album sides ever recorded, made all the more remarkable because most of the songs aren’t particularly good. They might have been good, or even great, given more time and effort, but the rest of Abbey Road is a collection of half-formed ideas for songs. Standing alone, most of these songs would be considered lesser Beatle efforts, toss-offs, and outtakes. Only two of the remaining eight songs break the two-minute mark. Confronted with the need to fill the rest of the album, and not having enough full songs to do it, with their interest level waning, McCartney suggested that they take their ideas and stitch them together to form one long suite of short songs. It was a brilliant idea that paid off big. Sure the songs are half-baked, but the reckless pace of what became known as either the “Abbey Road Medley” or, as it was commonly referred, “Side Two of Abbey Road” sweeps the listener along. The individual parts of the medley are unimportant (at least until “The End”), but the medley carries a rhythm and flow that essentially turn these disparate elements into one long song.

The real start of the medley is “You Never Give Me Your Money”, but that song is rarely considered to be the start since it’s a standalone song with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Yet as it finally drifts away in a wash of chiming guitars, “Sun King” slides in underneath, connecting the two pieces. “Sun King” is very close to being a full song, though the lyrics are very simple and the last refrains are a combination of Spanish, Italian, English, and gibberish. Lennon once referred to it as “a piece of garbage I had laying around”. But even these words sound marvelous with the Beatle voices locked in harmony. It’s an understated, slow song that provides the perfect introduction for what follows. “Mean Mr. Mustard”, with Paul resurrecting the fuzz bass he last used on Rubber Soul‘s “Think For Yourself” and John giving a great delivery of nonsense lyrics about a nasty man who hid money in his nose, picks up the tempo before crashing into the fast rocker, “Polythene Pam”, another snippet Lennon had in his back pocket. It makes more sense than “Mean Mr. Mustard”, as a straightforward tribute to an “attractively built” girl, but at just over a minute long it sweeps by so quickly that it barely registers. “Polythene Pam” then segues seamlessly into McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”. It’s nearly two minutes long, and can rightly be seen as a standalone song (Joe Cocker covered it). It keeps up the pace of “Pam”, but is more structured and complete. It’s also lyrically more coherent, telling the tale of a fan who broke into Paul’s house and stole a picture.

There is the briefest of pauses (something I never understood) before “Golden Slumbers” begins with its quiet piano and soothing McCartney vocal, underpinned by George Harrison’s bass and a string section that swells and sighs behind the vocal melody with a melody all its own. The quiet interlude is brief, as McCartney starts belting out the chorus only to tone it down again for a repeat of the verse. Instead of the chorus repeating, “Carry That Weight” breaks in with a powerful horn flourish and a chorus of Beatle voices singing the lyrics as if the band members were a stadium full of soccer hooligans. Once again it’s McCartney commenting on the problems in the Beatles circle, evidenced by the return of the melody for “You Never Give My Your Money”, this time played by a horn section. The reprise of the earlier song crashes up against the main song’s climax before switching to the grand finale of “The End”.

The beginning of this finale is so much of a piece with “Carry That Weight” it could easily be seen as a continuation. Both songs are loud, bracing rockers; the anthemic “Boy, you gotta carry that weight a long time” vocal blends seamlessly into McCartney’s raw-throated “Oh yeah!/All right!/Are you gonna be in my dreams/Tonight?” that kicks off “The End” before sliding into the most unlikely thing one would expect on a Beatles album: a drum solo.

Ringo hated drum solos and had to be convinced to play one. Even here, given the chance to flail around like so many drummers do, Ringo chose to serve the song. The solo is brief, uncomplicated, musical, rock-solid, and unwavering. It’s the perfect Ringo vehicle, with none of the usual histrionics one expects from drum solos. As the solo ends, there’s a brief intercession with the band banging out chords and chanting “Love you!/Love you!” before segueing into the next least likely thing you’d expect to hear on a Beatles album arrives: a guitar duel. McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon (in that order) took two bars apiece, rotating three times, to cut heads one last time. Recorded live with the three of them playing and, according the the engineer Geoff Emerick, appearing ecstatically happy, the solos are perfect representations of their musicianship. McCartney’s solo is fluid and fast, complex, but musical. Harrison’s solo sounds more structured, but is equally facile. Lennon once said that as a guitarist he “wasn’t that good, but I can make it howl”, and he does so here. His chugging, distorted chording and triplets add just the right note of chaos to the structure. The solos build in intensity, a rock band firing on all cylinders before abruptly ending and giving way to a simple piano motif.

And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love you make

It’s Paul sendoff to the band, and a last piece of advice for a tumultuous decade. The vocal, punctuated lightly with a three-note George guitar lick, ends with a huge buildup of strings and brass, McCartney’s breathy “Ahh”, and Harrison’s majestic guitar.

It’s really pretty amazing that collection of gestating song ideas, strung together, could provide a climax as cathartic as the final chord of “A Day in The Life”, but that is what happens here. Broken into their individual elements, only “The End” and, maybe, “Sun King” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” hold up as complete entities. Taken as a whole, the sum of the parts is gloriously transcendent. The parts swirl, ebb, flow, crash, live, and breathe as a unique organism, and the medley remains one of the greatest moments in the Beatles recorded history, and elevates Abbey Road from the level of merely excellent to being considered one of their best albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then…

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day
I wanna tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a belly full of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m gonna make her mine, oh yeah
Someday I’m gonna make her mine

Grade: A+

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“From that point on, it was mayhem…” George Martin, RIP

Perhaps the greatest lucky break in rock history is when a young producer named George Martin had an affair with his secretary. Contrary to the oft-related story of how Martin was so impressed by their wit he signed them to a contract, the truth is that Martin was assigned to the Beatles, largely as punishment by his bosses for the affair. He had no great love for the music he heard on their original tapes, or in the audition tapes. He thought they were raw, their songs were lacking, and their drummer was terrible. But the voices…now that was something that came through the amateurish noise he heard.

George Martin turned out to be exactly what the Beatles needed. His first order of business was convincing them to fire Pete Best, which they did. But his most important contribution at that stage was to trust them. Martin gave the band a Mitch Murray song called “How Do You Do It?” and told them to learn it and record it. He assured them it was a hit single. The Beatles recorded the song against their better wishes, protesting bitterly the whole time, and Martin agreed to release “Love Me Do”, a song he didn’t like, instead. When it was time to release a followup, Martin again suggested “How Do You Do It?” Building on the fair success of “Love Me Do”, Martin told the band that “How Do You Do It?” would be a number one hit. The Beatles hated the song and refused to release it. Martin, whose word was final, challenged them to come up with something better. The result was “Please Please Me”. Martin admitted that the song was better.

He was right about “How Do You Do It?” The song was a chart topper for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool’s also-rans in the wake of the Beatles. But it bears saying how extraordinary this was in 1962-63. Artists, especially newly signed artists with a four-song contract, never contradicted their producer. Producers of that time in England functioned more as Artists & Repertoire experts, matching songs to performers, while engineers did the real recording work. In the studio the producer’s word was gospel; he was the boss and the artists did what he said. Had the Beatles been given to any other producer their weak, disinterested recording of “How Do You Do It?” would have been their first single. It’s almost certain they’d have been told to follow with another cover, hand-chosen by the producer from a pool of songs whose copyrights belonged to EMI. The recording studio was no place for real creativity; EMI Studio was a laboratory (the engineers wore white lab coats) where everything was highly regimented…microphones were placed a precise distance from instruments, drums were recorded with a specific microphone setup, etc. The studio was where music was recorded professionally, quickly, and at little cost.

And this was truly Martin’s greatest achievement: he was willing to break the rules. He listened to the band and worked with them to make their musical vision come true. He’s often said to be the “fifth Beatle” and if anyone can lay a claim to that title it was George Martin. He brought order to the band’s chaotic creativity. He harnessed their energy and focused it. He made their musical ambition a reality because he was the only trained musician in the studio. It was Martin who suggested that “Please Please Me” be sped up and turned from a Roy Orbison-like ballad into a smash hit rocker. It was Martin who suggested and scored the strings for “Yesterday”, and turned the song from a ballad into a standard. It was Martin who had the genius to record the piano solo of “In My Life” at half-speed, then speed it up, turning it into a baroque harpsichord solo. It was Martin who transcribed McCartney’s humming into the gorgeous French horn solo on “For No One.” It was Martin who figured out a way to stitch together two versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” that were in different keys and different tempos, and got it to work.

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His imagination, and his own musical creativity, were fueled by the Beatles, and he returned the favor by acting less like a studio boss and more like a collaborator. What the band wanted, he made happen even if there was no precedent for what they requested. What he suggested, the band took very seriously and, more often than not, tried (usually to great effect). The Beatles smashed all the rules of the recording studio. They were such a money machine for EMI that they couldn’t be refused. George Martin, naturally rebellious, musically creative, and in sync with the band, played a huge part in that. As the band threw out the rule book for a musical artist, Martin rewrote it for a producer. Before Martin, pop music producers tended to be either martinets like Phil Spector who insisted that everything be done their way or disinterested clock-punchers who hit the record button and let those no-talent rock and rollers sing their song until the serious jazz and classical musicians arrived; after Martin and the phenomenal success of the Beatles producers listened to the band’s ideas while offering suggestions for improvement. Producers were there to shape the final product, not to create it.

The Beatles and George Martin were the perfect yin and yang of popular music. Four young, long-haired, drug-fueled, musically immature, creative artists and one older, short back and sides, straight-arrow, musically mature, creative producer. Rarely, if ever, in rock or pop music has the marriage of band and producer been so complementary or so fruitful. Had the Beatles recorded with anyone else at the helm their career would have had a remarkably different path. One need only listen to Let It Be, the album recorded by Glyn Johns and produced (dreadfully) by Phil Spector to hear the difference. If Spector had produced “Yesterday” it probably would have featured a bombastic forty-piece orchestra and choir instead of the sympathetic and tasteful string quartet Martin suggested. Listen to the band’s recordings compared to anyone else from that era, and you’ll be able to hear the difference. One of the reasons the Beatles were so dominant in the Sixties was not just that they had better songs than anyone else. They also sounded better, and that was the result of working with George Martin. As my friend novelist (his Broken Glass Waltzes is a great combination of noir and rock and roll; you should buy it), Berries drummer, and fellow garage rock enthusiast Warren Moore wrote in his encomium:

Despite the technical limitations of the period (remember, Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a pair of four-track machines), and despite the increasing complexity of the instrumentation as the band developed…things don’t get lost in Beatles cuts — they get found. Martin’s work allowed space for a variety of nuance that other producers lost.

Martin went on to record other artists (he actually worked with others in the Sixties, as well). He produced Jeff Beck’s landmark fusion album Blow By Blow and it’s worthy, but lesser, sequel, Wired. He worked with Cheap Trick, America, Ringo, and Paul McCartney. He even worked with Neil Sedaka and Celine Dion, but nobody’s perfect. He will always be remembered for his work with the Beatles. It’s too flip to say that Martin made the Beatles what they were; their talents existed even without him. But Martin made their musical dreams come true, and that made ours come true, too.

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine

Yellow SubmarineIn the summer of 1968, the film Yellow Submarine was released. The Beatles were under a contract to make three movies for United Artists, but had no interest in participating. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had been the first two, and their other attempt at film, Magical Mystery Tour, had been a disaster both artistically and in terms of public reaction. The solution was simple: make a cartoon. The Beatles declined to take part, fearing the worst, but they agreed to provide four new songs and were so pleased by the finished movie they filmed a cameo for the end. (The band’s participation was so negligible that United Artists refused to count Yellow Submarine towards their contract, thus necessitating the Let It Be documentary.)

They were right to be pleased. Yellow Submarine is a pleasure to watch. It’s trippy and psychedelic but also fun and funny, recounting the tale of how the band traveled through various seas in a yellow submarine to save the world from the dreaded Blue Meanies who wanted to ban all music. It’s a silly story that works perfectly for children, with enough nods, winks, and in-jokes to keep the adults in the room interested. The cartoon Beatles sound nothing like the real people, but the characterizations built on the Hard Day’s Night/Help! personas that were indelibly etched in the public’s mind: posh Paul, mystic George, sarcastic John, and lovable goofball Ringo. The voices were different but the characters in the film still felt like the Beatles.

Several months later, a soundtrack album was released, with six Beatles songs on the first side and a collection of George Martin instrumentals on side two. Of the Beatles songs, two had been previously released, but it should be noted that “All You Need Is Love” was not yet available on an album in England. Because the band were not particularly interested in the project, the songs that were given to the producers had been previously recorded and left on the cutting room floor. There were two exceptions, Paul’s tossed off “All Together Now” and John’s brutal “Hey Bulldog”, but both of George’s songs were Sgt. Pepper outtakes.

Simply put, Yellow Submarine is not a Beatles album in any way, shape, or form. As an official release bearing their name, released in similar formats in both England and America (the packaging was slightly differnt…the American version featured some very funny liner notes and pictures on the back cover, the English version contained, strangely, a review of the White Album), it is part of the discography, but it also stands apart.

Unsurprisingly, the album kicks off with the title track and there is an immediate revelation: “Yellow Submarine” works better as the leadoff track to the soundtrack than it does nestled between “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “She Said, She Said.” That’s it as far as revelations go. The song remains charming, and is off-kilter enough to have fit on the bizarrely eclectic White Album, so it’s appearance here works. The first side of the album ends with “All You Need Is Love”, the anthem of the Summer of Love in 1967. It’s easy to understand why: it’s got all the makings of a finale, with the Beatles defeating the Blue Meanies through the power of love and music. In the summer of 1968, the song still had life. By the time the soundtrack was released in early 1969, there was already a dated feel. “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”/”Revolution”, and the White Album had already moved the band well past the sound of 1967.

This is abundantly clear on the four previously unreleased songs on the soundtrack. “All Together Now” is custom-made for singalongs, propelled by an acoustic guitar and a lyric so simple a child could easily remember it (and probably have written it, frankly). It’s a pleasant track, almost impossible to dislike and equally impossible to truly love. Like many of Paul’s songs from the White Album, it sounds like it was dashed off, taking no more time to write than it took to play. But that trait also makes it more of a piece with where the Beatles were in 1968, so it sounds fresh in that part of the band’s history.

The same is true of John’s “Hey Bulldog,” a piano-driven rocker that’s one of the toughest songs in the band’s repertoire. It was written mostly on-the-spot when the band were in the recording studio to be filmed for a promotional video of “Lady Madonna.” Rather than just mime the song, they decided to record something. What’s fascinating is that the “Lady Madonna” promo is actually the band recording “Hey Bulldog”, something that wasn’t realized until decades later, when the footage was matched up to the proper song.

The song began life as “Hey Bullfrog”, but was changed on the fly by Lennon when McCartney started barking like a dog during the recording. Lennon later claimed that the lyrics were meaningless and, taken as a whole, he’s right. But there are several extraordinarily good lines in the song: “Some kind of solitude is measured out in you”, “What makes you think you’re something special when you smile?”, “Some kind of innocence is measured out in years/You don’t know what it’s like to listen to your fears”. At this point, writing material for what would become the White Album, Lennon was simply on fire. Even a toss-off like “Hey Bulldog” has some great lyrics and a solid rock musical background. George’s guitar solo, especially, is dazzling. This is the sound of the Beatles, and especially Lennon, in 1968: it’s tough and raw.

And that’s the fatal flaw of the soundtrack. The other “new” songs are both from George Harrison, and both sound like the Beatles of 1967. Both “Only A Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much” are very good, even if the latter song is a bit too long and marred by a muddy production. But both songs are examples of the Beatles exploring psychedelia, something they hadn’t done since Magical Mystery Tour. The songs work in the movie, but the band had moved on from this and in the post-White Album world of the soundtrack these songs sound like what they are: leftovers from an earlier era.

They’re pretty cool leftovers, though. “Only A Northern Song” is George’s rant at Northern Songs, Ltd., the publishing company that had been created in 1963 for the Beatles. Harrison was contracted to Northern Songs as a songwriter, while Lennon and McCartney had shares in the company. This meant that Harrison earned less money from his songs than John and Paul did from theirs. The lyrics are essentially a put down of the song. Nothing about the song really matters because I’m not getting anything for this, Harrison seems to be saying. The chords may not be right, the vocals may be out of key, and none of it is important because somebody else owns the song. “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/As it’s only a Northern Song.” To hammer the point home, the music is some of the hardest to listen to in the Beatles songbook. The lead guitar is shrill and noisy, and the music has a drugged out, bad trip feel to it. Amazingly, this combination of music and lyrics works. The melody on the chorus is one of George’s best from this era. This would probably have been a lead weight clunker in the middle of Sgt. Pepper but here, its fate tied to a psychedelic movie about Apple Bonkers, Flying Gloves, and Blue Meanies, the song matches the mood. It was already a musical anachronism for the Beatles by the time it was released, but it still fit in the larger musical landscape.

This is equally true of George’s “It’s All Too Much”. It begins with a shout of “To your mother!” and a burst of feedback worthy of Jimi Hendrix before becoming a keyboard-heavy drone worthy of Vanilla Fudge. It’s saved from mediocrity by the melody and the lyrics that can be read as either a straightforward love song to a girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes (a tip of the hat to the 1966 song “Sorrow” by The Merseys) or as a tribute to what Otis Redding dubbed “the Love Crowd” in 1967 and the drug scene in general (George was very enamored with LSD at this point, his eye-opening trip to Haight-Ashbury still months away). The lyrics have many of the same mystic tendencies that could be found in “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light” but here they’re set to a hard rock backing track. “Floating down the stream of time from life to life with me/Makes no difference where you are or where you’d like to be,” George sings. “Everywhere is birthday cake/So take a piece but not too much.” At over six minutes, “It’s All Too Much” lives up to its title. There’s a version available on bootlegs that has an extra verse and tops the eight minute mark. Strangely, the verse that was cut out for the soundtrack is the only verse heard in the film. The song ends with chants of “too much” that go on for far too long. “It’s All Too Much” also suffers from the same problem as “Only A Northern Song”: the progress the band was making was so fast that by the time it was released the Beatles were past it. It sounded like what it was, a leftover from an earlier era. It was as if the Beatles had released “I Call Your Name” as a single between Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

The second side of the album has no Beatles music at all. The music is composed by George Martin, who stole melodies from various classical composers as well as Lennon and McCartney. The soundtrack music is really pretty good, with the exception of “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” which is just a Muzak orchestral rehash of the title song. But like most soundtrack music, it works best in the context of the film.

Yellow Submarine wasn’t even a holding pattern for the Beatles. While it bore their name and featured four unreleased songs and two earlier hits, it can’t be considered a proper album. It was rereleased in 1999 as Yellow Submarine Songtrack to coincide with the remastered DVD of the movie. This version has all the songs used in the film remixed into proper stereo. It’s an outstanding listen. The songs pop with a sonic quality they’d never had before, and there are fifteen Beatles songs and no George Martin compositions. It’s the far superior version, but also makes clear that the original soundtrack was just a repository for completed songs that didn’t fit anywhere else. When the soundtrack was released in January of 1969 the Beatles were fracturing, getting ready to play one last show on a London rooftop. Yellow Submarine, both the film and soundtrack, was a callback to a time when things were better.

Grade (Beatles songs): A-
Grade (George Martin material): C
Grade (overall): B-
Grade (Yellow Submarine Songtrack): A

The Beatles: The Beatles

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With Revolver and, especially, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles had radically altered the sound of rock music in the mid-1960s. Rock and roll was no longer content to be short songs with a steady beat that sent teenagers running to the dance floor. Rock music now was in big, bright Technicolor. It was now art and began to suffer from some of the problems that plague the modern art world. After Pepper, orchestras started popping up on even innocuous pop songs. The idea was to harness the mighty power of oboes and violins to make these songs into Important Works Of Art, though the effect was usually to render them insufferably pretentious. As bands got more psychedelic, and more colorful, there was the inevitable backlash.

After electrifying the music world with the holy triptych of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan went up to Woodstock, New York and vanished from sight. He was woodshedding with his backing group, The Hawks, and writing songs that were lyrically and musically worlds apart from the thin, wild, mercury sound of his last three albums. The Beatles got deeper in to meditation, going as far as a trip to India where they played acoustic guitars and wrote songs. The Byrds, always students of country music, added Gram Parsons to their lineup. Parsons was a talent so bright that he changed the sound of the band overnight. The Rolling Stones were stung by the critical reaction to their sojourn to psychedelia and by the increasing isolation and decrepitude of their most far out member, Brian Jones, and began to plot a future without the exotic instrumentation and influences that Jones brought to their music. Cream was still releasing songs with psychedelic tendencies, but turning them into extended blues/jazz workouts in concert. Jimi Hendrix started to move away from the psychedelic freakout of his first two albums to the blues from Mars approach of Electric Ladyland.

The backlash was heralded in late 1967 with the release of Dylan’s extraordinary and criminally underappreciated album John Wesley Harding. Over the next several months the biggest players on the field began to drop their psychedelic dreamcoats and head back to basics. The Byrds released the stone cold country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Stones followed the excess of Satanic Majesties with the jaw-dropping roots blues rock single “Jumping Jack Flash”. Even a lesser act like the Beau Brummels retreated to a pre-rock sound with the excellent album Bradley’s Barn. The Beatles followed the garish Magical Mystery Tour with its polar opposite. The “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am The Walrus” single with it’s heavy orchestration and cryptic lyrics was followed by “Lady Madonna” a barrelhouse Fats Domino-inspired piano rocker that was far removed from the psychedelic world. The B-side, George’s “The Inner Light” was an Indian raga that kept one foot in Pepperland, but was so rarely played that it became a track on The Beatles’ Rarities LP in the late 1970s. Their next single was “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” and the break from psychedelia was complete.

The biggest influence on all of this was Music From Big Pink, the first album by Dylan’s Hawks, now rechristened The Band. The album electrified the rock music community. It was rootsy, country, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and sometimes all of the above. Big Pink is the Big Bang of the genre now called Americana; there is no Mumford and Sons without it. Eric Clapton went to visit The Band in the hope they’d ask him to join. Paul McCartney sings a snippet of “The Weight” during the fade of “Hey Jude” when the Beatles performed the song on David Frost’s show. Even the Rolling Stones, on the original, banned cover of their album Beggar’s Banquet slipped in a sly piece of graffiti that read: “Music From Big Brown”. The rock music world had once again shifted.

In late November 1968 the Beatles released an album called, simply, The Beatles. The statement was obvious right away. There was no orchestral band, no magical wizards. The boldness and vibrancy of the album covers, from Revolver‘s Klaus Voorman mixed media artwork to Magical Mystery Tour‘s trippy, star-spangled typography were gone. In their place was nothing.

“The White Album? What was that? There was nothing on that goddamn cover.”—This Is Spinal Tap

For all its legendary starkness, the packaging of The Beatles, packaging that immediately and forever branded the new release as “The White Album”, was actually a good deal more sophisticated than Sgt. Pepper’s. There may not have been a picture on the front or back cover, but the words “The Beatles” was embossed above a gray line of text that was a serial number (the embossed words were later replaced by gray type and the serial number disappeared). The first pressing of the White Album was a limited edition, each album individually numbered. The gatefold contained a listing of the songs and small black and white photos of the band members. It was a double album, and the records were removed from the sleeves at the top of the cover, not the sides. The inner sleeves were black. There were four color photographs on heavy stock paper that were included with the album. These were color versions of the photos that appeared on the inner gatefold. There was an enormous fold out poster that was printed with all of the lyrics on one side and a photo montage of the band throughout their history on the other. An enormous amount of attention to detail went into the packaging for an album that has somehow become famous for being “white”.

