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Report from Swinging London: ‘Revolver’ Revolution

Pop Eye: On ‘Revolver’
August 25, 1966

SWINGING LONDON, August 17 — The reception which the Beatles have received so far on their American tour has been less than ecstatic. But it is far from the murderous venom which most Londoners feared would greet their native sons.

It is part of the myth of America-the-free to view even New York as an extension of the uncivilized frontier. There is a distinct impression that Americans are savages. The English main­tain a healthy skepticism about the ability of an average Amer­ican to eat dinner in a civilized manner — there is the fear that buffalo knives will accompany the meat course.

Mini-skirts and mod-men look with mixed envy and scorn at the hordes of madras crewcut gleamers who have made the trek across the sea; and this year the mob is bigger than ever. There is a supreme Eng­lish tolerance for bad weather, cold tea, and young Americans in T-shirts that say “Swinging London — Carnaby Street” on the back. But beneath the bemused affection lies a deep suspicion that, as a cowboy, you are liable to come out shooting when the local pubkeeper says: “Time, gentlemen, please.”

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Recent events in Austin, Chi­cago, Newark, New Haven, or wherever the most recent mass­-murder has taken place, com­pound this impression. The many-headed beast has taken murder statistics to heart. And the news from Vietnam has made matters much, much worse.

So, with the departure of the Beatles for America, a genuine anxiety gripped many teenagers here. A disc jockey on Radio Caroline asked his audience to pray for the group’s safety. Barbara Ruben, groupie-extraordinaire, planned a full-scale march of teen fans past the American embassy in protest. A New Yorker herself, she swore that: “If anything happens to them, man, it’s World War III.”

From the start, the tour has been front page in England. Of course, no one knows and everyone fears what will happen when the Beatles go South (overblown photos of the Ku Klux Klan burn­ing Beatle paraphernalia have fanned local fires) but the odds are that they will make it through and back to the open, custardy fingers of their fans back home.

As though displaying unswerving loyalty to its idols, British youth has flipped completely over the new Beatle album, Revolver. The single chosen from these songs — “Yellow submarine” b/w “Eleanor Rigby” — came on the charts one week ago at number four. Today it is number one. The entire album is in the top 20. Large record stores and tiny street stalls feature massive displays of the art-nouveauish album jacket. The sound of Revolver blares from window after window. John harmonizes with Paul in greengrocers and boutiques. George plays his sitar from cars stalled in traffic. Ringo ricochets from the dome of Saint Paul’s. The Beatles are harder to avoid than even the American.

But there is more than mere adulation behind the sudden conquest of Britain by this particular LP. Revolver is a revolutionary record, as important to the expansion of pop territory as was Rubber Soul. It was apparent last year that the 12 songs in Rubber Soul represented an important advance. Revolver is the great leap forward. Hear it once and you know it’s important. Hear it twice, it makes sense. Third time around it’s fun. Fourth time, it’s subtle. On the fifth hearing, Revolver becomes profound.

If Rubber Soul opened up areas of baroque progression and Oriental instrumentation to commercialization, Revolver does the same for electronic music. Much of the sound in this new LP is atonal; and a good deal of the vocal is dissonant. Instead of drowning poor voices in echo-chamber acoustics, Revolver presents the mechanics of pop music openly, as an integral part of musical composition. Instead of sugar and sex, what we get from the control knobs here is a bent and pulverized sound. John Cage move over — the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.

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Resemble Mantra

The key number on the album is that last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” No one can say what actually inspired this song, but its place in the pantheon of psychedelic music is assured. The lyrics remember a mantra in form and message:

Turn off your mind,
Relax and float downstream —
This is not dying,
This is not dying,

Lay down all thought,
Surrender to the void —
It is shining,
It is shining.

That you may see
The meaning of within,
It is being,
It is being.

Love is all
And love is everyone;
It is knowing
It is knowing…

While not unprecedented, the combination of acid-Buddhist imagery and a rock beat has never before been attempted with such complexity. At first, the orchestration sounds like Custer’s last stand. Foghorn-like organ chords and the sound of birdlike screeching overshadows the vocal. But the overall effect of this hodge-podge is a very effective suspension of musical reality. John’s voice sounds distant and Godlike. What he is saying transcends almost everything in what was once called pop music. The boundaries will now have to be re-negotiated.

