Pop Eye: On ‘Revolver’
August 25, 1966
SWINGING LONDON, August 17 — The reception which the Beatles have received so far on their American tour has been less than ecstatic. But it is far from the murderous venom which most Londoners feared would greet their native sons.
It is part of the myth of America-the-free to view even New York as an extension of the uncivilized frontier. There is a distinct impression that Americans are savages. The English maintain a healthy skepticism about the ability of an average American to eat dinner in a civilized manner — there is the fear that buffalo knives will accompany the meat course.
Mini-skirts and mod-men look with mixed envy and scorn at the hordes of madras crewcut gleamers who have made the trek across the sea; and this year the mob is bigger than ever. There is a supreme English tolerance for bad weather, cold tea, and young Americans in T-shirts that say “Swinging London — Carnaby Street” on the back. But beneath the bemused affection lies a deep suspicion that, as a cowboy, you are liable to come out shooting when the local pubkeeper says: “Time, gentlemen, please.”
Recent events in Austin, Chicago, Newark, New Haven, or wherever the most recent mass-murder has taken place, compound this impression. The many-headed beast has taken murder statistics to heart. And the news from Vietnam has made matters much, much worse.
So, with the departure of the Beatles for America, a genuine anxiety gripped many teenagers here. A disc jockey on Radio Caroline asked his audience to pray for the group’s safety. Barbara Ruben, groupie-extraordinaire, planned a full-scale march of teen fans past the American embassy in protest. A New Yorker herself, she swore that: “If anything happens to them, man, it’s World War III.”
From the start, the tour has been front page in England. Of course, no one knows and everyone fears what will happen when the Beatles go South (overblown photos of the Ku Klux Klan burning Beatle paraphernalia have fanned local fires) but the odds are that they will make it through and back to the open, custardy fingers of their fans back home.
As though displaying unswerving loyalty to its idols, British youth has flipped completely over the new Beatle album, Revolver. The single chosen from these songs — “Yellow submarine” b/w “Eleanor Rigby” — came on the charts one week ago at number four. Today it is number one. The entire album is in the top 20. Large record stores and tiny street stalls feature massive displays of the art-nouveauish album jacket. The sound of Revolver blares from window after window. John harmonizes with Paul in greengrocers and boutiques. George plays his sitar from cars stalled in traffic. Ringo ricochets from the dome of Saint Paul’s. The Beatles are harder to avoid than even the American.
But there is more than mere adulation behind the sudden conquest of Britain by this particular LP. Revolver is a revolutionary record, as important to the expansion of pop territory as was Rubber Soul. It was apparent last year that the 12 songs in Rubber Soul represented an important advance. Revolver is the great leap forward. Hear it once and you know it’s important. Hear it twice, it makes sense. Third time around it’s fun. Fourth time, it’s subtle. On the fifth hearing, Revolver becomes profound.
If Rubber Soul opened up areas of baroque progression and Oriental instrumentation to commercialization, Revolver does the same for electronic music. Much of the sound in this new LP is atonal; and a good deal of the vocal is dissonant. Instead of drowning poor voices in echo-chamber acoustics, Revolver presents the mechanics of pop music openly, as an integral part of musical composition. Instead of sugar and sex, what we get from the control knobs here is a bent and pulverized sound. John Cage move over — the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.
The key number on the album is that last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” No one can say what actually inspired this song, but its place in the pantheon of psychedelic music is assured. The lyrics remember a mantra in form and message:
Turn off your mind,
Relax and float downstream —
This is not dying,
This is not dying,
Lay down all thought,
Surrender to the void —
It is shining,
It is shining.
That you may see
The meaning of within,
It is being,
It is being.
Love is all
And love is everyone;
It is knowing
It is knowing…
While not unprecedented, the combination of acid-Buddhist imagery and a rock beat has never before been attempted with such complexity. At first, the orchestration sounds like Custer’s last stand. Foghorn-like organ chords and the sound of birdlike screeching overshadows the vocal. But the overall effect of this hodge-podge is a very effective suspension of musical reality. John’s voice sounds distant and Godlike. What he is saying transcends almost everything in what was once called pop music. The boundaries will now have to be re-negotiated.
Revolver also represents a fulfillment of the raga-Beatle sound. A George Harrison composition, “Love You To,” is a functioning raga with a natural beat and an engaging vocal, advising: “Make love all day long/Make love singing songs.”
“Eleanor Rigby” is an orchestrated ballad about the agony of loneliness. Its characters, Eleanor herself and Father MacKenzie, represent sterility. Eleanor “died in the church and was buried along with her name.” The good father writes “words to the sermon that no one will hear/No one comes near.” As a commentary on the state of modern religion, this song will hardly be appreciated by those who see John Lennon as an anti-Christ. But “Eleanor Rigby” is really about the unloved and un-cared-for. When Eleanor makes up, the narrator asks: “Who is it for?”‘ While the father darns his socks, the question is: “What does he care?”
More Next Door
“Yellow Submarine” is as whimsical and childlike as its flip side is metaphysical. Its subject is an undersea utopia where “our friends are all aboard/Many more of them live next door,” and where “We live a life of ease/Everyone of us has all he needs.”
“For No One” is one of the most poignant songs on the record. Its structure approaches madrigal form, with an effective horn-solo counterpoint. Its lyrics are in an evocative Aznavour bag.
“Taxman” is the album’s example of political cheek, in which George enumerates Britain’s current economic woes. At one point. the group joins in to identify the villains. “Taxman — Mr. Wilson… Taxman — Mr. Heath.” They lay it right on the non-partisan line.
There is some mediocre material on this album. But the mystique forming around Revolver is based on more than one or two choice tracks — it encompasses the record as a whole.
It is a bit difficult to gauge the importance of Revolver from this city, where it has become gospel and where other beat groups are turning out cover copies like Gutenberg Bibles. But it seems now that we will view this album in retrospects as a key work in the development of rock ’n’ roll into an artistic pursuit.
If nothing else, Revolver must reduce the number of cynics where the future of pop music is concerned — even on the violent side of the Atlantic.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 27, 2020