Treble 100, No. 7: The Beatles – Revolver

The Beatles Revolver Treble 100

I could prognosticate, elucidate—bloviate even!—about The Beatles ad infinitum. Books have been written not only on the band, from their members to their crew to their technology to their music theory, but also on their impact, their records, even lengthy essays both academic and lay written about specific songs. What terrain is left to possibly cover? And, given some of the dispiriting but sadly believable revelations about the moral character over time of many of these figures, how do we untangle the omnipresent specter of this gargantuan band from the real, hard kernel of a thing inside? Alas, dear readers, what a conundrum I’ve found myself ensnared in, and at my own request no less!

Thankfully, a mercy: any attempts to dismiss The Beatles’ work on the grounds of their personal lows lives in a fantastical world where we can somehow erase their impact, which is so deep and widespread it is more akin to the great meteor which blasted the earth clean than a mere day in the life (ha!). Take, for instance, just after Revolver, the fabled Sgt. Pepper’s. I want you to listen carefully to records made one year before and after on either side of that album, then ten years before and after. There is not really a smooth continuity; one record, a single one, despite parallel advances by The Beach Boys which sadly saw their coming magnum opus blasted apart by madness, came and restructured how very nearly every band was engineered, recorded, produced, mastered, everything. We even have chorusing as an effect, and thus goth rock as a form, because a studio engineer who worked with the Beatles invented a vari-speed deck and wanted to miniaturize it for future projects.

What this illuminates is that, while there are endless, literally endless, bon mots from the groups history about how they changed everything, pieces both free and at cost, the one thing I can tell you here that you can find nowhere else is something personal, which in turn validates those more starry-eyed and mechanistic reads of the wondrous powerhouse of that perennial band.


I am a child. I was born into a house of music: my father, Richard Hickman, before his hellish departure to the soul-abnegating nightmare war of Vietnam—a war which stole his sanity and decades later his life—played in bands, first in Georgia then in New Jersey when my grandfather, a man who once literally ran away from home to join the circus as a boy, needed to relocate the family from our ancestral proletariat bonds as workers of the land and its industries in the south up closer to New York City where the booming international shipping and clothwork industries post-WWII, a war both my grandfather’s brothers fought in, brought a sudden tide of good fortune to the family. My father, escaping the hell of a conservative home in the ’50s, eventually found himself playing on the Soupy Sales Show, a variety show of some note in the ’60s. He discovered Cream, Fleetwood Mac (the psych/blues format of the group), Jimi Hendrix, and a promising young group called Led Zeppelin, formed of members of his favorite groups the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds.

After the war, he would flee from home on a midnight flight to the city, selling drugs and becoming a studio musician, playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears, meeting and befriending briefly Jan Hammer, learning his younger brother, born during the war, had fallen in to a music scene that would become punk. My mother leaned on rock ‘n’ roll to navigate a life on the spectrum as a woman in the ’50s, ’60s and beyond, to make sense of her life after her abortion in ‘69, before Roe V Wade, slipping from the deeply Catholic home with her mother, her father having just passed, to take her own midnight flight to New York City to find a doctor to deal with, in secret, this pre-marital disruption that could have derailed her whole life. When they met in their thirties, one of their bonding points was music. So it was foreordained that between them, my punk uncle, my older cousins into pop and grunge and heavy metal, my gospel and country loving aunts and uncles and the brimming musical culture of the ’90s that I too was to be born into the sound.

I learned music was art when I was 6. (The impact and truth of this revelation is paid testament through my career writing about music for the past decade plus, not to mention how I arrange and spend nearly every waking hour.) I was sitting in the car, behind my father in the driver’s seat, my family bickering about what the fuck ever, always bickering. I was alienated even then: the death of my step-grandfather rattled me, letting this destabilizing coldness into my vision of the world, the name and permanence of death, something that has not gone away since. The fighting and the fighting and the fighting. I stared out the window, struggling. Then: a song. Ah! Look at all the lonely people! It was seraphic, a wheel of wings and eyes appearing from the opening whirling whorl of sky to sing in a choir’s voice about a woman, a church, a priest, a grave. No one was saved. Those sawing cellos. The vision of a face in a jar by the door. My heart, my small heart, screamed in my chest. I had discovered a feverish love for Motown and Michael Jackson when I was three, music which seemed miraculously perfect to me then and now. This was different, as though the music had emerged from my chest like a bird taking flight, a feeling I’d never experienced before.

