"Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll"

The Beatles made their fair share of memorable albums over the years. But the local author of a new book makes the case that "Revolver" -- released in 1966 -- was the real game-changer for the band, and for popular music. Robert Rodriguez joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss his book, Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll. Read an excerpt below.

Once the hoopla died down and the Summer of Love passed into history, the substance of Sgt. Pepper became clearer to objective observers. What they found was a collection of songs that, at their best, summed up the spirit of ’67 better than any equally accessible work this side of Donovan: the generation gap (“She’s Leaving Home”); self-improvement (“Getting Better”); life in suburbia (“Good Morning Good Morning”); aging (“When I’m Sixty Four”); psychedelia (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”); fighting ennui (“Fixing a Hole”); the sexual revolution (“Lovely Rita”); spectacle (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”); and spirituality (“Within You Without You”). Implicit without being too overt was the unifying undercurrent of the drug culture, some- thing that would’ve resonated with many listeners in 1967. (That legions of fans enhanced their Pepper experience through illicit means is the very definition of “a safe bet.”) 

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The flip side of such a concerted effort to capture the moment was an inextricable linkage to its time. The very sounds that the Beatles pursued with such vigor in order to stay ahead of their contemporaries have, perversely, boomeranged against them, aging the album in a way that Rubber Soul and Revolver have withstood. The latter album was created with a spirit of exploration that betrayed no hint of self-consciousness. Not so Sgt. Pepper: it was, as critic Greil Marcus noted, “. . . that point at which the Beatles began to be formed more by the times than the other way around.”

Closing the album, “A Day in the Life” was the one track that, by common agreement, lived up to the hype. While Sgt. Pepper’s other cuts made dazzling first impressions, the album’s finale was a stunner, striking the ideal balance between songcraft and studio craft. (John frequently took the lead role for the final track on the group’s albums. Sgt. Pepper marked the last time he did so, but at least he abdicated the position on a high note.) Less beholden to then-state-of-the-art studio effects or any contextual reference points other than material on the same album, it still packs a wallop today.

Mostly, though, the album’s reliance on extravagant arrangements and electronic sleight-of-hand came at the cost of immediacy. While technological innovation itself is not an unworthy goal—Revolver was steeped in it—its effect of camouflaging the underlying lack of artistic advance, songwriting-wise, made it merely a deception, as Richard Goldstein had noted. It’s no coincidence that every important player in rock moved away from Sgt. Pepper’s direction after 1967; only the wannabes embraced it directly, to varying degrees of failure.

Such ostentatious ornamentation distanced the group from their audience. The most communally engaging song on Sgt. Pepper was “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which—no coincidence—was probably the most straightforward arrangement on the entire album. That Ringo—the group’s decent Everyman—delivered it was a masterstroke. But the song is an exception within a body of work dressed up with cellos, vari-speed, flanging, orchestration, Indian instrumentation, tape manipulation, brass flourishes, Leslie speaker–amplified guitar, harps, animal effects, and a dog whistle. All but the last three touches were present on Revolver, but utilized in ways that seemed to enhance the songs, not disguise them. The latter album rocked as a matter of course; too much of Sgt. Pepper seems aimed squarely at the intellect: the antithesis of how the genre started in the first place.

While unmatched as a technical achievement, and stellar with regard to presentation, Sgt. Pepper comes off as the end result of too much calculation. It was hailed in its day as the wave of the future; but instead, it proved to be the exact opposite: a last triumphant burst of sunny escapist optimism before things got very dark. The Beatles had always been quite sensitive to prevailing cultural currents, anticipating what lay beyond the horizon and taking what they could use, repurposing the aspects that suited their creative goals. It’s what they had always done, and was a key ingredient to their success. They rarely took credit as originators of trends, but would cop to being up in the crow’s nest, perhaps sighting what lay ahead just before the rest of the passengers traveling on the same ship did. In the instance of Sgt. Pepper, what looked like the shape of things to come was a mirage. Once the tide receded, Sgt. Pepper’s band became marooned out of time. 

Robert Rodriguez

Pop-culture historians tell us that the prevailing gestalt that summer was of “we are one” solidarity between performers and listeners—a flower-power ethos that echoed the folk movement earlier in the decade (as well as forecast the punk movement that would follow). In a visit to Haight-Ashbury that summer, George and Pattie walked among the people—and were repulsed by what they saw. Sgt. Pepper signaled the group’s intent to hide themselves away—first behind a contrived identity, and thereafter from any meaningful interaction with the public whatsoever, at least as “Beatles.” It wasn’t entirely their fault, as withdrawing seemed the only reasonable course to pursue in light of the assault that their fame had brought down upon them, literally as well as metaphorically.

But distance and withdrawal had eroded their cultural relevancy. By the time the echoes from the final chord of “A Day in the Life” had faded, the Beatles’ days as spokesmen of their generation were numbered—just as members of the Establishment media were getting around to anointing them. Though their popularity as entertainers was as broad as ever when they finally called it a day as a collective recording act in 1970, other artists had long since moved on from looking to the Beatles for establishing rock’s future path, instead taking their cues from Bob Dylan’s admonition: “Don’t follow leaders.”

Some of their waning influence can be laid at the door of pushback against Sgt. Pepper’s excesses and aesthetic dead end; but in a real sense, the group’s creativity had reached its outer limit. Henceforth, while still producing fine music, the Beatles’ capacity for innovation had become largely a thing of the past, as each new record represented a refinement of something they’d already done. As craftsmen, they were untouchable, but without a sense of purpose to unite them as artists, little reason to continue as a band remained. As John told Kim Fowley in 1969, “We stopped being a group when we stopped trying to improve on the records that we liked.”

Viewed in this light, Sgt. Pepper was the afternoon following Revolver’s twelve o’clock high, with each subsequent release bringing them closer to the sunset. As David Quantick said in Q magazine in 2000, “There’s a case to be made that the Beatles went on to do Sgt. Pepper’s because there was nowhere else to go but too far. With Revolver, they had mapped out the pop universe so perfectly that all they could do next was tear it up and start again.”

By appearances, one could conclude that the group went beyond what was necessary in their approach to Sgt. Pepper because they felt that the richness of Revolver had been overlooked upon its release, overshadowed by controversies having nothing to do with music. Their first post-touring long-player would be impossible to ignore. Not mincing words, Paul said of their ambitious undertaking, “To me, there was an absolute inevitability to something like Pepper. . . . When it finally happened, it was apocalyptic.” It’s a curious choice of words about a work that, “A Day in the Life” notwithstanding, is commonly viewed as positive overall. Independent of one’s feelings about Pepper, Paul’s line of thought—that the album represented a turning point in rock—is hard to contest. Whether this was for good or ill in the long run is another matter entirely.

Excerpted from Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll by Robert Rodriguez (Backbeat Books). Reprinted with permission of publisher. 

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