Let's face it: for the first half of their decade together, the Beatles were pretty much a boy band. Now, before I'm eaten alive by the comment section and forever banished from music, hear me out: They were a group of young, good-looking boys with catchy, sub-3 minute tunes aimed at the teenage girl demographic. Their business-savvy manager, Brian Epstein, methodically monitored every single move they made in the public eye, swiftly burying any kind of press that would tarnish the band's reputation. Their faces were plastered on anything with monetary value, from buttons to dolls to dresses to dinner plates.
My point of all this is that while yes, the Beatles were always incredibly talented musicians who fully deserved the fame they received, the band's early years were product branding at its finest up to that point. So when did all of that change? How did the Beatles go from pop-song churners for teenyboppers to the integral and highly influential artists we all remember today? The answer lies in Revolver, which will turn 50 years old on August 5th (August 8th for US fans).
While hardly underrated, Revolver tends to be overshadowed by its much more flamboyant and extroverted sibling, 1967's Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. I always found that fact to be surprising, because even though Sgt. Pepper is by no means a lackluster record, the majority of the songs, save "A Day In The Life" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," dont really stand out on their own. The album works best as a singular unit, with each song blending into each other to create the flower-power atmosphere that makes the record very much a product of its time. On Revolver, however, each of the records 14 tracks stand on their own as individual masterworks of songwriting and music production, making it hardly sound its age even today.
For one thing, Revolver dismissed the band's lovable, quirky boy-band image once and for all. In 1966, the boys were sick of touring, refused to make another movie (they had made two films in two years at this point), and for the first time in their careers, experienced public backlash in the US thanks to John Lennon's "Were bigger than Jesus" comment. The band was ready to start fresh and leave their early years behind, so they became an exclusively studio band and decided to craft a musically complex album that explored heavier themes like drugs, loneliness, and even death. Even before a single note is played, the album's solemn black-and-white cover tells the listener that this record's going to take them on a fantastic, albeit occasionally dark, musical journey.
The album begins with George Harrison growling "oneeeee, twoooo, threeeee, fourrrr..." as if mocking the band's famous count-off that started their debut record Please Please Me, and then launches into "Taxman," arguably one of the band's most cynical and politically-charged songs. This song, coupled with the tragic string-driven story of "Eleanor Rigby," makes for the heaviest and intense album openers in the Beatles' catalog. Two songs in, and it's already clear there will be no "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and hand-holding on this Beatles record. This ability to try new artistic ideas allowed each of the Beatles to show their unique influences and styles more so than on any Beatles record before and, arguably, since. Along with "Taxman," Harrison had two other songs on the record, the most "Harrisongs" on a Beatles album up to that point, with his first foray into Indian music, "Love You To," and his song expressing how difficult it is to express himself, "I Want To Tell You." Lennon, fueled by a newfound interest in LSD, was the first Beatle to delve into the psychedelic and unpleasant aspects of life, with his underrated ode to insomnia, "I'm Only Sleeping," the frantic "She Said She Said," and the explosive "Tomorrow Never Knows," inspired by Timothy Leary's Tibetan Book of the Dead. Paul McCartney embraced more classical and show-tune influences, with songs like the tenderly beautiful "Here, There, and Everywhere," the heartbreaking "For No One," and the joyful love song to Mary Jane, "Got To Get You Into My Life." Even Ringo gets a spotlight (BUT just for singing, still no writing credits yet), and probably the lightest moment on the entire album with the nursery rhyme-esque "Yellow Submarine," a song that, despite its childlike simplicity, has become one of the band's most popular tracks (and inspired a full-on children's movie). The final product is a beautiful and eclectic mix of fun and somber, filled with songs that will make you dance, think, and ask, "How the hell did they do that?"
The last record before the Beatles would go way into the experimental, Revolver is the Beatles' most realized, consistent, and complete-sounding album. The songs are ambitious but never indulgent, the production is prominent but never overdone, and the Beatles themselves found a medium between their bold new sound and their early pop roots that they would never really recapture on their later albums. Best of all, and again, hear me out, but Revolver is great because it's not really a rock record. Yes, it's an album by a "rock" band, but no one is ever going to walk into a band audition or jam session and break out "Here, There, and Everywhere." But that's the beauty of Revolver, that it can't be classified as just a "pop" or "rock" record because it's a diverse, unprecedented, and absolutely legitimate work of art. It doesn't matter who it was made by, what we have is a beautiful collection of music that can stand on its own even when being compared to more "high-brow" forms of music. 5 decades old, and Revolver is still not only the best Beatles record, but also one of the best albums ever made, and it only seems to get better as the years roll on.