Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll (book review)


Revolver – How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll – Robert Rodriguez (Backbeat Books) review

Imagine the boy band One Direction or heartthrob Justin Bieber crafting music as adventurous as Radiohead or Wilco.  Sound preposterous?  That’s the kind of musical leap the Beatles attempted back in 1966 when they recorded their album Revolver. Yet, the record that followed it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, always seems to get the lion’s share of the credit for being innovative.

Fab Four expert Robert Rodriguez’s latest offering, Revolver – How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll, takes an in-depth look at the recording of that album, the circumstances surrounding why it didn’t receive its proper due when it first came out, and the reasons why people are re-evaluating it now.

A turning point in the Beatles’ history was the controversy surrounding John Lennon’s off-handed remark that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus Christ.”  Most baffling of all, Rodriguez found that Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was the one who sent the interview containing that controversial quote over to America, apparently oblivious to the impact it would have.  From that point forward, no one wanted to talk about the band’s new album, which just happened to be Revolver.  Instead, every press conference and column inch was devoted to Lennon’s “scandalous” claim and it’s retraction.

Of course, ignoring the more serious side of the Fab Four was nothing new for the American press.  Rodriguez does an excellent job of showing just how stunted the image of the Beatles was by re-printing articles from several teen magazines of the day.  Despite creating much more adventurous material, all anyone wanted to discuss was “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah,” etc.  In addition, we get a glimpse of the grueling tour schedule the guys had to endure – especially without the aid of modern amplification, which wouldn’t come into existence until years later.  Surprisingly, even though the band had crafted lots of fresh material, they were still playing the same old songs in concert from two years previous.

The bottom line was that the Beatles were no longer the cute and cuddly quartet that was beamed into millions of homes via the Ed Sullivan Show two years earlier.  They were weary of endless touring, where no one really listened to the music.  And, they longed to be taken more seriously like Bob Dylan, who was an enormous influence on their songwriting at the time.

And that’s another interesting point that the author makes – that the Beatles were not living on a desert island.  They were being influenced by their peers, and vise versa.  The mid-Sixties was an incredible time for rock n’ roll – every band seemed to be on a mission to expand what was acceptable in pop music.   What the author does is highlight how the contemporaries of the Beatles, like the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys, all helped influence each other.

An excellent addition to his book is a timeline that’s included near the end.  Things were moving at a furious pace back then.  Want proof?  Consider that Yesterday & Today, the album originally containing the “butcher cover,” was released just six weeks prior to Revolver – absolutely unheard of today.

He also takes the Revolver album through, track by track, examining the writing process for each song (did you know that “Got to Get You Into My Life” was an ode to pot?), and delving into the recording techniques used in the studio (that’s Paul playing the searing guitar solo at the end of George Harrison’s “Taxman”).

And, despite the fact that there are already hundreds of books on the group, Rodriguez still manages to unearth new tidbits of Beatles’ information.  Did you know that Paul McCartney quit the band during the recording of “She Said, She Said”?  He uncovers this little-mentioned story.  How about the fact that manager Epstein was in negotiations for the Beatles to record at the famed Stax Studios in Memphis?  Rodriguez finds the evidence, and explains why the plans unfortunately fell through.

To better understand Revolver, he also digs into it’s followup, Sgt. Pepper, it’s writing and recording, and examines the huge impact that that album received at the time.  He lists several factors that played into Pepper’s enormous reception.

As a new crop of music fans and critics come of age, it’s time to re-assess long-held truths handed down from previous generations (another excellent read is Kill Your Idols by Jim DeRogotis).  Robert Rodriguez makes an excellent argument for Revolver to be at the top of anyone’s favorite Beatles’ list.  After reading his book,  you might still have your favorite album, but at least you’ll have a better appreciation for what surrounded the making of this classic record.  –Tony Peters