There were 30 songs stretched across four sides of vinyl, and it was clearly a continued distancing of their sound from what they had been releasing less than a year earlier. The White Album, and the two preceding singles, mark the arrival of what’s now thought of as “late period Beatles”. It was also the sound of the beginning of the end.

The most noticeable aspect of the album is how schizophrenic it sounds. For the first time on a Beatles album there are clearly “John songs” and “Paul songs”. The recording sessions were very tense. Ringo quit the band for awhile, and their engineer Geoff Emerick also quit. The Beatles were at odds, focusing on their songs and acting as sidemen for the others. This was the first Beatles album where the band didn’t sound like a group.

It’s a very difficult album to review because there are two contradictory elements in place:

  1. A lot of the songs, especially Paul’s, just simply aren’t that good.
  2. It’s the Beatles bloody White Album. Shut up.

And that’s the crux of it. George Martin begged the Beatles to make a single album. He knew that many of the songs here were half-baked. But Martin lost the argument and the Beatles released this warts-and-all double record that somehow manages to hang together in one brilliant whole. Is “Wild Honey Pie” a good song? No. Is “Revolution 9” a great piece of music? No. Is “Birthday” more than just a riff with throwaway lyrics? Not really. But on the White Album, they work. It’s the most idiosyncratic album ever released, from the jokey Chuck Berry meets the Beach Boys pastiche of “Back in the USSR” to the string-laden, somnolent “Good Night” and I wouldn’t change a note of it.

George contributed some of the best songs he’d ever written: the classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with a searing lead guitar by guest Eric Clapton, the swipe at unidentified fat cats everywhere with “Piggies”, the lovely ballad “Long Long Long” and the fuzzed raver “Savoy Truffle” about Eric Clapton’s love of chocolates (the lyric “you’ll have to have them all pulled out after the savoy truffle” is probably the only lyric ever written about Clapton’s teeth). George was clearly stepping up his game. He’d written and they’d recorded another gem called “Not Guilty” that didn’t make the album, though it was far better than many of Paul’s tracks.

Even Ringo stepped up with his first song as a writer. “Don’t Pass Me By” is a country honk, both a parody and tribute. Ringo loved country music (so much so that his first solo album was country), and “Don’t Pass” is a hoot. The lyrics are silly (“you were in a car crash/and you lost your hair”) and the violin is way over-the-top but Ringo’s voice lends just the right amount of bonhomie and charm to what is, at the end of the day, a pretty mundane song. Even here, despite the fact that the one source of agreement between John, Paul, and George was that everyone liked Ringo, the only Beatle who plays on the track is Paul. No Beatle plays an instrument on “Good Night”, a straightforward lullaby by Lennon that Ringo sings over an string section. At least all four Beatles played on two of George’s songs, though Lennon skipped out on “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle”.

Their recent trip to India had lit a fire under the two main songwriters, who returned to England with more songs than they knew what to do with. For Paul McCartney, though, the White Album seemed to indicate that he was running a little low on petrol. McCartney had just written one of the greatest rock songs of all time and seen it released as a single while the band was in the studio working on what would become the White Album. There’s no denying that “Hey Jude” is a masterpiece. But McCartney’s White Album tracks, while mostly good and occasionally great, were well below that standard. McCartney seemed to want to stretch out, penning songs in a variety of styles. This added to the varied nature of the album, but when these songs are taken out of context they are revealed at far below the quality of Lennon’s work.

The album begins with the sound of a jet taking off and McCartney’s loving tribute to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys. Parodying the title of Berry’s “Back in the USA” and the lyrics of the Beach Boys’s “California Girls”, “Back in the USSR” is best described as clever. It’s not particularly substantive, but it chugs along as a happy little rocker. McCartney’s vocal is excellent, a combination of his Elvis voice and his Little Richard voice, but the words are, at best, cute. For all of it’s catchy enthusiasm and sense of fun, “Back in the USSR” is the kind of song that McCartney could write in his sleep. Yet as songs go, it’s one of his best on the album.

McCartney’s songs provide a lot of the eclecticism of the album. “Wild Honey Pie” is a throwaway experiment, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a misguided attempt at reggae, “Honey Pie” is a tribute to the music of a long-gone era, “Mother Nature’s Son” is a beautiful acoustic ballad, “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to record something heavier than The Who.

The problem is that McCartney seems to have been infected with a nasty attention deficit disorder around this time. It seems that after Pepper he was so convinced that he (and the Beatles) could do anything, that they also should do everything. This leads to many of McCartney’s songs seeming incomplete. “I Will” is a lovely ballad that doesn’t crack the two-minute mark and features a bass line that is sung by McCartney, as if he was in such a rush to record that he didn’t have the time to pick up his bass guitar. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” features a thrilling McCartney vocal (the White Album has much of Macca’s best vocal work) and the complete lyrics: “Why don’t we do it in the road?/No one will be watching us”. “Birthday” is a repetitive, and simple, guitar riff that McCartney put some dreadful lyrics on. According to Paul it was made up on the spot, and it sounds like it. It’s still a highlight of Paul’s work on the album, with another superb vocal and prominent harmonies from John (who later called the song “garbage”). “Birthday” is a fun song and sounds like the Beatles were having a blast recording it, but both lyrically and musically it’s McCartney on autopilot. “Rocky Raccoon” is a fun, jokey, spoof of folk music, while the pummeling “Helter Skelter” is the heaviest slab of music the band ever recorded, though the lyrics are about a slide at an amusement park. The original jam, lasting 27 minutes, is what led Ringo to shout “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the end. But for all of its power, “Helter Skelter” is another riff in search of a song. McCartney screams and wails the lyrics like his heart was about to explode out of his chest. It’s the most mercilessly savage vocal of his entire career but, once again, he’s singing about nothing.

But “Helter Skelter” is saved by the performance. “Honey Pie” is yet another pastiche (this time of 1930s-style music hall), while “Wild Honey Pie” is little more than a clanging acoustic guitar and drum. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” gamely attempts to put a Beatles stamp on reggae, or maybe it’s a reggae stamp on the Beatles. Either way, the song’s a trifle. McCartney was obsessed with the recording, but Lennon famously hated it. According to their engineer Geoff Emerick in his fascinating book Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording The Music of the Beatles, after far too many attempts to get the song right, Lennon stormed out of the session. He returned a few hours later, stood at the top of the steps leading down into the studio and announced, “I am stoned! I am more stoned than I have ever been, and I am more stoned than you will ever be! The song goes like this!” before marching over to the piano and playing the intro exactly as it’s heard on the album.

All of these songs have two things in common: The first is that McCartney wasn’t writing about much of anything; the lyrics are either tossed off as if he simply didn’t care, or they’re parodies of other types of music. The second thing they have in common is that they all work in the context of the White Album. God knows, they shouldn’t work, but they do. It’s all part of the crazy quilt that is the album. Would I listen to “Wild Honey Pie” as a standalone song? No. But I sure would miss it if it wasn’t sandwiched between “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”

And not all of Paul’s songs are like this. He also turned in a magnificent tribute to his sheepdog, Martha (“Martha, My Dear”), that is one of the catchiest songs he ever wrote. Yes, he’s singing about his dog. Who cares when the tune is that good? He also provided two stone cold classics: “Blackbird” is a magnificent acoustic ballad that uses the British slang for “girl” to make an anthem for America’s Civil Rights movement, and “Mother Nature’s Son” is a lovely back to nature song written in India with an exquisite brass arrangement, courtesy of George Martin.

The lightness of Paul’s songs stands in stark contrast to John’s material. The White Album, frankly, is owned by Lennon. His songs, for the most part, tower over the others. His opening shot is “Dear Prudence”, written about Mia Farrow’s sister who accompanied the Beatles to India and was so enamored with meditating that she refused to come out of her room. It’s one of John’s best songs, helped considerably by Paul’s throbbing bass line and rolling drums (Ringo isn’t on the song), and the intricate weaving of the guitars. John never sounded better as a singer (the high, nasal tones he’d been using since Revolver are gone), and the lyrics are gorgeous.

“Prudence” is one of several acoustic-based Lennon songs. “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”, “Bungalow Bill”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Revolution 1” are built on acoustic foundations. Of these, “Julia” is the standout, an uncompromisingly beautiful ballad that serves as Lennon’s introduction of his deceased mother Julia to his new lover (“Yoko” translates to “child of the ocean”) while also, somewhat disturbingly, conflating the two. But there’s no getting around the beauty of Lennon’s finger-picked guitar (learned from Donovan while they were in India) or the vocal that expresses so much pathos. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” begins not with a snippet of flamenco guitar, but with a sound sample of flamenco guitar that was played on a Mellotron before launching into a fun and funny song about a wealthy American and his mother who had stayed in India in their own private bungalow and who ended up shooting a tiger while he was there. The mockery of the lyrics was Lennon’s response to what he saw as a strange contradiction of a man coming to commune with nature and God who nevertheless found time in his day to ice a tiger. Yoko Ono appears on the song in a cameo as Bill’s mother, who was apparently enormously proud of her son’s actions. Even better was “I’m So Tired”, Lennon’s ode to the insomnia that plagued him in India, and “Cry Baby Cry”, a variation on the traditional folk children’s ballad “Sing A Song of Sixpence”. “Revolution 1” was an alternate take of the much heavier song that had been released as the flip side of the “Hey Jude” single. The single version was all rock fury, but the version on the White Album is a lazy, acoustic shuffle. Most noticeable is the lyrical switch. In the single Lennon disavows violence, instructing the audience to count him out when destruction is on the menu. On the album, the lyric is more ambivalent as Lennon mutters the word “in” after the “count me out” line. It’s a great alternate version, quite different than the more well-known single, with some gnarly electric guitar riding on top of the acoustic.

It wasn’t all acoustic for Lennon, however. His more rocking side was well-served, too. “Glass Onion” featured some of John’s typical wordplay, teasing Beatle fans who had taken to obsessing over the lyrics with allusions to recent songs. “The walrus was Paul,” John sang (even though it wasn’t). “The Fool On The Hill”, “Lady Madonna”, “Fixing A Hole” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” all get namechecked. Interestingly, most of the songs John mentions were originally written by Paul. The lyric later became one of the central tenets of the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy and, to this day, people still think the “here’s another clue for you all/the walrus was Paul” lyric is Lennon’s commentary about that conspiracy. Unfortunately for the nutters, “Glass Onion” was written, recorded, and released before the first whispers of his band mate’s mortality started to circulate. In fact, Paul plays an amazing bass line (especially for a dead guy). As a singer, John sounds reinvigorated to be playing loud, thumping rock and roll again. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, its title taken from Soldier of Fortune magazine is more wordplay, though according to John the title carries a sexual meaning as well. It seems to be a more sinister cousin to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The plasticine porters with looking glass ties are now a “man in the crowd with the multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots/Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime” while the girl with kaleidoscope eyes is now “a soap impression of his wife/which he ate and donated to the National Trust.” What did it all mean? Who knows? With Lennon’s more surrealist songs it’s best to just let the words flow and not ponder too deeply, especially since we know that sometimes the words were specifically designed to confuse the listener. The song breaks into three distinct movements with different melodies and rhythms, moving from the piano ballad opening to the heavier section that alludes to John’s newfound heroin habit (“I need a fix ’cause I’m going down”) to the mid-tempo, Elvis-on-drugs section (“when I hold you in my arms”). It’s a dizzying song, allegedly the favorite of all the Beatles, and a minor masterpiece in the band’s canon.

