The day the universe changed

record-player-150292__340 50 years ago this week, The Beatles served notice that a new day had dawned in popular music.

Revolver, their seventh studio album, was such a game changer the public seemed initially stunned by it. (The musician community certainly was, when the band's latest offering forced them to confront the artistic gap between The Beatles and just about everyone else.) The LP sold millions—as any Beatles’ record did—but less than Rubber Soul eight months earlier.

Record buyers may have been a tad distracted by John Lennon's remarks that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” which produced mass burnings of Beatles’ records in America's Bible Belt days before the release of Revolver. (Oops.)

But eventually the new album got the attention it deserved, due in large part to its unusual instrumentation (including the use of clavichord, vibraphone, tack piano, tabla, tambura, sitar, and string octet) and especially its novel production effects (including backwards recording, tape loops, variable tape speeds, and automatic double tracking). All contributed to a sonic masterpiece, as demonstrated by the other-worldly "Tomorrow Never Knows.”

It didn’t hurt that two of the greatest Beatles’ compositions were included on the record: “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here There Everywhere”—both of which Paul McCartney performed live for me (and 40,000 other people) two weeks ago in Boston. Other strong tunes were "For No One," "Good Day Sunshine," "Taxman," "Got to Get You Into My Life," and (on the UK version) "I'm Only Sleeping."

The critics, in time, realized what a masterpiece it was.

Allen Evans of NME: "This is a brilliant album which underlines once and for all that the Beatles have definitely broken the bounds of what we used to call pop."

Melody Maker accurately predicted that Revolver would "change the direction of pop music.”

KRLA Beat said, “Revolver has fired a shot which will be heard around the globe.”

Years later Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield concluded: "Revolver has earned its reputation as the best album the Beatles ever made, which means the best album by anybody.”

In 2001, VH1 named it the greatest album in history and most critics’ rankings I’ve seen have placed it in at least the top five (along with the Beatles’ next album, Sgt Pepper). In recent years it seems to be gaining popularity, as pointed out here.

The shock and awe it generated in the music community was undoubtedly a mixed blessing. As I wrote about in an earlier post, “The Mozart Problem,” the presence of a dominating talent in any industry can discourage competitors from even entering the field. After Revolver appeared, it was obvious that no pop music artist was going to catch up to the Beatles, so why even try?

Fortunately, there were enough recording artists—including The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and Buffalo Springfield—who accepted the challenge. In the following year there was an explosion of creativity in record-making (especially how albums were engineered, produced, and packaged), resulting in the The Beatles’ own Sgt Pepper, which blew a hole in the sky for what was possible for record production. (Revolver’s superior songs, however, better stand the test of time.)

Excellence inspires excellence—commercially and artistically. It’s happening today of course with Apple, Google, Facebook, and others. (Should we debate which one is the 21st century Beatles?) What the mid-to-late Sixties were to rock & roll innovation, the current era is to hi-tech innovation.

When August 8th rolls around, it’s worth celebrating the quinquagenary of the Beatles' LP release that reconfigured the musical landscape. In the simple words of Rolling Stone’s Ryan Reed: “Greatest album ever made.”

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


    1. I’d have to admit that Sgt Pepper—a cultural game changer that ushered in the Summer of Love (and associated psychedelic activity)—is a serious competitor for greatest pop album ever. But Pepper, for all its production genius, lacked the great compositions (except for “Day In the Life”) that Revolver contained. But I can see how many serious music listeners, musicians, and critics would consider Sgt Pepper the best.

      I think Rubber Soul is still my personal favorite of their albums (this week anyway) but Revolver artistically was the shot heard round the rock music world. I wasn’t playing music professionally at the time (being barely out of the crib, as I would like to remember) but I would later hear from musicians who felt dislocated by the LP. My late buddy Ken Melville reminisced about his blues band driving back to Boston after a weekend gig in Manhattan in early August 1966, hearing Revolver on the radio for the first time and being dumbfounded at its quality—the brilliant melodies and lyrics, the innovative instrumentation, the ground-breaking recording techniques (like backwards recording) which all added up to an out-of-body experience for them. For me, the inclusion of “Eleanor Rigby” alone—with its architecturally perfect melody (and elegant string octet accompaniment)—would make it the best album! And “Here There Everywhere” was chosen by top songwriters as the greatest pop song of the twentieth century!

