This summer marks the 40th anniversary of what is probably the most dangerous LP recorded during the classic rock era, the Beatles’ Revolver. With the whole world watching, the most popular group of musicians in history documented their complete rejection of everything conventional, in favor of drugs, exotic religious beliefs, chance-based musical and literary effects, and a kind of sleepy dissipation.
I’m no Jerry Falwell; I’m a huge fan of this wondrous album. But if you consider what came after, you have to credit Revolver with being the most influential cultural document of the 1960s. I can’t think of a book, a movie or any other pop music that so completely changed how millions of people in America and Europe looked at their world.
Revolver popularized what had previously been the underground philosophy and lifestyle of Beat Generation writers and existentialist philosophers — that the world was absurd, that consciousness was to be doubted, and that only sensual pleasure could be trusted. The anti-heroic sensibility. The rejected one who rejects all.
What could be more “Beat” than “I’m Only Sleeping?”
Everybody seems to think I’m lazy
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find there’s no need
Please, don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away
And after all I’m only sleeping
Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
Taking my time
Lying there and staring at the ceiling
Waiting for a sleepy feeling…
The June 2006 issue of Mojo, a British pop music magazine, is dedicated to the Beatles and Revolver. The stories aren’t online, so you’ll have to search for it on dead tree — Borders usually carries it. Geoff Emerick, who engineered the album, has recently published his autobiography, which contains descriptions of the innovative recording techniques that gave Revolver its psychedelic sheen.
According to Mojo, in 1966, while the group wrote and recorded Revolver, John, George and Ringo used LSD constantly. Paul eventually caught up, but at this particular point, he was still back on marijuana–and trying to learn what he could from members of London’s avant-garde art scene, who introduced him to “free jazz” musicians like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, atonal electronic music composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and the Beat author William Burroughs, who pioneered the “cut-up” technique, in which snips of text would be thrown to the floor then picked up and reassembled randomly.
These influences are present in the music on Revolver, but not on every cut. The tunes on songs like “For No One” “Got to Get You Into My Life” or “Taxman” are classic pop. But the album is imbued with the spirit of refusal and deconstruction. Why should words make sense? Why should music be planned? Why should I get out of bed?
Teenage fans bought this album and played “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its overlapping tape loops and Buddhist-inspired lyrics; or “Eleanor Rigby” with its dry-eyed despair at the meaninglessness of ordinary life and thought…what? “Okay, that was fun. Now onto law school?” Certainly some did, but others apparently thought the ideas embodied in this music made more sense than what they were hearing from parents, teachers and political leaders.
The revolutionary movements of the 1960s were about letting go of the world, and the rules by which we live in the world. That’s the kind of revolution the Beatles sang about–and how incredibly influential they were!
Movies like “The Big Chill” or “Running on Empty,” try to tell you that the drama of the 1960s featured young idealists who wanted to create a new world based on social justice, but fell short because they grew up, went “straight,” and abandoned their ideals.
Listen again to Revolver, and you hear something entirely different and contrary to that myth. The revolutions of the 1960s were not so much about politics as they were about states of mind — the elevation of subjective truth above traditional wisdom. And, looking at the world around us, I’d have to say that revolution was a success — and it continues.
You’ve heard the quote, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts?” There’s a reason Gen. Barry McCaffery felt compelled to say that. For many in our society, subjective truth is now the higher truth. When did that idea begin to reach popular culture? I would argue Revolver was a major source.
The Los Angeles connection: One of the key Revolver songs, “She Said She Said,” was inspired, said John Lennon, by a comment made to him at a party in LA:
“That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in the Beatles tour where we were having fun with the Byrds and lots of girls. Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ He was describing an acid trip he’d been on. We didn’t want to hear about that. We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing, and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties, and this guy– who I really didn’t know– he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider‘ or anything… kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him because he was so boring! And I used it for the song, but I changed it to ‘she’ instead of ‘he.’ It was scary… I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!”
*Edited and slightly expanded, 6/9/06