After disappearing for most of the second side (his only songs are “I’m So Tired” and “Julia”), Lennon reasserted himself on side three. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except For Me and My Monkey)” is probably the most anarchic song the Beatles ever released. It’s not as heavy as “Helter Skelter” but it swings much looser and faster, with a brutal two-guitar attack from John and George and a pulsating bass line from McCartney. Rumored to be about drugs, it’s really about the thrill and excitement of John’s relationship with Yoko (who had recently been depicted in a cartoon as a monkey clinging to John’s back), and takes it’s “come on, it’s such a joy” hook from one of Maharishi’s lectures. As with some of McCartney’s cuts, “Monkey” is less a song than it is a performance. The lyrics are repetitive and the melody is nearly non-existent, but the breathless pace and exuberance of the vocals more than compensate for any lyrical shortcomings.

It’s actually somewhat ironic that John took so much good material away from his time in India with the Maharishi. He’d written some of his greatest songs there, and the Maharishi’s lectures informed not only “Monkey” but also the beautiful “Child of Nature”, which wasn’t recorded for the album but would later turn up as Imagine‘s “Jealous Guy”. But the only song on the White Album that is really about the Maharishi is “Sexy Sadie”, and it’s a scathing indictment of the band’s erstwhile guru. “What have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone,” Lennon sings. “However big you think you are/…you’ll get yours yet.” It’s not really a surprise. John Lennon was forever seeking answers from gurus of all sorts. From his mother to Stuart Sutcliffe to Brian Epstein to the Maharishi to Yoko to Arthur Janov, Lennon threw his lot in with anyone who promised him answers and had a good sales pitch. But he also soured on these gurus, those that didn’t abandon him, quickly, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was no exception. Rumors hit the camp in India that the Maharishi was pursuing some of his female guests with some very earthy intentions and that was enough for John to disavow him. The title “Sexy Sadie” was a cop-out, holding the same amount of syllables as “Maharishi”, but the intent was clear. The song itself is one of John’s best, with particularly strong piano and bass (both played by McCartney), and a typically sympathetic drum part from Ringo, with some of his trademark fills and patterns. The more one listens, really listens, to the Beatles, the more impressive Ringo’s performances sound. He never played a drum part that didn’t suit the song, and “Sexy Sadie” is one of the best examples of this.

John’s first song on side three, coming after the boisterous “Birthday”, is one of the heaviest songs the band ever recorded both musically and, especially, lyrically. John titled the song “Yer Blues” as a joke but only because he felt self-conscious. The song had been written in India when John was supposed to be relaxing and meditating but, plagued by insomnia, his crumbling marriage to Cynthia (who was in India with him), and his distance from Yoko, was instead feeling borderline suicidal. The music is something of a parody of the then-popular British blues scene, but none of the Beatles could match the instrumental prowess of the Alvin Lees, Jeff Becks, or Jimmy Pages of the world. Knowing this, the solos are intentionally sloppy to add to the parody, though the rhythm from the guitars is primal and distorted. But the lyrics cut deep. Lennon hid his pain with a jokey title but the truth comes out in his performance. “Yes, I’m lonely/Wanna die” he wails. And he did. This was truly the way he felt when he was in India. “Feel so suicidal/Even hate my rock ‘n’ roll,” he concludes with enough passion and conviction in his voice to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. “Yer Blues” is a blues. It lacks the formal pretensions of the British blues boom, with their five-minute guitar solos, but it harkens back to an earlier era. Much of the British blues boom was about virtuosity, especially on the guitar, but this was anti-virtuosity. “Yer Blues” is less about Cream or the Yardbirds, though it shares the heavy vibe of those bands, and more about John Lee Hooker or Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Yer Blues” is a raw howl, an ode to despair from the dark night of Lennon’s soul. This is the other divide between John’s songs and Paul’s songs. Throughout the White Album, Lennon sounds like he means every single word he’s singing, while McCartney is creating characters and hiding behind them. There’s an honesty to John’s work here that is missing in Paul’s.

It wasn’t all gutbucket emotion from John. He also is responsible for the most avant garde moment in the Beatles songbook. “Revolution 9” is unquestionably the most polarizing song among Beatles fans. It’s probably pretty safe to say that most people hate it. The White Album spends four sides of vinyl creating a crazy patchwork of sounds and styles, and it culminates with the penultimate song on the album. Leading into the string-laden lullaby of “Good Night” is the audio collage that makes up “Revolution 9”. It’s the longest recording the Beatles ever released and can’t really be classified as a song at all. The sounds of fire, sirens, the crowd at a soccer game, dissonant piano tinkles, a gurgling baby, backwards violins, a choir, and bizarre vocal intrusions paints an aural picture. The key is in the title. This is the sound of revolution. Music is a thing of the past, and Lennon (and his real partner on the track, Yoko) has dropped the listener into a post-apocalyptic landscape where the world has gone insane. A voice mindlessly, endlessly, intones the words “Number nine/number nine/number nine”, the voice rising and falling in the mix. There are no lyrics, per se. The vocals all seem to be snippets of conversation:

there’s this Welsh Rarebit wearing some brown underpants
About the shortage of grain in Hertfordshire
Everyone of them knew that as time went by
They’d get a little bit older and a litter slower but
It’s all the same thing, in this case manufactured by someone who’s always
Umpteen your father’s giving it diddly-i-dee
District was leaving, intended to pay for…

…So the wife called me and we’d better go to see a surgeon
Or whatever to price it yellow underclothes
So, any road, we went to see the dentist instead
Who gave her a pair of teeth which wasn’t any good at all
So I said I’d marry, join the fucking navy and went to sea
In my broken chair, my wings are broken and so is my hair
I’m not in the mood for whirling

George appears, the only other Beatle to do so, as does Yoko. Producer George Martin and the Apple Records general manager Alistair Taylor also make an appearance in the beginning, with Taylor begging forgiveness from Martin for forgetting to bring a bottle of wine to the producer (“Will you forgive me?” “Yes.” “Bitch.”) Throughout the track, George Martin can also be heard saying “Geoff, put the red light on” though the line is buried deep in the mix and sometimes distorted beyond recognition. Once you finally hear it you become very aware of it, but actually tracking it down requires more deep listening than most people would be willing to do. There is a rich vein of typical Lennon humor in the track: “my wings are broken and so is my hair”, or his recitation of popular dances “the Watusi/the Twist” before George Harrison chimes in “El Dorado!” His sense of wordplay is also evident: “So, any road, we went to see the dentist”, “dogs for dogging…fish for fishing/Them for themming, when for whimming”, “a man without terrors from beard to false”. The revolution culminates with:

Maybe even then
Impervious in London
Could be difficult thing
It’s quick like rush for peace is
Because it’s so much
It was like being naked

Yoko concludes the ceremony with the line “If you become naked.”

The answer to why the Beatles released this, despite the protestations of both George Martin and Paul McCartney is also found in the tapes for the song, though it’s buried so deep in the mix it’s impossible to hear: John and George repeating the line “There ain’t no rules for the company freaks.” “Revolution 9” was a startling example of musique concrete. It’s not a song in any traditional sense yet, and I know I’m in a tiny minority here, it is fascinating. It’s far more interesting than more traditional songs like “Honey Pie” or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”. It’s unsettling and strange, saved from being unlistenable by the attention to detail Lennon put into it, and the grace of his innate sense of humor.

The White Album is the sound of a band without limits. There were no rules for the company freaks. They recorded whatever they wanted and overruled the protests of producers and, sometimes, each other. The album can give a listener whiplash as it switches genres and moods randomly, cascading from light to heavy, from despair to frothy fun, from achingly sincere to dadaist surrealism. It’s like the earliest version of an iPod shuffle, where you have no idea what’s going to come next. So what if some of the songs lack substance? So what if some of the lyrics could use some work? It’s the bloody White Album, one of the genuine masterpieces of the rock era not just despite its flaws but, in many ways, because of its flaws. It may not be as cohesive as earlier albums, but there was so much here to digest and enjoy. A rock album would never sound like this again, this loose and unrestrained. Today, a record company would be reduced to paroxysms of anxiety if their marquee act wanted to release something this strange. The White Album flies in the face of conventional wisdom that albums need to have a sound, a feel, a pace, a unified tone. It’s a trick that perhaps only the Beatles could have pulled off. They were a band that never really had a single, easily codified, sound. Their restless creativity and boundless imaginations led them in a dozen different directions so audiences were somewhat used to being surprised by whatever came next. But if Beatles singles gave an early indication of what to expect from the next album, the White Album also gave an early indication of what was to come: four individual talents, unleashed and no longer tied to anything that might hold them together.

Grade: A+

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

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Released less than six months after the glory of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour is not really an album. At least, it wasn’t at the time. It was never released in England until the compact disc era. In truth, it was another money-grabbing effort from Capitol Records to milk a little more cash out of the audience. Ah, but what an effort…

In England, Magical Mystery Tour was released as an EP consisting of six songs on two slabs of vinyl. The songs were the soundtrack to a new movie made by, and starring, the Beatles. Since the EP market didn’t exist in America, Capitol Records took the six songs and added three recent singles, including the pre-Pepper “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” single, the post-Pepper “All You Need Is Love/Baby You’re A Rich Man” single, and “Hello Goodbye” the A-side of the current single. But in this case, the desire for more sales accidentally created a masterpiece. There’s really no comparison: the American version of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is so much better than the officially released EP that even the Beatles were forced to acknowledge it by making the American version the official version in 1987.

U.S. Edition U.K. Edition
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. The Fool on the Hill
3. Flying
4. Blue Jay Way
5. Your Mother Should Know
6. I Am The Walrus
7. Hello Goodbye
8. Strawberry Fields Forever
9. Penny Lane
10. Baby You’re A Rich Man
11. All You Need Is Love
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. Your Mother Should Know
3. I Am The Walrus
4. The Fool On The Hill
5. Flying
6. Blue Jay Way

Everything about the American version works better. Even the sequencing of the six soundtrack songs has a far better flow and pace than the double EP version. The packaging of the album, a gatefold with a 24-page booklet featuring a bizarre Beatles cartoon story and a series of extremely odd photographs, also benefits from being the larger LP size. It should be remembered how strange this must have seemed to the American audience. The Magical Mystery Tour movie was made specifically for the BBC and was never shown in America (lucky us), which means that the photographs and cartoon story had no real context outside of the album art. Why is there a photo of John Lennon dressed as a waiter shoveling mounds of spaghetti and what look like rags onto the plate of a large woman? Why is Paul McCartney in a military uniform? Why are there cartoons of the Beatles dressed as wizards? Who the hell is Little Nicola and why is she so adamant that I am not, in fact, the Walrus? Why are the Beatles, if it’s really them, dressed up like animals on the front cover?

The answer, of course, is that it was all part of a trippy mess of a movie, but the Americans didn’t know any of that, aside from a brief mention in the gatefold. What they knew was the music, most of which was sublime.

The title track serves much the same purpose as the title track of Sgt. Pepper. It’s a grand fanfare and an introduction. Separated from the movie, the song still works as an album intro, promising a journey to lands unknown in the songs that follow. It’s a loud, brassy song with simple lyrics that can be read two ways: the literal interpretation of a magical tour, and the metaphorical reading that reveals the drug references. “Magical Mystery Tour” is a drug song, starting with John Lennon’s carnival barker shout of “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour!”, a line that uses a common English phrase as code for the act of rolling a joint. The entire concept of the song, written by Paul McCartney, is based on the notion of tripping, taking the common British bus tour and using it as a metaphor for a journey to magical lands. But it is, in the end, still just a fanfare. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, saved from banality by the McCartney’s lead vocal and by the driving, propulsive music. Lyrically it’s even simpler than Sgt. Pepper‘s opening salvo, though the song itself is longer. Removed from its context it’s not a great song, but it’s a world-class album opener. It’s short enough that it doesn’t wear on the listener, punchy enough to force you to pay attention, and catchy enough to leave it stuck in your head. “Magical Mystery Tour” is less a song and more a mission statement. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to the songs that follow.

