NOTE: Unfortunately, it is not possible to embed playable clips of the remixed tracks in the article. Readers interested in hearing them can click through to YouTube from the song titles.
A few years ago, I ordered a pint of Stella Artois in Washington, DC. I used to drink Stella quite a lot back in the day, but had fallen out of love with it for reasons I couldn’t quite identify. I ordered it on this occasion because it was the only beer that looked familiar. And oh, what a sensation that first sip was! How the memories came flooding back! It was then that I appreciated something I already knew but had subconsciously ignored. Stella Artois had been reformulated in the UK for tax reasons. The ABV had dropped from 5.2 percent to 4.8 percent and later, monstrously, to 4.6 percent. This was done stealthily. We weren’t supposed to notice and in a sense I hadn’t. I had just gradually gone off it until I was reminded of how it was meant to be.
I mention this because something similar happened with the Beatles’ seventh studio album, Revolver. The music was great but the stereo mix created in 1966 was awful. The only people who owned stereos back then were nerds, and so the Beatles, like other bands, treated the stereo mix as an afterthought. In the mid-’60s, mixing for stereo meant chucking half the instruments in one channel and everything else in the other channel. The result was a thin and incohesive sound that the Fabs only started to improve upon with Sgt. Pepper the following year.
This was the mix that appeared on compact disc in the 1980s and it is the only mix most people under the age of 60 know. It is the 4.6 percent ABV version of Revolver and I hold it wholly responsible for the album’s steady slide down the Greatest Albums of All Time charts in the last 40 years. It hasn’t slipped down the list because bands have made better albums in the meantime. They obviously haven’t. The blame lies solely with that weedy, disjointed stereo mix, the deficiencies of which have only become more apparent as the album has aged.
It was with this trenchant view that I approached the new deluxe edition of Revolver with an unusual degree of excitement. Contrary to what you may have inferred from the previous paragraphs, I am not an audiophile. I can’t tell the difference between a remastered album and an original (in fact, I suspect the whole remastering thing may be a con to part gullible middle-aged men from their money). But I do like a remix, and Giles Martin’s subtle remixes of the Beatles’ 1967–70 classics were well worth the admission fee.
On Revolver, Martin has made use of technology developed by the FBI to isolate the voices of mafiosa on murky wire recordings. This has allowed him to tease apart instruments that have been glued together ever since they were “bounced down” on four-track 56 years ago. Martin has cleaned them up, placed them appropriately in the stereo mix and—boom!—Revolver is finally in 3D.
If I have a quibble, it is that the bass is a touch too loud on some of the remixed songs, particularly ‘Taxman’ which sounds okay on a half-decent hi-fi but destroys the speakers of a Ford Fiesta. Surely, if the Beatles (and Giles’s dad, George, who produced the band’s albums at the time) had wanted it to be that loud, they would have mixed it that way in the first place? On the other hand, the booming bass helps transform ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’—the one track that really ought to benefit from stereo—with Ringo’s inspired drum pattern facing off against some unorthodox rhythms from McCartney that I’d never really noticed before.
And what an awe-inspiring album it is. Sgt. Pepper was more culturally significant, the White Album was more beguiling, and Abbey Road was more polished, but Revolver was the band’s most electrifying recording, in every sense. It brims with ideas, confidence, and insouciant courage. Never did the Beatles make genius look so effortless as on these 14 tracks. None of the songs exceeds three minutes. Several of them barely exceed two minutes. In their own way, they are all perfect. And it’s got the coolest title.
George Harrison once described Revolver as a continuation of Rubber Soul. I never understood what he was talking about. Rubber Soul sounds nothing like Revolver! When I think of Rubber Soul I think of acoustic guitars. When I think of Revolver I think of backwards tape loops, sitars, string octets, and electric guitars. Lots and lots of electric guitars.
The Beatles had been dabbling with riffs, feedback, and distortion since ‘I Feel Fine’ in 1964. After Revolver, they hardly bothered with riffs (‘Birthday’ and ‘Hey Bulldog’ were two exceptions) but 1966 was full of them: Lennon’s elaborate ‘And Your Bird Can Sing,’ Harrison’s lolloping ‘I Want To Tell You,’ McCartney’s urgent ‘Paperback Writer.’ The interweaving guitar lines on ‘She Said She Said’ have a hint of the East, as does McCartney’s extraordinary guitar solo on ‘Taxman’ which is still ahead of its time half a century later. ‘Dr Robert’ is all dirty guitar. There is a little burst of it towards the end of ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ that comes out of nowhere and sends shivers down the spine. Not every song has it. Some of the songs have no guitar at all. But it is the defining sound of Revolver.
