Friday, March 04, 2011

Song of the Week: Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows"

Twenty years after my introduction to it, I still can't wrap my mind about Revolver.  It's a dense, complicated album, but two primary questions have always bugged me:

1) What, if anything, is Revolver's statement?  What is its theme?  Typically, the Beatles' best work was characterized by some unifying concept: the fake band/performance art of Sgt. Pepper; the four-parts-of-the-whole of the White Album; the back-to-basics of Let It Be; the mini-opera of Abbey Road's b-side.  So, what holds Revolver together?

2) The Beatles went from "Love Me Do" to "Eleanor Rigby" in less than three years.  How did that transformation take place?  How does one band make that many artistic leaps? 

Look closely and you'll see Gerald Ford.
While many Beatle-philes count Revolver as their best album (song for song), they agree it's not their most influential.  For all of its heavyweight tracks ("Eleanor Rigby," "Here, There, and Everywhere," "Got To Get You Into My Life," etc.), it lacks a pantheon-level smash like "Yesterday" or "Hey Jude." For all its deeply personal songwriting, it's somehow elusive, even aloof.  Every time you think you've found an overarching theme (loneliness and alienation in "Eleanor Rigby," et al), exceptions stand out (love and beauty in "Here, There, and Everywhere").

Track-to-track, Revolver swings wildly in songwriting style and production; it vehemently denies the listener "a groove."  Just as you're enjoying the jangly, uptempo rock of "And Your Bird Can Sing," it halts for the intimate ballad "For No One." Revolver contains a love song standard, folk rock, orchestral odes, a childrens' song, wannabe Motown, proto trip-hop, and seemingly everything in between.  Its songs don't pinpoint one stage of the Beatles' development; it showcases every facet of their artistry.  In other words, Revolver isn't about the Beatles achieving one grand "Something"; it's about them trying everything. 

At this stage, the Beatles were a proven commercial and artistic success, and that success granted them unprecedented artistic freedom.  More than any band before them, they could do whatever they wanted.  Later, that freedom would manifest itself as studio experimentation, "concept albums," etc.  But with Revolver, it meant that they could simply create the fourteen best songs possible, without the constraints of genre, trend-following, or limited studio resources.

So maybe that, really, is the point (and the power) of Revolver: fourteen incredible songs.

Song of the Week: The Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows"

As for question #2, listen to this.  Then, listen to this

The first song is "I Should've Known Better," off Hard Day's Night, released in 1964.  The second song is "Tomorrow Never Knows," off Revolver, released in 1966.  It's not only amazing that, in a mere two years, the Beatles had evolved from Point A to Point M.  It's amazing that, listening to their music from 1964-1966, you can actually hear that evolution.  As shocking and revelatory as "Tomorrow Never Knows" should be, by the end of Help!, Rubber Soul, and then Revolver, we're ready for it.  More to the point, we're ready for anything. 

I could wax poetic all day about the artistic leaps the Beatles made at nearly every stage of their career, about how sophisticated their songwriting had become, about how confident and fearless they were as recording artists by 1966, about how their developing stardom was showing itself brilliantly in the music, etc.  I could compare (as many have) the opening count-offs of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Taxman" to illustrate that arc from innocence to disenchantment, live band to studio band.  It's all there to hear, love, dissect, and hear again, as so many already have.

What accounts for those leaps?  To be sure, the Beatles' evolution was largely possible because they were four of the most individually gifted artists in pop music.  But I wonder how much the Beatles' schedule facilitated--or demanded--accelerated development.  In the 60's, hit artists released one to two new albums per year (conventionally, one in the summer, one at Christmas).  The industry's focus was to maximize content while the hits were coming.  In other words, strike (as much as possible) while the iron's hot.  Because record and concert sales were big business, you could always find a new hit artists.  Find one, release a ton of material, rake in the bucks, then move on to the next.

Today, music isn't big business.  Massively popular artists are much harder to find.  If you somehow do discover a golden calf, you don't milk it all at once.  The biggest bands today (Coldplay, Green Day, U2, Kings of Leon, etc.) don't release one or two albums per year; they release one album every two to three years.  Singles are spaced 2-6 months apart.  It's a much slower game.

With less releases to count on, it's natural to take fewer risks.  For example, Kings of Leon recently followed-up their 2008 breakthrough, Only By the Night.  Guitarist Matthew Followill admitted in Spin that the band felt conflicted between exploring new types of songs and writing tunes in the mold of their last hit album.  In the end, Come Around Sundown (which I really enjoyed) mostly opted for the latter.  Similarly, Coldplay stuck to their script until Viva la Vida.  Faced with 2011's music business model, I think most artists would do the same.  

But, say you release a record every six months rather than every three years.  You can try new things.  Misfires are negligible.  "Flops" are quickly forgotten.  You can make Beatles For Sale, because Hard Day's Night is just around the corner.  You can try Magical Mystery Tour, then come back with the White Album

Revolver is the product of an amazing band at the peak of their creative powers, but it's also the byproduct of a breakneck recording pace.  To make those kinds of artistic leaps, it's not enough to be talented and hard-working--you have to have the commercial freedom to be prolific.  As amazing as the Beatles' evolution was from 1964-1966 (four albums in two years), it was perhaps more likely to occur over two years than over six. 

Or maybe--just maybe--they're that much better than everyone else. 

Next week: a song from Sgt. Pepper!  Til then...

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