Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band marked the Beatles’ cultural apex, effectively re-tuning the zeitgeist of Western society in 1967’s Summer of Love, but its predecessor – Revolver, released August 5th, 1966 – was the band’s biggest musical watershed. Never had the Beatles emerged with such a brace of high-quality songs. Never had Paul McCartney written so well. John Lennon wasn’t far behind. Never had a band enmeshed itself so thoroughly with studio wizardry. Never, simply, had a musical collective done so much to change the very concept of how sound could be produced, at the level of sheer fun, and the level of full-on art.
Sgt. Pepper yielded a number of legends about how it was made and what it wrought, while Revolver has always lagged behind in that department, a fact that deserves redressing as this immortal LP turns 50. In that spirit, here are 15 things you might not know about this still-stunning classic.
“Yellow Submarine” almost killed John Lennon.
On Wednesday, June 1st, 1966, the Beatles, with a coterie of fellow madcaps including Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and George Harrison’s wife, Pattie, gathered in Abbey Road’s Studio Two to outfit “Yellow Submarine” with sound effects.
Zaniness had always been a special interest of John Lennon’s, going back to his passion for The Goon Show. Getting into nautical mode, Lennon pressed Revolver engineer Geoff Emerick to record him singing underwater, after having first attempted to sing while gargling.
“While George Martin worked at dissuading him,” Emerick later wrote, “I began thinking of an alternative. Might we have John sing into a mic that was immersed in water?”
A mic was duly wrapped in a condom for protection, prompting the Lennon wisecrack, “We don’t want the microphone getting in the family way,” and dropped in a milk carton.
The signal was distant and the gambit was abandoned, but no one at the time was aware how lucky Lennon had been. “It wasn’t until many years later,” Emerick concluded, “that I realized with horror that the microphone we were using was phantom-powered – meaning that it actually was a live electrical object. In conjunction with the 240-volt system used in England, any of us, including Lennon, could easily have been electrocuted, and I would have gone down in history as the first recording engineer to kill a client in the studio.”
Revolver pioneered the use of one of the Beatles’ secret sonic weapons.
If there’s a key ingredient in Revolver’s sonic stew, it’s a technique the Beatles and George Martin pioneered called Artificial Double Tracking: ADT, for those in the know. It’s what you hear on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for instance, when Lennon’s voice goes all extra-terrestrial.
“Artificial Double Tracking is taking an image of a sound and delaying it slightly, or advancing it slightly, so that it forms double,” George Martin said in the Beatles’ Anthology. “If you think in photographic terms, it’s like having two negatives: when you get one negative exactly on top of the other there’s just one picture. So if you have one sound image on top of the other exactly, then it becomes only one image. But move it slightly, by a few milliseconds, and around eight or nine milliseconds it gives you a boxy telephone-like quality.”
Lennon put it more succinctly: “’Double-flanging’, we call it.”
Paul McCartney played the guitar solo on “Taxman.”
Prior to Revolver, George Harrison handled just about every guitar solo in the Beatles’ catalog, excepting a few forays by Lennon (the first solo on “Long Tall Sally,” for instance).
He was also granted limited space as a writer and singer on each earlier Beatles LP, but Revolver was his coming-out moment. The album featured three of his cuts, including the opening “Taxman,” the taut, high-energy track that establishes the record’s mood. But Harrison didn’t play its fuzzed-out, virtuosic solo.
“There was a bit of tension on that session,” Emerick recalls, “because George had a great deal of trouble playing the solo – in fact, he couldn’t even do a proper job of it when we slowed the tape down to half speed. After a couple of hours of watching him struggle, both Paul and George Martin starting becoming quite frustrated – this was, after all, a Harrison song and therefore not something anyone was prepared to spend a whole lot of time on.”
Ouch. Enter, then, McCartney, who played one of the decade’s finest solos. Harrison’s mark as a guitarist would be better made with the backwards sequence on “I’m Only Sleeping,” and his R&B-style break on McCartney’s “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
“Good Day Sunshine” was McCartney’s attempt to emulate the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Paul McCartney was the band’s culture maven at the time, absorbing works of the theatre, avant-garde music, classical compositions – and contemporary acts like the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“’Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream,’” McCartney said. That particular Spoonful cut, a low-key ballad, didn’t possess the verve and bounce of “Sunshine,” but the influence is a good example of how the Beatles could take a crumb of someone else’s musical idea and build it up into something entirely their own. It had that “traditional, almost trad-jazz feel,” McCartney added. “That was our favorite song of theirs.”
A member of Manfred Mann designed the cover.