The heart of Revolver is the five-song sequence straddling sides one and two, between tracks seven and 11, in which Lennon and McCartney go head-to-head. Lennon, all sneers and sunglasses, kicks off with the jagged, rhythmically complex ‘She Said She Said,’ a song about having your acid buzz killed by Peter Fonda. Death is mentioned on Revolver more times than was normal for a mid-’60s pop LP. Eleanor Rigby dies and is buried along with her name. George Harrison offers “advice to those who die” (“declare the pennies on your eye”) and urges his woman to love him before he’s a “dead old man.” Lennon preaches that “ignorance and hate may mourn the dead” on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ On ‘She Said She Said,’ Lennon’s interlocutor tells him, “I know what it’s like to be dead,” which is what Fonda told Harrison at a party in an ill-judged attempt to pull him through a bad trip.
Flip the record over and McCartney responds with ‘Good Day Sunshine’—one of the Beatles’ most exuberant tracks, which, like most of his contributions to the album, has echoes of the past. If the close harmonies on ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ bring to mind the early Walt Disney films, it is easy to imagine McCartney singing ‘Good Day Sunshine’ in an animated film, twirling a cane and doffing his cap to his friends in the animal kingdom. This is followed by the white heat of Lennon’s ‘And Your Bird Can Sing.’ Its author held a low opinion of this song, dismissing it in later interviews as a throwaway, but he sings the enigmatic lyrics with such conviction that it is no wonder he kept being asked about it. Liam Gallagher is surely a fan.
The baton is then passed back to McCartney who returns to the role of impartial narrator that he inhabited on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the sublime ‘For No One.’ Like ‘Taxman,’ it uses a recording of the same solo twice, this time on French horn. Lyric and form are exquisitely aligned, with a descending bass line taking the song around in circles. Critic Ian MacDonald made the typically perceptive observation that the horn part “has little to do with the mood or sense of the song,” and yet this is somehow fitting as it adds “only another kind of immaculate indifference” to this sad and icy number (said to have been written about McCartney’s then-girlfriend, Jane Asher). It is all over and done in two minutes.
Finally, Lennon responds with yet another slice of acid rock, ‘Dr Robert.’ Like ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and ‘She Said She Said,’ it invites the listener to guess who Lennon is singing about, although it is clearly someone who has access to under-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Before the year was out, its author would embark on a dangerous mission to destroy his ego with LSD, but on Revolver he was still a cocksure writer who took pleasure in hinting that the Beatles knew something their audience didn’t.
These three Lennon songs, plus the B-side ‘Rain,’ were the sound the Beatles made as a band in 1966. Listen to the guitar chords crashing like waves behind the chorus of ‘Rain’ (“Ra-a-a-a-ain, I don’t mind.”) This was about as psychedelic as music could get with nothing but guitars, bass, and drums. They were some of the few songs on Revolver that could have been played live, although they never were. And yet none of McCartney’s songs sounded anything like them. After contributing the barnstorming ‘Paperback Writer’ early in the sessions, Paul went off in every other direction. Most of McCartney’s Revolver tracks were from the ’60s but not of the ’60s, and he would continue to hark back to the past on the next album with ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four.’
How to describe this fascinating collision of sounds? Some of the jangling guitars sort of resemble the early West Coast psychedelia of the Byrds, but Revolver has a sharper edge and a darker hue, lacking that band’s hippie whimsy. In fits and starts, the layered distortion sounds like mid-’60s garage and psych, but the music is more sophisticated than the unapologetic primitivism of that emerging sub-genre. Some of the harmonies suggest the influence of the Beach Boys, but Revolver sounds nothing like a Beach Boys’ record. That the music resists easy categorisation may be part of what has kept the album and its individual songs so fresh and vital after 56 years.
Revolver appeared the same year the Beach Boys released Pet Soundsand the Rolling Stones released Aftermath—that is, at a moment in the evolution of pop music when LPs by the era’s most inventive songwriters and musicians began to be resemble less a collection of songs than a document or a statement of artistic intent. Nevertheless, Revolver is the opposite of a concept album. It’s so diverse, lyrically and musically, that it shouldn’t hang together at all, and yet each track seems to follow seamlessly from the last. How does one categorise an album that has ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ‘Love You To,’ ‘Yellow Submarine,’ and ‘She Said She Said’ not just on the same record but on the same side of a record?
