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Brand New Beatles & “Revolver” Biography (Interview with Author Robert Rodriguez)
In this month’s Rock Cellar Magazine – affectionately dubbed “The Ringo Issue” – all of Ringo’s All-Starr bandmates talked to us about their favorite Beatles albums, and a rather surprising number of them included 1966’s Revolver. Link HERE
Well coincidentally (or not?), just this month a brand spankin’ new Beatles book hit the shelves and Kindles™ – an in-depth analysis of (you guessed it) that legendary Beatles record. Its title is Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll.
Rock Cellar Magazine got in touch with the book’s author Robert Rodriguez and asked him a lot of fun questions about the album and his book. You don’t have to be a Beatles-Geek to enjoy this interview, but it helps.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: There are lots of books about the Beatles, and even a couple of recent ones about this album, Revolver. What makes yours different?
Robert Rodriguez: With this book, I tried to bring people into the world in which this music was produced. I made the effort to place readers into 1965-66-67, showing what was going on in the Beatles’ world, as well as in pop/rock generally. I think it’s pretty crucial to understanding this album’s greatness to know who was listening to whom. What sort of developments were affecting what.
RCM: So you’re talking about artists of the time that had an influence on the Beatles, and vice-versa. Like Dylan, or…?
RR: For one. The Beatles were fans of Dylan’s going back at least as far as Freewheelin.’ In 1964, the Beatles and Dylan occupied entirely separate worlds, yet they each saw in each other elements that they could sort of…repurpose to their own ends. Dylan saw past the bubble-gum elements of the Beatles’ music – and the screaming fans – and recognized that something sophisticated was going on. To his credit.
Meanwhile the Beatles saw that something deeper and more satisfying could be heard in Dylan’s lyrics than they were accustomed to putting into their own. So, say, by the end of 1964 you can see his influence beginning to manifest itself in their music. I think John and George began to see Beatle music as more of a means of self-expression…less as a purely commercial vehicle.
RCM: Who else at the time do you think was important. Or influential?
RR: Well of course, Brian Wilson. He’d had his breakdown, retired from the road in 1964, and in his quest to chase Phil Spector…he began crafting these ornate backings to Beach Boys music – this was due his being allowed to take his time, and not compromise his vision.
And the Beatles were paying close attention to this – what could be achieved by using the studio fully, augmenting their sound – beyond what you were expected to pull off live. Both sides were following each other’s artistic development.
RCM: So in creating Revolver, the Beatles were doing things much differently that they had before?
RR: Well, Revolver came about from a unique set of circumstances. Part of what was realized came by design – in terms of their deliberately wanting to re-write the rules of what a pop/rock band could do. But a lot was serendipity, too.
RCM: How do you mean?
RR: Well for example they didn’t know that they would have some extra time to produce this album, until it materialized. There’s no way they could have anticipated every technical development that came along the way. Or that they would have the support of an incredibly open-minded engineer named Geoff Emerick.
Remember, the decision to quit touring hadn’t consciously been agreed upon when they first entered the studio. But subconsciously, by crafting an album that contained little that could be pulled off well live, they were rolling the dice. By that I mean #1 – gambling that they could sustain their career purely through their recorded output, and #2 – that their audience would follow them. That a tremendous artistic leap…as well as an act of unbelievable nerve!
RCM: To just quit touring and create an album that possibly couldn’t be duplicated live?
RR: Exactly – who else in the history of music goes out on tour with a new album in hand – and then doesn’t play a single song from it. As if it didn’t exist.
The easiest thing in the world would have been for the Beatles to stick to the formula. Like Elvis in the ‘60s. The Beatles saw that and were repulsed. They opted for the unknown, rather than the safe.
RCM: Is your book more for extreme “Beatles nerds?” Or can someone who just maybe loves the record enjoy it as well?
RR: Both. Both newbies and hardcore! In all of my previous Beatle books [Fab Four FAQ, Fab Four FAQ 2.0, Fifty Fabulous Years] I tried to do justice to their story, providing what every newcomer needs to know. And then give the kind of cool minutia that surprises hardcores like myself.
RCM: Just curious – are you a musician yourself?
RR: No. I’m a drummer. (laughs) Not actively so much anymore, but I was in a lot of bands for many years, some of which played Beatle songs.
RCM: So was there a specific personal inspiration for you to write it? Are you’re just a fan, or is you feel something’s missing from the history..? Or were you just offered a bunch of money?
RR: (laughs) Yeah – “a bunch of money.” No sorry, my name’s not E. L. James or Suzanne Collins. No, it was more that, as a fan, I thought that Revolver tended to get short shrift within their body of work.
RCM: Really? Revolver?
RR: Well, the more knowledgeable critics and fans already knew it for what it was. But it just seemed like every time I turned around, some corporate would-be taste arbiter was declaring Sgt. Pepper to be “the greatest album ever made.” And I would think: “Greatest album ever made? It’s not even the greatest album by the Beatles!”, you know..?
RCM: Which is sort of one of your conclusions in the book, right..?
RR: It’s not my business to tell people what should be their favorite Beatles album. Or even the best Beatles album. How do you quantify artistry? But I do say that it was their artistic high-water mark. Meaning that it was, on the one hand, the culmination of their ambitions to redefine what a pop/rock act did. And with all four Beatles fully invested in making the greatest Beatle music ever.
And at the same time, Revolver represented the passing of the torch within the band. Here we are in 1966 – the midway point. Here is where the member that’s driving their creative engine shifted from John to Paul. Until then, John dominated in every measure you can think of.
But in Revolver, it was as if he [John] ran out of gas midway through. He started out strong, and it was his songs that got tackled early on. That’s why he lost out on getting three more cuts on the US edition of Revolver, because Capitol needed three more songs to flesh out Yesterday and Today, and he had the most songs finished by then.
RCM: And relatedly, a lot of people say this feels like George’s real first album. And some fans at the time weren’t even happy about that, right?
RR: Well it was John’s struggle to get more songs ready that provided the opening for George. To get an unheard of three songs on a Beatles album! And as it happens, the last John song recorded, She Said She Said, was only completed with a lot of help from George.
RCM: OK, so Paul takes over…
RR: Paul, on the other hand, was on the ascent. Paul was hitting his stride as a writer. I mean, Eleanor Rigby is an amazing composition, by any standard. Granted, many hands shaped the final product, but it was his baby. Then you have Here, There and Everywhere, For No One – just tremendous songs.
RCM: And all the albums after that seem like Paul records, no?
RR: Sgt. Pepper, as I’m sure you are aware, was Paul’s concept. Quickly followed by Magical Mystery Tour, the creation of Apple, Hey Jude, the Let It Be project, and Abbey Road. All of these originated with Paul.
John’s engagement with and commitment to the Beatles was never 100% again, after Revolver. Don’t take my word for it: I’ve got quotes in the book where he flat out said that being a Beatle was not his life’s work, and that it left him feeling unfulfilled. And this was before Pepper.
So the realization I had was that with Revolver… the group had literally reached their half-life.
RCM: Not that it’s necessary, but did you by any chance get a chance to talk to Paul or Ringo for this?
RR: No, I didn’t. Partly by design – word is that Apple-corporate doesn’t much care for projects that they don’t control, and partly because I didn’t want to. I wanted their thoughts on what they were doing as it happened; before a sort of revisionist narrative came in. Luckily for me, there is a wealth of interviews and press conferences that they gave throughout their career to draw from.
RCM: How about any other living person who maybe worked on the record? Again, not that it necessarily matters…
RR: No, I didn’t talk to anyone still living. Or dead either, for that matter. (laughs)
RCM: And even “Dead-Paul”wasn’t even dead and replaced with a double until AFTER Revolver, right…?
RR: That’s right.
RCM: Back to your book: What for you was the most surprising discovery in researching the history of Revolver?
