Monday, June 09, 2008

The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology

by Walter Everett

First published April, 1999
Oxford University Press

"This is an excellent book that will appeal to musicologists, theorists, and general readers with any interest in the Beatles. . . . Everett has written the most important book on the Beatles to appear so far; it will become an indispensable part of any future work on the group and their music. He nicely and securely balances detailed music-analytical, historical, and biographical information while providing a compelling interpretation of the ways in which the group's music changed and developed."
-John Covach, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Impressive. . . . I've never seen anything like it before. . . . This unique book offers a seamless narrative of the latter half of the Beatles' career as music makers. What is new in these pages is new not only to the literature on the Beatles but to writing about popular music more generally. . . . Everett does many things more effectively than any previous writer on the Beatles. . . . A great book." -Charles Hamm, Dartmouth College

Given the phenomenal fame and commercial success that the Beatles knew for the entire course of their familiar career, their music per se has received surprisingly little detailed attention. Not all of their cultural influence can be traced to long hair and flashy clothing; the Beatles had numerous fresh ideas about melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, form, colors, and textures. Or consider how much new ground was broken by their lyrics alone - both the themes and imagery of the Beatles' poetry are key parts of what made (and still makes) this group so important, so popular, and so imitated. This book is a comprehensive chronological study of every aspect of the Fab Four's musical life - including full examinations of compositions, performance practice, recording, and historical context - during their transcendent late period (1966-1970). Rich, authoritative interpretations are interwoven through a documentary study of many thousands of audio, print, and other sources.


Walter Everett is Associate Professor of Music in Music Theory at the University of Michigan.

The Meaning of Within (1966)

The time line (Table 1.2) shows an obvious curtailment of activity compared with preceding years. Largely because more time was devoted to recording Revolver than any previous LP, this album and a prior single were the only new Beatles product released in 1966. But the recordings were stunning. Reflective of their reading of Timothy Leary, their own experiences with LSD, and an exploration of Hindustani msuci and philoshopy, Revolver was fundamentally unlike any rock album that had preceded it. The recording of its new and colorized sounds was inaugurated by a few bizarre homemade tape loops brought to EMI by McCartney, pushed beyond normal limits by expressive uses of audio filters, and introduced on the final product by a time-defying "one, two, three, four" countdown clearly worlds removed from that which opened Please Please Me. Revolver was an innovative example of electronic music as much as it advanced the leading edge of the rock world.
The Beatles' passion for studio creativity kept the band focused and intact through a difficult year of press-bashing, tours from hell, and extensive year-end solo projects conducted amid anxious rumors of the band's demise. With the end of the final concert tour, the Beatles virtually abandoned ensemble playing: rarely - prior to last-ditch efforts in 1969 - would they again perform a song in its entirety in a live format, even within the friendly confines of the studio. Indeed, the group had begun to break up in 1966 as its members discovered that they had individual lives with interests that were not always fully harmonious with those of their mates, a divergence that naturally would grow ever larger in the group's final years together. But the beginning of 1966 was a heady and most promising time . . .

Table 1.2 Time Line of Major Events for the Beatles, 1966

Apr. 6 - June 22:
June 10:
June 16:
June 24 - July 4:
Aug. 5:
Aug. 12 - 29:
Sept. 6 - Nov. 6:

Sept. 14 - Oct. 22:
Nov. 24:
Recordings and postproduction for LP and single at EMI, London
"Paperback Writer"/"Rain" released in United Kingdom
Last "live" television appearance, miming single
Concerts in West Germany, Tokyo, and Manila
Revolver released in United Kingdom
U.S. tour: final live performances for ticketed audience
John Lennon shooting How I Won the War, West Germany and
Spain; composes "Strawberry Fields Forever"
George Harrison in India, studying sitar under Ravi Shankar
Paul McCartney writes material for The Family Way soundtrack
Beatles return to EMI, London, to begin work ostensibly for next LP