My mother had told me the story of her mother’s battle with the diocese of their church when my grandfather died unexpectedly, the priest refusing to cut short a vacation to hurt a parishioner and disparaging them for being poor and not worth the effort. I could see in “Eleanor Rigby” shades of this struggle, albeit skewed, the central character in my heart no longer dead but dealing with the dead, the Connecticut graveyard where my grandfather was buried rich in my mind, the coldness of the air, the haunting sense of absence native to New England. Later in life, images of my own mother would creep in, the difficulties with burying my father. The recency of my step-grandfather, the second husband my grandmother had lost, pressed on me. Was this death? Its monumental, leering face? In the backseat, I struggled to breathe. I asked my parents who the song was. “Oh,” said one of them, “that’s The Beatles. We’ve played them for you a lot.” It rang in my head like an iron bell.


Life with art after was a life, is still a life, chasing that moment. The seething strings and the words nearly a cry ripped images from me, collided memories and stories like the swirling gases of the early universe, churned from their cosmic furnaces the planets and tides of my imagination. I had this oceanic sorrow stuck in my child chest, a sea that would one day break free, would mark for nearly a decade a tense battle for my life. That song had found this interior ocean without effort, a sorcerer’s gesture. Books would come, and writing too. Films, essays, nonfiction books, fine art. Music always, both playing and listening. I would get an arts degree; I would write novels; I would write book-length projects on death metal, on Rush, on U2. I would join podcasts and pen private essays going tens of thousands of words on hip-hop, jazz, opera. It was the Big Bang. My heart an egg cracked open and I, a young bird, wetly slid out.


Strangely it wouldn’t be until over a decade later that I finally got around to buying and listening to Revolver. By that point, I’d assumed I’d internalized everything of note: the psychedelic dream of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which prefigured in a single song nearly the whole of the genre of progressive music I’d later dedicate so much of my life to; the many essays I’d read on “Taxman” and its baffling chord, which passes without remark on the recording proper, a mere perfect puzzle piece which nonetheless flummoxed many keener ears than mine for decades and featured a solo by someone who would become, despite my ardent love of prog and heavy metal, my greatest inspiration on the guitar. There was also “Yellow Submarine,” a song so obnoxious and goofy I hated it even as a child, and even still as a vocal defender of Ringo (I too would like to be under the sea!). I was picking up the remasters of Beatles records, however, and given I already had Past Masters could hardly justify leaving Revolver out.

It’s a cliche that bears repeating: these are perfect pop songs. There doesn’t appear to be any presence of ego on these songs. I experienced a breakup, the loss of my first love, and suddenly songs like “For No One” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” shake me to my core. I would practice and record a private demo of a goth rock interpretation of the former, a haggard punk version of the latter, howling like Fucked Up and Hüsker Dü taught me to. I would drive in long arcs around my hometown, trying to decide if I would return to school, listening to Revolver in the Virginia sun and among the deepening shade of its spectral nights, singing and weeping. The cover had a ghastly affect, one that haunts the songs. Each one believing that love never dies, watching their eyes. After all, I’m only sleeping, all the world going by my window. Lying there and staring at the ceiling, waiting for a sleepy feeling.

It’s pop that obscures behind a sunny face the long stress fractures of barely disguised pain, something I was not sensitive to in pop at that time. I doubt without the time spent with this record that I would have connected so feverishly to Lady Gaga, whose dance singles propelled me out of a suicidal pit, my body reconfiguring raw pain to dance, or to Carly Rae Jepsen after, who hides feverish wild yearning behind enormous pop hooks and sugared vocals. I was one of those types who flippantly disregarded pop as soporific music of the masses; lacking the heft of the more serious work I was interested in. The Beatles and their fishhooks prickling out of the smooth edges of their brilliant pop caught in my lips, my cheeks, my throat, my lungs, tore me open. Ah! Look at all the lonely people.


