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The Beatles Remain Here, There and Everywhere
Impressions of the super-deluxe Revolver box set and two recent interpretations of the music of the Fab Four
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay is a bit more ambitious than usual in that I try to weave a thread between the super-deluxe edition of the Beatles’ Revolver released last autumn, a Beatles-themed concert my wife and I attended last month and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau’s new release, a solo-piano tribute to the group. I hope you enjoy it.
This is the second time I’ve written about the Beatles—early last year, I wrote something for the 58th anniversary of the group’s first trip to America. I’ve included a link below to that essay if you are interested in checking it out.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
A small stylistic note: typically in my essays for my Substack, I refer to individuals by their last name. One exception has been the two times I have written about Elvis Presley and another is when I have written about the Beatles. I suppose it’s because of the deep familiarity I have with their music that it seems more appropriate to refer to them by their first names; so, for the below essay, the first time I mention each member of the Beatles, I use their full name and then afterwards, refer to them solely by their first names.
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It’s been 50 years now since the first comprehensive anthologies of the Beatles’ music were released: 1962-1966, the so-called “red” album and 1967-1970, the so-called “blue” album, that provided a useful shorthand to qualify how the band evolved over eight brisk years. The period between the release of Revolver and the release of the double A-sided hit ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ was and remains an astute and defining demarcation point for the two major sections of the Beatles’ career.
The former album used the famous cover shot for the Fab Four’s British debut album, Please Please Me and the latter used what was to be the cover of Get Back, the ill-fated first attempt to collect the group’s recordings at Apple Studios in January 1969. Both photos were shot at the stairwell of EMI’s London office and consequentially, vividly illustrate the arc of the quartet’s look from cherubic rockers in matching Brian Epstein-approved suits to long-haired rock messiahs individually attired.
It’s not just that the group’s appearance dramatically began to change in the months after their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966 and their reconvening at Abbey Road Studios at the end of November—facial hair and Day-Glo fashions were in, baby faces, and Oxford shirts and turtlenecks were out—it was the music that changed most of all. The Beatles’ outward evolution was simply a manifestation of that.
From ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ the sound of the Beatles seemed to exist in monochrome and was contained within the song, bursting out of the speakers in its shadowy glory. The beginning of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ continued this aesthetic but as the quiet of the mellotron-driven track gave way, through a masterful edit by producer George Martin segueing to a different version of the song, both in tempo and key, to a moaning choir of strings anchored by some of Ringo Starr’s most adventurous drumming, the switch was made to technicolour—the song serving as the starting point for a wider vision, bursting out of the speaker in pastel-drenched glory. The fullest flowering of this direction would of course be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; for a substantial period of time heralded as the peak of the Beatles on record and of the long-playing record itself.
Recently, Sgt. Pepper’s lustre has diminished slightly, partially related to the inevitable evolution (and rightly so) of the canon and the need to continually diversify it, and partially due to a form of contrarianism reacting against the album’s overt sunshine and psychedelia—its stature as the emblem of the Summer of Love, more plainly—that purportedly makes the music oh so dated as opposed to eternal. The latter is all such addled revisionism that is easily debunked but it is notably something that has never attached itself to Revolver, the Beatles’ totemic farewell to their first era.
A new box set of the album was released last autumn, complete with a new remix by Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, using the demixing technology pioneered by filmmaker Peter Jackson for his sprawling and hypnotic Get Back documentary.
Revolver remains as the confirmation that pop music at the end of the summer of 1966 had entered its glorious maturation. I say confirmation as prior to the album’s release in August, several of the year’s epochal masterworks had already hit the slipstream: the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath in April, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in May, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in June and at the end of that month, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! These four albums, each of unflagging quality, remain major statements within each artists’ aesthetic concept (Freak Out! is, to a certain extent, the exception as its tight satirical and expert pop gives way to avant-garde extravagance after the prophetic ‘Trouble Every Day’).
Revolver is of a different order. Each of its 14 songs is a universe unto itself—each, save for perhaps ‘Doctor Robert’ leading into ‘I Want to Tell You,’ in no way creating an expectation for what will be heard next.
Consider ‘Here, There and Everywhere,’ surely among the loveliest of ballads that Paul McCartney has ever written, a triumph of form not only in how he used the words here, there and everywhere to anchor the lyrics but also how the end of the bridge (“but to love her is to need her”) leads directly to the final A section (“everywhere, knowing that love is to share”). It is additionally one of the prettiest of examples of how John Lennon, Paul and George Harrison could harmonize together—something that happened far less often than may have been expected.
The song’s utter exquisiteness resulted in it quickly being interpreted by a wide range of artists. The singer Matt Monro, the British Frank Sinatra, underlined the perfection of Paul’s lyrical conceit. Jackie Gleason, wielding his easy-listening baton, mined the sway of the melody. Tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd, jazz’s counterculture king, found it fitting for the even metre of his groundbreaking quartet.