“The Fool On The Hill” is the first Beatles song to reflect their newfound admiration for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a short, bearded guru with a girlish giggle who turned the Beatles on to Transcendental Meditation. At this point, the band was still enthralled with the diminutive Indian and McCartney’s “The Fool On The Hill” is a loving tribute, portraying the Maharishi as a misunderstood wise man while playing with the imagery of the man with the answers to life’s questions being seated at the top of a mountain. It hearkens back to the literary convention, used most famously by William Shakespeare, of having the Fool be the only person who can speak the truth that others don’t want to hear. The powerful brass of the preceding song is here replaced with flutes and woodwind instruments that float throughout the song, lending an airiness and a baroque sense of sophistication to the music that perfectly complements the naïve lyrics.

This is followed by a song that is one-of-a-kind in Beatles history. “Flying” is the only song credited to all four Beatles, and is the only instrumental they ever officially released. In the film, “Flying” is the soundtrack to a collection of unused footage that had been filmed for the trippy “stargate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s one of the few parts of the movie that genuinely works well. On record, distanced from the visuals, “Flying” still manages to achieve its desired effect. The title clues the listener in to what to expect, and the music doesn’t disappoint. The music glides and swirls. Keep the title in mind and close your eyes and you will see landscapes below you and clouds ahead. It’s very brief, just a bit over two minutes and the last thirty seconds or so is some Mellotron  squealing and backwards tapes that provides a perfect segue into George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”.

One of the key elements to Beatles music has always been humor. All four of the them were very, very funny. “Blue Jay Way” sounds mysterious and dark, psychedelic and moody. But the lyrics are actually typical Harrison humor. The song was composed when Harrison was waiting for Derek Taylor to arrive at a house he had rented in Los Angeles. Taylor was late, and had gotten lost. Harrison, at the point of exhaustion, passed the time by playing a Hammond organ and making up lyrics about his friends. The mysterious, atonal, psychedelia of the music is paired with lyrics that could have come from a Monty Python song:

There’s a fog upon L.A.
And my friends have lost their way
They’ll be over soon, they said
Now they’ve lost themselves instead
Please don’t be long

It’s the “they’ve lost themselves” that makes it, a wonderfully eccentric turn of phrase. The music on “Blue Jay Way” is probably the most psychedelic the Beatles ever got, which makes the next song on the album all the more jarring. “Your Mother Should Know” is a McCartney soft-shoe shuffle that harkens back to English music hall. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable trifle, as good as or better than most of McCartney’s similar excursions (“When I’m 64”, “Honey Pie”). It’s the kind of track that would never be approved by a record company today because it doesn’t sound like the other songs on the album, but the Beatles never felt constrained by the need to stick to a formula. They were restless in their creativity and went wherever the song happened to take them. In the case of “Your Mother Should Know” that creativity took them to a time before Elvis shook their worlds, a sound that may have opened the ears of some of their fans.

It was the last song on side one, the final song that appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie that really opened ears. John Lennon had heard that there was a course that analyzed Beatles lyrics being offered at his old high school in Liverpool, something he considered absolutely absurd. “I Am The Walrus” was his response, a series of images and lyrics that seemed to make sense in a Jabberwocky kind of way but were, in the end, meaningless. This was Lennon playing with words and having a grand time doing it. The images were sometimes shocking (“pornographic priestess”, “yellow-matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye”), sometimes funny (“crabalocker fishwife”, “I am the eggman”), and sometimes coded (“elementary penguins” were Hare Krishnas, “semolina pilchard” was a reference to Norman Pilcher, a British police officer who was notorious for busting rock stars for drugs and even more notorious for bringing his own just to be sure the charges stuck). “Lucy in the sky” gets a shoutout, and the opening couplet came to Lennon on separate acid trips, and it was all punctuated with the refrain “Goo goo g’joob!” The ending includes dialogue taken from a radio production of King Lear and a chanting chorus that repeats the phrase “everybody’s got one” and “oompah oompah stick it up your jumper”. Musically, the song stands with “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as one of the band’s crowning achievements, largely due to producer George Martin’s ability to interpret the desires of his unschooled musicians. There is a rock band of guitar, bass, drums, and piano at the heart of “I Am The Walrus” but it’s the churning orchestration led by violins and cellos, with brass punctuation marks, that make the song stand out. The orchestration adds a veneer of sophistication and respectability. The song seems to be an important statement because the music is so serious. Ironically, a song written to mock the people who took Lennon’s lyrics too seriously sent people into a tizzy as they tried to figure out the meaning of this word jumble. Absent the orchestration, it’s likely that Lennon’s words would have been taken for what they were: a joke. But by adding the hallmarks of so-called “serious” music the Beatles made the joke all that much funnier. “I Am the Walrus” is the greatest musical practical joke ever played.

And it was a B-side of a single. Not even deemed worthy of being the A-side, much to Lennon’s annoyance.

The song that was the A-side of that single led off the second side of the album. “Hello Goodbye” is certainly a better single than “I Am the Walrus” even if it falls far short as a musical innovation. “Hello Goodbye” is insanely catchy, perhaps the catchiest thing Paul McCartney ever wrote (and that’s saying something). One listen and it’s hooked into your brain forever. The simple yin/yang lyrics are easily remembered and the melody is unforgettable. It may not be the achievement that “Walrus” was, but it was unquestionably a more marketable single. “I Am the Walrus” was a brilliantly disorienting slice of surrealism and wordplay. “Hello Goodbye” was a markedly less brilliant solid gold radio-ready hit.

What’s ironic about this is that the two songs that follow “Hello Goodbye” were the two sides of a double A-side single that had been released in February of 1967, months before Sgt. Pepper changed the musical landscape. That single, considered one of the greatest singles ever released, was also the first Beatles single to fail to make the top of the charts. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were a huge leap forward when they were released as the first Beatles single after Revolver. Perhaps it was too far a leap, because the single stalled at number two in the charts, held back by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”. That doesn’t change that both sides of the single were masterpieces. The songs had been recorded for Sgt. Pepper but rush released as a single when that album was delayed. They became the centerpiece of the second side of Magical Mystery Tour instead, and their inclusion elevates the entire album. There is a slight difference in tone between these songs and the rest of the tracks on the album…they’re not a perfect fit as they would have been on Pepper, but one would have to be a long-faced, humorless scold to care. When an LP is blessed to have both sides of what may be the greatest single in rock history (all votes for “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” will be counted), the idea that the songs sound like they were recorded at a different time and mindset is the lowest form of nitpicking.

If there is a fly in the ointment of the LP it’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Comprised of two songs blended together (Lennon’s “One of the Beautiful People” and McCartney’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”), the music features a discordant and harsh clavioline, not entirely pleasing to the ear. Lennon’s vocal melody is excellent though the vocal itself isn’t his strongest, and McCartney’s chorus is loud and brash, but both are somewhat undercut by the willfully defiant music. Rolling Stone Brian Jones pops up tooting on an oboe throughout the song, and Mick Jagger is rumored to be a backing voice in the finale. The song was thought to be about Beatles manager Brian Epstein (allegedly Lennon sings “baby you’re a rich fag Jew” at one point, but I’ve never heard it), but Lennon insisted that the song was a message to people to quit whining about their status in life, that we were all “rich”. Unfortunately, the lyrics are something of a mess (“You keep all your money in a big brown bag/Inside a zoo/What a thing to do”, contributed by McCartney, may be one of the dumbest lyrics ever written), so Lennon’s theme never becomes clear.

The lyrics of Magical Mystery Tour‘s final track are also something of a mess. The chorus made the song the anthem of the so-called “Summer of Love” when it was released as a single a month after Sgt. Pepper, but the verses are a circular mash of word soup. How do you parse “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” or “Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”? At first glance, the lyrics seem like a “You can do it!” affirmation but what Lennon is really saying throughout the song is that you can’t do it. If it can’t be done, you can do nothing; if it can’t be sung, you can sing nothing; if it can’t be known, you can know nothing; if it isn’t shown, you can see nothing. This is reinforced by the one exception: “There nothing you can say/But you can learn how to play the game”. The chorus seems like a non-sequitur: “All you need is love/Love is all you need”. Lyrically, “All You Need is Love” takes a somewhat darker and more cynical tone than it is ever given credit for. “Love is all you need,” Lennon sings in the chorus, while the verses hammer home the message “because you don’t/can’t have anything else.” You  can learn how to play the game, but if it’s not already being done you can’t do it. “All You Need Is Love” is Lennon’s message to the voiceless, powerless masses that they don’t need the trappings of modern life as long as they have love. It’s a childlike message but, as he did later with the even more naïve “Imagine”,  he uses the music to sell the message. “All You Need Is Love” is a beautiful song, from the opening bars of “Le Marseillaise” to the winding close that incorporates musical themes from “Greensleeves” and “In The Mood” and lyrical shoutouts to “Yesterday” and “She Loves You”. The chorus is simple, making it perfect for singalongs and sloganeering (much like the vastly inferior song “Give Peace A Chance”), and the verses are melodic and sung beautifully by Lennon.

Magical Mystery Tour is not an album, but it is a magnificent LP record. Some of the best songs the Beatles ever did grace its grooves and even the songs that don’t rise to that level are excellent. The Beatles canon is improved by its inclusion.

Grade: A+

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

sgt-pepper1

With Revolver the Beatles were openly flouting the pop music rule book. They were sending an early notice that they wouldn’t be bound by convention. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ripped up the rule book, burned it, buried it, and sowed the earth with salt. It’s really not too big a statement to say that Sgt. Pepper redefined the musical landscape almost completely…for good and for bad. The significance of the album’s release in the rock music firmament can not be overstated.

But Sgt. Pepper didn’t come entirely out of the blue. In February of 1967 the Beatles released a double A-sided single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”. These songs were such a radical departure for the band that they might as well have been recorded on Mars. Swirling Mellotrons, horns, strings, seemingly cryptic lyrics (which aren’t that cryptic if you know the back story)…this single was as great a departure from Revolver as that album had been from Help! Musically, lyrically, and stylistically, it was a huge leap forward (or backwards, I suppose, if you liked your Beatles as four lovable Mop Tops).

That single had originally been recorded for inclusion on the project that would become Sgt. Pepper. It was released early under pressure from the record label who had not released a new Beatles track in months. It seems odd to think about now, when bands routinely take years between releases, but in 1967 if a band didn’t release a new single every few months they were considered washed up. Rumors were circulating that the Beatles, holed up in EMI Studios, were out of ideas and probably going to break up. They’d quit touring in 1966, which is something bands never considered doing until that time, to focus on recording. But the recording process for the new album was taking months, an almost unprecedented amount of time in the history of rock music. Reporters routinely staked out the studio, ready to ask the Beatles “Are you finished?” whenever the band arrived at EMI’s door. The band even looked different. All four had grown moustaches.

The Beatles were not out of ideas. Sgt. Pepper was part of an extraordinarily creative period for the band and was, in many ways, the apex of that creativity.

When the album was released in June of 1967 it became the soundtrack for what was called the “Summer of Love”. It was as if an earthquake had shaken the musical world to its core. It was the first Beatles album that Capitol Records released without removing tracks and substituting others. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, crafting Smile, his band’s response to Revolver, heard Sgt. Pepper and had a nervous breakdown. Paul Kantner has talked about how you could hear Sgt. Pepper blasting out of every window at Haight-Ashbury. Even the Monkees paid tribute: in one of the musical sequences on the show, when the band is seen running around in an Old West town, Davy Jones has a copy of Sgt. Pepper tucked under his arm.