Prior to this record, their history was one of unmitigated but also relatively uncomplicated pop brilliance. While we lack serious record of demos from the Silver Beatles days and the German clubs, the burning condoms nailed to the walls, the mixture of rock and roll and pop and greaser danger that would one day inspired the punks whether they admit it or not, we have that span from their cleaned up image on Please Please Me forward, the rarefied mastery of compositions, simple in form and effective, efficient as death in their execution. Help!, of course, is the apex of that early period, the peak complexity of that pop-rock hybrid form they had mastered. Meanwhile, their span from Sgt. Pepper’s, the eruptive moment, on to Abbey Road would change everything forever. Which leaves these two records, Rubber Soul and Revolver, the albums caught in the crossfire of their fruitful competition with Brian Wilson, undecided in their eras.

For years, I had considered common wisdom of Pepper to be wrong, feeling less compelled by it than the brilliant scattering of genius on the White Album, the concentrated psych-prog-pop gold of Magical Mystery Tour and falling far below the unparalleled perfection of Abbey Road, still perhaps the single greatest record I’ve ever heard amongst all the metal and jazz and electronic music and Afrobeat and orchestral works etc. (I’m one of those types that never really connected with Let It Be until the Naked remixed/remastered record, which more than salvaged that troubled material.) Still, aside from “Norwegian Wood” and a couple other moments, it is hard in retrospect to view Rubber Soul as a revolution as much as an extension, one where the group themselves found that, without a fruitful production and songwriting rivalry to push them from their comfort zone, they might never burst free from their self-made prison of perfection. By Pepper, they’d clearly found the way out, with masterworks like the title track and “A Day in the Life” a testament to an unbounded creative voice.

But that means it is here in the brackish waters of Revolver that the break proper is made. The results are electrifying. The death-conscious meditations (“I know what it’s like to be dead”) placed next to Tin Pan Alley brilliance (“Good day, sunshine!”) conjoined to early Beatles brilliance (“When your prized possessions start to weigh you down, look in my direction.”) that belies the psych-pop flourish in both writing and playing that would later mark Hüsker Dü’s genius reinvention of hardcore into alternative rock. There is an argument for nearly every Beatles record to be their very best, a condition a few rare bands find themselves in; the argument for Revolver is precisely this kaleidoscopic majesty, that unlike their other masterworks it feels freed of all eras, the Nietzschean history-conquering anti-future, a perpetual present, able to casually and forcefully bend the triumphs of their final days and the solo records to come with their early pop, to be peerlessly psychedelic and in a turn prefigure genres supposedly antithetical to them (if vocal Lennon haters are to be believed). As someone who adores art, not its figures or personages but its history and the works themselves, it’s this shocking watershed moment, their own Ride the Lightning, the perfected form of their own Master of Puppets yet to come but the magic eruption occurring precisely here.

And yet, despite these thoughts, which can be as astutely and academically grounded as they are felt in me when I listen to the record for the many-hundredth time, Revolver is not those things to me. It is me, in a car, age six, with my first inkling of the vast gnarled trunks and branches of my generational familial strife, the depths of sorrow and confusion, and the perplexing weight of life swirling about me, pierced through the side by their sweet lance, of sawing cellos and sweeter voices, of lonely people, a face in a jar by the door, the priest wiping the dust from his hands. Of learning that no one is saved. Of that first art-experience, so sharp and profound it dashed from my brain in an instant my dreams of being a scientist, a mathematician, my autistic dreams, to instead dream only and forever of art. Ride the Lightning may have birthed the specifics of me, King Crimson and Yes too, so many names. But it was The Beatles, it was Revolver, that burned like dried husks every other me that could have been. I owe Metallica the world like they are my father; I owe the Beatles the universe like they are my god who set the spheres and dust and laws in motion. Some things are beyond hyperbole.

best albums of the 1960s - Beatles - Revolver

The Beatles : Revolver

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