While 1966 is best remembered for England’s World Cup victory, it was the year music began to take an introspective turn. Though overshadowed by the music of the Summer of Love the year after, it was in ’66 that the album solidified itself as an art form. In the lead-up to the summer of ’66, The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde were released, all of which were significant in the rise of the counterculture.
Born out of the social commentary of contemporary folk music, the counterculture (as coined by Theodore Roszak) remains the defining image of the ‘60s. From the Swinging Sixties in London to the hippie movement in San Francisco, the counterculture took influence from jazz and civil rights music in its campaign for social justice, while the poetic psychedelia of Beat literature set the standard for captivating storytelling, influencing artists like Dylan, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon. Out of this drug-fuelled movement came music that was unlike anything before it; songs began to focus on the metaphysical, flowing through lines of surrealist poetry (Blonde on Blonde), while the accompanying music began to incorporate more and more unconventional instruments, from classical to electronic to Eastern (Pet Sounds). By the summer of ’66, music was striving for a deeper meaning.
Listening to these records today, it can be hard to imagine how ground-breaking they were, at a time when covers and singles were the dominant force in music. Many of the songs still sound delightfully modern, for example, Pet Sounds’ immaculate Wall of Sound production and arrangements would not sound out of place on most indie records, though other aspects have not aged as well, particularly the casual misogyny and unknowing whitewashing of rock’s legacy.
Coming out a mere week after the World Cup win, The Beatles’ Revolver brought together all the musical developments that came before it to break further boundaries, alienating many fans caught up in Beatlemania in the process, while attracting a new audience of youths upset with the status quo. Revolver represents a turning point in The Beatles’ discography, recorded as the band were preparing for what would be their final tour, ready to move past their image as four mop-tops. Like Rubber Soul before it, Revolver placed an emphasis on using the studio as an instrument; songs were crafted in the studio without the intention of playing them live. Despite being released only half a year apart, Revolver deconstructed every aspect of Rubber Soul to create a radically different album.
Released in the lead-up to Revolver, the ‘Paperback Writer’ B-side ‘Rain’ foreshadowed this shift in direction with its thick wall of guitars, explosive drums, and Lennon’s backwards vocals. ‘Rain’ was the first song released to utilise reversed sounds, one of the many studio innovations that Revolver brought, alongside the use of loops and recording techniques including multitracking and pitch manipulation. Its lyrics were their most abstract yet, pairing a British commentary on the weather with a marked indifference; for Lennon, there were more important things than the weather.
The unconventional recording of Revolver gives it a unique place in The Beatles’ canon, sounding lush and vibrant though lacking the polish and depth of their later music (its flaws are accentuated by the hard-panning of the more widely available stereo mix, yet to get a brush up from Giles Martin). Its sound is the band at their very best; Lennon and McCartney’s relationship was already beginning to fracture by the end of the recording of Revolver, and the songs capture them at the peak of their combined song-writing prowess and creativity, with Harrison beginning to break out as a songwriter himself. Every song on Revolver sounds like a hit; none are longer than three minutes, with an aesthetic cohesiveness brought about by its warm, compressed production, drifting between the psychedelic rock of Lennon’s songs and the baroque pop of Paul McCartney’s.
Revolver built on the albums of ’66 that came before it, which were in turn influenced by Rubber Soul. The sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ finds itself on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’, and Revolver takes it a step further by delving entirely into Indian music on George Harrison’s ‘Love You To’, whereas Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds, and Revolver’s ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ represents McCartney’s attempt at matching Wilson’s ‘God Only Knows’. The influence of Revolver is clear today; it’s difficult to avoid its similarities with the earlier music of bands like Oasis and Tame Impala, while Revolver’s songs continue to crop up across various genres, from artists as different as The Chemical Brothers, Frank Ocean, and The Muppets.
Revolver kicked off The Beatles’ psychedelic era, floating through casts of colourful characters (like the eponymous Eleanor Rigby and Doctor Robert) punctuated by moments of self-doubt at war with steadfast optimism. As on Pet Sounds, McCartney’s orchestral songs explore relationships from a world-weary perspective, yearning for simpler times. Melancholy and loneliness seep through the lyrics of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, while ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘For No One’ forgo complexity to tell a narrative of love and heartbreak. On the other hand, Lennon’s songs are more overtly psychedelic; ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ creates a dreamscape with backwards guitars, and ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ contemplate the meaning of death and life, respectively.
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ remains the hidden gem of The Beatles’ oeuvre, set to a drum loop and a collage of sped-up and reversed noises. Adapting passages from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is Lennon’s first musical statement, sung through a loudspeaker with the intent of sounding like Tibetan monks chanting from a mountain. The song encapsulates the relationship between psychedelics and Eastern philosophy: the death of the self, the cycle of rebirth, and the assertion that “love is all and love is everyone”, something that The Beatles and the counterculture as a whole would later come to embody.
The counterculture not only changed the sociocultural landscape of the Western world forever, but the musical landscape too. Music has always been a response for those dissatisfied with society, pushing artists to come up with new forms of expression, such as the punk, grunge, and acid house movements. Today, we find ourselves entering a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world, with the threat of climate change looming over us.
It’s easy to write off The Beatles as “boomer” or “hippie” music, but perhaps the time for cynicism is over. The Beatles captured a generation of youths across the world with their message of free love and peace. Our future is bleak, yet it is music like Revolver that has the power to shape the future.
We should give it a shot, after all, tomorrow never knows.
Words by Stephen Ong
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