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Book Review: Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll by Robert Rodriguez

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The thesis of Robert Rodriguez’s book-length analysis Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll is that the Beatles Revolver was a superior album to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He feels that, stripped of the hype and with a better understanding of historical contexts, the collected songs on Revolver were more innovative, more provocative, and less dependent on the technological wizardry he feels masked the creative thinness on Pepper. This is a valid if hardly new perspective, with much of the argument buried in extraneous cultural history.

For one matter, perhaps 2/3 of this book presents Rodriguez’s evidence for his claims. But a good chunk seems a bit of padding. It’s understandable that Rodriguez would want to frame Revolver in a timeline comparing the album to what came before and after it. But long discussions of the songwriting growth of Jagger and Richards and the history of The Byrds go well beyond establishing the interplay between the then contemporary groups and how they helped influence Revolver.

True, older readers will find much of this material well-trodden ground, but those who didn’t grow up during the ‘60s may well need to hear the old stories anew to realize just how fertile the musical opportunities were during the era. But all the recapping of how Andrew Loog Oldham forced Mick and Keith to start writing songs and how they followed in the Beatles wake doesn’t have much apparent connection to help establish why Revolver was such a groundbreaking release.

Certainly, a reader should expect detailed looks into the creation of Revolver, critical responses to it, and opinionated explications of what each of the songs respective merits were. Better, Rodriguez convincingly shows that Revolver didn’t get its due because it came out during a turbulent year for the Fabs. In particular, their 1966 American tour was marred by Bible Belt reactions to John Lennon’s comments on Christianity, which impacted album sales and dominated interviews throughout the U.S. In addition, Revolver was the last of the “butchered” albums which came out in the states with several of its most significant tracks previously placed in the American Yesterday… and Today collection.

According to Rodriguez, by comparison, Pepper came out after a long lapse between Beatle albums which lead to listeners hungry for a new, much ballyhooed LP. The “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” single had prepared the world for what to expect. And the packaging, in Rodriguez’s view, made the disc inside seem much more than the sum of its parts. In his view, beyond “A Day in the Life,” not much else was all that wonderful. So Rodriguez spends considerable time explicating Pepper in order to highlight what were, for him, its shortcomings.

Interestingly, Rodriguez notes that no one really attempted to duplicate Pepper sonically after its release beyond the obvious take-off from The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request. He observes that The Beatles themselves quickly tired of overdone studio trickery. By inference, it seems one measure of the superiority of Revolver would have been its influence on other musicians. However, the example Rodriguez provides was how Brian Wilson looked to The Beatles’ previous album, Rubber Soul, as a challenge which resulted in Pet Sounds.

Perhaps other psychedelic offerings from bands like the Small Faces deserved some discussion here. For example, the Yardbirds’ Roger the Engineer was being recorded roughly at the same time as Revolver and was emblematic of the growing “Guitar God” trend. The year after, Pink Floyd came out with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn which also reflected the experimental milieu the Beatles helped make popular. It should also be noted the Beatles didn’t dump “overblown” productions for some time. They released a string of Pepper-esque singles and the material on Magical Mystery Tour which Rodriguez mentions but only glancingly. And, in 1968, McCartney was still interested in mega-productions. Consider that year’s “Those Were the Days” which McCartney supervised for Mary Hopkin.

One matter Rodriguez is most successful at is showing how the lyrical content on Revolver is far superior to that on Pepper. In addition, McCartney’s contributions seem obviously more musically diverse on the 1966 album than its follow-up. In particular are the songs “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “For No One,” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” (It’s not mentioned this Motown-inspired pot song was released as a single in 1976). Rodriguez notes that Lennon’s place on the record was watered down on the American version as his songs “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert” were released on earlier collections. This resulted in only two of Lennon’s numbers on the U.S. version, “She Said She Said,” and the grand finale, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Few songs from 1966 could match these efforts for employing new and unusual sounds.

Harrison’s three compositions, “Taxman, “I Want To Tell You,” and “Love You To,” helped elevate his growing reputation as a songwriter. Compare that to his sole composition for Pepper, “Within You Without You,” and Harrison certainly fared better on Revolver. Throw in Ringo’s “Yellow Submarine,” and diversity as well as innovation are of a very high quality indeed on The Beatles first “LSD” album.

Still, the final question must be: If Revolver is under-appreciated, who’s under-appreciating it? To sell the idea that responses to Revolver have been understated and those to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band have been overblown, Rodriguez has understated in Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll just how well Revolver was received then and now. In the fall of 1966, it reached Number 1 in both the states and the U.K. and stayed there for over a month. It was ranked number 1 in the All-Time Top 1000 Albums and number 3 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Topping international polls over the past 10 years, Revolver doesn’t lack for fan or critical praise. At his best, Rodriguez tells us why the collection deserves all these accolades. Beatle fans, of course, will enjoy matching their perspectives with Rodriguez. Many likely already agree with him.

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About Wesley Britton

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Good article. I agree that Revolver is superior (and I agree that this is well-trodden ground), but I believe it was Rubber Soul that was the catalyst for Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds. The chronology of the releases bears this out.

  • RR

    That point is made explicit in the book, regarding RS’s influence on PS and Brian Wilson’s work in turn shaping the trajectory of Revolver. (The book details the listening party at which Lennon and McCartney first heard Pet Sounds, mid-way through the Revolver sessions.)

    The greater point is that crafting Revolver was an enormously gutsy move. The Beatles had little reason to take for granted that their audience would take the same great leap into the unknown that they did in moving from Rubber Soul to Revolver; furthermore, they were – in effect – tipping their hand as to their future direction lie.

    (Who else goes out on the road, new product in hand, and tours with absolutely no acknowledgement that their new release exists?)

    Hardcore music fans instinctively know that Revolver is the superior release between the two: more timeless, stronger material, and – as the book attempts to detail – representative of a far higher level of group collaboration than anything the group would ever produce again.

    (Everyone, that is, except the editors of Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)

    The point of the book isn’t merely that Revolver is the more important work, but that its creation was the band’s artistic high-water mark. With it, the band’s creative center of gravity shifted from Lennon to McCartney dominance.

    Further, knowing what was going on in their world is essential to understanding why their achievement is important. In the age of downloads and highly formatted radio, not everyone is fully aware of the cultural context.

    Presenting a detailed account of how it all fit together is essential to recognizing their accomplishment, and the calculation the group was making between advancing their art and not getting too far ahead of their audience.

  • RR

    Side note: I recognize that critics write to deadline, and to digest 70,000 words while a book is new may be a tall order.

    But nowhere in the book does it say that “Taxman” was removed from the US release.

    The Beatles’ abandoning psychedelia is stated clearly in the book with the release of Magical Mystery Tour at the end of 1967. Regarding Mary Hopkin, Paul was indeed very hands-on, but he can’t claim credit for the “mega-production” of “Those Were The Days,” in the sense that it was arranged by Richard Hewson: the same man responsible for the celestial choirs and orchestration on Phil Spector’s production of “The Long and Winding Road” that would so offend Paul at the time of its release.

    Lastly, the 1976 release of “Got To Get You Into My Life” is not mentioned, simply because it is not relevant in the course of discussing 1966 and Revolver. Ten years on, it was issued to promote the Rock ‘N’ Roll Music compilation, timed for release to coincide with the Wings Over America tour. (It IS covered in my earlier book, Fab Four FAQ 2.0, a detailed history of the (ex)Beatles in the seventies.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/the-other-chad/ The Other Chad

    @RR – corrections to the review have been made.

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    The Beatles, although not uninteresting, are massively over-rated.

    Does anybody even listen to them that much these days? I haven’t heard anything by them this century.

  • Wesley Britton

    Thanks Chad for fixing my “Taxman” howler–I did miss the boat on that one. I can think of other things I wanted to add but tried to keep in a good page count. For example, the fact the Beatles moved on from psychedelic sounds was in line with their development from PPM on–they kept moving on, as did musical tastes in general. So I don’t think leaving the Pepper -era soundscapes behind was all that surprising. And if “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” prepared listeners for Pepper, so too “Paperback Writer”/ “Rain” set the stage for Revolver. This is covered in the book.

    I still think much of the history of the Stones and Byrds seemed a bit far afield for the book’s purpose. But to each, their own.

  • GF

    RRTaxman not released in US ? huh?

  • Wesley Britton

    Where does it say “Taxman” wasn’t released in the U.S.? Don’t understand this comment.

  • RR

    The original published version of this review asserted:

    “Likewise, Harrison’s “Taxman” had been removed from the U.S. release, leaving his other two songs“–I Want To Tell You” and “Love You To” to– help elevate his growing reputation as a songwriter. Compare that to his sole composition for Pepper, “Within You Without You,” and Harrison certainly fared better on Revolver….”

    (I preserved the original before it was changed, in response to my first comment.)

    Look, I can handle a disagreement with the central theme of the book, but if you are going to publicly claim that I said things that are simply not true, you are wasting everyone’s time.

    Show me where it says in the book that Pet Sounds was a response to Revolver? Show me where it ignores the fact that Revolver went to #1 and sold a million copies? The point you seemed to have missed was that 1) I detail that John and Paul heard Pet Sounds upon its release while working on Revolver (p. 77-78) – and that it influenced the remaining work, specifically “Here, There and Everywhere.” It was Smile that was the response to Revolver (p. 185-188) – which the book makes quite clear.

    2) Sales figures were discussed in detail (p. 172-174), with the point being while Revolver went to #1 and went gold, it underperformed compared to both Sgt Pepper (six weeks #1 vs fifteen weeks) and even The Monkees; further, ticket sales at the same time were far below previous years’ and the “Yellow Submarine” single failed to top the US charts.

    As for giving the readers the full context of what was going on alongside the Beatles with their peers – yeah, to each their own. Maybe what you consider to be padding is regarded by other readers as insight into why the Beatles were head-and-shoulders above their closest competitors in 1966; a point that may be difficult for people that weren’t around then to grasp when oldies/classic rock stations are just as likely to play “Brown Sugar” or “Carry On Wayward Son” alongside “Eleanor Rigby.”