Shooting Down the Claim That Revolver Is the Best Rock Album Ever
I’ve been thinking about Bill Bonvie’s commentary last August on the Beatles’ Revolver as the greatest rock album of all time. With the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love looming, I have reflected at length on the groups I saw, listened to and played in my life. My initial reaction to Bill’s opinion, however, was immediate: Revolver is not the best rock record for two reasons: the Beatles’ musical styles and the glut of great sounds exploding in 1966, when the album was released, and other years.
First, there’s the Beatles’ brilliant sound, or sounds. They sucked up their influences, played them in their heads, hands and feet, and pumped out the product with able assistance from their producer, engineers and fellow musicians across the musical spectrum. They listened to everything, as they have readily admitted to others and written about in a myriad of analyses/biographies.
Their love for English musical hall (their version of vaudeville) and their affection for American R&B, soul, girl groups and musicals popped out in many works: “’Til There Was You,” “P.S. I Love You,” “When I’m 64” and, yes, “For No One,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Here, There and Everywhere.” It could be argued that they were a pop group, a “Brill Building” Beatle hit-making machine attuned to the sounds of “Young America,” as were Carole King, Paul Simon and Lou Reed, to mention only a few fellow rockers of various, sensitive stripes.
And, as they also readily admitted, they were competitive and jealous of fellow rockers and hit-makers (including themselves). It has been written that Paul wrote “Here, There and Everywhere” as his effort to outdo John’s “In My Life” from the 1965 smash Rubber Soul. There also were absorptions of influences, from Western classical (“For No One,” a somewhat saccharine loss-of-love song further sugared up on “She’s Leaving Home” on what also has been called the greatest rock album from 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to Eastern classical (“Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Love You To” and the guitar riff/solos on “Taxman”).
Paul ventured to say in a Rolling Stone essay, “15 Things You Didn’t Know About Revolver,” that his “Good Day Sunshine” was influenced by “Daydream,” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. That great America group, whose name is a drug reference, especially interesting in the year John and George were dosed by their dentist with LSD, was sometimes called the American Beatles. Of course, “Got to Get You Into My Life” loudly echoes American R&B, particularly McCartney idol Little Richard in the chorus’ titular refrain.
Finally, there was the Beatles’ famous rivalry with The Rolling Stones, who had an album in 1966, Aftermath, which the same Rolling Stone article stated inspired Ringo to joke that the mop tops’ own 1966 release should be titled After Geography; The Beach Boys, whose 1966 album Pet Sounds challenged the Beatles’ security as supreme singer-songwriters; and The Byrds, whose Fifth Dimension also came out in 1966, inspired by Indian music through John Coltrane.
As gifted as the Beatles proved to be as songwriters, their sausage grinding of others’ music as well as their own explorations cannot be overlooked. The fact that the Beatles also turned away from performing in 1966 led a Beatlemania-addled audience to seek anything they could get, and gave the group the opportunity to fiddle fantastically with the instrument of the recording studio. Additionally, Jon Savage’s well-researched book 1966 notes that much of that year’s music on both sides of the Atlantic came out as 45s, the last year that singles outsold albums, and as he wrote, “1966 began in pop and ended with rock.”
With all that stuff happening, as “groovy” overtook “solid” as slang, the Beatles’ influence as “gurus” still held sway, the more so as their mystique and musical explorations filtered out of their brains, hearts and vinyl grooves.
So let’s look only at the year Revolver was released to understand why it could be mistakenly called the greatest rock album ever. 1966 was the year the guitarists did LSD and John (in)famously, and probably accurately, opined that the Beatles were more popular that Jesus. Besides their album, the Beatles released the singles “Nowhere Man,” a somewhat folk-rock meditation on values and virtues – we all live in a yellow submarine, not knowing where we’re going to, without a point of view; “Paperback Writer”/“Rain,” possibly a critique/description/wish-fulfillment view of Paul and John; and “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby.” These were released in the wake of Revolver – not a bad output for anyone in any year.
But the year also saw singles from the Stones (“19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It Black,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” plus Aftermath; The Kinks (“Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Sunny Afternoon”/“I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “Dead End Street” plus the album Face to Face; the Who (“Substitute,” “Happy Jack”); The Yardbirds (“Shapes of Things,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”); as well as three versions of “Hey Joe,” by Love, The Leaves and, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
And those were just a few of the English Invasion folks. There were also hits by The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Otis Redding, James Brown, Joe Tex, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and The Beach Boys, among many, many others. Add, of course, the one-girl acts: Who can forget Dionne Warwick’s “Trains and Boats and Planes,” or Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” or Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”?
So, as you can see, my second reason comes forth: How can we really pick the best record ever, much less the rock record?
Two simple examples from 1966 push me to this conclusion: The Kinks’ Face to Face and East-West by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. If you like, say, “Eleanor Rigby,” Ray Davies and company put out “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Dear End Street”/“Big Black Smoke,” a twosome about Dickensian English depression. For “Yellow Submarine,” try “Holiday in Waikiki” and the wonderful “Sunny Afternoon.” For “Tomorrow Never Knows,” listen to “Too Much on My Mind” and “Rainy Day in June.” For social commentary like “Taxman,” try “Session Man,” “Party Line,” Sunny Afternoon” and “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale.”
Turning to America, for the eastern-inflected “Taxman” riff/solo, listen to “East-West,” especially Mike Bloomfield’s solo, D-modeling in a Coltrane-meets-Kings (B.B., Albert, Freddie)-cum-Shankar-to-Hendrix riot. Bloomfield, it should be noted, played guitar on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and all over Bob Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited. The Butterfield band also covered “Mary, Mary,” a tune made popular by The Monkees, and you can hear what they did with it. They also recorded “Work Song,” another mammoth instrumental workout.
These two discs are only two that can be mentioned for the year. I didn’t even detail Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, among others released that year by such musicians as the Temps, Tops, Supremes and Otis. All of these vital vinyl packages leave us wondering at the bevy of beautiful sounds emanating from that year, and wondering why we even want to give another gratuitous Grammy of sorts.
So, thank you, Bill, for pulling me back 50 (now 51) years and making me muse about the turning point in music and culture that 1966 was. However, to conclude that the Beatles’ not-exactly-rock-sounding album is the “best-ever” seems impossible to defend. For one, what about Elvis’, Little Richard’s, Jerry Lee Lewis’, Buddy Holly’s, Fats Domino’s, Bo Diddley’s and Chuck Berry’s albums? Or, to be a bit more ’60s-centric, what about 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, Out of Our Heads, Younger Than Yesterday, Do You Believe in Magic, A Love Supreme, Live at the Regal? 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, The Doors, Something Else, Are You Experienced and John Wesley Harding? 1963’s Live at the Apollo? 1969’s Town and Country by Humble Pie? Indeed, what about the putdown of “phony Beatlemania” by Joe Strummer and The Clash on 1979’s London Calling?
Maybe we’ll listen and talk again as the Summer of Love anniversary approaches.
Al Romano of Manahawkin is a music fan who teaches writing at Ocean County College and enjoys playing.