Revolver also represents a fulfillment of the raga-Beatle sound. A George Harrison composition, “Love You To,” is a functioning raga with a natural beat and an engaging vocal, advising: “Make love all day long/Make love singing songs.”

“Eleanor Rigby” is an orchestrated ballad about the agony of loneliness. Its characters, Eleanor herself and Father MacKenzie, represent sterility. Eleanor “died in the church and was buried along with her name.” The good father writes “words to the sermon that no one will hear/No one comes near.” As a commentary on the state of modern religion, this song will hardly be appreciated by those who see John Lennon as an anti-Christ. But “Eleanor Rigby” is really about the unloved and un-cared-­for. When Eleanor makes up, the narrator asks: “Who is it for?”‘ While the father darns his socks, the question is: “What does he care?”

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More Next Door

“Yellow Submarine” is as whimsical and childlike as its flip side is metaphysical. Its subject is an undersea utopia where “our friends are all aboard/Many more of them live next door,” and where “We live a life of ease/Everyone of us has all he needs.”

“For No One” is one of the most poignant songs on the rec­ord. Its structure approaches madrigal form, with an effective horn-solo counterpoint. Its lyrics are in an evocative Aznavour bag.

“Taxman” is the album’s example of political cheek, in which George enumerates Brit­ain’s current economic woes. At one point. the group joins in to identify the villains. “Taxman — Mr. Wilson… Taxman — Mr. Heath.” They lay it right on the non-partisan line.

There is some mediocre material on this album. But the mystique forming around Revolver is based on more than one or two choice tracks — it encompasses the record as a whole.

It is a bit difficult to gauge the importance of Revolver from this city, where it has become gospel and where other beat groups are turning out cover copies like Gutenberg Bibles. But it seems now that we will view this album in retrospects as a key work in the development of rock ’n’ roll into an artistic pursuit.

If nothing else, Revolver must reduce the number of cynics where the future of pop music is concerned — even on the violent side of the Atlantic.

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A Yankee Stadium Concert, And a New Face at the Voice

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

June 16, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 35

Pop Eye: Soundblast ’66

By Richard Goldstein

Federico Fellini came to the Bronx last Friday night — in spirit anyway — when an assemblage of rock ‘n’ roll musicians took over the giant diamond at Yankee Stadium. Under the title “Soundblast 66,” they staged a pop-happening masquerading as a concert. Participating were a battalion of public relations men, 66 (three and a half tons of) go-go girls, squads of city and private police, and a bored, restless, chilly crowd of fans.

The concert was billed with some of the biggest names in Pop. The acts spanned the spectrum of the American rock scene (an increasingly expansive spectrum it is). The Beach Boys brought their California surfsound, with its emphasis on material fun and games. The Marvelettes an Little Stevie Wonder came heavily doused in soul and negritude. The McCoys handled the double-entendre and rauc-rock. The Byrds were appropriately long-haired and psychedelic. And Ray Charles came along for the class.

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So, “Soundblast 66” should have been a gratifying combination of jazz-folk gospel acid-dance-rock. But the potential got lost somewhere in the stadium’s mammoth infield. The end product sounded like a cross between a Jehovah’s Witness revival and a drag race. The Fellini touch hung heavy over the whole affair like oily Bronx pasta.

It began an hour and 15 minutes late, with the go-go girls. Fresh from rehearsals at the Riverside Table Tennis Club, they seemed confused by the open green. They circled the baselines on bicycles. They screamed and waved streamers like switched-on cheerleaders. They frugged and jerked in mid-riff drag.

From the home-team dugout, 16-year-old Randy Zehringer, who plays with the McCoys, watched the wiggling arms and torsos, and looked bored. He had sen it all before. Playing the stadium, he confided, was “awful, terrible. It’s like singing in the middle of a freeway. With all the noise and open space, you can’t hear the audience reaction and you can’t hear your own sound.”

