The Beatles “Revolver”
At the time of Revolver’s release, Beatle-mania had already been in full swing for the better part of three years. Since the day Please Please Me was placed on the shelves, the history of rock and roll was altered forever by the four boys with long haircuts. Already 16 LP’s deep, the 17th LP capitalized on innovative recording techniques and the inclusion of sounds unable to be recreated in a live setting.
Let’s begin with the Beatles as performers; by 1966 the Beatles had played worldwide, leaving a whirlwind of fandom, record sales, and angry parents in their wakes. Beatlemania, the official term, caused millions of young girls to throw themselves screaming at the band members at any chance. They’re lives were now dictated on when and how best to avoid the surging stampedes caused by young people all across the globe.
The Beatles at the Washington Coliseum- 1964
As seen in the clip, the Beatles created a stir everywhere they went. All concerts were massively successful; each having their own sold out, unbelievably energetic crowd. It was enough to make anyone tired, and thus a little over three weeks after the release of Revolver, the Beatles held their last concert at Candlestick park on August 29, 1966.
Engineered by Geoff Emerick, the Beatles spent three months recording the track after returning from a lengthy world tour (thebeatles.com). When work began on Revolver, the album was conceived as Magic Circles. A choice number of songs on the record have distinct Indian influences, and thus the Hindu concept of cyclical time was employed when coming up with a title (Everett 38). After several weeks recording the track, the band had a change of heart. As McCartney describes it, they thought “‘Hey, what does a record do? It revolves. Great!’. You know – and so it was a Revolver.” (thebeatles.com).
I’ll focus on four tracks to showcase the most innovative recording techniques used by the Beatles on their album.
Track 3- “I’m Only Sleeping”
One of the most pioneering tracks of Revolver, “I’m Only Sleeping” contains two of the most unique and innovative recording techniques used on the album. John Lennon was not a fan of his own voice, so on previous songs he would record the vocal parts twice, replicating the effect of two singers singing the same vocal part simultaneously. So to save magnetic tape (and the money that goes along with it), he contacted recording engineer Ken Townsend, who came up with Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) technology (Zak 71). ADT takes the same vocal track, delays it anywhere from 24-30 milliseconds, and then plays it back on the opposite speaker than the original vocal, resulting in “a vocal image that is spread out across the stereo field, the voice and its counterpoised double framing the dimensions of the stereo space” (Everett 34, Zak 75). You can especially pick out this technique in the choruses, as the delay is more obvious to the listener than in the verses.
Around the 1:33 mark, listen for the solo instrument. This is a sound that you will likely have never heard before, as its not a technique that’s used by engineers very often. To produce the sound of the solo, as described by McCartney, Harrison came up with the trick to “over-record an acoustic guitar, so you’d swing the needle into the red and it’d be there, hard, every time you’d played it.’ As a result, ‘the acoustic would come back like an electric, it wouldn’t distort too much, it would just mess around with that original sound. It’d make it hot” (Zak 66). As a distinct mark in the Beatles journey from performers to recording artists, this sound is unable to be replicated live, and thus makes “I’m Only Sleeping” an song incapable of being performed.
Track 2- “Eleanor Rigby”
Very few pop songs tackle the subject of death, but the second track on the album, McCartney’s brainchild about two church workers, confronts the topic head on in gloomy acceptance. When the song was first drafted, McCartney came up with the titular Rigby, as well as a priest without hope, wanting to express them as “sad in their loneliness and the obvious futility of their lives (Everett 51). The lyrics were what came first, followed shortly thereafter by the melody and orchestration.
It was McCartney himself who first suggested the use of strings as a backing track to the song’s depressing atmosphere. There are two distinct theories as to why, the first is his attempt to recreate the overwhelmingly massive success of “Yesterday,” while the second is his influences from Vivaldi, who at the time girlfriend Jane Asher was having him listen to frequently.
Track 6- “Yellow Submarine”
Bob Neaverson, author of an extensive book on the Beatles’ movies, describes the unique ability of the band to craft songs “ripped off” from previous styles, and yet “the songs were often more memorable than those genres from which they [were] derived” (Inglis, 160). No song better exemplifies this characteristic than “Yellow Submarine.” Conceived as a children’s refrain, McCartney said that “It’s got to be very easy—there isn’t a single big word. Kids will understand it easier than adults” (Everett 56). The simplicity is perpetuated throughout the entire track; the song is simple, both in lyrics and melody.
In terms of recording, it is described as “engineered with creative wizardry,” forcing the band to spend twice as much studio time on this one track than their entire first LP (Everett 34, 57). All of the vocal tracks are played through the right speaker, while all of the instruments are played to the left. In a testament to their uniqueness, the Beatles recorded all of the vocals a half step lower and all of the instruments a half step higher (Everett 57). In fact the only elements played through both speakers are the effects, including (but not limited to) swirling water in a metal bathtub, a cocktail party of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, blowing bubbles, and rattling chains (Everett 58). The song is incredibly catchy, and I encourage using headphones to retain the full engineering effect.
The trailer for the Yellow Submarine movie- 1968
Track 14- “Tomorrow Never Knows”
As the first Beatles track to not include a rhyming scheme, in my opinion “Tomorrow Never Knows” marks the official beginning of the Beatles’ transition from the early suit wearing idols to the drugged out, bearded 70’s men of the later era. The prose is taken directly from The Psychedelic Experience, an interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead that uses LSD as a means for achieving Nirvana (Everett 35).
The song includes four distinct tracks, each comprised of differing sounds and speaker locations.
- Track 1 consists of one of Ringo’s signature repetitive drum ostinatos, played as a damped, compressed sound. The bass and tamboura drone on the tonic (base note) of the piece in this track as well, and all three are played through both speakers simultaneously.
- Track 2 is played through the right speaker, and boasts Lennon on the tambourine, as well as an organ and a piano.
- Track 3 is Lennon’s lead vocal track, doubletracked through both speakers. At 1:26, after the solo, Lennon sings through a Leslie speaker, in an attempt to impersonate “the Dalai Lama singing on a hilltop” (Everett 36).
- The famous McCartney track. A curious breed between the conventional and the unknown, McCartney took recording equipment home, and came back to the studio with this recording, of which musicologists still argue about today. It contains unidentifiable sounds, and speculation spans from sped up guitars to backwards laughing and seagulls; its impossible to tell as the sound is so unique and bizarre that you cannot pinpoint its exact quality.
Revolver marks a pivotal change in the history of rock music. In the span of less than a year, the stylistic capabilities and established sound were completely revamped, leaving the genre with a surplus of new sound qualities, stylings and recording techniques never before heard. For the Beatles, as it became for many other artists, the record became the product of the artist, as opposed to the live performance. There’s a reason everyone talks about the Beatles in reverent tones; they changed the way rock and pop are created forever.
Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Inglis, Ian. The Beatles, Popular Music, and Society: A Thousand Voices. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999. Print.
Zak, Albin. “Sound as Form.” The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records. Berkeley: U of California, 2001. 48-96. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.