In a new book, Robert Rodriguez makes the case for ‘Revolver’ as the Beatles’ masterwork

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Author Robert Rodriguez, in a fascinating new book, makes the case for Revolver — not its successor, the lavishly praised Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — as the Beatles’ game-changing signature work.

Recorded over an astonishing 300 hours (taking far longer, it’s said, than any rock record before it), the Beatles’ seventh long-player shot to No. 1 on both the American and British charts in 1966, staying there for six and seven weeks respectively. Revolver would eventually earn the No. 3 spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest album of all time on the strength of a pair of chart-topping singles in “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine,” as well as memorable album cuts like “Good Day Sunshine,” “Taxman” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Often overlooked in the shadow of Sgt. Pepper, its gutsy predecessor laid the framework for everything that followed, Rodriguez says in Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ’n’ Roll (2012, Backbeat Books). Heralding the quartet’s move from touring band to studio-based ensemble, Revolver would have a profound influence on everything from the psychedelic sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to the first waves of post-blues hard rockers in Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. No one, however, was more deeply impacted, as Rodriguez writes in the following passage, than Brian Wilson — and the direction for the Beach Boys would be forever altered.

This is an excerpt from ‘Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll’ by Robert Rodriguez, published by Backbeat Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher …

With so many peers in rock reaching the height of their creativity in 1966, it was impossible for all of them to not listen closely to what everyone else was doing. (Ray Davies grandly suggested that the Beatles were waiting for the next Kinks album to arrive; perhaps to provide an early clue to the new direction.) No one was listening more closely to the Beatles’ latest than Brian Wilson. He felt that with Revolver, Pet Sounds had been effectively one-upped, taxing his creativity to the limit. (It had not been a robust seller in the U.S., peaking at number ten and then only briefly, prompting Capitol to issue a Best of the Beach Boys compilation two months later, as if to erase the taint of such an unrepresentative work.)

Pet Sounds did much better across the Atlantic, peaking at number two and garnering rapturous reviews from people not steeped in surfing and hot-rod culture. Indeed, for the only time during their recording career, the Beatles were bumped from the top position in the year’s end NME poll, second to the Beach Boys as Top Pop Group for 1966. Also for the first time, NME announced a tie for Album of the Year between — naturally — Pet Sounds and Revolver. Luckily, Wilson had a potent arrow in his quiver, one originally intended for inclusion on Pet Sounds. “Good Vibrations” was judged not to fit the album’s overall arc and was held back. The product of seventeen sessions, four studios, and a reported $50,000, it was released as a single two months after Revolver.

The ambitious 3:35 recording, featuring stacked vocals, cellos, and, most distinctively, the Electro-Theremin — an eerie-sounding electronic instrument heretofore heard mostly in science-fiction TV shows such as My Favorite Martian — quickly shot up the charts, reaching number one in the U.S. in December for one week only (briefly displacing the idiotic “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band for the top slot during its two-week run) as well as the U.K., where it reigned for two weeks.

Revolver’s blend of musical variety and stunningly effective use of studio wizardry impelled Brian to go all out. The Beach Boys’ new project, dubbed Dumb Angel, would be “a teenage symphony to God,” Wilson told the press, therein putting his finger on the direction toward which he believed pop music was headed: a divine one. Though spiritual themes did indeed surface in rock albums recorded during the years that followed (notably the Who’s Tommy, but also Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, among others), it was a trend that went wholly ignored by the Beatles, save George, who conspicuously devoted nearly the whole of his post-Beatles career to this particular path.

To fulfill his stratospheric ambitions, Wilson enlisted a new songwriting partner, the singular Van Dyke Parks. Though Tony Asher, Pet Sounds’ lyricist, was none too pleased to see his tenure come to an end, Brian was certain that Parks possessed the “intellectual passion and esoteric way with words (that) seemed to mesh with the way I was feeling.” Parks had recently worked with the Byrds on Fifth Dimension — though as an organist, not a songwriter. (He’d also been a child actor, though reports that he played Tommy Manicotti on “lost episodes” of The Honeymooners are false.) Given the difficulty Wilson had in getting his bandmates behind him on Pet Sounds, he was courting disaster by partnering with a man that Mike Love had dismissed as a purveyor of “acid alliteration.”