But once out of the dugout, the McCoys lost their apathy. With plastic energy, they bounded down the plywood runway stadium officials had constructed to protect the grass. The audience (which one concert official estimated at 25,000) seemed lost in the immense grandstands. Most of the stadium’s seats were unused, and the sound of trickling applause echoing off empty wood seemed anything but frenetic.

The stage was set upon the pitcher’s mound. This initial separation between audience and performer was never breached. Rock ‘n’ roll is a big medium, and the stadium’s acoustics — with its automatic echo and feedback — are immensely discothequable. But for groups like the McCoys, it was a hell of distractions. Fireworks exploded in the grandstand. Fistfights broke out. Autograph hunters roamed wild in the outfield. And a horde of press photographers knelt at the foot of the stage in homage. The sound was lost in the pseudo-event.

As the Byrds emerged from the home-team dugout, a bell-bottomed body burst from a nearby box and tried to leap the fence. She was stopped by a flying wedge of police. The group raced down the plywood path to the stage, but they had to wait a full ten minutes before their equipment could be assembled. Finally connected to their amplifiers by electrical umbilical cords, they began to play. But the sound wasn’t worth the amps. The group seemed incapable of sustaining effective harmony in person, and their ambiguous raga-rhythms lost themselves in a maze of echo and feedback. Priceless details (Jim McGuinn doing a neat two-step as he sang, Gene Clarke’s phosphorescent buttons, the grin on Mike Clarke’s face as he dutifully pounded the drums) were lost on everyone in the audience who had neglected to bring a high power telescope.

The Beach Boys came out of the pitcher’s bull pen in a green armored van. The vehicle stopped short of the stage and was immediately surrounded by police. But it was a false miracle right out of “La Dolce Vita.” The anticipated riot of screaming fans never materialized, because the truck seemed miles away from the nearest female groupie, and males were distracted by the dancers.

Undaunted, the Beach Boys mounted the stage. There were screams. There was cheering. There were signs, placards, and bedsheets. But no fainting, no turmoils no adulation. “It’s too cold,” one reporter muttered. “I want a riot with racial overtones,” whispered his photographer. “I’ve still got half a roll to shoot.”

But all went well — and dull — as the group careened thorugh “Surfer Girl,” “California Girls,” and “Sloop John B.” They finished with “Barbara Ann,” waved goodbye in the general direction of the floodlights, and climbed into the armored van to be whisked away.

The management tried to fan the dying flames during the intermission. They gave away a couple of lightweight Suzuki cycles, a gross of albums by the Gentry, and other material goodies. But the audience, bored by the delays and chilled by the weather, wilted and grew thin. They were only mildly impressed as Miss Soundblast ’66 (16-year-old Sherry Se-Bor, a sophomore at Massapequa High) came on stage to take her bows.

For the second half, the tempo changed abruptly. The go-go girls were gone. Their bicycles lay stacked along the foul lines. Their streamers littered the infield. The grandstand was virtually empty and those who remained in the boxes formed a primarily Negro audience.

So, the management gave them soul. Little Stevie Wonder waved in the imagined direction of applause, and smiled for the clicking cameras. But once on stage, he stopped being a blind man and started to sing.

His set was the evening’s most successful. The catcalls ceased and the stadium quieted noticeably as he belted out his soul-scrubbed lyrics. His version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was magnificent in scope. It bounded off the walls and rows of empty seats. It echoed from the giant scoreboard and made the entire concept of holding a pop concert in Yankee Stadium seem plausible.

Ray Charles ended the evening with a medley of old favorites. By this time, the cold was beginning to get to everyone, and the Raelettes stood in the wings with towels from Consolidated Laundries wrapped around their bare shoulders. But the audience was with this act, and they sang along jubilantly with the evening’s finale: “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

A 14-year-old go-go dancer from Borough Park, Brooklyn, sat in the back of the grandstand, her head buried in her mother’s lap. “They didn’t pay us at all,” she complained. “They made us rehearse three times. They made us wear our own costumes.”

And, she explained, “I sprained my ankle trying to get a good look at the Byrds.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]