Thursday, September 17, 2009

Revolver Remastered: 1966 ... And All That

On Saturday 30 July 1966, if you were one of one hundred thousand lucky punters, you might have been at Wembley Stadium watching Bobby, Geoff, Bobby, Martin, Jackie, Nobby, wee Alan, Banksie et al doing the whole 'two World Wars and one World Cup' thing over Ze Chermans. After extra time. With the 'Russian' linesman (actually Azerbaijani but, you know, it was the sixties it was an easy mistake to make). You might've even been one of the people on the pitch, thinking it was all over. Well, it was. Then, on your way back into Central London for what those who were there have subsequently described as 'the biggest party since VE day' you may have picked up your World Cup Souvenir edition of the Evening Standard. If you did, you probably turned to page five and read 'Discs By Maureen Cleeve' in which groovy chick-about-town Maureen took a four-paragraph look at an LP scheduled for release the following Friday. It was called Revolver: 'The cover shows the Beatles with huge heads of Beardsley hair ... Inside are some very good songs. I am tired of wondering how the Beatles keep it up, but how do they keep it up?' Praising George's 'fine love song' 'I Want To Tell You' and some impressive couplets in his 'song about income tax,' Maureen found 'Eleanor Rigby' to be 'one of [Paul's] finest compositions; and he has another one as moving as 'Yesterday' called 'For No One.' The record is 'full of richness', she noted, 'indeed it is brilliant. John Lennon sings about a very fishy character called Dr Robert, and he ends the whole thing with a lengthy and monstrous piece of nonsense about love being all and love being everyone punctuated by what appears to be bagpipes and Zulu noises. Even this is gripping. Never have I been able to recommend an LP with more conviction.'

In April 1966, having had their first decent (three month) holiday since sometime late in 1962, The Beatles arrived at Abbey Road, refreshed, cocky and inspired. The influences were now not just musical, they were strongly chemical too. Recorded between 6 April and 21 June 1966, Revolver was the Beatles' acid-period personified. Not only was LSD a notable influence on the sound ('I'm Only Sleeping', 'Tomorrow Never Knows'), it was all over the concept as well. Amid Lennon's outrageous evocations of expanded universal-consciousness ('Tomorrow Never Knows', 'She Said She Said') and Harrison's first foray into his Hindi-phase ('Love You To'), McCartney – still a pot man through-and-through – was letting his imagination trip on baroque musical dreamscapes. To quite a devastating effect. 'Eleanor Rigby', a pocket piece of Pinter or Beckett with a story told, fully, in two minutes and two seconds, 'Here, There and Everywhere', the achingly sad 'For No One', 'Got To Get You Into My Life' – mature, elegant, sophisticated tone-poems in the tradition of Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein - effortlessly defeat Philip Norman's ignorant half-arsed assertion that John Lennon was three quarters of the Beatles. The case for the defence of Macca, frankly, rests on Revolver alone. The LP – and its companion-piece single, 'Paperback Writer'/'Rain' – are effortlessly inventive, full of great songs: 'And You Bird Can Sing', 'Taxman', 'Good Day Sunshine.' And, if one accepts 'Yellow Submarine' for what it is, no fillers. George, in Anthology described Rubber Soul and Revolver as like part-one and part-two of the same record but, even in a few short months, the Beatles had developed and, in the process, made quite possibly the most influential record of all time.

So, what of the 2009 remaster? Well, you get pretty much what you might expect. Only, you know, louder. Bitter, sarky, pissed-off 'Taxman' is more bitter and more sarky and more pissed-off than ever. The cough is more throaty, that odd little 'whippy' sound in the right hand speaker at 0:47 is ... whippier. And Macca's manic, over-driven, mental Epiphone solo is even more thrilling. Wintery, skeletal 'Eleanor Rigby' feels like freezing bones on a February morning with snow in the air; something akin to a cold wind catching a tooth filling. This allows, inevitably, George Martin's stunning score to breathe like never before. And, they even left in the legendary little mistake at 0:14 where Geoff Emerick didn't get one of his faders up quickly enough and you get one second of Paul's voice in both left and right channels. The MC Escher-style sonic peaks and troughs of 'Love You To' are dazzling, the tambura drone in particular is crisper and more bone-shaking than on any CD or vinyl copy you'll have heard. Charming, delicate 'Here There and Everywhere' is still charming and delicate and the clarity of the production can now be marvelled at in widescreen. Little finger-clicks, previously lost in the mix, can be heard at the edge of the left stereo spectrum. 'She Said She Said' still sounds like verbal graffiti, the highlight being that unique George/Ringo rhythm section. It's like a mix of sugar and concrete - stunning, dangerous, outré. The sound, in Lennon's part-broken mind, is of the naked rush of oncoming ego-death. 'She Said She Said' wasn't, really a song about drugs, per se - at least not in the conventional sense - it was a piece of straight reportage with a side-order of oedipal self-abuse. On the other hand, it was a recording that attempted to paint a soundscape, in vivid primary colours, of the drug experience. And, in that regard, Keith Telly Topping has to note that if that's what being on acid is like, he's glad he never progressed much beyond the odd lager and lime.

