The Beatles, Revolver: Pushing the Envelope for the Fab Four

I’ve mentioned in these articles before that The Beatles were a formative part of my early experience with music.  They were the first ‘great’ band that ever captivated me. Revolver is one of those albums that I keep on coming back to. It is musically rich, lyrically complex, uses a slew of what were, for 1966, very advanced recording techniques, and fits all these aspects into what is undeniably a very mature album.  I’d like to look at a couple of classic songs— “Eleanor Rigby,” “For No One,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Before we go into “Eleanor Rigby,” let’s give a little context.  Rock and roll is going strong in the mid-1960s, and The Beatles just opened their newest album with the electric guitar driven rocker “Taxman.”  The needle keeps moving on the record, and suddenly you hear tight choral harmonies and string octet. You’re probably questioning what on earth is going on.  Well, that’s exactly how John and Paul want you to react. This piece is completely at odds with The Beatles’ previous work. Their first non-love song was “Nowhere Man” on Rubber Soul, and of course the previously mentioned “Taxman,” but those still had conventional orchestration, at the very least.  “Rigby” showcases a new direction. The texture of the arrangement is sparse, reflective, and carries with it a drive to cadence that is quite unique. That being said, it’s still a pretty rough cut for an album as significant as Revolver. In the opening of the piece, McCartney’s vocal track is panned from center in stereo to the right channel, but not until after he has begun singing. It’s a jarring shift and one that could’ve easily been dealt with in the studio, but it was overlooked.  These little mishaps are the endearing treasures that keep me coming back to these songs. What happened in the studio that caused that oversight? Or did they do it intentionally?

Who knows?  The questions are endlessly captivating, though.

“For No One” is a personal favorite of mine. Coming in at under two minutes, it’s a quick piece.  But its simplicity and brevity mean that each individual moment is full of meaning. Alan Civil’s french horn is a beautiful addition to McCartney’s sorrowful vocals. When it comes to top heartbreak songs, “For No One” is a clear contender. It’s frank treatment of the death of a relationship characterized by devotion on one end and apathy on the other, as defined by its simple piano, bass, and drum accompaniment deftly brings the listener to share in the singer’s pain. The poetry of this piece is one of its fortes. “Your day breaks, your mind aches / You find that all the words of kindness linger on / When she no longer needs you” and “And in her eyes you see nothing / No sign of love behind the tears / Cried for no one / A love that should have lasted years!” are simple yet profound verse. The brief addition of “cried for no one” adds to the hopelessness of the piece.  Paul’s matter-of-fact delivery of these words is another key factor in the piece. They are sung in the tone of a man who has had his world turned upside down and has yet to cope. In its own coy manner, the song doesn’t cadence at the end. McCartney knows that this type of heartbreak is inconsolable.  His lack of cadence is a measure of its permanence— the lover will always feel this emptiness in his heart.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is in a league of its own. Inspired by Indian classical music, this piece is the pinnacle of the group’s experiments with processed sound. Backwards tape, such as George Harrison’s guitar solo in which each note blooms backward, double tracking and flanging (where two tapes are run and physically manipulated at the same time in order to achieve a warped effect, such as John Lennon’s vocals on the final verse), Eastern instruments, drone vocals, and various novelty sound effects from their recording studio’s library all make appearances. The song certainly isn’t easy listening.  The soundscape is quite jarring and full. It fills the entire spectrum of sound, almost a premonition of what Phil Spector would do in post-production to the initial release of Let It Be. As an individual piece, it’s certainly not the strongest on the album.  But as a landmark of the group’s development, it is crucial.

Revolver…What an album. The Beatles are hitting their stride as artists in the studio. Their experiments would revolutionize the way that music production was thought about around the world. With the help of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (whose book Here, There, and Everywhere is a very worthwhile read for anyone curious about how the Fab Four worked in the studio), the group put together a captivating album which has significant depth in comparison to many of the their previous works and which over 50 years later continues to force artists to push the limits of sonic expression.

Zach is the co-editor of the Culture section of the Rover.  He thinks that Stanford probably lost because their mascot isn’t even a tree, it’s just a color.  Let him know your favorite piece of Schubert lieder for baritone at