Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Revolver - The Beatles - album review

Of all the albums recorded by The Beatles, perhaps none more epitomised the Swinging Sixties than Revolver, released in 1966.  Embodying some of the sunny optimism of the time, but also exuding a sophistication and a keener affinity with counter-cultural concerns.

This record was made when The Beatles were still a touring band, before their retreat into a more reclusive and studio-bound existence. Although some of the tracks on Revolver are very much studio creations, others very much inhabit guitar-band territory, with added "attitude" and occasionally tinged with a nascent psychedelia.  One can discern the influence of 1966-era Beatles guitar-orientated material in the New Wave groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and even in later indie bands.

Having said that Revolver exudes the vibrancy of its era, it is also worth noting that the scope of its lyrical concerns was very broad, encompassing more social commentary than before, and containing many references to emergent underground culture. The Beatles were by no means unique in exploring virgin subject matter, but the sheer variety of the topics on Revolver is remarkable. Death, taxes, loneliness, consciousness, war and mind-altering substances - they are all there.

It is often said that the complementary strengths and approaches of Lennon and McCartney were some of the ingredients which made the Beatles special.  However on Revolver such simplistic pigeon-holing is not really applicable, as both men are in creative and restless form.  It cannot be smugly declared that one songwriter's contributions are edgy and subversive, whilst the other's are more conservative.  The fact that both rise to the occasion, and push themselves, helps give the album additional depth and sweep.

The record's closing track, "Tomorrow Never Knows" doesn't so much close the book on one era, as open a door and peer into an exciting but unpredictable future.  I would argue that the song has been excessively acclaimed in purely musical terms, but symbolically, and as a statement of intent, its effect was startling, probably more so on their peers and the "in crowd" than on Joe Public.

The continued blossoming of George Harrison added another dimension.  His often contradictory concerns were being projected with greater clarity, as exemplified by "Taxman" and "Love You To", and this greatly augmented the group's eclecticism and mystique.  This was the stage at which George truly advanced from being a mere guitar player to something much more integral.

Many of the songs on Revolver are pervaded by a peculiar, almost sleepy and indolent, ambience, which sets it apart from the warm crispness of Rubber Soul and the flawless perfectionism of "Sgt Pepper". Production techniques may have played a part, but there could have been other contributory factors.

There were sign-posts for the future, with unconventional instrumentation and studio experimentation, but The Beatles never lost sight of the fundamental importance of good songwriting and craftsmanship, and these sensibilities are on full display on tracks such as "Got To Get You Into My Life", "For No One" and "Here, There and Everywhere".

Listening to the record, I am also reminded of the apparent effortlessness with which this album was turned out. On other Beatles albums, for all their undoubted quality and charm, one can sense how hard they were trying.  On Revolver, very little feels "forced" or calculating.  It was as if creativity and ideas were flowing naturally from the musicians, with no need for gimmicks or pretension.

Revolver represents a peak of sorts.  Other artists would have sensed that they had nothing further to say, but time would amply demonstrate that The Beatles were in many respects only just beginning....

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