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Not Fade Away: The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ Turns 50

By Amanda Wicks

Revolver and I first crossed paths in the second grade when my music teacher Ms. Soleil (what a perfect name) played “Yellow Submarine” one day during the remaining five minutes of class. I was struck—even at eight years old–by the song’s lyrical whimsy. “In the town where I was born/ Lived a man who sailed to sea/ And he told us of his life/ In the land of submarines,” Ringo Starr sang in the opening verse. I was no stranger to the Beatles–my father was a huge fan–but that song, in that moment, felt more organically “mine” than something I inherited from his appreciation.

It may seem like an odd introduction to one of the Beatles’ more important and experimental albums. Written as a children’s song, “Yellow Submarine” made an impression on me at the time, but my fondness for Revolver only grew as I did and learned about what it really meant, about the impact it had for the band and for music. Now that I’m a music writer and proudly own their albums—on vinyl, thank you very much—Revolver offers an entirely different listening experience. Hearing it now, “Yellow Submarine” doesn’t quite fit, and yet it somehow does. Revolver is an amalgamation of different styles and genres, and the Beatles excelled at all of them.

The band was heavily involved with drugs at the time—the most mild being marijuana with Lennon becoming more interested in LSD—and questioning their musical identities among other more existential inquisitions. Pair that metaphysical exploration with three months in the studio after they retired from touring and the result is an album that defies the limits often ascribed to music genres.

In the long spectrum of the Beatles’ work, Revolver serves as the dividing line. It marked the boundary between the light-hearted fare that helped the band rise to worldwide fame, and the more serious songwriting and experimentation that would define the latter half of their career. Released on August 5, 1966 in the UK (with the U.S. release following three days later), Revolver signified a meditative moment that would not only change the face of pop music, but continues to impact listeners—including me, and I wouldn’t be born for a few more decades—as powerfully as it did upon its arrival 50 years ago.  

Related: The Beatles’ Long Lost Demo ‘It’s For You’ Found

If one thing in particular defines Revolver, it’s the fact that it evades the Western notion of meaning; of a definitive beginning, middle and end. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the first song the Beatles recorded for the album and the final track on it, served not as the period to a complete sentence but as a pathway back to the start again. As Ian MacDonald noted in his book Revolution in the Head, part of the song’s instrumental break contains Paul McCartney’s guitar solo (chopped up and played backwards) from “Taxman,” the album’s opening track.  However minutely, the album’s last song references its first, and in doing so presents something closer to a cyclical chant that’s meant to go on and on and on.

Even Revolver’s title referred to a continual loop, but with a keener self-referential touch. McCartney observed that albums “revolved,” so Revolver became an album about albums—about making them and defying what that typically entailed. The now oft-quoted lyric from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” which John Lennon pulled from Timothy Leary’s LSD drug manual The Psychedelic Experience (which itself is an adaptation of The Book of the Dead), presents a challenge to listeners used to albums being a certain way. Are you willing to let go of any preconceptions you have of pop music? Are you willing to do away with any clear categorized notion of “the Beatles?”  

How influential was “Tomorrow Never Knows” exactly? It’s always celebrated by rock and pop magazines, but even dance music magazine Muzik ranked it as one of the most influential records of all time, saying “Every idea ever used in dance music exists in this song. ” Again, this is on the same album with “Yellow Submarine,” the string octet of “Eleanor Rigby” and the garage rock of “Taxman.”

By the time of Revolver, Paul McCartney had developed an interest in more classical sounds, which arise in the French horn on “For No One” and the orchestration in “Eleanor Rigby.” But George Harrison went in a different direction. He preferred sounds that lay farther East. “Love You To” integrates Hidustani classical instrumentation and juxtaposes McCartney’s sound at the time as well as the other two songs Harrison contributed to Revolver, “Taxman” and “I Want to Tell You.” Harrison said in 1980, “’Norwegian Wood’ was an accident as far as the sitar part was concerned, but [‘Love You To’] was the first song where I consciously tried to use the sitar and tabla on the basic track.”

That the world’s most popular pop band could explore such varying and digressive ideas in one album signaled the possibilities involved in letting loose rather than keeping an album to one strict idea, be it thematic or melodic. Songs like “Doctor Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” seemed like the natural progression from Rubber Soul, but paired next to such strange and singular songs as “I’m Only Sleeping” and even “Yellow Submarine,” Revolver showed what the Beatles could really do when someone loosened the reigns a little. “We were really starting to find ourselves in the studio,” Starr said of their recording sessions, according to biographer Bob Spitz.

Even though McCartney’s “For No One” feels closer to the typical pop structure the Beatles had followed up to Revolver, it too is an exercise in meditation a la “Tomorrow Never Knows.” At two minutes, it’s the briefest of thoughts with a French horn serving as the harmony John and George would’ve normally provided. Their absence allows McCartney to weave his narrative, but he isn’t concerned with an ending. “And in her eyes, you see nothing/ No sign of love behind the tears, cried for no one/ A love that should have lasted years,” he sings before the horn ends the song. It would make more sense to include an ellipses at the end of his last line, because the fade away is so sudden. There is no grand finale, no punctuative moment that marks its finish. The song merely ends before a silent beat stars the next track and listeners are on to “Doctor Robert.”

For Beatles fans across the globe, “What’s your favorite album?” serves as the ultimate litmus test. No matter the answer, Revolver can’t be ignored, even if, like me, your appreciation for it started off far differently than  it did for a Beatles fan in 1966. It changed the game quite literally for the Beatles and for pop music, and continues to resonate to this day, gaining new fans every year, myself included. 

Perhaps if my second grade teacher had played “Taxman” or “Tomorrow Never Knows” (the latter probably would have gotten her in trouble), I wouldn’t have been drawn in at such an early age. And maybe that’s the genius of “Yellow Submarine”: it was an invitation to children, then and now, to enter a world that they would love for the rest of their lives.

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