The summer of 1966 relegated the Beatles, for the first time, to being England’s second favourite sons. Only a week before the Fab Four released their seventh album, Bobby Moore captained the England team to victory in the World Cup final at Wembley. Meanwhile in the US, Lennon’s famous “bigger than Christ” remark soured their public image in the eyes of many.
Consequently, Revolver wasn’t quite the cultural phenomenon that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would be when it was released a year later. Nonetheless, it was still utterly transformative. In December 1965, Rubber Soul had been a huge step up from Help!, but the complexity of recordings on Revolver was a positive leap.
Increasingly jaded with touring, the Beatles began to view the recording studio as something more than a way to capture their performances. They made more use of overdubs and new recording techniques, experimenting with tempos and microphone placements just to see what would happen. Vocals and guitar solos were double tracked, sped up, and reversed. As new engineer Geoff Emerick would say, “Revolver very rapidly became the album where the Beatles would say, ‘OK, that sounds great, now let’s play [the recording] backwards or speeded up or slowed down’”.
Their instrument choices also became much more eclectic. “Norwegian Wood” on Rubber Soul is remembered for its sitar — but “Love You To” gazumps it by using a tabla and tambura as well. The album also features the Beatles’ first uses of clavichord and vibraphone. This could easily make the album feel disjointed, but the songs share just enough to make them cohere while remaining distinguishable.
The Beatles’s song writing had already come a long way since Please Please Me in 1963. The boy-girl love songs had steadily become more complex, with the women becoming more active and interesting. Rubber Soul even featured “Nowhere Man”, their first original song that wasn’t about love. Of Revolver’s fourteen tracks, only five were love songs. The album’s main theme is death. “Taxman” dedicates a verse to the financial penalties of dying. “She Said She Said” compares an LSD trip to dying, or never being born at all. In “And Your Bird Can Sing”, Lennon spits that the bird will soon be broken. Even the ostentatious love songs are concerned with mortality: “Love You To” bemoans that there isn’t enough time to screw before you die, “For No One” is about the death of love, while “Here There And Everywhere” opines that love never dies.
The album’s highlights are the two most morbid songs in their whole discography. “Eleanor Rigby” is about a senile old lady who dies alone and unloved, while the vicar watches his parish collapse. Closer “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a psychedelic masterpiece that hundreds have tried to emulate. With tape loops and a reversed guitar solo, it was the most complex and distinctive song they’d record, at least until “Revolution #9” in 1968. Lennon took the lyrics from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, used to guide souls onto their next life. He wanted it to sound like a crowd of monks chanting from the tops of the Himalayas. As always, he couldn’t translate his vision into reality, but still made an utterly mind-bending song.
The result was an album that would be impossible to play live. The band played a few shows, leaving out the bulk of Revolver in favour of songs they could actually play. It was a disastrous tour; they were assaulted for unintentionally snubbing the Philippines’ first lady, and the “bigger than Jesus” fiasco meant they were subject to death threats in America. They never toured again, dedicating themselves to the studio.
It was also the last time that John Lennon was a fully committed member of the band. Paul McCartney had risen to match his stardom, and even George Harrison was now writing competently on his own (three of his songs appear on Revolver). After 1966, McCartney provided the creative vision. Lennon still wrote great songs – 1967 was probably his best year as a songwriter – but McCartney was dominant, and Lennon resented being usurped. But for one glorious year, the two were both at the peak of their powers, and they made a truly timeless album as a result.