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.

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.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Paperback Writer

‘Rain’, the B-side of this single, has been so often discussed as an overlooked gem of the Beatles’ back catalogue that it surely no longer counts as an overlooked gem. Excellent as it is, I feel like doing an extra post to shine some light on the A-side, which is one of The Beatles’ less renowned hits but a favourite of mine.

The main context in which ‘Paperback Writer’ is usually mentioned is that it was the first Beatles single not to be a love song. That was a significant watershed for the group, but there are other aspects to its lyric which are at least as important. Its concerns are urban and twentysomething, rather than teenage. The reference to ‘working for the Daily Mail’ makes this perhaps the first Beatles song to be set in a specific location – London – and even if that reference wasn’t there, the song is clearly influenced by what McCartney saw about him at that time. Previous Beatles songs had tended towards the generic, a good example being ‘In My Life’ which began as a journey through locations Lennon had known as a child, but which had all its specific references stripped out.

Furthermore, although McCartney had written many songs where he had adopted a character, this was the first time he’d done so overtly. When he’d invented situations for his earlier love songs these fictions had fed into his persona within the group. With ‘Paperback Writer’, however, nobody was supposed to think that he actually wanted to be a paperback writer: the character is entirely distinct from Paul McCartney. This was the first song the Beatles released in that style – which, aptly enough considering its subject matter, has been dubbed ‘novelistic’ songwriting – and it marked the growing divergence between McCartney and Lennon. Lennon never quite trusted this sort of songwriting, feeling it dishonest (which was rather literal-minded of him), and would instead go down a solipsistic route of writing largely about himself. (This is partly why much of his solo work is a bit tedious.)

Yet, speaking as someone who does want to be a paperback writer, I think McCartney nails his character perfectly here and as a result the song has much to say. The form and content match beautifully: the flashy boldness of the music represents the character’s confidence and ambition as well as the upwardly mobile spirit of the era, whilst the breathless, slightly wheedling manner of McCartney’s vocal balances this with a touch of gauche enthusiasm and desperation to succeed (which, come to think of it, is probably something McCartney identified with even if the situation was alien to him). The way that the opening lines ‘push’ the words ‘it took me yeeears to write’, pleading with the letter’s recipient, is one of the most effective pieces of phrasing in The Beatles’ output. There’s room for humour, too, in the manuscript running to a mind-boggling ‘thousand pages, give or take a few’ (and it still isn’t finished), and in the heavy implication that the author’s work is a thinly-veiled roman รก clef about his father. A superb group performance is dominated by McCartney’s deft bass work (his opening riff sounds near-impossible to play) and Starr’s typewriter-imitating drums.

As a brilliantly-constructed song which contrives to sound knocked-off, ‘Paperback Writer’ is entirely characteristic of McCartney – and it was the first McCartney-led Beatles single since ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ two years earlier (he and Lennon having shared the limelight on ‘We Can Work It Out’). During 1966 a turnaround occurred in the balance of power, shifting from a situation where Lennon usually got his way to a situation where McCartney was taking the lead on creative decisions. Which (oddly, considering the modern critical lionisation of Lennon) produced The Beatles’ most celebrated period.