The album’s iconic cover, a black-and-white psychedelic bricolage of mini-Beatles, was designed by Klaus Voormann, who had chanced upon the group way back in Hamburg and introduced them to Astrid Kirchherr, later to become the wife of original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Despite not being able to play an instrument, Voormann had moved to England and joined Manfred Mann.
In his 1970s interviews with Jann Wenner, Lennon asks, “Can you tell me if that white album with the drawing by Klaus Voormann on it, was that before Rubber Soul or after?” – revealing that the name of the Beatles’ masterpiece had slipped his mind, but Voormann’s artwork had not.
“We liked the way there were little things coming out of people’s ears, and how he’d collaged things on a small scale while the drawings were on a big scale,” McCartney said. “He also knew us well enough to capture us rather beautifully in the drawings. We were flattered.”
The album was almost named after an abysmal Ringo Starr pun.
Think Revolver’s title refers to a gun? That would be incorrect. At one point, the album was going to be called After Geography, Ringo Starr’s terrible pun on the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, turning a high point in rock history into a joke about high-school classes.
Beatles on Safari was also in the running, ditto Four Sides of the Circle, Fat Man and Bobby and Abracadabra, the latter of which was the strongest candidate until the band learned that someone else had already done that.
As for the final title, it’s a reference to what an album does: It revolves. Never has a band loved a pun like the Beatles. And here they got away with one that could have been a groan-inducer.
McCartney wrote “Here, There and Everywhere” while waiting for Lennon to get out of bed.
Paul McCartney turned up at John Lennon’s Kenwood mansion for a Revolverwriting session, only to find his partner still in bed, despite it being the afternoon.
“I sat out by the pool on one of the sun chairs with my guitar,” McCartney says in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. Not long after, he produced “Here, There and Everywhere,” which came to be one of Lennon’s favorite Beatles songs.
“John might have helped with a few last words,” McCartney continues. “When I sang it in the studio I remember thinking, I’ll sing it like Marianne Faithfull; something no one would ever know.”
“She Said She Said” was originally “He Said He Said.”
Before it became “She Said She Said,” Lennon’s grinding, morbid song went by “He Said He Said,” because, well, he had. The “he” being Peter Fonda, who had thoroughly creeped out Lennon on an acid trip by saying he had experienced the great beyond.
The night in question was August 24th, 1965, with the Beatles having a one-day break on their North American tour and thus enjoying a party with Fonda and the Byrds in Beverly Hills.
Writing for Rolling Stone, Fonda remembered, “It was a thoroughly-tripped out atmosphere because they kept finding girls hiding under tables and so forth: one snuck into the poolroom through a window while an acid-fired Ringo was shooting pool with the wrong end of the cue.”
As a child, Fonda had nearly died of a gunshot wound, which he insisted on showing to the Beatles, distressing George Harrison and prompting Lennon to tell him to shut the hell up. At Kenwood, Lennon taped himself alone on acoustic guitar singing “He said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead’/I said” over and over. The song would be the last recorded for Revolver.
Father McKenzie from “Eleanor Rigby” could have been Father McCartney.
John Lennon’s closest friend was Pete Shotton, whom he grew up with and would later purchase a supermarket for, even inviting his Liverpool chum to the occasional songwriting session. One such affair was at Kenwood. The Beatles were there with their significant others.
After dinner, the men-folk headed off to Lennon’s home studio, Lennon having become bored with the TV program everyone was watching. “Fuck this shit,” Shotton remembers him saying in The Beatles, Lennon and Me.
“Paul McCartney, as usual, had brought along his guitar, which he got out and started strumming.” He played everyone a new song, which just happened to be “Eleanor Rigby.”
In the song, the priest’s original name was Father McCartney. “Hang on a minute, Paul,” Shotton interjected. “People are going to think that’s your poor old dad, left all alone in Liverpool to darn his own socks.” A fair point. Everyone pitched in names, until Shotton came up with both the winning Father McKenzie and the idea of him presiding over the burial service for the dear departed Ms. Rigby.
“I don’t think you understand what we’re trying to get at, Pete,” Lennon remarked, prompting Shotton to reply with “Fuck you, John.”
McCartney almost came to blows with the French-horn player on “For No One.”
A sad aspect of coming within the Beatles’ orbit was that sometimes the one appearance you might have made on an album of theirs could overshadow everything else you did. Beatles fans know the name of Alan Civil for the French horn solo on McCartney’s exquisite “For No One,” but there was far more to this musical artist.