RR: Several, actually. First, the rumor that they really were planning to record what became Revolver in Memphis really was true. It wasn’t an urban legend. Not only did Brian Epstein fly out to book Stax, but they had a house lined up to rent for their stay, too. But Stax blew it for themselves; first by upping the studio rate, and second by leaking word in advance, totally undermining any chance for privacy or security.
The revelation about Paul’s walking out of the sessions just as they were wrapping up work on the album was a bit of a bombshell. There’d been this throwaway quote in what’s more or less his memoir, Many Years From Now, where as an aside, he mentions not playing bass on She Said She Said. The reason he gives was some kind of argument, and he just stormed off.
Paul was the most ambitious of the group… in terms of protecting the brand… the most committed to their success, and so forth. So for him to literally leave them in a lurch just as the project was coming to an end must have been a pretty big deal.
I discuss in the book the evidence that George played the bass on it, and how the incident was referenced in a taped conversation during the Let It Be sessions, right after George quit the group. I’ve never read anywhere else of anyone getting into this event in any detail.
RCM: Do you believe that the Beatles were conscious at the time that they were going to stop touring?
By the summer of 1965, any attraction they’d had to being in front of an audience had faded. With maybe the exception of Paul. They were on this treadmill that had nothing to do with music. Their concerts were events, with less than thirty minutes stage time to crank out sets of mostly of older material; the attendees couldn’t hear them – some could hardly see them. The Beatles could barely hear each other.
So at the time they were aware of their deterioration as musicians and it vexed them. On the other hand, they were also aware that to maintain their supremacy they had to keep moving artistically.
So here are the Beatles with Revolver – ready to fulfill what would be their last full scale tour obligations, while simultaneously crafting an album that would be impossible to replicate live! I don’t think they were quite ready to retire from the road for purely artistic reasons; they needed an excuse that no one would question.
RCM: You write a lot about that final tour…
RR: That final tour was a nightmare. There was the debacle in the Philippines, where due to some perceived snub of Ferdinand Marcos’ wife Imelda… they were literally driven out of the country. Fearing for their lives.
Then all hell breaks loose in the states. Datebook magazine deliberately took a whack at a hornets nest by running quotes on race relations and Christianity from Paul and John. The accusations of American racism from Paul were ignored. Of course radio stations and media in the Bible belt ran with John’s “more popular than Jesus” quote. He was merely making the point that the church’s influence among young people was on the wane in the UK. Saying “we’re more popular than Jesus” was an effort to quantify the diminished influence, not to boast.
But it completely swamped the release of this new album that should have gotten them at least some curiosity. Instead, all people wanted to talk about was John’s supposed blasphemy.
RCM: George Harrison has said that Rubber Soul & Revolver were much like Volumes 1 & 2. What in your opinion took this album beyond, say, Rubber Soul?
RR: Rubber Soul was an advance past Help! in terms of the maturity of the writing. The lyrics, the themes. They sustain so many post-adolescent themes over such a wide array of songs. Also, they were starting to get into manipulating sounds – like the vari-speed keyboard solo that George Martin played on In My Life…
RCM: The instrumentation…
RR: Yes. Adding sitar to Norwegian Wood, for example. Not only looking to add non-traditional sounds, but also that they were intent on enhancing the overall ambience, like Brian Wilson does…track by track.
RCM: And they were using a lot of tape manipulations and studio tricks as well…?
RR: That’s the difference. Most of what they did on Rubber Soul could be reproduced outside the recording studio, in concert. You can’t say the same for Revolver. Even straightforward songs like I’m Only Sleeping and Here, There and Everywhere came about by manipulation of the tape speeds.
So yes – Brian Wilson-style – they set out to make the studio another tool – speeding up, slowing it down, or reversing. They did the same with the vocals, plus running them through a rotating Leslie speaker; same with guitar…
RCM: So here’s where you’re about to get all geeked-out for the gear and equipment heads?
RR: Well, see – an effect only becomes a gimmick when it adds nothing to the final product. That’s not Revolver, and that’s a good point of contrast with Sgt. Pepper. For example take Tomorrow Never Knows. True, musically it’s very basic, but the recording itself was a real triumph of innovation. But the recording effects are all in the service of conveying John’s narrative – into the acid experience.
