The Beatles’ Revolver and the Universal

Revolver, by The Beatles, was released in 1966.
Revolver by The Beatles was released in 1966 and marked the beginning of a new phase for the band and a revolution in popular music.

In his book The Sixties, an exhaustive history of the 1960’s, Arthur Marwick introduces his subject as follows:

If asked to explain the fuss, both survivors of the decade and observers of the repeated attempts subsequently to conjure it up again could probably manage to put together a list of its most striking features, which might look something like this: black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion; the triumph of popular music based on Afro-American models and the emergence of this music as a universal language, with the Beatles as the heroes of the age; the search for inspiration in the religions of the orient; massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behaviour; a general audacity and frankness in books and in the media, and in ordinary behaviour; relaxation in censorship; the new feminism; gay liberation; the emergence of the ‘underground’ and the ‘counter-culture’; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world.

The first part of that statement regarding The Beatles’ contribution to 1960’s culture – ‘the triumph of popular music’ – finds its source in the band’s extraordinary success during the early phase of its career, from 1963 – 1965. The second part – ‘the emergence of this music as a universal language’ – emerges entirely from the album Revolver.

In the June 2000 issue of Q Magazine, Revolver topped its assessment of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. In that issue, David Quantick pointed out that this was ‘the most shocking Beatles record, the one that makes a quantum leap even from the brilliantly developed super pop of Rubber Soul’. He also asserts that ‘1966 was the only year that The Beatles’ album Revolver could have been recorded.’

The timing is significant. It marks the start of the second phase of the 1960’s, when the exuberance of youth, permissiveness and sexual scandal gave way to a darker and more cynical outlook. It was the year that the 1960’s grew up.

The Beatles more than any other artists were totally in tune with these times. The album Revolver didn’t just capture this new outlook, it pointed the way forward. And the way forward from the point of view of the latter part of the 1960’s was that ‘universal language’ referenced by Marwick above. In fact, every one of those definitions of the 1960’s referred to in the Marwick quote above finds expression and reflection on Revolver.

The wide variety of musical styles, the range of human concerns covered in the lyrics, the bewildering kaleidoscope of innovative sounds and the interrelated musical themes on Revolver are unprecedented in any musical field, let alone pop music. Consider the musical genres covered:

  • Rock (And Your Bird Can Sing, She Said She Said)
  • Soul (Gotta Get You Into My Life)
  • Electric blues (Doctor Robert, Taxman)
  • Ballad (Here, There and Everywhere, For No One)
  • Children’s song (Yellow Submarine)
  • Classical chamber music (Eleonar Rigby)
  • Indian raga (Love You To)
  • Avant garde ‘musique concrete’ (Tomorrow Never Knows)

And within these songs themselves we glimpse snippets of a myriad of other styles, from military brass bands, sea shanties, tape loops, sound effects, sacred vocal music, bar-room piano, and more.

While not quite a ‘concept album’, Revolver does, as Quantick states, ‘combine an astonishing mix of styles with a weirdly consitent sense of purpose’.

The subjects of the songs cover much ground, from the worldly (Taxman) to the deeply personal (For No One), from adolescent sexual joy (Love You To) to a more spiritual kind of love (Here There and Everywhere), and from a child-like wish for togetherness (Yellow Submarine) to the desperate loneliness of old age (Eleonar Rigby).

The all-encompassing variety is itself a theme, as the album creates a powerful sense of the ‘unviersal’ from its disparate materials, the many combining to make one.

Cyclical motifs in Revolver

The other major theme is that of ‘cycles’, referred to in the title, as Jonathan Gould elaborates in his excellent book on The Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America:

After considering titles like Abracadabra and Magic Circles, the group had settled on Revolver as a kind of McLuhanesque pun – revolve is what records do – that also described the way the focus of attention on the album turned evenly from one Beatle to the next. Woven with motifs of circularity, reversal and inversion, Revolver was the first record on which the Beatles made the interplay of their individual personalities a theme of the music itself.

Those motifs of circularity that Gould alludes to can be found throughout the album. To take some random examples: the overlapping a capella fade-out on ‘Good Day Sunshine’, the cyclic harmonised guitar instrumental in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and the circular descending/ascending chord progression of ‘For No One’. The album culminates in a tour de force of cyclical representation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with its incessant circular drum pattern, backward-and-forward guitar playing and musique concrete taped loops. As Gould explains in his chapter on Revolver in Can’t Buy Me Love:

As the singing fades up and away, the bass hums, the drums stutter, and the banshees wail. “Or play the game Existence to the end – of the beginning… of the beginning… of the beginning,” John repeats, over and over, like a proverbial broken record, or a skip in the Wheel of Rebirth, ending Revolver with a conceptual joke as elaborate as the one with which it began. “The end of the beginning” completes the album’s motif of circularity and declares the Beatles’ intent to initiate a new phase of their career.

The motif of circularity is not merely decorative. It refers to a deeper theme on the album, that of transformation. From childhood (Yellow Submarine) to old age (Eleanor Rigby), from sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping) to waking (Good Day Sunshine), from the birth of love (Love You To) to its tragic demise (For No One). Above all it speaks of the ultimate transformation, from life to death.

Death casts a shadow over Revolver, from the ghoulish image of Taxman, in which we are advised to ‘declare the pennies on your eyes’, to the ‘surrender to the void’ of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (see my post on Leonard Bernstein’s comments on death in the 20th Century). The journey that Revolver takes us on is in effect an acceptance and transcendence of death. The lost opportunity for love that leaves us suspended over a spiritual precipice at the demise of Eleanor Rigby (‘No one was saved’) is finally transformed into something positive with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. By surrendering to that same void, accepting that ‘love is all and love is everyone’, we reach a state that ‘is not living’ and ‘is not dying’ – ‘it is believing’.

Buy Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).

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