Friday, 30 July 2010

Revolver (2)

Revolver is my favourite Beatles album. I sometimes feel that seems a slightly witless choice, as if I’m dodging the default option of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band just for the sake of being different, and have gone for the album that preceded it. But I can argue the case and, as you have probably gathered if you’ve been reading this blog, I will.

Revolver contains my two favourite Beatles tracks, the two I’d choose if I could only listen to two Beatles tracks for the rest of my life: ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. There’s a superb documentary about The Beatles by Howard Goodall – a documentary so good that, even though I think The Beatles are amazing, it made me like them a little bit more. Look, it’s on YouTube. Watch it.

If you don’t have a spare fifty minutes though, here’s a summary. Essentially he deconstructs various Beatles songs to show how cleverly-assembled they are, how well they achieve their desired effects and how innovative they were for their time. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is covered, and this is important to his basic thesis: The Beatles arrived just as ‘serious’ composers had given up on the Western classical tradition and started pissing about with the avant-garde. Goodall explains why the Western classical tradition is brilliant, how it influenced The Beatles, and then demonstrates how they brought it together with the avant-garde (and other influences, such as the Eastern classical tradition) to make music which was massively popular: the prime example being ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

This is a very interesting argument, but it sort of put in context stuff which I already knew about that track: the influence of Indian raga music and Stockhausen on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is fairly obvious even if you’ve never really listened to either. It’s hard to make that track more amazing than it was the first time you heard it and had to check it wasn’t a Candy Flip-inspired early-1990s remix. But Goodall also covered ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the programme, and I found what he said about it quite jaw-dropping.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ does not follow the usual rules of Western music. Instead it’s written in what’s called the Dorian mode, a form of songwriting which originated with mediaeval monks’ chants. McCartney never studied this: it filtered down to him via folk music. The fact that he apparently grasped the ‘rules’ of this mode instinctively and understood that they were a ‘correct’ way to write songs is perhaps a tribute to the mode as much as McCartney, and certainly George Martin may have made a large contribution here as he arranged the strings which form the entire basis of the track, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Goodall’s demonstration of what the song would sound like in a conventional Western classical style – i.e. nowhere near as good – closes his case.

Not only is ‘Eleanor Rigby’ a superb piece of music, tightly controlled and effortlessly affecting, it is also the ideal response to those who dismiss McCartney as a fluff-merchant and pastiche artist. The lyric is stark and startling, dealing with people and subjects not typically covered in pop music then or now. All the great lines of this lyric have been praised by others, but the whole thing is a very focused piece of writing, with every detail – the window, the socks (Ringo’s idea), Eleanor being ‘buried along with her name’ – adding to the effect. Absolutely nothing is sugared or romanticised.

And far from being pastiche, there is no obvious precedent for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – it’s remarkable that McCartney thought of doing it at all. It’s of an entirely different order to ‘Yesterday’, which is also carried by its string quartet but which is a far more conventional ballad. I’m not aware that anybody else was making records like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, with its wintry urgency and total lack of glamour. Amazingly, they then decided to put it out as a single and slap a kids’ novelty song on the other side (and it’s a great kids’ novelty song – my son demands it to be played repeatedly). It’s hard to imagine how this sounded to pop fans in 1966, for whom The Beatles were still principally a guitar group, but they went along with it enough to send it to number one. The majority of groups who’ve claimed to be Beatle-influenced would have balked at putting this out, if they’d been capable of it in the first place.

What I love about Revolver is that this huge variety is contained within a pop format, with every song between two and three minutes long. It’s the record that epitomises the best of The Beatles, for me, and is why I stare in bafflement at my many friends who favour Abbey Road.

No comments:

Post a Comment