Whereas Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite on Sgt. Pepper? The entire recording is built around an assortment of organ and calliope effects – to evoke a circus or carnival atmosphere. Beneath the effects, is there really a song there? Take the tape loops off of Tomorrow Never Knows and you still have a song.
RCM: Perfect segue. One of the most enjoyable central themes of your book is that in addition to Revolver being under-rated, Sgt. Pepper may historically be over-rated. Why do you feel this way?
RR: One of the most striking aspects in my research was discovering how little rock criticism existed in 1966 when Revolver arrived – versus one year later, when Sgt. Pepper came along. Before ’66 Beatles music was discussed through establishment news outlets.
Most of what we normally associate with classic American rock journalism: Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy – didn’t or barely existed in 1966. In Britain, you did have New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Disc – and though they got into the music a bit more, it was only just starting to resemble what we know as rock journalism. One could make the argument that, until albums like Revolver, Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde arrived, there wasn’t a need for a rock press.
RCM: And all that changed, roughly in 1967?
RR: By the summer of 1967 – perhaps inspired by the Beatles’ experimentation, perhaps not – came this huge wave of new artists – producing music that redefined the limits of rock: Zappa and the Mothers; The Doors; Hendrix; Pink Floyd; Love, and so on. Now an art form had arrived – one worthy of serious discussion.
So as 1966 turned to 1967, you had fans wondering if this crazy, bizarre semi-experimental album Revolver was really their final release. Word got out that the Beatles were spending all this time working on their next album. The anticipation began building because the public, reassured that they aren’t splitting up, were getting excited by what was clearly a transition in their career.
RCM: So Sgt. Pepper got the advantage of what was happening in the media at the time?
RR: Right. Even mainstream publications like Life were granting space to the Beatles’ new direction, and critics fell all over themselves to praise Pepper – anointing the Beatles as the face of the counterculture. So it was timing. The world was ready to embrace change, and Sgt. Pepper, came along at exactly the right time.
But musically – to me at least – Revolver was the triumph. I always say Sgt. Pepper was like a victory lap.
RCM: So when you speak of Sgt. Pepper’s being “a period piece,” and “tied to the times,” are you saying that it hasn’t worn well, or perhaps isn’t as relevant today?
RR: I really want to take pains to say that I am not trying to tell people what music they should love. I just wanted to point out that Revolver represented a greater achievement and advance in both the Beatles’ career and in all of rock than did Pepper.
That said, I do think that Sgt. Peppers comes off as both self-conscious and calculated than the earlier one. From the packaging, to their costuming, to the lyrics put prominently on the outside… it comes off as a sustained effort to be clever and serious. Forced, even. To anyone not of age in 1967, Pepper may come off as silly or self-indulgent.
RCM: Whereas Revolver…?
RR: With Revolver – and again, this is purely subjective – I think that its themes of darkness, isolation and death have made it timeless… in a way that the frivolity on Pepper has not. And maybe it’s no accident that the darkest song on Sgt. Pepper, A Day In The Life, is the one that’s garnered most acclaim.
RCM: Did you compare the remastered version with the original?
RR: Of course.
RCM: What were the most significant changes, in your opinion?
RR: On the whole, the remasters helped get the bottom end some attention. There’s definitely a lot more punch heard than previous – except on some of the better quality vinyl iterations. Which by the way: I will never stop evangelizing on behalf of the mid-seventies era Apple pressings of Revolver. Which featured much more upfront drum fills on Got To Get You Into My Life than you ever hear anywhere else. I’m not sure why, but it’s true – check it out yourself.
Perhaps a better question would be, what of the mono vs. stereo mixes? I actually cover these in the book, track by track.
RCM: So readers, buy your copy now! It’s called Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll, by Robert Rodriguez!
RR: Ok. Ever since the mono mixes became available with the remaster releases in 2009, it’s been accepted as a matter of faith that mono is superior. That these are the versions that the Beatles lavished the most attention on… that stereo was considered throwaway technology for audiophiles only, etc.
