The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ Box Brings a ‘Get Back’ Treatment to the Group’s Creative Breakthrough: Album Review

The Beatles’ “Get Back” film and the accompanying book, boxed set and ballyhoo were a cap on the long and proverbially winding road of 50th anniversary deluxe editions that began five years earlier with the “Sgt. Pepper” box and continue apace (allowing for pandemic delays) with the White Album and “Abbey Road.” It felt like the end — the “Get Back” sessions showed in excruciating detail why the Beatles broke up, and the resulting album, “Let It Be,” coincided with the April 1970 announcement of the group’s split and has always had a requiem-like air about it.

But retrospectives don’t have to follow any rules, let alone a chronology, and the release today of a lavish box documenting the group’s 1966 classic“Revolver” suggests that the series is likely to go backward in time through the rest of the group’s discography. And what a place to start: not only is “Revolver” arguably the group’s best album (fans are generally divided between it and “Abbey Road”), it’s also the one where they really started venturing out. And although there’s no video of the sessions, the set employs a “Get Back”-style approach to several of the songs, where listeners can hear the evolution of “Yellow Submarine” from a depressing lament to the familiar jaunty children’s anthem, that “And Your Bird Can Sing” once had a flagrant Byrds reference, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” was originally much slower — and even trippier.

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A gloriously overstuffed accompanying coffee-table book features an exhaustive recap of the songs’ genesis and progression in the studio, a long (and oddly self-referential) essay from Questlove, and a bounty of photos from the sessions and the era — including a particularly interesting one of a sunglasses-sporting Paul McCartney, bass in lap, checking out the latest album from the competition, the Rolling Stones’ classic “Aftermath.”

Courtesy Apple/UMe
Courtesy Apple/UMe

Along with the blossoming of the Beatles’ creativity, “Revolver,” released in the summer of 1966 at the peak of the Swinging London era, not coincidentally also documents the growing influence of weed and LSD on the group. In 1966, the backward guitars on “I’m Only Sleeping” and especially the hallucinogenic effects on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were brand new sounds, but the group also brought a similar sense of expansiveness to the more straightforward songs on the album: the effervescent pop of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the baroque innovation of “Eleanor Rigby” and rockers like “Dr. Robert” and “Taxman.” And as some of the photos in this boxed set’s awesome accompanying book strongly suggest, the Beatles — aged 25 (John and Ringo) and 23 (Paul and George) at the time of the album’s recording — were high as kites a fair amount of the time.

But anyone reading this has probably known “Revolver” inside and out for most of their conscious lives. And although there’s a new mix by Giles Martin (yes, Beatles producer George’s son) and a mono version that’s more pristine than ever, what’s really special here are the aforementioned book and especially the outtakes, many of which have eluded bootleggers over the half-century-plus since illicit Beatles releases began hitting the market. There are alternate versions of each of the album’s 14 songs save one (“Good Day Sunshine”) as well as the contemporaneous “Paperback Writer” / “Rain” single: demos, different takes or mixes, backing tracks, studio banter and even the instrumental version of “Rain” as it was originally recorded, before it was slowed down for the released version to make it sound even rainier. The instrumental version sounds impossibly, almost comically fast, as if the Chipmunks were playing instruments (to use a contemporaneous comparison). Ringo’s drumming on the track, arguably his best in the Beatles’ canon if not his entire career, is positively astonishing.

Fans will already be familiar with four of the alternate versions included here from the second volume of the Beatles’ “Anthology” series released in 1996, including the most fascinating one: the drastically different first take of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s much slower, trippier and less aggressive than the familiar version, with hazy “Rain”-like guitars and languid but snare-heavy tempo, similar in form to the final version. The song’s famous tape loops are missing, although a repeated backward-guitar line runs throughout; Lennon’s vocal actually barely fits within the rhythm. It may be the most fascinating outtake in the group’s canon, and the fact that it was the first song recorded during the “Revolver” sessions is stark proof of how far the group had progressed in the half year since they’d been in the studio (Lennon would also usher in their next phase with “Strawberry Fields Forever” several months later).

The other jaw-dropper here is far more conventional for 1966: an earlier take of Lennon’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” highlighted by an electric 12-string guitar that is remarkably Byrds-like, and shows how beautifully collaborative the two groups’ influences on each other were at the time — Roger McGuinn bought a 12-string Rickenbacker after seeing George Harrison play one in “Hard Day’s Night” and based the group’s entire sound around it, and here the influence comes full circle. (It’s also possible that they enjoyed the “Bird”/ Byrds pun, although that may be this reviewer’s wishful thinking.) Also included is also a different take of the song with a much straighter tempo, and another that finds Lennon and McCartney giggling uncontrollably all the way through (see above comment regarding kites).

Courtesy Apple/UMe
Courtesy Apple/UMe

We hear the evolution of “Got to Get You Into My Life” as it moves from an exploratory early take with harmonies from John and George to a rockier, guitar-heavy version; the progression concludes with an instrumental that mixes those guitars (which were ultimately dropped) with the familiar horn arrangement. “I’m Only Sleeping” rolls through two instrumentals and a rough run-through.

But most striking of these is the progression of “Yellow Submarine,” which begins with Lennon’s positively melancholy demo — “In the place where I was born/ No one cared, no one cared” — and becomes increasingly jaunty as it moves toward the final take. And although it may lead longtime fans to wonder how many more times they really need to hear “Yellow Submarine” in this life or the next, it’s yet another example of how many different directions the Beatles’ songs could go before they decided on the final one (or, in the case of 1968’s two released versions of “Revolution,” decided not to decide).

If the series does indeed go backward in time from here — with fans being borne ceaselessly into the past, as it were — there will be diminishing returns: We’ll be hearing the Beatles spend less time in the studio and witness their exploding creativity in reverse, presumably finishing with their first album, the bulk of which was recorded in a single day. There will be less experimentation, the alternate takes will be less alternate, the sounds less revelatory.

But as long as there are moments like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the giggle take of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” as long as we keep hearing those voices that we know as well as family, these albums will be a welcome visit with old friends.

Courtesy Apple/UMe
Courtesy Apple/UMe

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