"The Sixties saw a revolution among youth-not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking. The youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution, which is really an evolution, and is continuing. We were all on this ship-a ship going to discover the New World. And the Beatles were in the crow's nest."
John Lennon was fifteen when he started the band that would become the Beatles. He was twenty-four when he became one of the most celebrated pop stars in Britain. He was twenty-five when he first walked on American soil, already internationally famous in places he had never even dreamed of traveling to. And he was thirty by the time it had all ended. His remembrance of his time in the crow’s nest is one of nostalgia and warmth, bookending an era when he and his band mates were self-proclaimed, “kings of the jungle.” Much more than that, it is a beautiful eulogy from the group’s founding member.
Lennon's assessment has the very same qualities as any verse he or his band mates ever created: sentimental but composed, romantic but measured. Allowing that push and pull to be present in their music is what had set the group apart from the very beginning. It would seem that anytime the Beatles did anything, however mundane or grandiose, they were progressing. Every move they made was just one more step up the ladder, quietly paving the way for something grandeur than anything the world had ever seen. Throughout their entire career, they had consistently altered the definition of art and the very way in which the world consumes it. Consciously and unconsciously, both by default and by design, the change that they heralded is immeasurable. Alexander the Great did not conquer as much land as they had. But after fifty years worth of books, essays and documentaries, all trying to perfectly sum up who they were and what it all meant, Kinks frontman Ray Davies provided the most insight into what had made them so fearless:
"Paul McCartney was one of the most competitive people I've ever met. Lennon wasn't. He just thought everyone else was shit."
The wind did not change direction as often as the Beatles did. But the changes of 1966 would prove to be seminal. Released in August, Revolver ushered in a new chapter in their development. Aside from propelling them into the second phase of their career, their sixth studio album would also be their most collaborative. Their decision to stop playing live shows and focus solely on making albums had proved to be creatively freeing. In a 1971 interview with Melody Maker, longtime Beatles producer George Martin spoke about the changing approach:
". . . by this time we were so established that we could afford to take risks. . . if people didn't like it, hard luck. It was . . . an indulgence, if you like, and we thought it was worthwhile."
Revolver is a watershed moment because it unknowingly gave birth to genres of music that did not exist yet. Baroque pop, acid rock and world music are all classifications that were made long after the album's release. In addition to introducing new styles that were quickly embraced by their contemporaries, the album is the first Beatles release to fully embrace the surreal. Utilizing tape loops, backwards guitar, and a host of sound effects, the group deliberately injected the songs with an otherworldly feel. Like painters mixing color on a palette, they composed arrangements to mimic shades of melancholy, joyousness and every thing in between. The diverse collection of songs made Revolver akin to stained glass, the jagged edges smoothed out just enough to piece together something that could only be experienced as a whole.
But what if the Beatles had decided on a different direction ?
“That’s the music that inspired me to play music. There is nothing conceptually better than rock and roll. No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones have ever improved on “Whole Lot of Shaking” for my money. Or maybe I’m like our parents: that’s my period and I dig it and I’ll never leave it.”
While he could be sharp tongued about what didn’t impress him, John Lennon proudly wore his influences on his sleeve. In countless interviews throughout the course of his life, Lennon kindly championed his peers and the rock songs that first shook him. But he was particularly vocal about his enduring love for the music of his youth. In his final years, he was known to stand in front of his prized Wurlitzer jukebox, which had been meticulously stocked with all of his childhood favorites, the only recent song on it being Blondie's "The Tide Is High." Ever since the Beatles hit it big, Elvis Presley's early recordings on Sun Records had been recognized as the chief influence on a fifteen year old Lennon. But before he wanted to be Elvis, John wanted to be Buddy Holly. And long after he wanted to be Elvis, he wanted to be Smokey Robinson.
As they grew as songwriters and musicians, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison developed varied musical tastes that overlapped as often as they didn't. But none of them ever lost their enthusiasm for the music that had first bonded them together: American R and B. Reflecting on their days playing residencies at the clubs in Hamburg, Germany, Paul McCartney boasted that Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" had a riff that the Beatles "could keep going for hours." Their early albums also paid homage to their love of Motown, featuring covers of the Shirelles, Marvelettes and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Despite all the musical changes they went through as a band, their adoration for rhythm and blues never waivered.
“Because the best stuff is primitive enough and has no bullshit.”
When talking about the music that inspired him, John Lennon often noted the simplicity and energy of early records, a feeling the Beatles had always strived to capture. For all of the pioneering feedback, sound effects and orchestration featured on their recordings, peeling back the layers will always leave you with something that feels complete, energetic and simple.
Founded in 1957, Stax Records is located in Memphis, Tennessee. Famous for their blues, funk and gospel recordings, they were destined to be in competition with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. And they were. But despite being occasionally overshadowed by their neighbors in Detroit, Stax found it’s own success. The studios were home to a slew of iconic artists including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and the Staples Singers. Musicians wanted to record there because it was an opportunity to create a singular sound that could not be replicated. The building that housed Stax was formerly a movie theater, and the floor was sloped where the seats once were. This effectively made the room imbalanced, which in turn created a deep well of a sound. The results are so unique that music historian Rob Bowman has claimed that soul fans can tell almost immediately if a song was recorded there. It was only a matter of time before Stax caught the attention of the biggest band in the world.
When Brian Epstein flew to Memphis in March of 1966, official work on Revolver had yet to begin. But the group was set on recording at Stax, impressed by album’s that were recorded there, and feeling irritated with equipment problems at Abbey Road. Sonically, they felt they needed to go elsewhere to achieve the sound they wanted. Before leaving Memphis, Epstein booked the studio for two weeks in April and arranged housing for the band. But before the group ever arrived, the news had leaked to the press. The studios were besieged with onlookers and bombarded by songwriters hoping to impress the group with their own original material. Blaming security concerns, all plans to record there were immediately called off. The group briefly considered recording in New York at Atlantic Studios and even at Motown in Detroit, but no bookings were ever made.
On April 7, the second day of recording what would become Revolver, the Beatles laid down early versions on the McCartney-penned “Got To Get You Into My Life.” The track was the first Beatles recording to incorporate brass and had a loose vocal style reminiscent of the Motown records they loved. The version used on the album is pristine, although it’s hard not to think about what the rest of Revolver would have sounded like had it not been recorded in England. Would it have been the band’s ultimate homage to American music? Would “Tomorrow Never Knows” have ever been recorded? Would it have been any good?