Five Big ‘Revolver’ Questions: Our Writers Tackle the Beatles’ Masterpiece
The Beatles' revolutionary seventh studio album, Revolver, was released 50 years ago this week. That anniversary was all the excuse we needed to quiz our writers about where the album stands among the Fab Four's incredible discography, which of its incredible songs stands above the others and who's done the best cover version of a Revolver song. Just to make things difficult we also asked them to select the least essential song too. Here are their answers.
1) Is Revolver the best Beatles album? If so, why? And if not, which is and why?
Michael Gallucci: My answer changes all the time. The White Album is the one I'd want on a desert island. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the one that certified pop as art. Rubber Soul is the one that turned the corner on the Beatles' career and therefore the '60s. Revolver is the center of all those classic records. More so than any of their other albums, Revolver is the one that sounds less like an artifact and more like a benchmark -- not just for the rest of the '60s but rock music in general. Name any great rock album of the past 50 years, and I bet a line can be traced all the way to Revolver. Not sure you can say that about any other work.
Nick DeRiso: In time, that’s become clear to me. Often overlooked in the shadow of Sgt. Pepper, this gutsy predecessor laid the framework for everything that followed. But it shouldn’t be confused with a stepping-stone album. Instead, Revolver is the Beatles’ big-bang moment.
Dave Lifton: I don't know if it's the best -- my personal list of my favorites changes based on my mood -- but I'd say that any time I'm asked to rank their albums, it's always high up there, with any combination of Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and A Hard Day's Night usually making up the rest of my Top Five. But I would probably never place it lower than No. 4.
Dave Swanson: The songwriting, performances, exploration and determination on Revolver are second to none. Even Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with all its experimentation and influence, wasn't as all-encompassing as Revolver. The White Album tackled more ground stylistically, and both Rubber Soul and Help! are near-perfect albums. With all that being said, for me, it's a toss-up between Revolver and A Hard Day's Night as the Fabs' finest hour. A Hard Day's Night is the sound of a rock 'n' roll band truly finding their own feet and doing so with such joy and excitement, while Revolver is that same band breaking the mold and taking pop music to places it had never been.
Jeff Giles: There's no such thing as a best Beatles album — there are only favorite Beatles albums, and that's a fluid list whose rankings change depending on whatever Beatles album I happen to be listening to. That being said, I'll always have a big soft spot for Abbey Road.
Matt Wardlaw: I think it's hard to peg this as the Beatles' best album, but it is the first record that I heard from the group and certainly stands as one of the most solid albums they ever made. It definitely finds them in an interesting place, because with Rubber Soul and Revolver, they continued to get more and more experimental. Of course, they would throw that door of experimentation wide open with their next album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Abbey Road would be my pick for their best album, an amazing collection of material from the group, considering the amount of internal conflict they had at the end of their time together.
Annie Zaleski: I think Revolver is the Beatles' most consistent album, the one where the band's songwriting chemistry and internal relations were in harmonious sync.
2) What’s the best song on Revolver?
Gallucci: Probably "Tomorrow Never Knows," but this changes all the time too. Revolver marks the period where the Beatles put behind their touring days and dedicated themselves to being a studio group. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is the one song here that sounds like it could never be replicated onstage with the equal amounts of control and chaos they achieve in the studio. More than any other song on Revolver, it captures their new liberation.
DeRiso: Not to cheat, but my answer on this changes with some regularity. Today, I’m going to say "Tomorrow Never Knows," a still-stunning triumph of studio wizardry that probably wouldn’t have happened if the Beatles hadn't left the road. Taking time in the studio – they were said to have spent a then-astonishing 300 hours working on Revolver – the Beatles consolidated everything they’d mastered, then went some place entirely new with the album closer.
Lifton: "For No One." The amount of detail Paul McCartney gets in those lyrics, without a lot of words, is pure genius. It paints such a heartbreaking picture of the very moment a relationship is over, but nobody has done anything about it yet. That's an early-morning glance in the mirror under bright light. But it also has this remarkable pretty melody that tempers the lyric.