Elsewhere, we get slightly more of a glimpse of the groovy party going on in Studio 2 the night they recorded 'Yellow Submarine.' Like somebody has opened the curtains on the revelry just a couple of inches more than ever before and half-hidden whispers are floating out to the plebs outside. 'And Your Bird Can Sing', too, gets a revealing wash and brush-up, allowing the guitars to shine like stars. There are a few minor disappointments; 'Good Day Sunshine' and 'Dr Robert' sound little different to these ears and 'I'm Only Sleeping' is, if anything, slightly more sluggish and somnambulist than previously. And not in a good way, either. But 'For No One' is the remastered CD's magical highlight. Again, as with the best of the recordings on the Rubber Soul remaster, it sounds so perfect, so absolute that it's just like the band are recording it in the next room and somebody's been drilling holes in the wall just to make sure you get the full effect. Oi, put that French horn down, bonny lad, you don't know where it's been.

I remember being very surprised when Ian McDonald in Revolution in the Head mentioned what he considered to be the messiness of 'Got To Get You Into My Life's production. But, here, with the additional clarity of remastering, it's easy to see what he was getting at. The leakage of some of the brass onto one of the guitar tracks is really evident (1:50 - 1:52). The vocals on this song have always sounded rather isolated in the past - like Macca was recording it whilst stuck in a phonebox somewhere on Cavendish Avenue. Thankfully however, whether it's because of this aspect of 'audible space' that seems to have been the remastering team's watchword, it's far less of a problem here. And, so to 'Tomorrow Never Knows.' Where to start? The drums thunder. I mean, they roar. There's a tambourine track that I'd never noticed before. And, on a CD that pushes a 'you get what you expect' agenda, here, the bonkers production is Mad As Effing Toast. The angular sharpness of the backward 'Taxman' guitar solo when it suddenly appears out of right field, is mess-yer-pants startling; ditto the little squeak of surprise when the Leslie speaker feeds back on itself as Lennon's treated vocals begin; it's only the deep, one-note drone of the Hammond organ (and the tambura, of course) that keep all the different elements, vaguely, on the same planet. Jeez, it's thrilling stuff. If the purpose of the remastering programme is to provide 2009 listeners with a similar experience to those of 1966 putting their vinyl on the dansette for the first time, then it's easy to see why 'Tomorrow Never Knows' so scared people forty years ago. It sounds like nothing else on Earth.

As soon as the LP was finished, the Beatles boarded a flight to Munich for the start of a tour that would subsequently take in Japan, the horrors of the Philippines and, for one final time, America. Whilst they were at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, somebody arrived with a finished acetate of Revolver. McCartney, his paranoia possibly heightened by some dynamite weed they were packing, listened to it and considered it was 'horribly out of tune.' This, momentarily threw the release schedule into total pandemonium with the prospect of expensive remixing. That was, until the others calmed him down a bit, got him to listen to it again and they all decided that, actually, it was all right.

Of course, on the day before the World Cup final (29 July), an interview which Maureen Cleeve had done for the Standard with John Lennon three months previously was reprinted in an American magazine called Datebook. The magazine's editors chose to headline the piece with a rather throwaway comment that had barely raised a single eyebrow when it had first appeared in the UK. 'Christianity will go, it will shrink and vanish ... We're more popular than Jesus now.' The shit was about to well and truly hit the fans. Revolver was to be its soundtrack.