Takes from the Top: The Beatles’ Revolver and Abbey Road
Revolver, issued in mid-1966, and Abbey Road, released three years later, trace the creative metamorphosis of the Beatles from the pre-self-consciousness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the group’s eventual unraveling as the decade came to a close. Together, they help define the Beatles’ residency at EMI’s 3 Abbey Road recording studios.
By Dave Simons
Without a doubt, the most compelling statistic in Fab Four folklore is the sheer speed with which John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr arrived, conquered, compiled and then fled, shedding their stylistic skin with each and every album, often many times in a single year.
How fast were they? By comparison, three years in the life of a modern pop artist means nothing; in Beatle years, it meant the difference between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Strawberry Fields,” “From Me to You” and “Paperback Writer,” “She Loves You” and “She Said, She Said.”
The period that followed the group’s 1962 debut hit “Love Me Do” was marked by enormous advances in the world of recording. The Beatles both benefited from and helped inspire many of those changes, and in the process created a collection of works that remains among the finest in the annals of pop music.
Two of those efforts - Revolver, issued at the halfway mark of the band’s career; and Abbey Road, the group’s swan song - trace the Fabs’ creative metamorphosis from the pre-self-consciousness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to their eventual unraveling in late 1969. Only 36 months separate the two albums; together, they help define the Beatles’ residency at 3 Abbey Road.
Release date: August 5, 1966
On April 6, 1966, the Beatles arrived at EMI’s 3 Abbey Road recording studios to begin work on their forthcoming LP. Only a few months had passed since the release of the groundbreaking effort Rubber Soul, but world-wide acclaim, a few hallucinogenic substances and a crew of cutting-edge engineers would combine to make Revolver a full step ahead of its predecessor.
Most of the songs that make up Revolver - one of the finest rock records ever made - required little embellishment; tunes like “Taxman,” “She Said, She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” were built from simple rhythm tracks with only a few added overdubs. But where earlier works like With the Beatles demonstrated the group’s skill as rapid-fire live performers, Revolver showed what they were capable of when given time to experiment and create whole songs from scratch. It took only a few hours to turn John Lennon’s one-chord, eight-bar melody fragment initially titled “Mark I” into the stunning album-closing track “Tomorrow Never Knows,” its pulsating lead vocal (achieved by patching Lennon’s voice through the circuitry of a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet), high-pitched tape loops and heavily compressed drums becoming the blueprint for the entirety of the Revolver sessions.
Incredibly, the quantum leap in sound and substance on Revolver was accomplished using basically the same equipment as 1963’s With the Beatles (the majority of the group’s music was recorded on a four-track tape machine). But what EMI engineers lacked in gadgetry, they more than made up for in ingenuity. Leading the charge was 20-year-old Geoff Emerick, recruited to take the place of departing Abbey Road engineer Norman Smith. Like fellow EMI engineer Ken Townsend, Emerick was eager to bend the rules in order to accommodate the Beatles’ new musical direction.
His impact was immediate: While early albums like With the Beatles captured the tremendous expanse of EMI’s Studio Two, the prevailing sound of Revolver (recorded mainly in Studio Three), as well as the “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” single that preceded it, is one of close-miked drums and horns, ultra-dry vocals and distorted guitars mixed loud and to the fore. The extra time taken to complete the album (a whopping two-and-half months!) only fueled the atmosphere of trial-and-error; by the time the sessions concluded in late July, Townsend and Emerick had devised an entire arsenal of recording tricks and techniques, from the trippy backwards guitar of “I’m Only Sleeping” to the up-front bass that powers Harrison’s hard-rocking opener “Taxman.”
Release date: September 26, 1969
Coming on the heels of the raw-but-revelatory double-disc The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”) and the dysfunctional Let It Be sessions that followed, Abbey Road - the group’s final set of recordings and only the second full studio album to utilize eight tracks - was unlike any work previously attempted by the Fabs, an entire collection of songs built around an intricate framework of guitar colorations and carefully layered vocal overdubs.
Despite their striking dissimilarities, the sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road very nearly overlapped, with the group setting down a rhythm track for John Lennon’s “She’s So Heavy” in nearby Trident Studios only a few weeks after the legendary January 30 rooftop concert. By then the Beatles were a group teetering on the brink of collapse; that they summoned the initiative to return to 3 Abbey Road that summer surprised producer George Martin, who thought he’d seen the last of them.
Utilizing both Studio Two and Three, the group gradually put together its most polished and detail-oriented work over eight consecutive weeks in July and August. As always, there were new sounds: For Ringo, it was the now-familiar deadened tom-tom tones (the result of a new set of calf-heads acquired just prior to the AR sessions) that gave “Come Together” its distinctive thud. Meanwhile Harrison, an early proponent of electronic music, turned his bandmates onto the sounds of the original Moog synthesizer (a prominent component of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).
Though it wasn’t Lennon’s cuppa tea (“we put out something slick to preserve the myth,” the boisterous Beatle would later claim), Abbey Road’s ornate Side Two neatly predicted the gussied-up production value that would come to define ‘70s guitar rock. It mattered little that the outgoing Fabs could only muster a handful of completed songs; to this day, the side-long medley that is the album’s crowning achievement sounds like a carefully constructed set of overtures, rather than what it really was: a hodgepodge of discarded Lennon-McCartney bits and pieces.
