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.”