The album dominated the charts for the entire summer and sent other bands reeling. The Rolling Stones responded with Their Satanic Majesties Request, a drugged out, bleary copy of Pepper. Less well-known, Arthur Lee’s Love responded with Forever Changes, an album that nearly matches Pepper on every level and surpasses it on some. The Doors heard an early acetate of the album before its release and were similarly floored by the notion that they could do anything they wanted in the studio. Frank Zappa brilliantly parodied the cover on his We’re Only It It For The Money. Jimi Hendrix opened his show by playing the title track, only 48 hours after the album was released. The rule book was gone and every band in the land suddenly realized they could go wherever their talents and muses would take them. This created the unfortunate idea in every songwriter that they needed to release “their Sgt. Pepper“. But these other bands were not the Beatles, and the result was usually an awful, overindulged, mess.

So much has been said of the album that it’s almost easy to overlook the music. The first album to have the lyrics printed on the back sleeve; the first to have a design on the inner record sleeve; the first to come with a sheet of cutouts; one of the first single album gatefold releases (maybe the first); the first to have a “legitimate”, well-known artist, Peter Blake, design the cover. The splashy, colorful cover that seems to be a graveside service, features wax figures of the “old” Mop Tops standing next to the latest incarnation of the band, who are dressed in brightly colored pseudo-military uniforms. Behind them, arranged in a crowd of life-size cutouts, are the band’s personal choices for heroes and influences. Tucked away on one side is Stuart Sutcliffe. Right up front is a doll wearing a shirt that says “Welcome The Rolling Stones Good Guys”. (The Stones repaid the compliment by hiding the Beatles’s heads in the 3-D cover of Majesties.) The album title is spelled out on a bass drum, and the name “Beatles” appears as a floral arrangement…right in front of a row of marijuana plants.

So yes, it’s easy to forget that this is an album of songs. And as an album of songs, Sgt. Pepper is not the greatest rock record ever released. It’s extraordinarily good; great even. But the songs are so decked out in their psychedelic finery that it’s easy to miss the fact that they’re not the band’s best songs. It was certainly thought so at the time, but Sgt. Pepper succeeds mainly because of its innovation, its playfulness, its experimentation, and its ruthless rule-breaking. As recordings, this is the best the Beatles, or any other band, got. As songs, on the other hand…a case could easily be made that Pepper doesn’t compare with Rubber Soul, Revolver, the best of the White Album, or even Abbey Road.

Paul McCartney’s conceit for the album was that the band could pretend to be another band. That way they could do whatever they wanted without being hemmed in by whatever was expected of the Beatles. This “concept” lasted all of two songs. The opening, eponymous, track and the introduction of “Billy Shears” to sing “With A Little Help From My Friends”. But Billy Shears sounded a lot like Ringo Starr, and the idea of the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band quickly fell apart, only to be briefly revived on side two with a reprise of the title track.

So what of the music? The title track, clocking in a barely two minutes, is a brief introduction to the concept. It’s not so much a song as it is a fanfare, but it does have a great vocal from McCartney and some searing guitar work on both the stinging lead and the thick, heavy rhythm riffs. It ends with applause and the introduction of “the one and only Billy Shears” before blending into “Friends”. The song is Ringo’s finest performance on a Beatles album. He gives the lyric a warmth and bonhomie the elevates the entire recording. Sung by Lennon or McCartney, “With A Little Help From My Friends” wouldn’t work as well. (Sung by Joe Cocker, it worked even better.) For the first time, Ringo was given a song to sing that was neither throwaway (“I Wanna Be Your Man”) or novelty (“Yellow Submarine”). “A Little Help” is one of the crown jewels of Pepper.

The next track, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is even better, and the album is off to a roaring start. John’s acid-drenched lyrics and nasal vocal provide the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. John would, of course, deny that “Lucy” “Sky” and “Diamonds” were intended as code for LSD. The claim was that it was based on a drawing his son Julian had done of his classmate, Lucy, flying through the air with diamonds drawn as stars. When John asked his son what the picture was called, Julian told him that it was “Lucy, in the sky, with diamonds”. It’s possible. I’ve seen pictures of the drawing. But Julian was only three years old when John wrote the song, and it’s entirely possible that the title was grafted onto a drawing made at a later date (the drawing itself seems more the work of a precocious five-year-old than a three-year-old).

Could you draw this when you were three?

Could you draw this when you were three?

Lennon stuck with the story of the song’s origin until his dying day, long past the point when anybody cared if he was winking at the audience with the title. And regardless of the title’s beginnings, the lyrics themselves were unmistakably about acid. Lennon later said that at this point in time he was taking LSD “like candy”. George and Ringo were also enthusiastic takers and McCartney was starting to dabble in the drug, though his drug of choice was always pot. “Newspaper taxis”, “tangerine trees and marmalade skies”, “rocking horse people” eating “marshmallow pies”…it’s all a trip in a psychedelic wonderland, led by your tour guide John Winston Lennon. McCartney’s bass is amazing throughout and Ringo’s pounding that leads into the chorus tether Lennon to the earth even as his phased and echoed vocal takes him higher and higher.

Pepper is McCartney’s album. The concept was his idea, and it was his work ethic that kept John focused. But after Lennon’s journey into Acidland, McCartney responds with three straight songs that are fairly conventional. “Getting Better” is a good song that is saved from its faceless optimism by John’s sarcastic “it can’t get no worse” backing vocal and George’s tamboura in the last verse. “Fixing A Hole” is better, but similarly faceless. Like many of the songs on this album, if it had not been on Sgt. Pepper it would likely be considered a second-tier Beatles song.

“She’s Leaving Home” is the third McCartney song in a row (Lennon helped in the writing). His output at this point was outpacing John, who was consumed with consuming drugs and was besotted by a Japanese avant-garde artist he’d met in late 1966. “Home” is a magnificent track, with a sensitive but not cloying string section orchestrated by Mike Leander. It’s a story song, telling a tale that was all too common in 1967. Tom Wolfe told the same story in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in what became known as “the Beautiful People letter”:

“Dear Mother,
I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!! New York, Ajijic, San miguel de Allende, mazatlan, Mexico!!!!] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I know you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it is a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

But even on “She’s Leaving Home” it is the production and the performance that sells the song. McCartney’s lyrics are sentimental without being precious and the string section fits the mood perfectly. But the hidden star of the song is John Lennon. Lennon and McCartney are the only two Beatles on the track, and neither plays an instrument, but Lennon’s vocal steals the show. In the tale of a runaway girl, John plays the role of the parents, underpinning McCartney’s high chorus vocal. “What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong,” John sings in the same nasal tone he used on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The vocal slices through McCartney’s lead and adds a perfect amount of pathos to the song. The dueling lead vocals of Lennon and McCartney on the chorus are a primer on how to sing a counter-melody.

Lennon’s “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” closes the first side of the album. The lyrics were taken, almost verbatim, from an old-time circus poster John had hanging in his home. In the context of Pepper the song was assumed to be psychedelic, along the lines of “Lucy”. In fact, it was banned by the BBC who mistakenly believed “Henry the Horse” was a heroin reference. It’s not that, however. Hogsheads of fire, hoops, garters, somersets, the Hendersons, Mr. Kite…they’re all there in the poster. There’s an atmosphere that matches the lyric perfectly; steam organs, calliope sounds, tape loops, and various harmonicas fill out the piano/bass/drums musical accompaniment (there are no guitars on the track). After many failed attempts to achieve the desired results through conventional recording, the carnival sequence in the break was achieved by cutting the tapes into small sections, throwing them in the air, and then putting them back together in random order (some backwards). It worked beautifully, with the carnival sounding out of control. The effect was of being on the fairway with your senses radically altered. Nearly the whole of the album was an aural manifestation of disordered senses.

The second side of the album begins with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”. In the context of the kaleidoscopic Pepper, it works. Out of context, the song is an Indian drone with ponderous lyrics. It’s George’s longest Indian-style song, and far less effective than Revolver‘s “Love You To” or the Indian/psychedelic mashups “Blue Jay Way” and “Only A Northern Song”. As the song ends, there is a break of laughter. It shows good sense on the band’s part that they would follow the track with a laugh to lighten the oh-so-serious tone of the song. George’s heavy-handed mysticism is followed by one of McCartney’s lightest tracks. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a staple at weddings now, but was written when McCartney was just fifteen years old. It displays both his overly sentimental side and his love for English music hall. What saves the song from being treacle is that descending line “You’ll be older, too” followed by Lennon’s wordless backing vocal that adds just a bit of edge to the song. Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocal of “We shall scrimp and save”, modulating the last vowel are the perfect complement to Paul McCharmley’s happy vocal. The backing adds just the right touch, reminding the listener that “scrimping and saving” isn’t necessarily easy or fun.

Fortunately, the song is followed by “Lovely Rita”, Paul’s ode to hooking up with a meter maid. The piano-driven track is an old-style rocker, but even here the Beatles were playing with the recording. The piano purposely slips in and out of tune, John’s backing vocals are once again very prominent, and the song ends with a not-very-subtle simulated orgasm, the music and a breathy, wordless, moaning vocal rising and getting more intense until the piano suddenly drops off and John is heard saying “Believe it.”

“Good Morning Good Morning” continues the rebound on side two. It’s a heavy rocker with a punchy brass section, scorched earth guitar fills by McCartney, and lyrics inspired by a commercial for corn flakes. The lyrics would have fit in perfectly with the original concept for Pepper’s songs. The original idea, represented by the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single, was that the songs be a nostalgic look at their childhoods in Liverpool. “Good Morning Good Morning” plays on that theme with its tale of a man’s day, not wanting to get up and go to work, taking a walk by his old school, heading home to watch television (“Meet the Wife” was a British TV show). Lennon captures the frustration of everyday living with typical Lennon bile in the lines “Everybody knows there’s nothing doing/Everything is closed it’s like a ruin/Everyone you see is half asleep/And you’re on your own you’re in the street”. Only when the sun starts to set does the song’s protagonist start to come alive, flirting with the girls and acknowledging the people around him as “full of life”. In many ways, it’s the sequel to Revolver‘s “I’m Only Sleeping”, taking that song’s character and seeing how the rest of his day plays out. It’s a straightforward track, but still has some of the Pepper artifice. Aside from the horns and multiple time signatures there’s the ending, where a series of animal noises are heard, each sound representing an animal that could kill or frighten the animal before it.

On the stereo version of the album, the last of the animal sounds is a two-note guitar lick that mimics a clucking chicken. In reality, that was added in later to cover a terribly bad edit between “Good Morning Good Morning” and the following song, a reprise of the title track. The original, bad edit is heard in the mono version of the album, and is a clear example of the stereo mix being better than the mono. In truth, comparing the two versions is largely a wash. Both mixes have their selling points and despite Lennon’s insistence that mono was the best way to hear the album, the stereo mix is equally good. The “Sgt. Pepper” reprise is brief, a reminder that there was once a concept behind the album. Its inclusion still leads people to believe that Pepper has a unified theme. Like the title track, it’s a fine rave up, but there’s really nothing much to be said about it. It’s main purpose is to serve as the gateway to “A Day In The Life”.

The last track on Sgt. Pepper is also the best. It is, to my ears, the best song the Beatles ever did, and arguably the best song of the rock era. With a finale like this, it’s easy to forgive the superficiality of any of the preceding tracks. It is this song that sticks with the listener more than any of the others, and elevates Pepper to the top of critical lists. “A Day In The Life” is essential listening. For this song alone, Sgt. Pepper is a necessary addition to the collection of any serious fan of rock music.