  1. I was born 3 years after the release of Revolver, so I can only speak about it subjectively in a historical context. While I appreciate how many of the songs were groundbreaking and immensely influential, if for no other reason evidenced by the plethora of fantastic albums released the following year in 1967, I must admit myself puzzled by its enduring popularity and how often it's placed at the very top of the Beatles discography, not to mention on all-time album lists. This is not meant to criticize the album. Much like Rubber Soul, it was a giant leap forward in terms of songwriting, production and influence (and I appreciate how it continued the trend away from "nothing but love songs"), but also like Rubber Soul, to me it's merely a collection of songs, and an uneven one at that.

    Perhaps that is only apparent when contrasted with the subsequent album, which to me is truly the most important album of all time, the pinnacle of the Beatles' many accomplishments, and a complete, full statement in every way. Sgt. Peppers has the cohesion that Revolver lacks. Not only is it a better, more enduring album than Revolver as a whole, but every album they made from that point forward I find superior, save perhaps for Yellow Submarine since it was only half a Beatles album, and still I find that half more consistent and interesting than Revolver as a whole.

    Alas, I will perhaps remain in the minority as far as this album is concerned, continually puzzled as to why it so often elevated above the rest. I could easily list 20 albums that came out in 1967 that I personally find superior. Maybe that's only because of Revolver, so I give it major points for being groundbreaking and influential, and in that regards it did change the universe, but I still find the album lacking cohesion and being kind of all over the place. I personally would say that Revolver opened up the universe, but Sgt. Peppers truly changed it irrevocably, forever, and from THAT point onwards the universe would never be the same.

    1. Well said.
      We forget that, while several of the greatest rock songs ever written were on Revolver, it also had "Yellow Submarine". And while most of the tunes on Sgt. Pepper may have been of slightly lesser quality than its predecessor, the album as a whole felt more imaginative and fun.

    2. Well reasoned points, Gary, but...

      I’’m not sure was Sgt Pepper was all that cohesive tho it was certainly marketed and promoted that way. (Except for McCartney, I don't think The Beatles were sold on the Pepper theme but they went along with it. Lennon always hated it in retrospect.) And the succeeding albums like The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be aren't especially cohesive to my ears , tho that's not a problem for me to begin with. The songs on Pepper may have flowed into each other, but most of them were thematically different. We all loved the trippy production, the album came out at the perfect time, and who doesn't love “A Day in the Life”? But aside from that tune it's the weakest Beatles album I can think of, post-1965, in regard to song quality. (Of course it's still better song-wise than 99% of the competition so I certainly enjoyed it.)

      Although I've focused on production effects in the post — because that's what broke new ground — we have to remember that the Beatles' primary gift to the world has been their songs (and clever arrangements). Revolver has "Eleanor Rigby" (which some songwriters have referred to as the "perfect song") with a heart-breaking story line, McCartney's boldest melody, and a string octet arrangement to die for. "Here There Everywhere" is a CLINIC in songwriting with its sophisticated key change and internal rhymes. Aside from Brian Wilson (working with a co-writer) there's no one else on the planet who could have pulled that off. (I could write a book about those two songs.) Then there was "For No One" — again a brilliantly crafted song that is SO masterfully understated in many ways. "Good Day Sunshine," one of their best feel-good tunes, features intricate time signatures of 3/4 and 5/4 to go with its bouncy melody. Tho I'm a Lennon guy, these four songs showcased McCartney at his finest (with help from Lennon and others on "Eleanor Rigby"). For biting commentary there is Harrison & Lennon's “Taxman.” (I could go on, but it’s late.)

      Regarding the recording approach, it's easy to forget how radical some of these engineering effects were at the time (backwoods taping, variable speed recording, automatic double tracking). The Revolver sessions — which included "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" — debuted these tools.

      But to me it always comes back to the songs.