Racking up endless cover versions is not in any way remarkable—it was a basic operating procedure of sixties record making—but shift the perspective slightly and see ‘Here, There and Everywhere’’s ubiquity in a different light. Preceding it on Revolver was ‘Love You To,’ one of three songs by George and the Beatles’ first overt flirtation with Indian classical music. Imagine a crooner like Monro signing that! The diversity at play on Revolver is dazzling; four well-honed individuals who made their contributions while still keeping the collective intact.
Opening the album is George’s acerbic ‘Taxman,’ a song that not only foreshadowed New Wave in its stuttering, jerky beat but also the right-wing grumpiness of Van Morrison and Eric Clapton of recent vintage. Paul’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ confirmed him as the group’s pop craftsman and John’s ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ brought his bona fides to the fore as the Beatles’ resident surrealist. Ringo was the glue, the guileless charm he brought to ‘Yellow Submarine’ belying his status as one of rock’s supreme timekeepers.
It’s not as if these observations weren’t self-evident already—how many can recall every note, every moment of Revolver from heart—but a new edition of the album is an opportunity to re-immerse in it like any great text and the best albums are texts to be pored over again and again, their meanings and messages always subject to change. Yes, there is, as usual, an element of a cash grab at play (the price difference between the budget two-CD release and the full five-CD or LP package is outrageous) as well as the reasonable criticism, offered by Beatles’ authority Jason Kruppa, that much more session material could have been made available, but, on the balance, honourable tribute is offered enough here.
The new remix, for the most part, brings an added vibrancy to Revolver. The staccato attack of the strings on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ burst through with added urgency, the end of each verse on ‘Love You To,’ in which the tabla and guitar drop out leaving only the sitar and tambura with George stretching out the final word now feels as if the floor has temporarily given way with the listener blissfully in levitation and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ John’s grand concluding evangel is even more hallucinatory with the tape loops ping-ponging from left to right, the Beatles offering their benediction in the summer of 1966 that psychedelia was music’s immediate future.
On the contrary, John’s ‘She Said She Said,’ which concludes side one, is more restrained in the new mix. Ringo’s cymbal crashes no longer have the apocalyptic fervour that underscored John’s dramatic revelation that “she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.”
The session material, spread over two CDs or LPs, is compact enough to compel repeated listening. The more exhaustive exhuming suggested by Kruppa—an approach that has been taken with Elvis’ catalogue, for example—is deeply interesting in its own right; the chance to be a fly on the wall in the studio, but it’s only something that may be returned to occasionally which perhaps is the best argument to affirm the curated approach used here. Among the highlights is a version of Paul’s brassy Motown and marijuana homage ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ before the horns were overdubbed, the repeated guitar riff throughout—its use just before John, Paul and George sing the song title about two minutes in is a thing of beauty—confirms just how ridiculously effortless the Beatles made pop songwriting seem.
The first take of ‘Love You To’ strips the song to its essence with just George and his guitar—dig the slyest hint of a tango rhythm at the concluding line of each verse. It’s one of the long-held secrets of Revolver that is finally spilled. There’s also the unedited version of ‘Doctor Robert,’ an updating for the psychedelic age of the ‘Mystery Train’ rhythm of Scotty Moore’s guitar on Elvis’ immortal version as well as an early demo of ‘Yellow Submarine’ that suggests that song’s elaborate fantasy has always been a shield against a troubled childhood.
As part of the first major peek of the Beatles in the studio, the Anthology releases of the mid nineties, there were nine tracks from the Revolver sessions included. Seven were on volume two of the series and two were included on the ultra-rare ‘Real Love’ maxi single. The new Revolver set includes only six. Curiously, the first run-through of ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ a composite of the 7th take of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ in which the harmonies that John, Paul and George recorded for the master are added halfway through and the instrumental track of the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ master are all absent even though there was more than enough room to include them.
Consolation can be found somewhat with the inclusion of a fascinating snippet of the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ session in which Martin has the string ensemble, comprising four violins, two violas and two cellos, play for Paul with vibrato and then without. While Paul admits he doesn’t detect much of a difference, the players are in accord that Martin’s music, which is infused with the thrust of composer Bernard Herrmann at his best, sounds better sans vibrato.
Of all the songs on Revolver, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is arguably the most enduring. David Crosby’s last pronouncement on music on Twitter was that it would be his choice for the Beatles’ song to play on a rainy day. In total, there have been approximately 700 cover versions of it with only ‘Yesterday’ racking up more. When considering all the songs the group wrote, there have been over 22,000 interpretations, a startling number that elevates the Beatles’ music to the pantheon of other composers whose work form a general repertory—pieces that can be mutated and transmogrified, like the composers of yore that form the backbone of the Great American Songbook—and those that are primarily to be replicated as the composer intended, like the vast canon of classical music.