Civil was sufficiently valued in classical circles that he would eventually be appointed an OBE. He’d turn up later for the orchestral crescendos on “A Day in the Life,” but Civil was a master of Mozart works in particular. He was also someone who nearly lost it with Paul McCartney.
“Paul didn’t realize how brilliantly Alan Civil was doing,” George Martin said. “We got the definitive performance, and Paul said, ‘Well, OK, I think you can do it better than that, can’t you Alan?’ Alan nearly exploded. Of course, he didn’t do it better than that, and the way we’d already heard it was the way you hear it now.”
Speaking in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Civil is diplomatic, and unfazed. “For me it was just another day’s work, the third session that day in fact, but it was very interesting.” Bet it was.
The “Taxman” count-in was recorded a month after the actual song.
There are some strange metrics all over the Revolver sessions. Harrison’s “Taxman” was begun on April 20th, with the first four takes being recorded, but not one of them would feature the famous “One, two, three, four” count-in that begins the album. That numerical start to “Taxman” was an instance of studio re-jiggering, Harrison providing his dry-witted intro on May 16th. It’s actually McCartney, off-mic, who counts in the song.
A four-necked sweater was partially responsible for the album’s distinctive drum sound.
Numbering among Revolver’s indelible trademark sounds were those emanating from drummer Ringo Starr’s kit. Despite having to busy himself killing time while Lennon and McCartney worked out their various songsmithing ideas, Starr was always ready to be pressed into service and deploy his matchless compositional approach to the drums.
He also had a helper of sorts. “I moved the bass drum microphone much closer to the drum than had been done before,” engineer Emerick said. “There’s an early picture of the Beatles wearing a woolen jumper with four necks. I stuffed that inside the drum to deaden the sound. Then we put the sound through Fairchild 600 valve limiters and compressors.” Enter, then, the signature drum sound of the Revolver era.
George Harrison was terrible at coming up with titles.
As he emerged as a writer, George Harrison could scarcely think of anything to call his own compositions. Three of them featured on Revolver, including “Love You To,” another Beatles pun – on bad grammar, it would seem – originally named “Granny Smith,” on account of the apple, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the song.
When asked by George Martin on the session tape what he was going to title the song that was to become “I Want to Tell You,” Harrison didn’t have anything to offer, which allowed John Lennon, who lived for moments like this, to put in, “’Granny Smith Part Friggin’ Two’! You’ve never had a title for any of your songs.”
There was a real Doctor Robert.
“Doctor Robert” was the first Beatles cut to overtly cover drugs, with the titular doctor being one Doctor Robert Freymann, who ran an NYC clinic. “I was the one who carried the pills on tour,” Lennon said in David Sheff’s All We Are Saying, the thinking being that you could get them from the likes of Freymann, also dubbed the Great White Father.
And yet, the Beatles’ first out-in-the-open song about drugs is also, according to Paul McCartney in Many Years, a parody.
“John and I thought it was a funny idea: the fantasy doctor who would fix you up by giving you drugs. … It’s just a piss-take. As far as I know, neither of us ever went to a doctor for those kinds of things. But there was a fashion for it and there still is. Change your blood and have a vitamin shot and you’ll feel better.”
The bird sounds on “Tomorrow Never Knows” came from Paul McCartney’s sonic laboratory.
The song’s working title at the first Revolver session was “Mark I.” Beatles lore posits that one title on hand was “The Void.” Geoff Emerick recalls Lennon’s infatuation with finding the proper vocal sound prompting him to brainstorm some singular recording approaches.
“He suggested we suspend him from a rope in the middle of the studio ceiling, put a mike in the middle of the floor, give him a push and he’s sing as he went around and around.”
McCartney remembers another songwriting session in Many Years: “John got his guitar out and started doing ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and it was all one chord. This was because of our interest in Indian music. We would be sitting around and at the end of an Indian album we’d go, ‘Did anyone realize they didn’t change chords?’ It would be like ‘Shit, it was all in E, that is pretty far out.’”
We think of the song now as so purely Lennonesque, but this was a team effort. Harrison came up with the distinctive opening chord, whereas McCartney was King of the Loops.
Those manic, straight-from-hell birds you hear on “Tomorrow Never Knows” are the product of McCartney cutting up pieces of tape he’d made that featured distorted guitars and bass, and wine glasses ringing, and then working in the studio on five tape machines and pulling the faders.
In the control room, George Martin and Geoff Emerick would yell out, “Let’s have that seagull sound now!” as soundscapes never heard in the history of the human eardrum were unloosed upon the world.
It doesn’t get much more Revolver-y than that.
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