Swanson: "Tomorrow Never Knows." Utterly unique and simply incredible 50 years on. It was the sound of the future back in 1966, and it still sounds otherworldly today. It's been stated many times, but to consider just two and a half years earlier "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was blasting out of every radio across the planet. Some 26 months later, they arrived at this statement of sonic wonder. Art moved so quickly in the '60s. Despite the speed of information and technology in current times, changes in art, music or fashion move at a snail's pace. Things have been stagnant for at least the past 20 years.
Giles: You're a sick person for asking this question. I'm going to throw a dart and hit "Good Day Sunshine," which is a totally debatable choice, but I'm sticking with it because it crystallizes McCartney's gift for sticky melodies and joyous sentiment without tilting overboard into treacle.
Wardlaw: Tough question. For me, it would be a toss-up between "Eleanor Rigby" and "Here, There and Everywhere" from the McCartney side, but there's also a lot to love about the contributions from both George Harrison and John Lennon on this record. "I Want to Tell You," from Harrison, and "She Said She Said," from Lennon, are both good examples of how good the Beatles were at writing catchy songs in those earlier years that didn't overstay their welcome, but in some cases, such as those two tracks, you'd be happy to hear them jam on a little bit longer.
Zaleski: "She Said She Said." The band's psychedelic moments are vastly underrated, and this song both feels of its time – drug-fueled '60s pop – and looking toward the future. You really can't go wrong with those cracked-out, jangly riffs either.
3) If you had to cut one song from Revolver, what would it be and why?
Gallucci: All of the pieces fit so well together, taking one out almost seems like blasphemy. But I'd have to go with either "Love You To" or "Doctor Robert." George Harrison's sitar songs almost always sounded out of place (exception: "Norwegian Wood") on Beatles albums. Still, I think "Love You To" works better on Revolver than "Within You Without You" does on Sgt. Pepper. And John Lennon's "Doctor Robert" sounds half-formed -- from the writing down to the production -- compared to the other Revolver tracks. It's one of his most disposable tracks from the band's later period.
DeRiso: Some may reflexively say “Yellow Submarine,” but it stays – if for no other reason than the infectiously hilarious moment when John begins making those silly seafaring references. Instead, I’d drop “Doctor Robert,” which in the context of this brilliant album comes off as somewhat conventional. Any chance you could then sneak in both “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” the two stand-alone singles from this period?
Lifton: "Love You To." It's my least favorite of George Harrison's excursions into Indian music. The sitar work and the percussion are fine, but it's not a particularly interesting lyric or melody.
Swanson: "Yellow Submarine." It's not without charm, and it's Ringo Starr's place to shine, but it upsets the flow of pure genius that the rest of the otherwise perfect album maintains.
Giles: "Yellow Submarine," I guess. We'd still have the soundtrack, right?
Wardlaw: "Doctor Robert." Not that it's a dud, but against everything else on the album, it feels like filler by comparison.
Zaleski: "Doctor Robert." It's not a bad song, but there are so many other great songs, it just feels like a throwaway.
4) What’s the best cover version anybody ever did of a Revolver song?
Gallucci: Aretha Franklin's version of "Eleanor Rigby." She totally reworks this somber, almost depressing song about loneliness into a joyous gospel romp. She also puts herself in the song: "I'm Eleanor Rigby." That takes guts. The Beatles' take is a brilliant blend of strings and melancholy; Franklin flips it completely around into an entirely new song. Again, a gutsy move.
Lifton: The wiseass in me wants to say "Start" by the Jam, because, let's face it, it's "Taxman." But Emmylou Harris' version of "Here, There and Everywhere" is just drop-dead gorgeous. That voice elevates that melody into another world. You could walk down the aisle to that one and there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house.
