Tape decks, drugs and Abbey Road: how The Beatles’ Revolver revolutionised rock
Revolver is a feat of The Beatles' sonic experimentation and songwriting genius – we bring you the story behind how the album was made
During December 1965 and the first two months of ’66, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album spent eight weeks at No.1 in the UK and six weeks at No.1 in the US, and was still in the US Top 20 when the group returned to Abbey Road studios in April ’66 to begin recording material for their next new album. The ‘all killer no filler’ excellence of Rubber Soul had set a new benchmark for the world’s top rock artists to equal, and was even talked about as having shifted the focus of rock music from singles to albums.
As others strove to equal it, The Beatles set about the task of making something even better.
“At this point in their career there was very little external pressure on them,” Apple Records director Tony Bramwell remembers. “EMI had all but given up trying to make them do things, and [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein never interfered in that way.”
Being a close associate of the band since his days of being their roadie in Liverpool, Bramwell noticed a different kind of pressure on them. “They were no longer the four-headed mop-top monster they’d been at the start,” he recalls. “They were developing their own lives away from the band, with John and George leading their suburban existences, George becoming interested in Indian music and Paul being thoroughly metropolitan, checking out the galleries and exhibitions, going to clubs and so on.”
McCartney was also the driving force of the band, Bramwell confirms, and was the one who took the initiative to get them back into the studio to record the follow-up to Rubber Soul. Fortunately they were still prolific songwriters so there was no shortage of material.
Another flirtation with the classical world came about during the recording of For No One, which began on May 9. It had started life back in March as Why Did It Die, a McCartney song composed in a Swiss Alps ski resort chalet after an argument with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Neither Lennon nor Harrison took part in the recording, on which McCartney played piano, clavichord and bass, with Ringo on drums and tambourine.
“Occasionally we’d have an idea for some new kind of instrumentation, particularly for solos,” McCartney has said. “I was interested in the French horn because it was an instrument I’d always loved from when I was a kid. It’s a beautiful sound. So I went to George Martin and said: ‘How can we go about this?’ And he said: ‘Well, let me get the very finest.’”
For a fee of £50, Martin got Alan Civil, principal horn player for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who remembers: “I thought the song was called For Number One, because I saw ‘For No One’ written down. Anyway, they played the existing tape to me, which was complete, and I thought it had been recorded in rather bad musical style, in that it was ‘in the cracks’, neither B-flat nor B-major. This posed a certain difficulty in tuning my instrument.”
Civil’s horn part was constructed by McCartney singing the melody he wanted to George Martin, who then transcribed it for Civil to sight-read. But they slyly slipped in a top F, one note higher than the instrument’s usual range. “Alan looked up from his bit of paper: ‘Er, George? I think there’s a mistake here – you’ve got a high F written down,’” McCartney remembers. “Then George and I said: ‘Yeah,’ and smiled back at him. And he knew what we were up to, and played it. These great players will do it.”
With its plangent, descending bassline, For No One’s understated mood of weary resignation provides a stunning contrast to the vibrantly experimental tracks that surround it.
On May 20 the band briefly left the confines of Abbey Road to film promos for Paperback Writer and Rain in the grounds of Chiswick House in West London. They returned to the studio on the 26th to continue the tradition of including one song sung by Ringo on every Beatles album. McCartney recalls the origins of Yellow Submarine thus: “I was laying in bed in the Ashers’ garret… I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, so I wrote it as not too rangey in the vocal, then started making a story, sort of an ancient mariner telling the young kids where he’d lived.”
During the same Donovan encounter when McCartney had sung him Ola Na Tunjee, he also sang him, Donovan says, “another song that was missing a verse. It was a very small part, and I just went into the other room and put together ‘sky of blue, sea of green’. They had always asked other people for help with a line or two, so I helped with that line.”
Several people contributed words here and there for the lyrics to Yellow Submarine. A second recording session on June 1 turned into a mini-party with guests including Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd and a gaggle of Abbey Road staffers, all of them handed noise-making devices, ranging from chains to old bathtubs, dredged from the trap room, an under-stairs cupboard described by George Martin as “full of general sorts of percussion instruments”. Yellow Submarine even used an ancient cash register, which was used again in 1973 by Pink Floyd for Money.
Inevitably, down the years, critics and pundits have allocated symbolic significance to the song’s lyrics, sometimes drug-related, sometimes socio-political, but McCartney has always remained adamant that “it’s a happy place, that’s all. You know, it was just… We were trying to write a children’s song. That was the basic idea. And there’s nothing more to be read into it than there is in the lyrics of any children’s song.”