Fifty years later, the Beatles‘ Revolver is still taking fans on an incredible trip.
Revolver, the Beatles seventh U.K. album — released on Aug. 5, 1966 in the U.K. and three days later in the U.S. — was another game-changing classic for the Fab Four. Rubber Soul, which was released eight months before, showed a distinct development and maturity as songwriters and lyricists. Revolver, which originally was to be called Abracadabra, took that a step further, as the album featured musical experimentation and didn’t hide the fact the group was into drugs.
The release also came at a time when the band was caught in the controversy over John Lennon‘s statement about the Beatles and Jesus. Dozens of radio stations were refusing to play the group’s music and the controversy even affected Capitol Records’ stock price on the New York Stock Exchange. Finally, on Aug. 12, a week after the album’s release, Lennon issued an apology at a Chicago press conference to settle the issue.
But the industry was anxious for Revolver. In its Aug. 20, 1966, issue, Billboard chose it as a “Spotlight Pick” and called it “a sure-fire winner.” The Lennon controversy didn’t bother the fans because the album entered the U.K. charts at No. 1 and had a seven-week ride at the top. In America, it debuted on the Billboard album charts on Sept. 3, 1966 at No. 45. It hit the No. 1 spot its second week on the chart and remained there for six weeks.
The Beatles began recording the album on April 6, 1966. The cover, done by longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann, was a pioneering piece of art combining line drawings and photographs. It won a Grammy Award in 1966 for Best Album Package. Ringo Starr has said it was “incredible and perfect for that album.” Voormann is publishing a special Revolver 50 book to celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary.
“Revolver stands as The Beatles’ artistic high-water mark,” says Robert Rodriguez, author of Revolver: How the Beatles Imagined Rock n’ Roll. “Bereft of Sgt. Pepper’s dated self-consciousness, Revolver is infused with inspiration where Pepper comes off as calculation. A true four-way collaboration with each Beatle pulling in the same direction, never in their career did they take such a daring leap into the unknown, discovering what lay beyond the horizon of rock’s existing paradigm. It is a timeless collection of eclectic styles, each demonstrating the group’s command of all genres, even the ones they were inventing at the time.”
Here’s a track-by-track rundown:
1. “Taxman” (George Harrison): One of three tracks on the album written by George Harrison, Revolver was a breakthrough in his continued emergence as a songwriter. This album opener was a stinging commentary on the high levels of British taxation. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street. If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.” The lyrics mention British prime ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.
2. “Eleanor Rigby” (Lennon-McCartney): A Paul McCartney song and one of the most haunting pieces of music ever by the Beatles. The lyrics follow the sad lives of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie. The origins of the two names have been debated over the years. Paul McCartney claimed both were fictional, but a real Eleanor Rigby is buried in the yard of St. Peter’s Church in Liverpool, the place where McCartney and John Lennon first met and where both often spent time as youngsters. He said the name McKenzie came out of a phone book. The instrumentation on the song included violins, violas and cellos and a superb score by producer George Martin. “Eleanor Rigby” was a No. 1 singles hit in the U.K., and peaked at No. 11 in the U.S. The song won a Grammy Award in 1966 for Best Contemporary Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental.
3. “I’m Only Sleeping” (Lennon-McCartney): This John Lennon song is highlighted by a dreamy Lennon vocal and a backwards guitar, which producer George Martin said was tricky to create.
4. “Love You To” (Harrison): The album’s second George Harrison song, an Indian music influenced number, featured Harrison on sitar, and Anil Bhagwat on tabla. It was originally titled “Granny Smith.”
5. “Here, There and Everywhere” (Lennon-McCartney): A song basically written by Paul McCartney and said to be one of his favorites. The song features vocal harmonies by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison together.
6. “Yellow Submarine” (Lennon-McCartney): Ringo Starr‘s featured song on the album has gone on to become immortal since it was the basis for the wonderful 1968 animated film. To this day, Starr performs the song in concert, often joking that if the All-Starr Band audience doesn’t know the lyrics “you’ve come to the wrong place.” It was the A-side of a single in America with “Eleanor Rigby” and hit No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in America. The double-sided single hit No. 1 in the U.K.
7. “She Said She Said” (Lennon-McCartney): A song written by John Lennon about the experiences of actor Peter Fonda, who was describing an LSD trip. The song was taped in 25 takes on June 21, 1966, during the final recording session for the album.
8. “Good Day Sunshine” (Lennon-McCartney): A spirited song written by Paul McCartney. According to author Mark Lewisohn in his book The Beatles Complete Recording Sessions, the album used the first take that was recorded on June 8, 1966, with overdubs added later.
9. “And Your Bird Can Sing” (Lennon-McCartney): An incredibly ambitious song, highlighted by a superb guitar solo by George Harrison.
10. “For No One” (Lennon-McCartney): Another haunting Paul McCartney song in the “Eleanor Rigby” vein, it was begun on May 9, 1966, with only McCartney playing piano and Ringo on drums, with no participation from John Lennon or George Harrison. A clavichord and a French horn were added later.
11. “Doctor Robert” (Lennon-McCartney): An infamous drug-soaked song written by John Lennon, said to be about a New York doctor who supplied clients with hallucinogens.
12. “I Want to Tell You” (Harrison): The last George Harrison song on the album. According to author Mark Lewisohn, like “Love You To,” he had trouble naming it. Lennon suggested “Granny Smith Part Friggin’ Two.” It later briefly became “I Don’t Know” before the final title was settled on on June 6, four days after its first recording session.
13. “Got to Get You into My Life” (Lennon-McCartney): Another bouncy McCartney song that, according to author Mark Lewisohn, evolved from a rhythm track with a one-note organ introduction and a high-hat cymbal from Ringo Starr on the first take. The end result had a distinct Tamla-Motown influence with McCartney’s vocal and a jubilant horn section with trumpets and sax.
14. “Tomorrow Never Knows”: (Lennon-McCartney) The climax to the album, originally titled “Mark 1,” is a drug-drenched, psychedelic masterpiece inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It includes Harrison on sitar, tape loops and seagull-like noises that were made by a distorted guitar. Lennon’s spacey vocal was created by putting his voice through a revolving Leslie speaker; Ringo Starr’s drum sound was deadened by moving the drum microphone closer to the drum and stuffing an early Beatles picture in between. “Drums had never been heard like that before,” said engineer Geoff Emerick.