Early 1966: McCartney and the Avant-garde

Little has been documented about the Beatles' first three months of 1966; presumably, the period had been served for a film project that enver materialized. No performance were scheduled before May, so a January dubbing session for a television film was the only group project prior to April recording sessions.
Whereas the other Beatles resided in the suburbs west of London, McCartney bought a home on Cavendish Avenue in St. John's Wood, a very short walk from EMI Studios, in April 1965. McCartney, the swinging London bachelor, had fallen in with the underground pop culturati - writers such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, filmmakers such as Michael Antonioni, and art critics such as John Dunbar - whom he had met as early as 1963 through singers Peter Asher and Marianne Faithfull. In January 1966, McCartney helped Asher, Dunbar, and Barry Miles open the youth-oriented Indica Bookshop on Southampton Row; the following October, he aided Miles in founding the underground paper International Times. McCartney attended avant-garde concerts of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, began collecting the surrealistic paintings of Rene Magritte, and made his own avant-garde films: Andy Warhol once sat through a home screening on Cavendish Avenue. Two such films, The Defeat of the Dog and The Next Spring Then, were described by one guest in Punch magazine: "They were not like ordinary people's home movies. There were over-exposures, double-exposures, blinding orange lights, quick cuts from professional wrestling to a crowded car park to a close-up of a television weather map. There were long still shots of a grey cloudy sky and a wet, grey pavement, jumping Chinese ivory carvings and affectionate slow-motion studies of his sheepdog Martha and his cat. The accompanying music, on a record player and faultlessly synchronised, was by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Bach." All of these activities represented a drive to discover the new aesthetic experience and would reverberate with the new sound images the Beatels would discvoer, especially with the promotional films made for "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life" in 1967.
McCartney's dabbling was more serious in his home recording studio, which was based on a coupled pair of Brennell tape machines. "He's become an expert at recording and double-tracking - he'll start with a basic sound on one tape, re-record something over it and then repeat the process umpteen times using two tape decks. He specializes in curious space noises and electronic music." McCartney once threatened to release a solo LP called Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, but Lennon called his bluff, and the notion came to nothing. Lennon, on the other hand, would complete such exercises in 1968 and 1969. McCartney's home recordings, whether demos for the Beatles or something more experimental, became a regular practice and culminated in the more conservative homemade solo LPs, McCartney (1969-70) and McCartney II (1979-80). "In interviews with Miles, Paul talked about the yearnings he felt for grasping what was unheard in music and unseen in film: 'To see the potential in it all. To take a note and wreck it and see in that note what else there is in it, that a simple act like distorting it has caused. . . . I'd like a lot more things to happen like they did when you were kids, when you didn't know how the conjuror did it, and were happy just to see it there and say, "Well, it's magic." ' This desire for the distortion of sound and the yearning for the mystical is reflected in the timbres and structures of the Beatles' only LP of 1966, for which Abracadabra and Magic Circles were considered as titles.

A New Beginning: Revolver

American projects dominated the early plans for the Beatles' spring 1966 recordings, perhaps in accord with the fact that the film considered for shooting in early 1966 was to be a western. Motown Records in Detroit announced that the Beatles had commissioned two songs from their writers Holland-Dozier-Holland, and the group was also reported to have scheduled recording sessions in Memphis. Instead, the Beatles cut sixteen of their own compositions at the usual EMI Studios, although the intimate Studio Three would often be used as well as the more familiar Studio Two. In the end, the characteristics of America C&W and R&B so unadulterated in Rubber SOul would not appear nearly to such an extent in the new songs.
Revolver, as the LP was to be called, is an often mystifying blend of more new sounds from guitar and unusual instruments, sound effects, and non-Western materials, all engineered with creative wizardry. These sounds accompany newly demanding poetic texts that explore levels of consciousness other than simple wakeful awareness. The sixteen songs for the LP and single were recorded, mixed, and edited on thirty-seven days between April 6 and June 22. Building on the Rubber Soul process, much composition and arranging was done in the studio: the group devoted an average of eighteen hours of studio time to each song, ranging from just under ten for "She Said She Said" to some thirty-three for "Got to Get You into My Life." "'We're quite big with EMI at the moment,' understated Ringo. 'They don't argue if we take the time we want.'"
The Beatles' sound was altered with both acoustic and electronic effects. Geoff Emerick was assigned as engineer to the Revolver sessions when Norman Smith - who had worked the controls for every Beatles session through 1965 - became head of Parlophone upon George Martin's resignation. Emerick provides an example of the new sound-distortion techniques: "I moved the bass drum microphone much closer to the drum than had been done before. There's an early picture of the Beatles wearing a woollen jumper with four necks. I stuffed that inside the drum to deaden the sound. Then we put the sound through Fairchild 600 valve limiters and compressors. It became [Ringo's drum] sound of Revolver and Pepper really." Through 1966 and 1967, the Beatles pushed against all boundaries: at turns, Lennon would ask to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, would wish a passage to sound "orange," or would say a listener should be able to taste sawdust: it was up to the imagination of George Martin's team to find a way. Additionally, Revolver introduced a technical alternative to the tedious double-tracking of vocals. Artificial Double-Tracking (ADT), invented by Ten Townshend during a Cilla Black session, allowed an existing lead vocal track to be duplicated out of phase, but with steady pitch, by a variable 24 - 30 milliseconds on a second tape machine during mixing.
The Beatles apparently sensed early on that the LP was to indicate a new beginning; before the pioneering first recording for the album was to receive its eventual title. "Tomorrow Never Knows," it was referred to as "Mark I." The album begins with Harrison's artificial, off-tempo, secretive-sounding count-off, "one, two, three, four, one, two," added to the top of the otherwise completed "Taxman." This beginning contrasts strongly with the opening sounds of the Beatles' first LP, McCartney's energizing count-off to "I Saw Her Standing There"; the contrast is especially one between a live performance in the early work and a studio creation in the later. Serious artistic ambitions signaled by Rubber SOul were fulfilled with a newly mature confidence and strong creative individuality in Revolver. We shall document the compositional and recording histories, and interpret the final results, for each of the sixteen new songs in turn, taken in order of the date of each one's preliminary recording

One Song Each from Lennon, McCartney,
and Harrison

"Tomorrow Never Knows" The LP sessions began with the Beatles' first recording that was to reflect the LSD experience. The lyrics of "Tomorrow Never Knows" are the group's first to not rely on any rhyme scheme. This results from the fact that they are taken directly from a prose source: a set of instructions for a drug-enhanced search for spiritual bliss given in The Psychedelic Experience, an interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead - the Buddhist guide to nirvana - written by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. LSD leads to realms of consciousness analogous to the illumination achieved by Tibetan-taught meditation on the nature of death and rebirth. Leary and his colleagues believed that psychedelic drugs cause and permit the ego to become lost among the nervous system's encoded meories of all human history. Therefore, Leary and Alpert thought it valuable to provide a yoga-based manual for the control of awareness beyond this drug-induced death of the ego. The instructions therein that would allow a surrender of the ego, such as "turn off your mind, relax, float downstream," a quotation only slightly altered in the song, guided Lennon's early conception of "Tomorrow Never Knows": "I'd imagined in my head that in the background you would hear thousands of monks chanting. That was impractical of course and we did something different."
The song's title was Ringo's twist of the phrase "tomorrow never comes" and, like "A Hard Day's Night," was once considered as the title for the Beatles' 1965 film until "Help!" was supplied. Lennon remembered the phrase and, two months after the backing tracks were recorded as "Mark I," applied the Ringoism to the song during mixing for the LP, "to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics." Beginning with this song and continuing through his final recordings, Lennon was to lead the Beatles and his listeners through a fantasy world of dreams, Lewis Carroll, and the circus: the hypnotic meditative state of relaxation of the mind and body, in which ideas and wishes are observed but not followed, and in which initiative is an alien force, is heard here and reverberates in such later pieces as "Across the Universe."
Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall recalls the five-hour April 6 session for the basic track of "Tomorrow Never Knows": "The boys had been storing up all sorts of thoughts for the album and a lot of them came pouring out at that first session! The words were written before the tune and there was no getting away from the fact that the words were very powerful. So all four boys were anxious to build a tune and a backing which would be as strong as the actual lyrics. The basic tune was written during the first hours of the recording session." The track, guided by such a "powerful" text, was eventually deemed strong enough to conclude the album.
Take 1 of "Mark I" (not part of the original release but made available on Beatles 1996a) features a basic track consisting of a heavily slowed-down, reverberating percussive tape loop with slowed-down guitar repeating the ostinato of example 1.4a. Overdubs (which begins at the ostinato's tempo but gradually go out of phase) consisted only of Ringo's heavily compressed drums, which provided a Motown-like straight backbeat without the eventual syncopation, and Lennon's vocal, which was amplified through a Leslie speaker. Before further overdubs were made, this entire version was scrapped for a new set of basic tracks that were to include the characteristic bass, tamboura, organ, and tape effects. The tamboura is a long-necked Indian gourd instrument with four to six strings tuned to 1 and 5, always plucked open to furnish a simple, open drone. The use of non-Western instruments thus begins on the album's first day of work. The vocal melody's arpeggiation is a heavily slowed-down version of Bo Diddley's 1955 eponymous R&B hit; the connection is strengthened by the harmonic restriction to I and its modal lower neighbor, bVII. (This connection is interestingly similar to that drawn between McCartney's "Got to Get You into My Life" and Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everybody's Alright)," in n. 44 below.)
Some tape reduction (i.e. "bouncing" a full tape down to one or two tracks of a second generation) may have been required, but the following summary of the contents of the final stereo mix, which was based on Take 3, could have been produced with only four tracks. The first recordings other than outtakes from April 6 are heard on two tracks, one placed in the center of the stereo image and one on the right. The center is devoted to an ostinato more completely repetitive than that of "If You've Got Trouble" (a 1965 outtake heard on Beatles 1996a). The ostinato is heard continuously in Ringo's damped, limited, and compressed drums, with an odd accent on the second half of every third beat and a constant cymbal sheen, and McCartney's bass and Harrison's tamboura, both simply droning on the tonic, C. The right channel has a second track with Lennon's tambourine, an organ, and Martin's honky-tonk piano. Perhaps Mal Evans plays the simple Hammond organ part, as he did on "You Won't See Me": it is heard only as bVII resolves to I at A+5-8 (0:19-0:22) and in the coda (2:20 through the fade). Martin's piano enters the coda with a flourish at 2:43, with a coloring duplicated later in the year for the "Strawberry Fields Forever" coda. This second track is interrupted abruptly between 0:52 and 1:49, and laid in this place is Harrison's guitar solo overdubbed on the same day. This solo (B+7-16, 1:08-1:24) marks an important event in the Beatles' history - it was recorded backward, as well as being treated with a fuzz box and run through the Leslie cabinet. What was recorded as a typical blues solo in C pentatonic minor takes on a vaguely Eastern sound, due to the "other-worldly" articulation and complex rhythms, when reversed. Only part of this original guitar recording survives in the finished mix, as the solo is surrounded by forty seconds of blank tape on its own track.
Lennon added his lead vocal on a third track, heard center, the same day. The first verses were recorded straight, but the vocal following the solo (beginning at 1:26) is also run through the Leslie speaker. Martin recalled, "He wanted to sound like a Dalai Lama singing on a hilltop. . . . So I put his voice through a loudspeaker and rotated it. It actually did come out as that strangled sort of cry from the hillside."
McCartney applied his magic on the fourth track, added in a five-hour session on April 7. This track is wild, panning between left and center (and occasionally right), yet another Beatles innovation.

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