Swanson: "Tomorrow Never Knows" by 801, a side project of Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera who, along with Brian Eno and others, made the fantastic 801 Live album in 1976. They title it simply "TNK," and it's a unique version that takes the song into different places from the original, which is the point of a good cover, to make it your own. Manzanera certainly did that here.
Giles: I have a fondness for Kenny Loggins' live cover of "Here, There and Everywhere," but it pales in comparison to Earth, Wind & Fire's "Got to Get You Into My Life." It hangs onto the essence of the original while adding a lot of interesting stuff to the arrangement — and it captures EWF near their own peak too. There are days I'd rather listen to their cover than the Beatles' version.
Wardlaw: This is a trick question -- you want me to pick Ted Nugent's version of "I Want to Tell You," right? But I have to go with Earth, Wind & Fire's version of "Got to Get You Into My Life," which still sounds so fresh and fun every time I hear it. Phil Collins' version of "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Face Value would be my second pick and an honorable mention goes to Matthew Sweet, who always knows how to tackle a good Beatles cover and did a great version of "She Said She Said."
Zaleski: Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs' "And Your Bird Can Sing." Both artists are Beatles acolytes, but while their version is faithful to the original (psych-tinged flourishes! crisp jangle!), it isn't a rote rendition.
5) Exactly what is it that makes Revolver so great?
Gallucci: Rubber Soul is given much credit as the Beatles' turning point from pop stars to real artists, but Revolver is where they abandoned any notions and expectations. Could anyone have predicted the group that sang "She Loves You" just three years earlier would be responsible for the mind-warping "Tomorrow Never Knows"? The Beatles finally grew up for good on Revolver. Nothing that came after it -- their records or pretty much anyone else's for that matter -- would be possible if not for Revolver. It may be the '60s' most important album.
DeRiso: Sgt. Pepper’s is too much of a period piece, and lacks George Harrison’s balancing influence. The too-fragmented White Album is often just a series of solo turns. Abbey Road leans too heavily toward McCartney. None of that is true on the collectively created, endlessly daring, yet terrifically consistent Revolver. As a result, every element of the Beatles legend can be found inside these grooves.
Lifton: It's a perfect confluence of a few things: 1) As songwriters, they had, by this point, gotten all of the rockabilly and R&B cliches out of their system and their ears were everywhere. 2) Their growing curiosity in other forms of music was encouraged by George Martin. 3) A great team of engineers at Abbey Road Studios, especially Geoff Emerick, who was taking their ideas, like tape loops and backward recording, and making them into reality. And most importantly, 4) Along with Rubber Soul, this is the time in their career where Paul and John are equals. For the first few years, it was Lennon's group, and, beginning with Sgt. Pepper, McCartney started to take over. But for a couple of albums, they were on the same level.
Swanson: Again, the speed at which the Beatles were moving artistically and sonically was mind-blowing at the very least. The fact that they were able to progress in this manner, and not lose a step, was and is unparalleled. From the rockers like "Taxman" and "She Said She Said" to the ethereal "I'm Only Sleeping," the soul-injected "Got to Get You Into My Life" and the drama and sophistication of "Eleanor Rigby," the album took on so much and succeeded at every turn. It truly is a statement of pop art, complete with acidic glow that was of its time, and yet very much ahead of its time.
Giles: Every album is a snapshot, and some are better timed than others. With Revolver, the shutter clicked as the Beatles were really coming into their own as composers and studio artists — this is a set of songs that's as eclectic musically as it is sonically. It was groundbreaking then, and it still sounds fresh today.
Wardlaw: I think Revolver is great because it's the perfect cross-section of where they had come from with the sound and (at times) simplicity of their earlier material mixed with heavy hints of where they were going to be heading with their later material.
Zaleski: Its songs -- and, more specifically, its diversity of songs. You have the taut mod-pop of "Taxman" next to the orchestral sweep of "Eleanor Rigby" – and it all works!
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