Here the Beatles transcend rock music. The song has all the conventions of rock, but the recording is something else entirely. The verses are simple: a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, a stately, near classical piano, and Ringo Starr’s brilliant drum fills. Anyone who says that Ringo is not a world-class drummer needs to listen to this, and then forever shut up about it. Floating over it all is Lennon’s voice. In the first two verses he tells the story of the car crash that killed the Guinness heir Tara Browne, in the third he pays tribute to the movie How I Won The War, in which he had taken a supporting role in 1966. But it’s at the end of the third verse that the song takes off. As Lennon sings a line written by McCartney, “I’d love to turn you on”, the music swells underneath, an orchestral rush that rises and rises until it seems like it will explode out of the speakers. The orchestra, recorded with the musicians wearing fake noses and various costume parts to get them in the right frame of mind, had been instructed that they had 24 bars to go from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest, and how they did it was up to them. The sensation one gets listening to it is the same as taking off in an airplane. There’s a rush and a feeling of inexorable rising…until the 24th bar when the orchestral orgasm abruptly ends with the sound of an alarm clock and McCartney’s voice taking over the lead from Lennon. This section by McCartney was part of a song he’d been writing for the “childhood” concept of the album. It recounts his days riding on the top of the bus, smoking cigarettes, and daydreaming. In the context of the song, though, it is from the perspective of an adult, probably running late for work. Still, the lines “found my way upstairs and had a smoke/Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” was enough to get the song banned by the BBC for referring to drugs.

It’s hard to argue that those lines are not about drugs. At the moment McCartney finishes the word “dream” the music again shifts from the rock piano to a brass section that sounds impossibly deep. The brass builds from the bottom, becoming more prominent before ending in a five-note flourish that transitions back into the music of the first three verses. Overriding the brass is Lennon’s wordless wail, providing another melody on top. His voice on that elongated “Ahhhhhh” modulates and turns, drifting from speaker to speaker, before fading. And just like that we’re back to softly strummed acoustic, stately piano, and Ringo’s ever-changing fills. The last verse is nothing more than a poetic retelling of a news story about the number of potholes in the road (“four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”). But as Lennon ends the verse he circles back to that infamous line “I’d love to turn you on” and the orchestral rush begins again. This time the surge ends not with an alarm clock, but with what is probably the most famous chord in the history of 20th century music. It’s a simple E Major chord, played simultaneously on three different pianos by Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and roadie Mal Evans and on a harmonium by George Martin. As the sound of the chord started to dissipate the engineers in the studio turned up the recording levels until they were capturing not only the resonance of the chord but the ambient studio sounds. like the squeaking of a chair. The result is a massively rich chord that sustains for over 40 seconds before finally disappearing. Buried in the fade is a dog whistle, undetectable to human ears (and probably undetectable to recording devices, so who knows if it’s really on there or not).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends with a snippet of studio dialogue and noise, sped up, backwards, and on an endless loop for record players that do not have an automatic return on the stylus. It’s the last touch on the album, a hidden nonsense track less than 5 seconds long that continued playing on a loop until the listener lifted the needle off the groove.

Sgt. Pepper changed the musical world. It opened the doors for musicians to be more creative and take more chances. It also led to the mistaken belief that brass and strings were enough to turn a pop song into an artistic statement. We still listen to music in the world that Pepper created but the fact is that, with some exceptions, the songs on the album simply aren’t as good as the ones on Revolver, or even Rubber Soul. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock album ever released, and my grade reflects that. But is it The Greatest Album Ever Made as so many claim? No. It’s not even the best Beatles album.

Grade: A+

The Beatles: Revolver

revolver

For decades now, whenever some music magazine that’s staffed with old hippies (*cough* Rolling Stone *cough*) makes a list of the Greatest Albums of All Time (by which they mean the greatest albums since 1964), they invariably settle on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the choice for number one. But a funny thing happened several years ago when VH1 created a list of the 100 Greatest Rock Albums. As voted on by critics and musicians, the number one choice was Revolver. Since then, Revolver‘s stock has risen sharply while Pepper’s has dropped.

The rise in Revolver‘s status coincides directly with the release of the album on compact disc in 1987 when, for the first time, the original version of the album was released in America.

Revolver was the last Beatles album to be eviscerated by Capitol Records, and was probably the most damaged aside from the movie soundtracks. The American version of the album was a hard-hitting classic, long considered one of the very best albums by the band. When the English version was released in America, it was a revelation. As great as the American version was, three of the best songs had been removed.

U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. Love You To
4. Here, There, and Everywhere
5. Yellow Submarine
6. She Said, She Said
7. Good Day Sunshine
8. For No One
9. I Want To Tell You
10. Got To Get You Into My Life
11. Tomorrow Never Knows
1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. I’m Only Sleeping*
4. Love You To
5. Here, There, and Everywhere
6. Yellow Submarine
7. She Said, She Said
8. Good Day Sunshine
9. And Your Bird Can Sing*
10. For No One
11. Doctor Robert*
12. I Want To Tell You
13. Got To Get You Into My Life
14. Tomorrow Never Knows
*Released in America on the LP Yesterday…And Today

What makes the song removal even more unfortunate was that all three songs were John Lennon’s. As a result, George Harrison is a stronger presence on the American version as the writer and singer of three songs while Lennon is relegated to the album closers on each side. This has the effect of making the album seem lopsided. Paul is here, there, and everywhere and George is hot on his heels, but Lennon gets only one song more than Ringo.

No discussion of Revolver should begin without mentioning the cover art. Designed by their friend from Hamburg, the artist and bass player Klaus Voorman, the front cover of the album took the mildly hallucinogenic cover of Rubber Soul and exploded it. In stark black and white, the Beatles appear as line drawings, with only their eyes and George’s lips looking like cut and pastes from photographs. The four heads take up the entire cover while old photos (including some from the back cover of Rubber Soul) and surreal comic versions of the Beatles that look like they were drawn by Edward Gorey appear in their hair. Some of the photos are stretched or distorted, all of them are odd in either appearance or placement: Ringo in an old-fashioned bathing suit, George in a safari hat, John looking like he’s grown a giant Amish-style beard, a younger Paul hiding behind the cartoon of his own ear. And the single word in all capital letters: REVOLVER. In all of rock music to this point there had never been an album cover even remotely this strange. On the back cover, below another all-caps REVOLVER and the significantly smaller words “The Beatles” is a black and white photo of the band in the studio, sitting together, looking at each other instead of the camera, wearing sunglasses. revolver-backIf there’s a photo of a band where the group members look cooler than this, I’ve never seen it. This is the band in their “We’re The Coolest People On Planet Earth” phase (see also the videos for “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” from the same time period). The back cover of Revolver is one of the all-time great rock and roll photographs. The Beatles were looking less like the gear fab Mop Tops on Rubber Soul, but here they put that image behind them forever.

If the cover didn’t prepare you with the idea that the Beatles were up to something new, the music sure did. Their first album, Please Please Me, kicked off with Paul’s exuberant “one-two-three-four!” and three short years later Revolver begins with George’s slurred, off-time and off-beat, slow count in on “Taxman”. This was clearly a different group. For starters, it was George who kicked the album off, with his strongest song yet, a withering protest against Britain’s outrageously confiscatory 95% tax rate. His songwriting at this point was floating in that rarefied air with his bandmates Lennon and McCartney. But the song was also unusual. The guitar was heavy and distorted, unlike any heard on a Beatles song before. The ferocious guitar solo, played by Paul McCartney, exploded out of the speakers and was designed to mimic the feel of Indian music, George’s latest passion. The song sounded both Western and Eastern: the instrumentation of one with the scales of the other.

“Taxman” (and, in fact, all of Revolver) is also a perfect example of why the early Beatles are best heard in mono, rather than stereo. Listening to the stereo of “Taxman” can be downright painful, especially on headphones. Virtually all the music except the tambourine and the guitar solo comes from one speaker. The mono version is louder, punchier, and fuller. It’s also a different mix: the very prominent tambourine comes in earlier in the mono version. This is true throughout the album. The mono mix is clearly superior, and is the version the Beatles were fully involved in creating (the stereo mix was done by George Martin with no input from the Beatles). Song endings are longer (“Got To Get You Into My Life”), sound effects are placed differently and are more abrupt (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), vocals sound fuller (“Eleanor Rigby”). Generally speaking, the Beatles are worth hearing in mono all the way up through the White Album; on Revolver the mono mix really shines.

Shortly after “Taxman” ends in a welter of guitar and righteous indignation, McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” tells the story of the lonely titular character and the equally sad priest who presides over her funeral. The story is told over a pummeling string section; no traditional rock instruments are used, and John and George are only present in the backing vocals. But where McCartney’s (and George Martin’s) use of strings on “Yesterday” was light semi-classical, the strings in “Eleanor Rigby” pound in a staccato fashion that sounds vaguely like Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Psycho. The strings are playing in the place of rock and roll instruments; “Eleanor Rigby” could be rerecorded with heavy electric guitars and still maintain the same vibe. The strings on “Yesterday” sweetened the song; here they hammer home the sadness. “Eleanor Rigby” was McCartney’s finest moment to this point, a direct response to the challenge posed by Lennon’s increasingly sophisticated lyrics on Rubber Soul and to Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys album that was changing the way rock music could sound.

McCartney’s presence on Revolver was amplified by Lennon’s absence on the US version, making it sound like Macca had taken control over the band. On the official release it was clear that McCartney had assumed co-leadership duties with Lennon. Prior to Revolver, The Beatles had been Lennon’s band. On Revolver, they became Lennon and McCartney’s band. Lennon’s first track on the album was “I’m Only Sleeping”, a hymn to laziness or, perhaps, the stupor of being under the influence. At this time, Lennon was smoking a lot of dope and taking LSD like it was candy. Both drugs are reflected on the track. Marijuana informs the lyrics about a man who doesn’t want to do much of anything except lie in bed, sleeping and watching the world go by. Acid informs the music by inserting backwards guitar into what is otherwise a conventional rock track. Throughout the song snippets of backwards guitar rise from the background before erupting in a solo. The tone of the guitar gives the song an Eastern feel but also a psychedelic edge. Lennon’s voice also sounds unlike any of his previous vocals. It’s identifiably Lennon but here he sings in a higher, more nasal, register that adds just a bit more of an edge to the song. By this point on the album, I’m sure more than one first time listener was asking what the band was doing.

The answer is that they were challenging themselves and their audience about what the definition of rock music could be. George’s second song was a nearly pure Indian raga called “Love You To”. It’s the best example of George’s blending of rock and raga. A heavily fuzzed guitar and subtle bass are subservient to Indian instruments, primarily sitar, tambura, and tablas, but it’s still readily identifiable as rock music. Much like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Love You To” is a rock song played by mostly non-rock instruments. Through it all, blended with the music is George’s vocal. He sings the song in a flat, almost monotone way that perfectly complements the music.

On Rubber Soul the Beatles started branching out beyond love songs. Songs like “Nowhere Man” and “Think For Yourself” were the first songs the Beatles had done that weren’t about love in a boy-girl relationship. On Revolver, there are only three love songs, including two of the best that Paul McCartney ever wrote. “Here, There, and Everywhere” may be McCartney’s finest moment as a balladeer. The lyrics are sentimental and sweet, but not cloying or obvious. Some of the lyrics are downright gorgeous: “changing my life with a wave of her hand” and the ingenious way he works in the words of the title show the significant growth in McCartney. “Here, There, and Everywhere” is the Beatles first love song for adults, and makes a nice companion to “For No One”, the heartbreaking love song on side two. Here, McCartney sings about the dissolution of a relationship in a similarly adult fashion. Here the story is not that of a relationship that is over, but one that is on life support. “In her eyes, you see nothing” sings McCartney in the album’s most devastating line. “She says that long ago she knew someone/But now he’s gone/She doesn’t need him.” While the obvious interpretation of the lyrics is that Paul is observing somebody else’s relationship and commenting on it, “For No One” has always seemed far too personally heartfelt to me. The fact that McCartney says it was written about an argument with his girlfriend, the actress Jane Asher, also makes it personal. When seen as a song about himself, the switch from second person to third person further emphasizes the alienation the lover feels as the love is pulled away from him. Without his love, the song’s narrator can only see himself from the outside: first as an involved character in his life story “you see nothing” and then, as the relationship ends, as a faceless and nameless “him”. In a style of music that is replete with songs about broken love, “For No One” is one of the best, a perfect marriage of lyrical and musical pathos. The French horn solo, first hummed by McCartney, transcribed by George Martin, and then played by Alan Civil, is one of the greatest moments on the record, capturing all the wrenching emotion of the lyric and translating it into music.

