In series five of Mad Men, Don Draper’s much-younger second wife Megan hands the advertising exec, who is concerned about losing touch with popular culture, a copy of The Beatles’ new record Revolver.
The episode is set in August 1966. The album was released on August 5th. (The 8th in the US).
Megan Draper points to the final track with the advice:
“Start with this one.”
Geoff Emerick actually did. Tomorrow Never Knows was the first Revolver track he worked on after being promoted by George Martin to engineer his first full Beatles studio album (and their seventh). Most of us have our first day at work marked by a trip to the HR department, a tour of the kitchen or having a photo taken for a security pass.
Emerick worked on the recording of a song Jimi Hendrix and Noel Gallagher performed live, Public Enemy sampled, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth covered and a musical statement The Chemical Brothers claim as “their manifesto”.
It was both the final track and the first recorded.
Revolver, 50 years young, itself is a record of firsts and lasts.
It was the first Beatles album with three George songs. It was the last time Capitol Records in the States tinkered with the tracklisting of a Beatles record (11 songs on the US release as opposed to 14 in the UK). It was the first album not to have a recognisable portrait band photo, favouring old Hamburg mucker Klaus Voormann’s collage.
It was the first album, arguably, where the band sought to move away from sounding like their live performance. But it was the last album, where they had to worry about performing live. Two days after recording, they went on tour to West Germany and by August at Candlestick Park, they were done on the road for good.
It was the first album they really started mucking about in the studio from George Martin’s piano solo in Good Day Sunshine where the slowed down tape recording made it sound speeded up to the other George’s backwards guitar solo in I’m Only Sleeping.
It was, perhaps more than anything, the last album where all four Beatles dovetailed quite so neatly. It is said that all four wrote lyrics for Eleanor Rigby. George helped John complete She Said, She Said. Paul helped John finish off And Your Bird Can Sing. Yellow Submarine was a Paul song written for Ringo where John blew into a bucket full of water for the bubble sound.
Tomorrow Never Knows (that again) was primarily a John song based on a visit he and Paul made to Indica bookshop where he was looking for Nietzsche and settled for Timothy Leary, which features the sitar and tambura drone which would become a hallmark of George’s playing, tape loops inspired by Paul’s love of Karlheinz Stockhausen and a title nicked from an offhand remark from Ringo about his hair.
The sprawling splendour of The White Album, only 27 months later, is very much the product of four individuals. Revolver is the work of a band.
What strikes you about Revolver now, as well as the strength of its songs, is its economy. Like 1965’s Rubber Soul, it contains 14 tracks, none of them passing 3:30.
Revolver, especially by the bloated standards of what would come later from other British guitar bands, is tight.
The only songs to exceed three minutes are I’m Only Sleeping by two seconds and Love You To by one.
Rubber Soul initially received better reviews. The White Album is arguably more ambitious. Sgt Pepper will probably scoop up more anniversary pieces in 2017 with its self-generating “it was 50 years ago today” headlines.
But if we must go through the exercise of placing Revolver in the context of post-war music, try this:
It’s possibly the best album by probably the greatest rock’n’roll band in history. That should do.