RCM: You don’t agree?
RR: Not as a sweeping generalization. I’d say that the earlier, more basic material tends to come off as perhaps more powerful, though – to my ears anyway. The remasters helped reveal “the seams.” Suddenly I could hear the edits I never noticed before.
From 1965 onward, it’s a case-by-case basis. There are some Revolver songs, such as Eleanor Rigby or Love You To for example, that definitely “pop” more, or have longer fade-outs even, in mono. But I just can’t endorse the mono Tomorrow Never Knows – that’s a song with so many layers that you need to spread it over two channels to hear what’s there. Plus, the mono one is missing that tone of feedback – right after the solo, at the song’s exact mid-point.
RCM: Speaking of drum-fills, as you were earlier…with all of this growth or transition with the band, one would expect that Ringo evolved somewhat, too…?
RR: Well, when I think of Ringo and Revolver, there’s the whole element of how yes, his playing suddenly evolved – practically overnight – to a whole other level. If you listen to what he does throughout the album – and I include his amazing performance on Rain, cut during these sessions, it is unbelievable how crisp, effective and unique his fills are.
I get into detail in the book about what makes his performance so special, but he himself regarded it as a breakthrough. ‘Course it helps having Geoff Emerick enter the picture at this juncture, given his talent for coaxing amazing sounds out of Ringo’s kit. You can hear it on Tomorrow Never Knows. It sounds like a loop, but it’s all Ringo, in real time, locked down with Paul. Incredible.
RCM: As you began re-listening to the album, is there a specific track that you have a new, better appreciation for?
RR: Not any one song per se, but definitely their overall artistry generally. I do think that there’s a joyousness that comes out of the grooves that I don’t hear consistently on albums that followed. My interpretation is that they are really grooving on entering uncharted waters. As Paul sang, “I didn’t know what I would find there.” They sound like they’re having fun.
RCM: You dedicated this book: “To Klaus [Musician/Artist/Friend Klaus Voormann, who designed the Revolver album cover], who got it right.” Got ‘what’ right?
RR: He got the visual representation right. When the original design for the Revolver cover was drafted by photographer Robert Freeman – who’d worked on all but one Beatles album before – it was rejected.
So Klaus got the call from John – who by the way, didn’t promise to accept what he came up with. He got to hear the album in progress, and – based on what he heard – was inspired to put together something that would link their past to their future.
He chose their hair as the unifying element, with a collage depicting their past alongside their four faces. It represented the work brilliantly, in my opinion.
By the way, I don’t know who came up with the idea first – the Beatles or Klaus, connecting past to future – but ever notice how Revolver starts out echoing their very first album with that count off? It’s as if they were deliberately counting in the next phase of their career. Which of course, they were!
[Knowledgeable Rock Cellar Magazine readers might remember that Klaus Voormann was also in the early version of the Manfred Mann band.]
RCM: What was the most rewarding aspect about writing this book, either professionally or personally?
RR: The opportunity to be a conversation starter. There are no right or wrong answers here, but I am fascinated about what Beatles albums people like best, and why. I expected a fair share of “but what about Rubber Soul?,” but I am a little surprised and gladdened at how fervently the Revolver people expressed their pleasure that somebody stepped up and made the case on their behalves.
RCM: Anything surprising about you personally that may be of interest to our readers…?
RR: Would it be surprising to hear that Revolver is not my favorite Beatles album?
RCM: Really?! That is surprising. Ok, what is?
RR: The White Album!
Beatles Revolver Track Listing
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. I’m Only Sleeping
4. Love You Too
5. Here, There, and Everywhere
6. Yellow Submarine
7. She Said She Said
8. Good Day Sunshine
9. And Your Bird Can Sing
10. For No One
11. Doctor Robert
12. I Want To Tell You
13. Got To Get You Into My Life
14. Tommorow Never Knows
RELATED: Ringo and his All-Starr band tell us what their favorite Beatles albums are – HERE.
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