The third love song, “Good Day Sunshine” kicks off the second side of the album. It’s a far more straightforward number than most of those on the album. It could have fit well on Rubber Soul or even Help! but that doesn’t diminish its many charms. For starters, it’s one of the few songs on the album that can genuinely be called “upbeat”. It’s a happy tune, propelled by piano and McCartney’s extraordinary vocal. It’s one of those songs that is simply impossible not to like. If it sounds slight in comparison to the rest of Revolver, that’s because it is. But lightheartedness was always a part of the Beatles’ arsenal. For every “Tomorrow Never Knows” there’s a “Good Day Sunshine”; for every “I Am The Walrus” there’s a “Yellow Submarine”. Revolver was, for the Beatles, a heavy album in lyrical terms. Politics, drugs, loneliness, and death are all explored. “Good Day Sunshine” goes a long way towards pushing away the gloom of what could have been a very bleak album. As such, it is “Good Day Sunshine”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, and “Yellow Submarine” that, as much as anything, make Revolver a Beatles album. The secret weapon of the Beatles (and almost any good band) was their sense of humor and fun. An album without those elements simply would not have worked as well. It is the very lightness of these songs that is what makes them so good. They stand on their own as great, fun songs but also leaven the album as a whole.

Still, if there’s a weak link on the album (and actually, there isn’t) it’s “Yellow Submarine”, a children’s song that puts The Goons into popular music while calling back to Spike Jones. Lennon always claimed that it was one of the most fun times he ever had in the recording studio, and it’s easy to see why. The song is filled with silliness and Lennon loved that type of humor, and the stories of the recording session include tales of Beatles roadie Mal Evans leading a conga line while banging on a bass drum and assorted EMI employees raiding the archives for sound effects that were then used with great abandon. “Yellow Submarine” is a classic Beatles song. To adult ears, it can be a little wearing. Ringo’s voice is…well, it’s Ringo’s voice, and the sing along chorus is a bit cloying after awhile. Still, there is a lot of fun in the song and it is essential listening for any child under the age of ten. The stories of the recording also prove a central truth of the Beatles: through their restless creativity and boundless energy, they were changing the way music was recorded. In stuffy EMI studios, where microphones had to be placed precisely and where the recording engineers wore white lab coats, the Beatles were anarchy unleashed. They challenged all the rules of the studio and, therefore, of recorded rock music. “Yellow Submarine” is a perfect example of that. In the studio the Beatles were free, while on tour they were prisoners. Recordings like “Yellow Submarine” went a long way in setting the precedent that studios could be used to do more than record, that they could be used to create. It’s a legitimate question to ask whether the Beatles would have felt the freedom to experiment like they did on “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first flouting convention on “Yellow Submarine”.

George appears in the spotlight for the third time with “I Want To Tell You”, a far more conventional rock song than his first two offerings. Or is it? In some ways “I Want To Tell You” is every bit as radical as Lennon’s songs on the album. The lyrical matter is about the difficulty of communication, and the music matches it. Strange chords, a discordant piano, the climax of Lennon and McCartney singing “I’ve got time” in a way that mimics an Indian raga. McCartney’s bass pounds the listener and George’s riff that slides in and out of the song is a winner. The riff was so good that Jimi Hendrix played it on the BBC before launching into a version of “Day Tripper”. When Hendrix tips his hat to your riff, you know you’ve got something special. The backing vocals from Lennon and McCartney are jarring, they underpin George’s lead vocal but are more strident and difficult. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in these two and a half minutes. Musically it’s far more complex than “Love You To” or “Taxman” yet it doesn’t seem that way when you listen. It’s only when the listener burrows into the song that the weirdness of it is revealed. While it sounds conventional on the surface, “I Want To Tell You” is Harrison at his most daring while playing in the confines of traditional rock music. His Indian-inspired songs may have sounded stranger to Western ears, but this is where he was truly experimenting with song structure.

John Lennon was the main songwriter for “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with some help from McCartney. The subject is very much a mystery as the words don’t really seem to make much sense. My best guess is that it was written as a joke to Mick Jagger about his girlfriend, Marianne Faithful. That was one of the rumors, at least, but what is one to make of “And your bird is green/But she can’t see me” or “When your bird is broken/Will it bring you down?” Lyrically it’s a slice of surrealism (charitably…it could just be nonsense) that comes across as silly. Lennon later criticized the song as one of his throwaway tracks, but Lennon was his own worst critic. Musically it’s another matter. The music on “And Your Bird Can Sing” is fantastic. The lead guitars, two locked in harmony played by George and Paul, lay a foundation on which you could build a city, and McCartney’s bass throbs in the background, providing another lead instrument deep in the mix. It’s another upbeat, hard rocking moment. Coming right after “Good Day Sunshine” on side two, it seemed to show a turn away the heavy vibe of the album before “For No One” brought back the darkness.

The four remaining songs on Revolver could not be more different, yet they all share one thing in common. The subject in all four songs was inspired by the same thing: the band’s increasing experimentation with mind-altering substances. McCartney’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” sounds like an upbeat, soul-style love song and there’s a reason for that. It is an upbeat, soul-style love song. The object of McCartney’s affection in the song is not a woman, though. “Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there,” Macca sings as if his heart was about to burst out of his chest. McCartney later admitted that the “you” in the song’s title and chorus was actually marijuana. Still, the lyric was disguised enough so that it didn’t raise suspicions among listeners or critics, and the song is so catchy and joyful that the music overwhelms the lyrics. Driven by a punchy and powerful horn section, with a short but very electric guitar solo, and McCartney raving in his Little Richard voice over the fade, “Got To Get You Into My Life” was more proof that the Beatles were no longer bound by the sound that had propelled them to the top of the charts. Anything they wanted to try was valid and their level of fame (and the money they brought in to EMI) ensured that they were given carte blanche. Revolver is nothing if not stylistically diverse: rock, pop, soul, raga, ballads, orchestration, psychedelia, and novelty songs all coexist seamlessly on one album that’s less than forty minutes long.

“Dr. Robert” was John’s ode to a physician who peddled a lot more than health. Originally inspired by a New York physician named Robert Freymann who was famous for providing amphetamines to his rich clientele, the final character in the song is probably a combination of several people, including John’s dentist (the man who first slipped LSD in John’s and George’s coffee at a house party). In a more innocent time like 1966, it’s possible to imagine that the song could be written off as merely a song about a doctor. With hindsight, the drug references are obvious. “Take a drink from his special cup”, “If you’re down he’ll pick you up”, “You don’t pay money just to see yourself”, “He helps you to understand” are all blatant allusions to drugs in the context of the song. “Dr. Robert” is “a new and better man”. The guitar, heavy and distorted, plays in short, choppy bursts under Lennon’s double-tracked vocals before the chorus abruptly shifts into a dreamlike harmonium and Lennon’s floating vocal of “Well…well…well, you’re feeling fine/Well…well…well, he’ll make you”. Again McCartney plays a stellar bass line that flows in the verses and ebbs in the chorus, providing a harmonic counterpoint to those choppy guitars.

It is the songs that end each side of the album that are the clearest indication that the Fabs were into something very new and very different. “She Said, She Said”, which closes side one of the LP, is a fairly accessible rock song, but the lyrics were something else entirely. Only a couple of years earlier John Lennon had sung about wanting to hold your hand. Now he was coming out of the gate with “She said ‘I know what it’s like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad’/And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born”. The lyrics reflect a nightmarish party where the band and their guests were tripping on acid and the actor Peter Fonda kept trying to tell them a story of a near-death accident he had as a child. According to Lennon, Fonda kept walking up to him saying “I know what it’s like to be dead”, a statement that had the understandable effect of freaking out Lennon during his drug-induced trip. This was a pop/rock song that had lyrics like no other before it. There had certainly been songs about drugs and death before, but never in a context like “She Said, She Said”. For an audience that was not “turned on” the lyrics must have been completely baffling, yet the music was straightforward for the most part. The guitars were incredibly loud and sharp, bordering on shrill, and Ringo especially shines throughout the song. John sings in the same nasal voice that he used on “I’m Only Sleeping”. It’s both a thrilling record and an exhausting one. At the end of the song the listener can be excused for being puzzled, alienated, or confused. While accessible, the music was heavier than any other Beatles song except perhaps for “Papberback Writer”/”Rain”, the magnificent single that preceded Revolver by a couple of months. The vocal was John distorting himself and the lyrics were unrelievedly dark and mysterious. What makes it all the more alienating was that the song immediately follows the happy, jaunty “Yellow Submarine”, providing the first of the two greatest contrasting song segues in the Beatles’ career.

The greatest contrasting song segue in the Beatles’ career, maybe in the history of recorded music, is found on side two. “Got To Get You Into My Life” was a finger-snapping, toe-tapping, head-bobbing slice of happy music. The song that followed it…wasn’t.

When Bob Dylan toured England in 1966 he was visited in his hotel room by Paul McCartney. McCartney brought an acetate of a new Beatles song to play for Dylan. When it was over Dylan said, “I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”

If there was a final nail in the coffin of the Mop Tops, and a first glimpse of what was to come, it was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the concluding track on Revolver. Beginning with a harsh buzzing sound, the song takes every pop/rock song structure and abandons them. For the pop audience, this was something the likes of which had never been heard before. The only readily identifiable sound is Ringo’s drums, playing a repetitive pattern that never deviates, behind what sounds like seagulls flying overhead, harsh backwards guitar that rises and falls, menacing sound effects, calliope sounds, and swells of distorted keyboards and horns. Most of these sounds were either backwards or sped up, frequently both. With the exception of that hypnotic drum beat and a brief snippet of piano during the fade, there is no standard music at all on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. And floating above it all is Lennon’s voice: “Turn off your mind/Relax and float downstream/It is not dying” he sings. “Lay down all thoughts/Surrender to the void.” Even Lennon’s voice switches at the 1:30 mark. Suddenly he sounds a million miles away, his voice just another sound effect. “Play the game existence to the end/Of the beginning…” Lennon had told their engineer that he wanted his voice to sound like a thousand chanting monks on a mountain top, but the sermon here is about the mind expanding effects of LSD. The vocal effect was produced by running John’s voice through a rotating speaker (called a Leslie).

The “music” was pieced together by Lennon and McCartney, after Paul had played John tapes of avant-garde music that he’d been experimenting with. The buzz is based on Indian music, with the entire song being in the key of C, with no chord changes. The “seagulls” were sped up laughter The lyrics were inspired by a Timothy Leary book about The Tibetan Book of The Dead, with some lines lifted almost verbatim from Leary’s book.

The days of “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were officially over. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was an unsettling, trippy, avant garde music that, amazingly enough, still manages to be an accessible, likable song. Other musicians, most notably Frank Zappa, were working in this territory at the same time, and the Beatles themselves would revisit this style with “Revolution 9” on the White Album, but “Tomorrow Never Knows” manages to pull off the staggering trick of being both non-musical and rock music at the same time. Zappa’s sound collages were just that: there was very little that was musical about them. The Beatles had proven that even the most far out sounds can work not merely in a pop song, but as a pop song. In one burst of creative genius and throughout one album, they’d proved that the old rules no longer applied. The entire musical world was listening and wondering where the Beatles could possibly go from here.

Is this the greatest album of the rock era? There’s really no objective way of saying that. But any good collection of music from the second half of the 20th century is not complete without Revolver. It is one of the crucial building blocks on which the music of the past fifty years is based. Absolutely essential listening.

Grade: A+