The Beatles are probably the greatest rock band of all time and their musical style evolved substantially over the years. There are also some iconic albums such as ‘Revolver’ and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club where extraneous influences permeated the songs and created a unique style. Amongst the most important of these influences was the Eastern effect which came upon George Harrison in the years 1964-65 and which was to find its way into ‘Revolver’ (Barrow p 65). The essay thesis is an argument over the transition from Help to Revolver where the experimentation in sound reach its zenith with tracks such as, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Tomorrow never Knows’.
‘Help’ – the last inspired Beatles album?
Help is perhaps to be considered as a nod to the past as well as a signpost to the future. Its 12 original songs certainly include some fillers but the two songs written by George Harrison also show a substantial change in the style which was to reach full fruition in ‘Revolver’. John Lennon did not value George’s songs very highly and in fact had quite a scathing opinion on tracks such as ‘It’s Only Love’ which he considered as one of the band’s least inspired efforts. However there were tracks which stood out from the album especially ‘Yesterday’, ‘Ticket to Ride’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ as well as the excellent title track. Other points of interest include John Lennon’s Bob Dylan influenced ‘You’ve got to Hide Your Love Away’ which was the first all-acoustic song recorded by the Beatles. This track was also notable for the introduction of a fifth musician who was flautist John Scott becoming the first non-Beatle to feature on a recording since Andy White at the ‘Love Me Do’ sessions.
George Harrison also introduced an original style in the form of a wah-wah pedal to give one of his new numbers, ‘I Need You’, a suitably mournful quality, this is the same effect as the one used on ‘Yes It Is’ which was the B-side of ‘Ticket to Ride’. This wasn’t the first time that the wah wah was used since one of George’s wartime heroes, the jazz musician Chet Atkins had pioneered the use of this instrument before. This meant that the Beatles would now be open to the possibility of any instrument, indeed any object from which sound could be extracted. Another important song in this album was ‘Ticket to Ride’ which definitely broke new ground. John Lennon described it as one of the first heavy metal records ever issued. The title is said to be a pun on the Isle of Wight town of Ryde where Paul McCartney’s cousin had a pub although there was also a reference to the infamous Hamburg Hookers in the lyrics (Bramwell, p 125). Help was one of the most important albums for the Beatles since it basically mapped out the way for the future.
‘Revolver’ – trying to create magic?
The spring of 1966 should have seen the Beatles working on their third film but since they had no acceptable script which was forthcoming, they decided to return to the studio and record their seventh album. Initially, the album was to be titled ‘Abracadabra’ but eventually the band came up with ‘Revolver’ since there was already an album title by that name. The Beatles’ traditional music form was completely torn up and instead we had instruments which were distorted to take them to new sonic places, backwards guitar almost becoming de rigeur while access to vari-speed taping equipment opened up completely new vistas for both playback as well as recording.
‘Rubber Soul’ which was the previous effort by the Beatles has often been described as a ‘pot’ album while Revolver is the ‘acid’ counterpart of that. In order to transfer the kaleidoscopic vision onto vinyl, sounds were daubed on, sometimes with a randomness that rendered the recordings quite unique. Nothing was off limits, save for the desire to have the tracks glide seamlessly into one another, which the conservative record company regarded as pushing the boundaries just that little too far (Braun, p 125).
Revolver is regarded as the last album on which the group worked as a cohesive unit. In fact a year later, Paul McCartney would be the architect and driving force behind Sgt. Pepper, and after that a chill wind of discontent would begin to blow quite frequently through Abbey Road. However, for the time being, all four band members were at the top of their game. Amongst the tracks which were written by Paul, there is the classic ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘For No One’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. John Lennon’s contribution focused on three songs which were; ‘I’m Only Sleeping’’, ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ as well as the incredibly stunning finale, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. George Harrison also contributed an unprecedented three songs with the acerbically witty ‘Taxman’ coming first on the album. One of the major characteristics of the album was the drumming of Ringo Starr which has been widely regarded as his finest work, plus a lead vocal spot that became a number one single and not just the usual album filler. Several magazines such as Mojo, Rolling Stone and Q Magazine have all placed Revolver as the number one album in the all-time list (Carr, Tyler p 90).
The iconic song, ‘Eleanor Rigby’
‘Eleanor Rigby started out as a snatch of melody and an image where Paul pictured a woman cleaning up after a wedding. He soon decided that his protagonist was dealing with the shattered remains of her own unfulfilled marital ambitions as well as the detritus of the present joyous occasion. This juxtaposition gave the song its theme, although the storyline was not fleshed out until sometime later during a brainstorming session that involved other members of the group.
Paul played around with various combinations for the name of this lonely spinster, and the choice of Eleanor Rigby has been the source of endless comment and wild speculation. There must have been a subconscious element in the choice of the name but apparently the perfect surname emerged after a trip to Bristol in January 1966. A family gravestone at Woolton Cemetery also includes a 44 year old Eleanor Rigby and a John McKenzie also lies at rest close by. As Paul and John used to hang out at the cemetery, it is possible that these names lay dormant in the recesses of Paul’s mind, or it might be pure coincidence that this name was chosen (Carr, Tyler, p 27).
Tomorrow Never Knows – the first great psychedelic song?
This song can be described as a bravura attempt to capture the disconnected unreality of an acid trip on vinyl. It employed several innovative recording techniques with engineer Ken Townsend coming up with what was described as Artificial Double Tracking, an electronic means of thickening the vocal, forerunner of the now ubiquitous choral effect. This in particular pleased John, who hated double-tracking the long winded way (Braun, p 75).
The recording techniques on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ went even further. John’s vocal was fed through a Hammond organ’s rotating Leslie speaker to give it the desired ethereal, disembodied quality. Rigging the circuitry to achieve that effect was much easier than John’s suggestion: that he be suspended from the ceiling by a rope and deliver the vocal while circumnavigating the room. Tape loops were also used extensively during the recording of this song. The whole was such a spontaneous, random event that George Martin said it was the only Beatles track that would be impossible to recreate.
Conclusion – ‘Revolver as the zenith of the Beatles’
In both style and substance, ‘Revolver’ represented a move away from pop music convention. Mere guitars, drums, keyboard and vocals seemed like something out of the Dark Ages as the Beatles looked to classical instruments, as well as the EMI props cupboard, to extend their range. Perhaps the culmination of all this was to be found in the ‘Yellow Submarine’ track where everyone was allowed to let their hair down especially those in the studio. This rollicking and haunting children’s fantasy also included a nod to psychedelia. By pairing it with such tracks as Eleanor Rigby, the Beatles skilfully demonstrated that they were really a group for all seasons.
Barrow, Tony (2005). John, Paul, George, Ringo & Me: The Real Beatles Story. New York: Thunder's Mouth. ISBN 1-56025-882-9.
Bramwell, Tony; Kingsland, Rosemary (2006). Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles. New York: St. Martin's Press.ISBN 978-0-312-33044-6.
Braun, Michael (1964). Love Me Do: The Beatles' Progress(1995 reprint ed.). London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-002278-3.
Carr, Roy; Tyler, Tony (1975). The Beatles: An Illustrated Record. New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-52045-1.