      1. Part of it for me is context, as it's difficult to separate one's personal journey with a band or album and be truly objective. I got into the Beatles a bit late in the game. I mean, yes, I grew up with knowing so many of their songs, and in particular I had a friend when I was a kid who would often play Abbey Road, but I didn't really "GET" them fully until my mid to late teens. For some reason, Revolver was that one album of theirs that slipped through the cracks, that I didn't really get around to until much later, and by then I was so enamored with the psychedelic era of their music from 1967-1968, and their more mature sounds of 1969-1970, that Revolver and Rubber Soul didn't gel as much for me, even though they were both a marked improvement over their earlier work.

        Also, I'm a big proponent of an album as a whole, of it making a statement, of it having a cohesive flow, which is probably why I'm such a big fan of progressive rock, so I end up rating Revolver 6th among Beatles albums, and even this it's still a great album overall.

        Taxman - fun, effective, catchy, a solid song but never one of my all-time faves by them
        Eleanor Rigby - we played this in my elementary school band - yes, a classic, quirky and brilliant, but when running through my very favorites by them, I don't usually think of it
        I'm Only Sleeping - a nice sleepy track that I forget about but appreciate when I'm listening to it
        Love You To - one of the lesser Harrison sitar drone songs, but still very good
        Here, There & Everywhere - I like this song, but the extreme adulation I just don't get - it's not to me on the same level of say In My Life or Lennon's Oh My Love that are in a similar vein
        Yellow Submarine - one of my favorites, and probably because I'm so into psychedelia
        She Said She Said - again, a song I truly appreciate when I'm listening to it, and then I never think about it
        Good Day Sunshine - great sunny track
        And Your Bird Can Sing - decent, but kind of a throwaway for them
        For No One - another song I like when I'm listening to, but otherwise never think about
        Doctor Robert - cute, but slight - like Taxman, but less substantial lyrically
        I Want To Tell You - Harrison was rambling a bit in this one. I wrote poems like this when I was 13, and I didn't even know what they meant then.
        Got To Get You Into My Life - For some reason this sounds to me like one of the most UN-Beatles like Beatles songs - a brilliant song that deserves more praise.
        Tomorrow Never Knows - if you've never heard this cover drop everything and listen to it: - obviously, one of the Beatles' very best

        1. Gary, I make a distinction (most of the time) between what I like (or my personal favorites) and what I think is objectively excellent. Of course the latter is still subject to interpretation but I do have very specific criteria I use — especially in regard to song craftsmanship. (At one point I identified 20 to 30 criteria. I'm a tad anal on this!)

          "Eleanor Rigby" wasn't one of my favorite tracks when I first heard it (because it had no drums and I was a drummer at the time) but I recognized it as a tour de force, which I eventually came to love over time. If I were to choose 5 Beatles' tracks to put in a time capsule, that would be one of them.

          Revolver actually isn't one of my favorite Beatles' albums. And it has 4 throw away tracks. But any album that features ER, HTE, FN, and TNK ranks among their best by my criteria, not even taking into account the innovative engineering effects that, in my opinion, opened up a new sonic world.

          "In My Life" is a great one, of course—the crown jewel of Rubber Soul. That would go in my time capsule, along with "A Day In the Life." But HTE has an underlying harmonic sophistication that may be unequaled by any other Beatles' song. McCartney may be the greatest living songwriter at pulling off smooth, unobtrusive key switches. (Lennon could match him at times though. The key change in the introduction to "If I Fell" is extraordinary, though I've never seen it commented on by anyone!) But enough songwriting arcana for now...

  2. Discussing and rating Beatles albums is a wonderful exercise in establishing the stepping stones of their creative journey and cultural influence, but not to be forgotten are the singles they released between albums, which are a bit more difficult to categorize. Some of them may have been throwaways (at least in their eyes), but they give a more immediate indication of their growth and direction whilst forging the next batch of gold bars.

    For instance; the single released earlier in 1966, "Paperback Writer" and "Rain", would actually give us our first glimpse at ADT, backward recording, and altered speed, besides a peephole view into the new world of psychedelia. "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" did the same for what would happen the following year.

    Unfortunately, musical innovation has all but vanished from the cultural landscape, while business innovation may have taken it's place.