On August 20 - nearly seven years to the day that “Love Me Do” was recorded - the Beatles convened inside Studio Two’s control room to preview a final mix of “She’s So Heavy,” then went their separate ways. “It felt comfortable being back there with George Martin,” Ringo remembered years later. “We knew the place; we felt at home. It was like, ‘Here we are again, lads.’”
Posted Jul 31, 2009
Great article. Always fun for me to learn something new about old favorites, makes listening fresh again.
I did get stuck on your description of Sgt Pepper’s “pre-self-consciousness”. In some ways it seems like the most “self-conscious”, with Paul’s concept of an band within a band, partly in place… Would love to understand what you are getting at there a little better.
The evolution of the UK’s phenomenal “Sixties Icon Band” - the BEATLES from garage and bar band to pop rock as art in a scant few years is a testament to all four of the “lads for Liverpool” and their desire to continually raise the bar on the craft of songwriting, musicianship and recording techniques.
They are still the standard by which all other bands are measured in terms of these standards.
What I meant to say was “the period leading up to the self-consciousness of Pepper….” or something like that. Glad you liked the rest of the piece, thanks.
Its sometimes hard for us kids of the 1960’s to realize there’s a generation or two out there that have no clue how influential the “Fab Four” were during their heyday and the truly revolutionary writing, performing and recording art forms they started.
Nashville, in particular is still in love with that trebly, twangy sound and you can hear it in everything from Dwight Yoakum to Rascal Flatts.
The Beatles will always be the Cadillacs of the music world…and everyone…in some way…is influenced by their works.
I just dug “Revolver” out of the archives and played it while on the road. What a great example of how a simple production can be built around simple melodies and strong lyrics. The lyrics are easy to understand, well-enunciated, clear in meaning, easy to ‘get’ the first time you hear them. The beats are engaging. The instrumental work doesn’t overplay, but supports the melody and vocal delivery with delightful simplicity, yet rich sounds. Percussion is unique, Ringo Starr better with the Beatles than in his later solo releases. Cadillac? Maybe Mercedes or Rolls Royce, but, then, I grew up with these guys dropping new works into the mix on a regular basis, enriching the whole musical mix substantially. In fact, as soon as we heard their latest we marveled at its originality and speculated on the mystery of what they might do next! Their song structures, arrangement (accompanying instrumentation) and lyrical logic and coherent communication are worthy of study by aspiring songwriters.
Thanks Gary…I grew up a teen during the 60 and the Fabs continue to be my Heros…Ringo my mentor…no more to say except they will always be the greatest Band in Pop Music.
Gary , re your quote , Never simple melodies, Clever melodies incorporating many subtle modulations, and substitution by function, also they were experts at finding the correct meter for each song, most learning lyric writers do not even understand meter, these guys had no books on song writing,
when they started writing they travelled across town to find a guy who could show them a B7 chord (The ist inversion).
They had a natural ability and both complemented each other, on their first albums there was no over dubbing no auto tune.
From here it all goes down hill. (music wise)
Just got back from LZ Lambeau in Green Bay. The state of Wisconsin’s salute to us VN veterans. In between bands on the main stage, the PA was blaring the classics
from the mid to late 1960’s and when a BEATLES song started, a lot of that crowd stopped walking for a second, started bobbing their heads and singing along.
It didn’t matter what part of the country you were from, what style of music they liked or your ethnic background - The Fab Four was universally loved and respected for their contributions to the soundtrack of our lives. Even little kids would start skipping and dancing to their music.
Try that with the new breed of acts today ! They don’t call it “TIMELESS” for nothing.
“When I find myself in time of troubles Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom let it be”
I remember all this lyrics from first to final word more than 40 years.
What is this song about? About nothing,
but this is one of the greatest songs of all the times and folks.
Recently I was listening to the Ukrainian radio and it
rolled Let It Be, and when song’s playback finished, dj, young guy said: “Beatles” could create Let It Be only and nothing more, and still it could be enough to become famous forever”
They were, are and will be the best teachers
for generations of songwriters!
Ironically…I performed Let It Be at my Mother’s Funeral last month with my life long friend and Band Co-Founder from 40 years ago. And at my Mother-In-Law’s Funeral 2 weeks later (ugh!) I performed Ringo’s song Photograph at the request of my wife. Having 2 Funerals 16 days apart was a lot…both emotionally and physcially. We are still trying to get back to normal.
I hope to post them on YouTube in the near future.
There is just something about The Beatles sound that is magical; more than the some of the parts. They consistently delivered new and interesting songs, recorded in a way that demanded your attention. I’ve been listening, intensely, to them since I was a teenager, 54 now, and I still hear new things. Maybe it was that hard-panning giving you a different mix depending on your proximity to the left vs. right speaker? One of many theories. They were given a license to kill and they did, with very few exceptions. There is probably a huge percentage of singer-songwriters, that wouldn’t even have started, had it not been for The Beatles!