“Revolver”: Great Art Endures 50 Years Later

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I cannot let Friday end without commenting on Revolver, which was released 50 years ago today.

I didn’t get into the album until after I’d freed myself from the Beatles’ mythology, broadened my own musical tastes, and learned to appreciate the album for its musical merits alone. In context of the Beatle’s maturation as musicians, Revolver endures as a masterpiece – the moment when their personal visions, increasingly sophisticated song writing, and spirit of adventure in the studio coalesced to create an artistic statement that surpassed every other album they would create, including Sgt. Pepper’s. The album also stands as a testament to the production genius of George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, whose book, Here, There, and Everywhere, is highly recommended for an inside look at how the band created its best moments in the studio.

Sgt. Peppers was the album that transformed rock from a musical genre to a cultural phenomenon. But it’s far from my favorite album. The production and very idea behind the Sgt. Peppers make it stand head and shoulders above most anything anyone had created at that time. But the songs are not all uniformly great like they are on Revolver, and Revolver has just as many moments of musical genius. There is the biting satire of George Harrison’s “Taxman” alongside Harrison’s spiritual meditation in “Love You To”; the dark loneliness of Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” followed by John Lennon’s hazy, trippy “I’m Only Sleeping”; the romantic heartache in Macca’s “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and Lennon’s psychedelic tour de force, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in which he famously instructed the other Beatles that he wanted his voice to sound like “the Dali Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”

Sgt. Peppers is like Moby-Dick – influential literature you’re supposed to read. Revolver is great music that stands the test of time. But I didn’t know that when I was growing up and discovering music in context of the Beatles’ legacy. When I was a senior in high school, John Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. Like many of my contemporaries, I learned about Lennon’s death while watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell, the controversial broadcaster, announced the news in his unmistakably nasal and self-important sounding voice.

The adjective “shocking” gets overused when describing dramatic word events, but Lennon’s death truly was shocking. The idea that some crazed person could just gun down a living legend shattered our illusions that godlike rock stars lived a cloistered existence – vulnerable to their own excesses, to be sure, but not to the same kind of maladies that befall everyday mortals. Lennon’s death would lionize him, to Paul McCartney’s chagrin. The loss of John Lennon also made it impossible for me to view him as an artist properly. Instead, he was a saint. You dont think of saints as songwriters.

It took the passage of time for me to explore enough music on my own and to gain the perspective I needed to critically analyze his vast contributions to the Beatles, which is to say, popular music. And Revolver is his personal triumph. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “She Said She Said” are the acidic complement to Paul’s sweetness, the powerful voice that gave Revolver an unmistakable edge. He would never again command an album with the Beatles as he did on Revolver. The Beatles became Paul’s band afterward.

Each time I listen to Revolver, I take comfort that I can continue to discover art with the wonder that I felt when I was a child. Listening to the album is like revisiting Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago. I appreciate something different each time – a little nuance, like the striking jangle in the multi-tracked guitars on “And Your Bird Can Sing” or the unfettered joy on Macca’s voice when he utters the word “Good” in “Good Day Sunshine.”

Revolver takes me on a journey with each listening. The twists, turns, and destination never feel the same.

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