It’s the latter that motivates Classic Albums Live, a Canadian-based aggregation going on 20 years now whose mission it is to replicate notable records—classic rock is their specialty—“note for note, cut for cut.” Treating a recorded product in the same way a conductor would regard a Mahler score, founder Craig Martin has characterized a Classic Albums Live concert thusly: “Think of it as a recital.” He adds: “We don’t dress up or wear any sort of costume. All our energy is put into the music. We want the performance to sound exactly like the album.”
The music of the Beatles forms a bedrock of the outfit’s repertoire. Right now, they are touring, among other LPs, Let It Be. It’s an interesting album to apply the Classic Albums Live concept and indeed, in the show my wife and I caught at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall in mid-February, the musicians included all the incidental introductions, the fade-up on the brief jam snippet ‘Dig It,’ the false start on ‘Dig a Pony’ recorded during the Beatles’ triumphant rooftop concert and all the rest of the record’s ephemera. The finer details were also rendered with care: the drummer draping cloths on the snare and toms to better approximate the deadened sound of Ringo’s drums, the three musicians on the frontline each approximating a Beatle and the use of two string players and two horn players to fill out the sound of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ (Phil Spector’s addition of a choir was understandably, both for financial and aesthetic reasons, not included in the band’s rendition).
It all walked a line between loving re-creation and half-baked tribute; the dedication to the music precluded even an introduction of the musicians. After Let It Be was completed, a second set was dedicated to Beatles’ favourites and that’s when things got interesting. It happened during ‘Nowhere Man.’ Reveling in the song—the power of the three-part harmony, the replication of George’s guitar lead, half Chet Atkins, half Roger McGuinn, I soon found myself 35 years back endlessly watching The Compleat Beatles, a 1982 documentary on the group and taped off of PBS—pledge breaks and all—and hearing the song for the first time (the film included a snippet of the Beatles performing it at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall in 1966). For a moment, I was permitting myself to newly feel the awe and wonder of that first listen to ‘Nowhere Man,’ remembering those exciting days when I became a Beatles fan.
At the end of the liner notes that pianist Brad Mehldau wrote for the recently released Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles, he notes the circuitous route he took to their music: listening first to those whom the group influenced, principally, in Mehldau’s case, Billy Joel and Supertramp, and feeling some sort of circle being closed once he began to immerse himself in the music of the Beatles.
Mehldau, among the most gifted of the jazz musicians who emerged in the nineties after the Marsalis renaissance of the previous decade, has long taken an expansive and deeply democratic perspective on repertoire. No surprise then that he has turned to the group’s output repeatedly to add his sensitive and expressive touch, resulting in such gems as a 16-minute epic solo excavation of ‘And I Love Her,’ with an extended, engrossing coda that gets lost in the song’s signature four-note riff.
An indefatigably inventive improviser, Mehldau reins in his predilection for long-form improvisation here in favour of more succinct statements while still imparting a personal point-of-view to each of the 10 Beatles songs on the program (a David Bowie number, ‘Life on Mars?,’ concludes the recording, a nod to the legion of musicians indebted to the group).
Most often, the wider contours of the source material remain intact and Mehldau’s touch—so pure—elicits the melodies that have long been lodged in the public consciousness.
He distills ‘I Am the Walrus’ to what it ultimately is amidst all the psychedelic effects: a monster of a rhythmic piece (Mehldau credits guitarist and frequent collaboration Peter Bernstein as pointing out to him that the music of the Beatles had an element of swing to it), brings a dance-hall feel to ‘Your Mother Should Know’ accented with some blues doodles along the way and emphasizes the rise in the melody of George’s Byrds-influenced ‘If I Needed Someone.’ Slipping in ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ could have been a minor fiasco but Mehldau is too astute a player to fall into that trap in an interpretation that is part-barrelhouse piano and part-Bachian counterpoint.
The vision gets wider, through not as wide as when Mehldau truly plunges down the rabbit hole, on ‘Baby’s in Black.’ Trading in the mad waltzing rush of the Beatles ‘ 1964 recording for a measured gospel gait, it’s the song that is most transformed by the pianist on the set. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’ taken at an ambling pace, sees its wittily askew perspective finding kinship with how it would have sounded had it been written by Randy Newman instead. But, it’s only on ‘Golden Slumbers’ in which Mehldau gets immersed in a long-form exploration of a song’s melodic potentialities.
The remaining three songs are from Revolver: ‘For No One,’ ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ All are filled with subtle touches like Mehldau’s reharmonization of “she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born” on ‘She Said She Said’ and playing a note a little behind or ahead of where it would be expected on ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’
Mehldau’s tribute may not be as groundbreaking as Revolver was when it reached ears in the summer of 1966, but what it suggests is a fundamental truth about the music of the Beatles: it endures because it continues to touch us and there remains a lot to discover in it and to say about it.