One of the great things about Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, Robert Rodriguez’s examination of the band’s groundbreaking 1966 album, is that it will likely inspire readers to immediately reach for the record and give it yet another listen. Much like the late Ian MacDonald’s indispensable song-by-song analysis of the Beatles catalogue, Revolution in the Head, Rodriguez’s new book (his fourth about the band) is written in a clear-eyed, unsentimental tone. He takes his subject seriously, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to make the case for Revolver as the band’s definitive masterpiece, while placing the work within the context of its era.
The book is well organized, beginning by recapping the significant events that preceded the Revolver sessions. Rodriguez helps set the scene by looking at the other leading artists of the day, including The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and others. Unlike nostalgia-based Beatles books, the author doesn’t ever resort to a “The Beatles did it all and they did it the best” stance. His discussion of other mid-‘60s albums puts the Beatles firmly in the center of a highly competitive scene, where new ground was being broken in popular music at an astonishing rate.
Even those relatively well-versed in Beatles lore might be surprised by some of morsels of information Rodriguez includes about the run up to Revolver’s creation. I didn’t realize that the group began 1966 with the menial task of recording overdubs for their filmed Shea Stadium concert of the previous year. Those sessions are detailed early in the book. Originally the band had plans to record the album at Stax Records’ recording studios in Memphis, even having gone so far as to book the studio time. This tantalizing prospect never materialized (legendary Stax guitarist and songwriter Steve “The Colonel” Cropper remembers wistfully, “Taxman could’ve been Staxman”) because the plans leaked to the public and fans besieged the studios. These are just a couple of key examples of the level of detail found in Rodriguez’s work.
The middle section of the book looks closely at the music itself, describing the recording of each song. Geoff Emerick’s breakthrough recording techniques are given their due, such as the development ADT (artificial double tracking) and the close-miking of various instruments that could’ve literally cost the engineer his job. Fascinating minutiae, such as whether or not McCartney played bass on “She Said She Said” or which Harrison songs were originally named after types of apples, peppers the account of the recording sessions. Rodriguez is conscientious about referencing the differences between the stereo and mono mixes. Ignoring the mono mixes was quite common in Beatles books written during the decades in which those mixes were unavailable on CD. You’ll almost certainly want to have the album handy while reading this well-researched portion.
The last section deals with the critical and commercial reception of Revolver upon its release. Rodriguez makes the strong case that a general lack of hype surrounding the album, as well as U.S.-based problems such as Capitol Record’s gutting of the album (shaving off three Lennon numbers) and the “Bigger than Jesus” furor that swept the nation, resulted in a cooler reception. Sgt. Pepper, as the author explained, was a significantly greater cultural event, with anticipation running extremely high following the innovations of Revolver. It’s well known that fans and critics alike have moved increasingly in the direction of Revolver being superior to Sgt. Pepper, but nowhere have I seen a more ambitious and comprehensive thesis than in Rodriguez’s book.
Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll covers all the bases (and then some) surrounding what is arguably the band’s most revolutionary work. Rodriguez certainly believes it to be. Just when you may have thought the world didn’t need another Beatles book, he has delivered a focused, compelling, and impeccably researched volume that emphasizes the artistry in their 1966 classic.