An enduring debate among fans of the Beatles tries to answer a question, which is their best album? Ultimately it is difficult, probably impossible, to quantify this. So much of the judgement is subjective, with people arguing the case for their individual favourite. Over the years, my mind has hopped in assessing the relative merits of Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and Abbey Road (1969), but Revolver has generally been my favourite Beatles album.
The quality of songs is outstanding on Revolver, with great variety, building into a showcase of the brilliance of the Beatles. Besides Paul McCartney’s majestic Eleanor Rigby, and the novelty of Ringo Starr singing Yellow Submarine, there is an amazing trio from John Lennon – I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, and Tomorrow Never Knows. George Harrison offers a couple of great songs in Taxman and I Want to Tell You. The studio experimentation of Sgt. Pepper began a few months earlier in the Revolver sessions. Revolver was recorded between April and June 1966, shortly before the Beatles ceased touring, feeling frustrated that screaming fans were drowning out their music, while constant media attention left the band with little peace.
A notable part of the appeal of Revolver is the way in which it displays an eclectic mix of styles, but also has unity, powered by the guitar and drums sound common to the uptempo numbers. There are also dreamy lyrics that flow from Eleanor Rigby to Tomorrow Never Knows. The album title is a clever reflection of the way in which records revolve. There is also the original cover, with the psychedelic collage by Klaus Voorman on the front, and a photo of the band on the back – both in stark black and white. Revolver still sounds and feels modern – more than half a century after it was recorded. The 2009 remastered CD version of Revolver has enhanced packaging, including illuminating liner notes, although these are not as extensive as for the Sgt. Pepper reissue of that year.
Here is a track-by-track run through the record:
Side 1 (approximately 18 and a half minutes)
1 Taxman. The album begins with a 1,2,3,4 countdown, leading into George’s scathing complaint about the way in which his income was subject to punitive tax rates. There is also a scorching guitar solo, provided by Paul, in contrast George normally being the band’s lead guitarist.
2 Eleanor Rigby. One of the greatest songs in the Beatles’ catalogue, this is a minimalist piece, with vocals from Paul accompanied by a double string quartet. In just a few seconds over two minutes, Paul conjures up the lonely tale of a vicar and a spinster.
3 I’m Only Sleeping. John tells a tale of the point where sleep becomes awakening. This is enlivened by a backwards recording of a guitar line.
4 Love You To. A philosophical love song from George, accompanied by Indian musicians. George’s interest in Indian music had seen him play the sitar on Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) the previous year, and would develop in 1967, as Within You Without You featured on Sgt. Pepper.
5 Here, There and Everywhere. Paul provides a great love song, inspired by the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, from the Pet Sounds album, which arrived not long before Revolver.
6 Yellow Submarine. We navigate the sea in a submarine, with a lovely sing-along, led by Ringo.
7 She Said She Said. John’s tale of an LSD trip, as he hallucinates about a mystery woman, the year before Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
Side 2 (approximately 16 and a half minutes)
8 Good Day Sunshine. Paul brightens the mood with a song about the joys of love, and sunshine.
9 And Your Bird Can Sing. A rather cutting song from John.
10 For No One. Paul’s lament for a failed romance.
11 Doctor Robert. John’s story about a drug dealer.
12 I Want to Tell You. An often-neglected marvel, tucked away near the end of Revolver, with that album’s trademark sound, as George asks more questions.
13 Got to Get You Into My Life. Paul’s take on soul music, in the year after the Rubber Soul album.
14 Tomorrow Never Knows. The amazing finale of Revolver is John’s psychedelic take on Eastern meditation. Forty years later, on the Love album, George and Giles Martin merged two songs of Eastern thought into a splendid idea, with the start of John’s Tomorrow Never Knows vocal leading into George singing Within You Without You, while the drumming from the first song strengthens the music of the latter.
Perhaps the only flaw is the brevity of Revolver, at just under 35 minutes. There is also a lop-sidedness, with side 1 being longer than side 2 by two minutes. Side 2 feels short, with first four songs there totalling under eight and a half minutes. The length of Revolver may have been standard for the time, but Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released the previous year, clocked in at 51 minutes. The 2009 liner notes mention that the single Paperback Writer / Rain was recorded at the Revolver sessions. Perhaps these two songs could have been added as bonus tracks at the end of the Revolver CD. Perhaps, with the agreement of the surviving Beatles, Paperback Writer and Rain could even be integrated within the main sequence, leaving Tomorrow Never Knows as the finale to a Revolver Revisited?
Moving on from that thought, I have devised an alternative 16 track sequence, which would take increase the length of the album to just over 40 minutes, while balancing the two sides to about 20 minutes each. I also adjust the division of the non-John / Paul lead vocal songs, where there are originally three George / Ringo songs on side 1, compared with only one on side 2. My track list has split the George / Ringo songs evenly, with two on each side. I also ensure that each of the vocalists has a song that either starts or ends one side of the fantasy album. The Beatles originally intended to give the album that became Revolver a magical title, Abracadabra. Another idea was Four Sides of the Circle, reflecting the way in which four men had made a circular record.
2 Paperback Writer. The A side of the single omitted from the album appears early in the expanded version. Paul’s tale about the wonders of story-telling flows into the next track ere.
3 I’m Only Sleeping
4 Eleanor Rigby. The sleepiness of the previous song gives way to the harsh reality of loneliness – by reversing the order of the original tracks 2 and 3.
5 And Your Bird Can Sing. The tempo changes, with a quicker song, moved over from the brisk start to side 2.
6 Here, There and Everywhere
7 She Said She Said
8 Yellow Submarine. Tracks 6 and 7 from the original are re-ordered, to allow Ringo to close side 1.
9 Good Day Sunshine
10 Rain. The B side of Paperback Writer is an under-rated gem, a brilliant burst of psychedelic rock, with lead vocals by John – and even the reversal of a vocal line near the end of the song. Here Rain follows neatly on from the sunshine of the previous track.
11 Love You To. I think the bright Indian introduction to this song – now delayed from side 1 – is a neat clearing of the musical sky after the preceding Rain. Thereafter my track list replicates the original Revolver sequence for the last five songs.
12 For No One
13 Doctor Robert
14 I Want to Tell You
15 Got to Get You Into My Life
16 Tomorrow Never Knows