After Sgt. Pepper was released in 1967, Revolver was seen, retrospectively, as just another step towards that pinnacle. In fact, most of the risks had already been taken in 1966. You need look no further than the first four tracks to see that Revolver was the more groundbreaking album. Not many other records in the mid-’60s opened with a right-wing protest song (the Beatles’ first political statement). When I was very young, I assumed that tax was some sort of metaphor for love because that’s what all songs were supposed to be about. But it isn’t. ‘Taxman’ is literally about the top rate of income tax and how much George Harrison disliked paying it.
The melody McCartney composed for ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ meanwhile, is in Dorian mode, a musical form that had not been popular in England since the Middle Ages. Lacking a formal musical education, McCartney couldn’t have been taught it, so he probably picked it up from church hymns. Since the story is set in and around a church, the music is a perfect fit, but this was unlikely to have been a conscious decision. (The song’s title may also have been lifted from his subconscious. McCartney recalls choosing the name Eleanor Rigby at random, but a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby also stands in the cemetery of St Peter’s church in Woolton which he often walked through as a child.)
On track three, we find Lennon in bed, stoned, with a backwards guitar solo (learned painstakingly in reverse). And then we are back to Harrison with a sitar, and a tabla player singing about making love all day long. It had been less than three years since they had sung ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’
What did the average person make of all this when it came out?! Revolver was released on August 5th, 1966, a week after England had won the World Cup and—in a sign of trouble ahead—on the day that Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” comments appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The music press mostly recognised the album as a quantum leap for pop music, but there must have been people for whom it was too much. The previous Beatles album had ended with ‘Run For Your Life,’ a tune that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on any Mop Top record released since 1963. They had pushed the envelope a bit by including a short melody line on the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ but it was nothing like the full-on Indian wedding of ‘Love You To.’ For the closing track of Rubber Soul, Lennon nicked a line from an old Elvis song. The closing track of Revolver finds him quoting verbatim from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Over a single chord for three minutes. Even the Guardian’s broadly positive review, which criticised the “natural acquisitiveness” of the tax-averse George Harrison, assumed that Lennon was having a laugh on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’
What more can one say? If you have £120 to spare, you should buy the new remix. A particular stand-out is ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ in which McCartney switches genres yet again, this time to soul music. The original always felt too compressed, the limitations of four-track holding it back from achieving the full Motown sound McCartney was looking for. It has now been set free and the horns sound glorious. I don’t know what fairy dust Giles Martin used in the remix of ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ but somehow the choppy violins sound sharper and the debt to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score more evident.
The new edition includes two extra compact discs of outtakes and backing tracks, some of which were released on the Anthology series 25 years ago (will anyone who buys this not already have that?). We learn from the early takes of ‘Yellow Submarine’ that it was Lennon who wrote the melody for the verses and it was originally an altogether less cheerful number. (“In the town where I was born, no one cared, no one cared.” In what may have been a reference to his deadbeat dad, Lennon only introduced “the man who sailed to sea” later.) We hear a demo version of ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ which shows that McCartney had the whole arrangement in his head from early on.
The single ‘Paperback Writer’ and its B-side, ‘Rain,’ recorded during the same sessions, are also included here. Revolver would have been even better had these tracks not been omitted. The album is only 35 minutes long so there was room, but re-releasing singles on an LP was considered an insult to fans in the 1960s for some reason. This didn’t stop Parlophone from including ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Love Me Do’ plus their B-sides on the Beatles’ debut album, nor did it prevent them releasing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as a single the following year. And then they went ahead and released ‘Yellow Submarine’/‘Eleanor Rigby’ as a double A-side on the day Revolver hit the shops anyway, even though ‘Yellow Submarine’ was the one song the album could have done without. Go figure.
Among the new edition’s unexpected pleasures is the original take of ‘Rain,’ deliberately played at breakneck speed so it could be slowed down to a druggier tempo. Starr’s drumming sounded impressive on the released version; it now sounds astonishing, and extra tracks-in-progress like these help to spotlight Starr’s immense contribution to Revolver. The original version of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ also included on the deluxe set, had some promising elements but was too boring to make the final cut. It took an exceptional performance on the drums for it to become the tour de force we know today.
You could probably live without the rest of the outtakes, but why should you? And if that isn’t enough, the deluxe set includes the original mono mix which sounds as fine as ever and was all we ever really needed.