“Sgt. Pepper captured a moment, but Revolver created the context and motion that became that moment. Partly because it was swallowed by the events of the summer of 1966, and partly because of the shadow cast by Sgt. Pepper, it would take years – decades, even – before critics and fans would widely regard Revolver as the Beatles' finest album. But the form-stretching possibilities it had unleashed would change popular music by giving it new and more blatant thematic range, matched by innovative and outrageous sounds. It introduced different angles in chords and melodies and gave other bands the courage to look at the risky moment as both internal and social unrest. The Beatles sneaked all of this into their music with flair and confidence, with beauty and dissonance.”— Mikal Gilmore, “The Beatles' Acid Test: LSD Opened the Door to Their Masterpiece 'Revolver'—But Also Opened Wounds That Never Healed,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1269 (Sept. 8, 2016)
This August marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most unsettling month in The Beatles’ history as a group—begun with John Lennon’s controversial remark that the band had become “more popular than Jesus now,” and ended, in exhaustion, with the Candlestick Park appearance that served as the final stop of their last tour. In between came their transitional LP, Revolver. I discussed this masterpiece in a prior post, but it's worth another look in light of what Gilmore brings to light on its history.
Rubber Soul, as I discussed in this prior post, remains (for me, anyway) the most consistently satisfying Beatles studio album. But in his essay in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, Mikal Gilmore makes a credible case for Revolver as the group’s first to spring from a self-conscious search for personal meaning.
That search was spurred mainly by the LSD taken—first unwittingly, then more enthusiastically—by John Lennon and George Harrison. While Rubber Soul was what Paul McCartney later called the band’s “pot album,” Revolver originated with the more intense, dangerous LSD. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” sometimes called the first example of “acid rock,” derived from Lennon’s attempt to make sense of his LSD trip through reading Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience.
I wish I could have heard more from Gilmore about the evolution of the album’s other sterling songs (notably, "Eleanor Rigby," “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”). But in view of the group’s subsequent history, it’s understandable why he delves into the LSD angle.
The drug opened up the band to new thinking and new sounds—and irrevocably altered its internal dynamics. From then on, Lennon and Harrison shared a bond that would endure until Lennon’s murder in 1980. Simultaneously, they treated McCartney as someone apart from their philosophical and creative journey, a Johnny-come-lately to their altered state.
Gilmore does point out a cost of the hallucinogen to Lennon: it worsened his drug habit, even leading to a 1968 incident in which he summoned astonished Apple employees to issue a press release announcing that he was Jesus Christ returned to Earth.
Gilmore might also have discussed how Lennon’s increased absences from the studio within a few years led to more tensions with bandmates, as well as to Lennon’s push back when McCartney sought to fill the inevitable leadership void. But altogether, he shines a strong light on a key album in rock 'n' roll history--one whose significance may only now be properly appreciated.