We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
Decca, in 1962 when rejecting The Beatles (a huge mistake)
The Beatles’ Revolver was way ahead of its time. Sure, Sergeant Pepper was too, but they made that a year later. By then, the Mop-Topped Quartet from Merseyside, along with a certain George Martin, had opened up a can of musical worms the likes of which the world had never seen.
While saying that Revolver is way ahead of its time is obvious, and somewhat cliché, we’ll cover why it’s true. But before we delve any further, let’s rewind for a second.
The Beatles released Please Please Me in 1963, and the album was a solid debut, including a host of rock and roll covers, plus classic gems like ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, which are still treasured today.
In three short years, the band went from fresh-faced Mersey lads talking about love and holding hands in public places, to young adults screeching about sex and heartache, and finally to experimental audio visionaries.
Rubber Soul, released eight months before Revolver, offered a glimpse into what was about to come in terms of production value and song arrangement, but it couldn’t quite prepare anyone for its profoundly experimental edge. ‘Norwegian Wood’ showcases George Martin’s influential touch and when you listen back, is almost like a time portal between the two albums.
It’s true that Rubber Soul was a turning point for the band, and marked their transition from guitar slingers to bonafide ‘audio artistes’, but it was Revolver where the band jettisoned any preconceived notions about themselves and all the expectations that people put on them. They were freewheeling like no one else had ever done before.
Necessity is the mother of invention
By 1965, Beatlemania had swept the planet and John, Paul, George and Ringo were the most famous rockers in the world, by far. The band attracted such a vast number of vocal chord straining fans to their shows that they could barely hear themselves perform.
Touring and the stress of not being able to hear themselves think, let alone play their songs live, sent the band to the warm embrace of the studio and they started experimenting with sounds, melodies and arrangements. It seems that a distinct dissatisfaction with performing live helped spark the band’s thirst for sound searching.
During the musical quest that resulted in Revolver, the band utilised a number of inventive recording techniques and pushed the envelope of their arrangements further than ever before, creating a new edge that inspire musicians and artists the world over.
Lesson learned: If you’re looking to push your sound into another realm or change musical direction, find a secluded practical space and spend as much time as you need to deconstructing your songs and playing with audio techniques. Leave all cares at the door and live in the moment as a band; that’s where the best material often starts from.
Sound Has No Bounds
George Martin played a pivotal part in the revolutionary sound of Revolver as an LP, but it was the collaboration between artist and producer that solidified things.
Back in the 60s, everything was analogue, and people couldn’t achieve a haunting chorus effect or a trippy audio reverse by simply adding a plugin to their audio sequencer and pressing a few buttons – the process was far more laborious.
Of course, The Beatles were on mind-altering substances while working on the album, which may have released their musical inhibitions – but effects like tape reverse, audio loops and subversive twangs were all created through pure experimentation and innovation.
For instance, on ‘Rain’, the band originally recorded the rhythm track and Lennon’s vocal take at a faster speed, but then slowed it right down, almost like an audio stretch function you’d see on Pro Tools today, which created the trance-like sound that made it famous.
In ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, arguably the most striking track on the album, the band recorded a simple arrangement to use as a canvas on which to craft their arrangement and multi-track layers which were panned across the stereo spectrum to create a broader, deeper overall sound. To achieve Lennon’s snarling yet distant vocal, he sang through a speaker inside a Hammond organ – a technique seldom used before and created on the day to suit the specific needs of the track.
“We only had one verse and I think we stretched it to two verses and we couldn’t think of any more words, ‘cos we had said it all, what we wanted to say, in about two verses. So, we had to try and work out how to do it and make it different. So, I decided to do some of those loops that I had been doing on my own tape recorder.” – Paul McCartney
One of the most striking audio methods employed on the album was the creative use of ADT or Automatic Double Tracking. ADT is an analogue (replicated digitally in today’s world) recording technique designed to enhance the sound of voices or instruments during the recording process by creating a delayed copy of an audio signal and then adding it to the original.
This particular technique added an extra dimension to many of the whole tracks and indeed, overdubs on Revolver and was invented by top sound engineers at Abbey Road in 1966. Who requested the invention of ADT? The Beatles themselves.
The guitar solo on ‘Taxman’ is a fine example of ADT in action. By applying ADT to the guitar signal and pushing it up front volume-wise, before splitting the sound in the stereo mix, the guitar not only gained a rich, hypnotic quality, but it almost sounds like two separate solos are playing in unison.
Lesson learned: If something can make a noise, you have the power to make an amazing sound from it – all you have to do is use your creativity and a little perseverance. Once you have opened up the arrangements of your songs, the creative, daring and well-placed implementation of plug-ins and analogue audio techniques will take your music to the next level.
Letting Go is the Key to Truth’s Door
As mentioned, when The Beatles set out on their mystical Revolver mission, they left their cares at the door.
The band, along with Martin, decided to jettison public and professional opinion and make something that they felt represented themselves, as well as their journey from the Hamburg days to the other side of Beatlemania.
When The Beatles made Revolver they weren’t thinking about fainting teeny boppers or record peddling yuppies, they were thinking about their future and the sound came naturally.
Through the use of forlorn lyrics, distant melodies and haunting guitar jangles, along with an arsenal of never before heard overdubs, the whole album became cloaked in a haunting quality which is intensified by tracks like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘For No One’.
It may seem excessive to mention it again, but it is poignancy makes it necessary: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, originally titled ‘More I’, turned many heads. Not only because it was produced in a way that suited the spirit of the song down to a T, but it stood out like a sore thumb and smacked critics and fans square in the face. It was completely unexpected, perhaps more than any other song on the album.
The tracks were recorded, then re-recorded, then double tracked, then tampered with and overdubbed countless times, techniques that people weren’t bold enough to try back then.
Unlike so many albums released at the time, like the comparatively one-dimensional (but still pretty rocking) Animalisms by The Animals or John Mayall’s Blues Breakers LP with Eric Clapton, Revolver had a decisive groove and punch, coupled with real audio depth.
Much of Revolver’s punch came down to savvy use of close miking. Rather than opting for an ambient recording of the drums in a lonely room, The Beatles close-miked each primary element of the kit, producing deep kicks, snarling snares and crisp cymbal hits. This is particularly evident in upbeat singalong tracks like ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ which despite its cheery major tones, packs a serious punch from the rhythm section upwards.
The result is a record that stands alone in time; an LP that sounds like a welcome carnival for the ears.
Lesson learned: Be bold and don’t be afraid to push your own boundaries; don’t let external forces distract you, and most importantly of all, be open to all ideas from those involved in your project, regardless of their allocated role. Variety of the spice of life, and makes for a seasoned musical palette.
A year later The Beatles recorded The Magical Mystery Tour – and it was a melodic, smile-inducing delight. On ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, Martin and the band used a Mellotron and it immortalised the recording.
The way it was woven into the music was simply magic. You can do it today with the press of a button, but back then it was the size of a small fridge.
Bands and artists cared enough about music to push the envelope despite mechanical restrictions, and with today’s technology, coupled with yesterday’s ingenuity, it’s possible to achieve musical innovation beyond your wildest dreams.
Not convinced? Sit down, listen to Revolver and see if you’re not inspired to make a masterpiece.
By Dan Hughes, featured writer for Purple Cow Productions. Purple Cow is a London-based collaboration between professional musicians, audiovisual artists & award-winning entrepreneurs, creating best in breed work.