Sunday, August 4, 2013

That You May See the Meaning of Within: Deconstructing Revolver

At the end of “Lady Lazarus,” an episode from the fifth season of the superb cable TV period drama Mad Men, set in the 1960s world of Madison Avenue, ad man Don Draper is urged by his wife to listen to a specific track on the new Beatles album she’s just purchased. After she leaves their chic Manhattan apartment to attend her evening acting class, Don places the LP on the hi-fi turntable, drops the tone arm onto the last track, and lies back in his Danish lounge chair as the distinctively unconventional sounds of “Tomorrow Never Knows” fill the room. Before making it halfway through the song, he abruptly jerks the stylus across the grooves and off of the record and walks silently out of the room, apparently having had enough.

Small wonder, as this positively avant-garde recording must have sounded bizarrely foreign to the ears of anyone over the age of 30 in 1966, let alone 40, the age of the Draper character at the time (his wife, Megan, was in her twenties). Nevertheless, after a few moments of silence, the Mad Men credits roll and the song picks up where it left off on the soundtrack. The already rapidly changing world of the 1960s will move forward at an even faster pace than before, with or without the Don Drapers who inhabit it.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is the most adventurous and experimental composition on an album filled with envelope-pushing music that has proven over time—more so than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as will be discussed—to be the creative apex of the Beatles’ career: Revolver. It took a while for the virtues of this inspired work to come into worldwide focus, mainly due to the fact that the U.S. issue, as was the case with all of the group’s albums up to that point, had been truncated prior to its release (three of its John Lennon-penned songs were preemptively lifted for placement on the patched-together “Yesterday”. . . and Today), thus preventing Stateside fans and critics alike from hearing the LP as it was intended, in many cases until the band’s catalogue was initially released to CD in 1987.

Following the magnificent, atmospheric Rubber Soul, Revolver—by turns edgy, poignant, lovely, whimsical, gritty, challenging, and always dynamic—completed the most overwhelming one-two punch of any musical artist of the rock era. Both have stood the test of time, sounding as fresh and inspired nearly 50 years later as when they were first released. Revolver, while maintaining the universal listenability* that had become a Beatles trademark, raised the stakes artistically for all of rock music like no album before or since.

* For the most part; as the Beatles ventured into uncharted musical territory they were a little apprehensive that some fans might not follow.

The three composing Beatles were firing on all cylinders. Lennon’s contributions were more richly compelling and cumulatively potent than on any other album. Paul McCartney broke new ground with deeply poignant lyrics (particularly with “Eleanor Rigby”) and more elaborate melodies than on any of his previous compositions, transcending his already well developed pop music sensibilities. George Harrison reached a new level and a personal best, not only contributing three numbers to a Beatles album for the first time, but even the one chosen to lead off the LP (the acerbic, funky “Taxman”)—despite the heavy competition for disc space from Lennon & McCartney at their peak.

The iconic cover art for Revolver was created by Beatle buddy Klaus Voormann.

Millions of words have probably been written about the Beatles over the years, possibly hundreds of thousands about Revolver, so I’m not going to even attempt to critique this masterpiece. Since I’ve practically grown up with it, I’m too close to it, and therefore incapable of doing it justice. Not only has Beatles authority Robert Rodriguez done just that, he has also placed the landmark album within the perspectives of both its own time and ours, while collecting all that is known of what went down in the actual recording sessions, in Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll.