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Defamiliarizing the Beatles: Revolver (1966)

1966? Wow. I’ve always pretty much just “liked” The Beatles, which is why I’ve lived in such ignorance about one of the highest ranked rock albums of all time, I guess. But recently, I’ve “discovered” something in Revolver, the band’s seventh album, that is as innovative as it gets for any album. In fact, it would lead to a virtual endless opening of doors for musicians afterwards. Pretty heady stuff for a rock album recorded in the middle of 1966.

In terms of classic, famous, Brit-rock invasion bands, I’ve never been all that excited about The Rolling Stones or The Who. I loved Led Zeppelin, and appreciated The Beatles. Okay, but Zeppelin didn’t produce their first album until early 1969. In ’66 there were essentially three different ways of using music as a vehicle: the profound bard, the street punk, the sound sculptor. The Beatles were definitely the sound sculptors, and the polar opposite of, say, a politically conscious Dylan, generally removed from the ideological and social struggles of the time.

As a casual listener, here’s what’s always stood out to me about The Beatles’ music (followed by a BUT).

(1) Great songwriters. But their famous pieces were inescapable and culturally ubiquitous. Sometimes they were even a little…cheesy? Light?

(2) Prolific. Yes, they catalog hundreds of songs but there are so many castoffs, and so many two-minute ditties, you begin to cherry-pick the albums looking for the two or three famous pieces. (And Zeppelin gets all the credit as the makers of “the concept album”).

(3) Distinctive sound. But you don’t expect things like hot improv guitar, or really innovation. And if you do think of innovation you probably think material from ‘Sgt. Peppers’, which followed Revolver and has more famous material (“Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds,” “Little Help from My Friends”).

What Lennon is doing with the guitar melodies and background jangling sound, reminds me of what Peter Buck maximized for 30 years with R.E.M. (“And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Dr. Robert”). Lennon also demonstrates what you do as a guitarist when you aren’t a great soloist. You play cool riffs and harmonize the melodies. The day of the guitar solo has burned out and faded away for probably about the past two decades. Bands like Cake have since perfected the precision riff.

And McCartney’s motown-inspired “Got to Get You Into My Life” reminds me of Neil Diamond (okay, not so innovative there).  But even this relatively unheralded song signaled a major prelude to the 70s with the band orchestration and fade-out. And check out those horns! Some wild, eccentric sound-sculpting here for sure! And all in two-and-a-half minutes.

But have you heard of “Tomorrow Never Knows”? This is the song that truly blows me away. Way ahead of its time. I would go so far as to say you wouldn’t know the difference between it and a given song produced today. What a way to conclude an album. The song begins, “Turn off your mind and look downstream…it is not dying” and concludes with the repeated phrase “…in the beginning.” It was a beginning. Pioneering more than subtle sounds, but an explosion of experimental and psychedelic music to follow for decades. It includes such groundbreaking techniques as reverse guitar, processed vocals and looped tape effects. Musically, it’s drone-like, with a strongly syncopated, repetitive drum-beat played over a single chord. Lennon’s processed lead vocal was another innovation. Always seeking ways to enhance or alter the sound of his voice, Lennon told EMI engineer Geoff Emerick that he wanted to sound like he was the Dalai Lama singing from the top of a high mountain. The end result is an ethereal, filtered quality. Just amazing.

Of course there are the homages, and the specific, direct attempts to recreate a “Beatles-influenced” song, such as Wilco’s “Hummingbird” from A Ghost is Born CD (who themselves are now considered to be “boundary-pushing”). And there are bands like The Jayhawks who have a natural harmony that can at times, and at their best (say, the 1995 Tomorrow the Green Grass CD), sound reminiscent of that distinctive Beatles harmony. But I’m pretty excited by my de-familiarized listening to The Beatles and how they laid claim to so many distinctive sounds for, well, the rest of rock n’ roll history when it comes down to it.

Does this sound like 1966?

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