    1. I love to imagine what the US Beatles albums would have been like with the addition of the singles that were recorded in the same period. Rubber Soul with "Day Tripper" and "We Can Work It Out" would have been a monster! If Sgt Pepper had included "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" I might have to reconsider my previous objections to it.

      1. Totally agree with you on that one, John. And Pepper would be a great double album with the inclusion of their next single plus "Mystery Tour" and "Submarine" songs.

        I don't agree, however, that Lennon 'hated' Pepper. In interviews, he had said "it wasn't that great", or "it was good for its time", so it definitely wasn't his favorite album, but his contributions were excellent and still deeply ingrained in our cultural vernacular. "Lucy" is a genuine classic, and "Good Morning" can easily be compared to "Good Day Sunshine" with unusual time changes and jubilant atmosphere. He certainly must have enjoyed both writing and recording all of them ("I want to smell the sawdust!"), but I'm sure he felt that it was Paul's album, or too much Paul's album. And while McCartney's writing may not have been at the inspirational peak of a year earlier, his Pepper songs are still quite good by any measure.

        Regardless of the intellectual assessment, it is true that upon release of Pepper, the demand for larger multi-track tape machines and sound-shaping gadgets began in earnest, not to mention the push for stereo records, and FM album radio stations.

        Speaking of which... you should do a piece on the 'pirate' radio stations off the English coast at the time. The Beatles were big supporters of them, because the BBC wouldn't play rock. I had the pleasure of working with Howie Castle (aka Bud Ballou of Radio Caroline) in the 70s. I also knew the real Bud Ballou in the 60s, who died tragically.

        1. Great idea about the pirate stations, Ed. That's part of a larger story I want to write (or continue to write) about rock & roll capitalism. Rock & roll owes it existence to the greed, exploitation, and overall excess of capitalism. Less so in the UK perhaps, but it was pirate capitalism (and Radio Luxembourg) that got it rolling there despite the suppression by state radio initially.

          Bud Ballou was born in Liverpool (New York), as you probably know. He was a DJ at WMEX in Boston, among other places. Don't think I've heard of Howie.

          1. You are correct about Bud. I was slightly in error about Howie, as he served aboard Caroline's sister ship, Radio London. Below is the link I found. I worked with Howie at WOLF in '71 and '72 which was not far from Liverpool, NY. Bud worked there in the early 60s, and I was privileged to rub elbows a couple of times. Howie, of course, used that name in the UK as a tribute.


  3. Sorry, all wrong. The universe changed two months earlier when Pet Sounds was released. Macca regards God Only Knows as the best song ever and I reckon he's about right on that.

    Critically, PS got a mixed reaction with a lot of uncertainty about the more experimental songs. I think it suffered from (blfr alert) being first into the market and people not knowing what to make of it. When Revolver came out, PS had primed listeners for ambitious pop: I think The Beach Boys are the real trailblazers here.

    1. Hardly. There were maybe two interesting songs on that album, and a lot of childish experimenting, combined with amateurish production. They didn't even play their own instruments.

      Anyway, Revolver was practically finished by the time PS was on store shelves.

    2. I think Pet Sounds had some great stuff, especially "God Only Knows," "Caroline, No," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "You Still Believe In Me," but it's influence was felt mainly in Sgt Pepper, which McCartney acknowledged. Pet Sounds itself was Brian Wilson's reaction to Rubber Soul. In that brief period between late '65 and mid '67 The Beach Boys and Beatles (or more accurately Wilson and McCartney) were in a healthy competition with each other, pushing each other to new heights. Pet Sounds had the Beach Boys' vocals though the Wrecking Crew (studio musicians) were playing the instruments. And Tony Asher, Brian's best co-writer, was a big part of the success of it.

    1. Yup. I missed the obvious. Especially given the Timothy-Leary-influenced "Tomorrow Never Knows." That was another way that Revolver was ground-breaking, although Pepper was the real acid promoter. But perhaps we could say that Revolver was the first major album to focus on the "user experience."

    1. In philosophy (to some extent) as well as outcome. It's well known that Jobs idolized the Fabs and extolled their teamwork. (Apple was named after the Beatles' Apple Records.) But some would argue that Google had more of a team approach from the top, given the Brin-Page partnership.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »