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.