Thursday, 29 July 2010

Revolver (1)

Ah, Rubber Soul and Revolver. In everyday discourse about The Beatles, they go together like Laurel and Hardy, salt and pepper, Mel Gibson and misogyny. This bracketing was strengthened when Harrison noted in the Anthology series that in his opinion ‘they could almost have been Part One and Part Two’, and you often see this as a standard critical line on these records.

Apologies, George – I know you were in The Beatles and I wasn’t, and you’re dead so it’s difficult for you to argue back, but I couldn’t disagree more. Harrison did note that he hadn’t listened to them back-to-back lately when he said that, and if one does so the step up from one to the next is very apparent. In fact, heard in the context of this blog’s listening-experiment, Revolver sounds like perhaps the biggest step up in The Beatles’ career.

I’ve always felt there was a substantial difference between the two records, with Rubber Soul being more geared towards developing the band's songwriting whilst Revolver builds on that by exploring how a song can be enhanced by production, additional instruments and/or arrangements that couldn’t easily be replicated live. However, the tracks I’d always thought of as being really progressive were the likes of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, ‘Love You To’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. What I wasn’t expecting was for the album to sound so different from the opening seconds: not only the mildly surreal count-in that opens the album, but the entirety of ‘Taxman’.

What I’d never noticed before is how brusquely minimal ‘Taxman’ is. The lead guitar relies on the bass to carry the main riff: the guitar line is then hugely stripped back. I’d never noticed just how stripped-back it is, I’d imagined there were about twice as many notes in it as there actually are. Your brain fills in the gaps. The effect is thrillingly casual yet taut, the coolest opening to any Beatles album, banishing the chirpy-entertainers image of their early recording career. Shame it’s a moan about how much tax they’re paying, but to be fair they were paying a hell of a lot (‘One for you, nineteen for me’ isn’t an exaggeration, they were subject to a 95% supertax – I’m very much in favour of progressive taxation, but I think that’s a bit mad).

What probably brackets Rubber Soul and Revolver most strongly in Harrison’s mind is that this was the period when he was most central to the group. His songwriting on both albums is much better than his previous work, and was rewarded with three tracks on Revolver rather than his usual two. (This, and the lack of 50-50 co-writes from Lennon/McCartney, aids the excellent sequencing of Revolver, whereby you never hear the same lead vocalist handle two tracks back-to-back, and whereby the album opens and closes with the sequence Harrison-McCartney-Lennon. The Capitol version, which pulled three tracks and released them early on ‘Yesterday’... And Today, disastrously selected three Lennon songs, meaning the Harrison wrote more of the American 11-track version of Revolver than Lennon did.) Additionally, their studio practices hadn’t yet become fragmented in the manner which ultimately marginalised both Harrison and Starr. ‘Taxman’ is a fine example of what Harrison could achieve when Lennon and McCartney helped him the way they helped each other, with Lennon having input on the lyric and McCartney offering production ideas and, surprisingly, the astonishing guitar solo.

In places the success of Revolver is about what the group add, such as the numerous effects loaded onto ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the lush backing vocals of ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ and the comedy nautical noises on ‘Yellow Submarine’. Yet in other places, there’s actually less than they might previously have done: where before they might have been tempted to put a token acoustic guitar on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Love You To’, here they don’t bother. Other tracks, like ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Doctor Robert’, have rather simple arrangements. But whatever The Beatles did on this record, they thought about it and tried all the options rather than settling for the first thing that seemed to work. Where Help! had been made in about thirty hours of studio time and Rubber Soul in a hundred, Revolver took around three hundred – and it shows.

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