With the goal of simultaneously besting Revolver and getting down on tape the sounds he was hearing in his head, Wilson set out to give listeners a true “concept album” with SMiLE (as the project was re-titled), featuring thematically linked songs and a mini-suite based on the four elements. Beginning with “Heroes and Villains,” one of only a handful of viable recordings to emerge from the sessions, SMiLE was crafted as a sort of Americana tale, designed as a response to the inescapable influence of British artists that the Beatles, of course, had spearheaded.

The work began in August 1966 — just after Revolver emerged, but only three months before the Sgt. Pepper sessions commenced with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Wilson’s methods differed considerably from the Beatles’: he used platoons of studio pros (the other Beach Boys weren’t considered essential to the work bearing their name, beyond the vocals), several recording facilities, and by this time was recording components of songs rather than complete takes; these were intended to be spliced together later. Also, he produced himself, and didn’t have (or need) the benefit of George Martin’s knowhow to make things happen.

But putting so much pressure on himself was, again, inviting trouble. The album was scheduled to be completed and issued by January 1967. But by then, violent arguments had erupted between Wilson and his band, notably Mike Love, who again took issue with what he saw as general self-indulgence; Parks’s impenetrable lyrics (which were beyond his comprehension as well as — he felt — their fans’); and Brian’s ongoing shift away from the formula that had brought them this far. Added to this was Brian’s copious drug use, especially of LSD; his latent paranoia; and his own personal demons and delicate psyche. The stage was thus set for a spectacular collapse.

It has been said that Brian was in his car with the radio on when he first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.” He pulled over to listen to the entire recording, and when it was over, he wept, saying, “They got there first.” This must have been in February; and when the now past-due project suffered the defection of Van Dyke Parks the following month, SMiLE — the masterpiece that never was, intended to show the world as well as the Beatles who rock’s biggest genius was — became irretrievably derailed. Capitol announced its shelving in May, just before Sgt. Pepper was released.

Among the giants of rock in early 1967, Brian Wilson had self-destructed; Bob Dylan was recuperating from his motorcycle accident, and the Rolling Stones were still playing catch-up before a series of drug busts sidelined them for most of the year. The Beatles’ path to artistic supremacy — with their first post-touring album — could not have been clearer.

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  • Van Dyke Parks

    Robert Rodriguez reiterates much factual detail correctly. Yet, he assumes much about which he wasn’t directly witness to.
    An adequate fact checker at Backbeat Books would find that I was on the Honeymooners.
    I have video proof here at home, and a corroborative witness is none other than Ringo Starr, who called me once at 3 a.m. while watching such a Honeymooners episode, in a state of complete astonishment.

    Robert Rodriguez: vital info like this is just a Google away—get a grip—or an I Mac.

    peace & love
    Van Dyke Parks

    • Robert Rodriguez

      Hi Mr. Parks,

      Please forgive the slight. You’re right – I could’ve reached out, but only mentioned it in passing as a detail of little real consequence.

      So long as I have your attention, you may want to update your IMDB credits to set the record straight for all who follow.

      peace & love,

      RR

  • Charlie

    I’m glad to see you guys have as big an audience as you do and & especially someone with the reputation of Mr. Parks. WOW! I’m jealous. I wish my blog had that kind of readership. While we have his attention could you ask him to explain the lyrics to Smile?

  • Robert Rodriguez

    Charlie: Maybe you just did!

  • Nick DeRiso

    Rolling Stone readers, by the way, agree on the idea of Revolver > Sgt. Pepper’s …:

    “They have a very strong case. Building on the artistic leap displayed on Rubber Soul, Revolver features early experiments in psychedelic music (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and more complex and mature material than the band had previously attempted (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere.”) All of this set the stage for Sgt. Pepper, but many Beatles nuts feel that song-for-song, Revolver has the edge.”

    http://www.rollingstone.com/music/photos/rolling-stone-readers-pick-the-top-10-beatles-albums-20110223

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