Monday, February 3, 2014

Retro Record Review #2

For the second of my innovative Retro Record Reviews I am going to do Revolver by The Beatles that is, in the view of George Harrison at least, a kind of sequel to Rubber Soul.

Like Rubber Soul and all subsequent albums, the name "The Beatles" does not appear on the front cover. Well, there is one exception, the cover of the White Album does have "The Beatles" on it, but just lightly embossed and you have to hold it up the light at the right angle to even see it. Unfortunately, all subsequent reissues have highlighted the name in light grey, which defeats the whole purpose of an album with no cover art! Sigh...

The Beatles went from being an obscure small-time band playing in a Hamburg strip club to being, not just the most famous musicians in the world, but the most famous people in the world, in just a couple of years. I'm not sure anything like that has ever happened before or since. But let's get right to the music.

In case anyone had any doubts about the creative power of The Beatles after Rubber Soul, Revolver laid that to rest. The album starts with a clever reference to the beginning of their first album, Please Please Me that had Paul counting in the band. This count is tentative rather than the shout of the previous album:

Lots of interesting things about this song: it is the only time a song by George Harrison was used to kick off an album. And a good song it is. Straight ahead, four on the floor, rock and roll. And the theme? Tax policy. Yes, the only song I know that is about punitive tax rates and it even mentions the then prime minister, Edward Heath. The passion of the song is explained by George having just noticed that they were paying 95% of their income in tax. Yes, that's correct, 95%. "One for you, nineteen for me." Solely as a result of this song, taxes were lowered world-wide. Just kidding! Had you going there, didn't I? The acerbic lines about pennies and dead people were, of course, the contribution of John Lennon:
Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
Revolver was released on August 5th, 1966 after thirty-seven days of recording, mixing and editing between April and June. Each song took between ten and thirty-three hours of studio time and a lot of the real "composition" took place in the studio. The basic structure of the songs, the lyrics, chords and melody was usually conceived outside the studio but what the Beatles were inventing in the studio was what you might call the "orchestration" of the song: the texture of instruments, quality of timbre and various things that we previously didn't have names for and that are still exotic practices. For example, they would sometimes slightly alter the current to the tape recorder when recording the instrumental tracks to make them sound "fatter" (by recording them slightly too fast and playing back at the normal speed) and then do the opposite for the voices. The result pushes the tone-quality of the voices forward. They would also double-track the voices for yet more intensity. Recordings by the Beatles always sound different from just about everyone else because a big part of the composition is actually the way they recorded the song.

The second song on Revolver, an utter contrast to the first, is very classical sounding as the only accompaniment is a string octet. The song is Paul's "Eleanor Rigby":

The musical ideas are all Paul's, but he relied on the invaluable George Martin to write out the parts for the players. Now each of these first two songs is a brilliantly creative example of pop music, but it is a whole other order of brilliance that they would appear side by side as they are so radically different. This astonishing range of creative thinking appears in the next song as well, "I'm Only Sleeping" by John Lennon:

This song uses the varispeed technique I mentioned above as well as another one invented for this song. The guitar solo was recorded in the usual way, but inserted backwards into the final mix. In other words, you are hearing all the notes backwards. It's a nice eerie effect for a song that evokes dreamlike states.

OK, so three songs, rock and roll, chamber music and electronic wizardry. Surely that is enough stylistic variety even for the Beatles? Not at all, because the next song is another one by Harrison that is the first in which his interest in Indian music really takes over. "Love You To" was inspired by George's lessons on the sitar with Ravi Shankar and also uses a group of Indian musicians resident in London, so the sound is much more authentically Indian than you might expect:

The metric variety in that music was soon to have an influence on the writing of Lennon.

There are even more varieties of music on this astonishing album including the next song, "Here, There and Everywhere" which is one of Paul's beautiful ballads (and one that sends theorists into conniptions--good ones, I hasten to say):

This was composed and added to the album almost at the last minute. I won't keep putting up clips, but "Yellow Submarine", one of the most popular children's songs ever, written for Ringo to sing, is also on the album as is another of Paul's soul-influenced numbers, "Got To Get You Into My Life":

Big, brassy and bold, that one took more time in the studio than any other song as they kept redoing it to get exactly the right sound. They used three trumpets and two tenor saxes, put the mikes right in the bells and severely limited the signal for the most compact sound. I like the way Paul saves the big, belted out line "Got to get you into my life" for just the right place in the song.

And after all that, we haven't mentioned the most remarkable song on the album, and strangely enough, the first to be recorded, the one that ends the album, "Tomorrow Never Knows" with lyrics based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. What makes this song unusual are a number of ideas, both technical and musical. First of all, Ringo, again, invents a new kind of drum pattern, then the whole song is just one chord, C major, John's voice is put through a speaker system called a Leslie that was originally made for electronic organs. The speakers are on a rotating base that, as it whirls, makes the sound airy and fluttery. But most importantly, this is the introduction into pop music of an avant-garde compositional technique called "musique concrète" as it was developed by French composers. In this, five small loops of pre-recorded sounds are played and layered over top of one another. Some are forwards and some back. The result is a song that sounds like and is like no other:

If they had never recorded another note, I think that this album would pretty much make the Beatles immortal. JMHO.

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