Tape decks, drugs and Abbey Road: how The Beatles’ Revolver revolutionised rock

A photograph of the Beatles with coloured films held over their faces

During December 1965 and the first two months of ’66, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album spent eight weeks at No.1 in the UK and six weeks at No.1 in the US, and was still in the US Top 20 when the group returned to Abbey Road studios in April ’66 to begin recording material for their next new album. The ‘all killer no filler’ excellence of Rubber Soul had set a new benchmark for the world’s top rock artists to equal, and was even talked about as having shifted the focus of rock music from singles to albums.

As others strove to equal it, The Beatles set about the task of making something even better.

“At this point in their career there was very little external pressure on them,” Apple Records director Tony Bramwell remembers. “EMI had all but given up trying to make them do things, and [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein never interfered in that way.”

Being a close associate of the band since his days of being their roadie in Liverpool, Bramwell noticed a different kind of pressure on them. “They were no longer the four-headed mop-top monster they’d been at the start,” he recalls. “They were developing their own lives away from the band, with John and George leading their suburban existences, George becoming interested in Indian music and Paul being thoroughly metropolitan, checking out the galleries and exhibitions, going to clubs and so on.”

McCartney was also the driving force of the band, Bramwell confirms, and was the one who took the initiative to get them back into the studio to record the follow-up to Rubber Soul. Fortunately they were still prolific songwriters so there was no shortage of material.

The first track they worked on was the epochal Tomorrow Never Knows, a psychedelic, pseudo-Indian cosmic soup dreamed up by Lennon four months earlier, inspired by the lines: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which he’d read in translator Walter Kaufmann’s book The Portable Nietzsche.

It was also the first track that 19-year-old Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick worked on, having that very morning been promoted from recording assistant. “I was extremely nervous,” he recalled. “One request from John was that he wanted the vocal to sound like the Dali Lama singing on a mountain top twenty-five miles away. Obviously we had no plug-ins or software. What we’ve got is two tape machines, a [recording console] and one echo chamber. So I’m looking through the control room window into the studio and saw the revolving Leslie speaker from the Hammond organ, and I thought: ‘If we could get John’s voice to go into that revolving speaker, maybe we’ll get something that sounds a bit new.’ And that is what we did use, on the last verse. That sort of won John over.”

McCartney, too, had been working on ideas that fitted nicely with the other-worldly ambience they sought for Tomorrow Never Knows. “I had an idea to use something I had been experimenting with at home on my tape player, where I would put a piece of tape over the record head and saturate the tape with all kinds of sounds,” he later revealed. “I was listening to Stockhausen, and these saturated loops were inspired by his work.”

Producer George Martin remembered how “they would bring me tapes of all the loops, and we would play them just for a giggle, like crossword puzzles. And when we made Tomorrow Never Knows, that was all the tapes they had made at home made into loops. We had about twenty-odd loops or more, at varying speeds.”

For its time, Abbey Road was a state-of-the-art recording facility, but Emerick reveals exactly how primitive state-of-the-art was in 1966: “We’d lace [the tapes] up on our tape machine, and people would have to hold them out with pencils. On Tomorrow Never Knows there weren’t enough people in the control room to handle holding them, so we got some of the maintenance department down to help. I think we put five loops up on faders and then just played it as an instrument.”

Even just with those sonic innovations, Tomorrow Never Knows would have been a revolutionary-sounding track. But Emerick then pulled another rabbit out of the hat to refresh Ringo Starr’s drum sound. The Beatles had been hearing hard, solid drums on American records that were not being matched in England. So – and strictly against Abbey Road rules – Emerick “took the front skin off the bass drum, stuffed a sweater inside and put the skin back on… I moved the microphone about four inches away from the drum and got the bass drum sound I really wanted, this hard sort of up-front thud.”

Contemporary Abbey Road wisdom decreed that any mic placed closer than 18 inches from a bass drum would be damaged by the air pressure from it. But Emerick and The Beatles were less interested in equipment than in achieving new sounds. “All I could do to accommodate requests for new sounds for them was really, basically, just to abuse the equipment,” he says.

Predictably, Abbey Road management rapped Emerick’s knuckles. But in the longer term, equipment abuse became another tool in the search for new sounds.

The following day, work started on the uptempo Got To Get You Into My Life, a more traditional Stax soul-based McCartney composition. At first listen it’s just another standard romantic relationship song. But as Macca himself explained, it was written after his first experience with marijuana and was “actually an ode to pot, like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret”.

The track didn’t require the kind of innovations that transformed Tomorrow Never Knows but even so, producer Martin and engineer Emerick racked their brains to devise ways of making it sound the way McCartney wanted.

“In those days they would hear a record coming from America where they had really good brass sounds,” Martin explained. “They’d say: ‘Let’s try some.’ So we would get brass players in the studio and I would write down parts for them.”

For Got To Get You Into My Life, Martin brought in a horn section, including members of Georgie Fame’s Blue Fames and a fistful of London’s go-to jazz session players. “Paul sat at the piano and showed us what he wanted, and we played with the rhythm track in our headphones,” Blue Flames sax player Peter Coe remembered. “We tried it a few times to get the feel right, and then John Lennon, who was in the control room, suddenly rushed out, stuck his thumb aloft and shouted: ‘Got it!’”

However, Lennon’s celebratory yell referred only to their performance. The sound that McCartney envisaged was still not quite there. He wanted it to be bigger. Emerick pondered how to achieve McCartney’s aim. “We could double-track it, but there were no more tracks left. So we actually recorded it on to a [separate] stereo piece of tape.”

There was no way in 1966 to sync up two tape recorders, so they simply marked off the ‘start’ point of the copy with a grease pencil and, when it came to the final mix, crossed their fingers, started up the copy and the original and prayed that the two would “marry up”.

On April 11 they started work on Granny Smith, a Harrison concoction later to become Love You To. Harrison had become fascinated by Indian music and, specifically, sitars at a late-August 1965 gathering in LA’s Benedict Canyon, where The Beatles hung out with The Byrds, whose David Crosby introduced him to the music of Ravi Shankar. Two months later, Harrison had executed an effective sitar part on Norwegian Wood, but Love You To went much further. With minimal participation from the other Beatles, Harrison created the track with tabla player Anil Bhagwat and several Indian musicians from London’s Asian Music Circle.

Bhagwat was rung up on the day of the session. “It was only when a Rolls-Royce came to pick me up that I realised I’d be playing on a Beatles session,” he later explained. “When I arrived at Abbey Road there were girls everywhere with Thermos flasks, cakes, sandwiches, waiting for The Beatles to come out. George told me what he wanted and I tuned the tabla with him. He suggested I play something in the Ravi Shankar style, 16 beats, though he agreed that I should improvise.”

As he had done with Ringo’s drums, Emerick close-mic’d Bhagwat’s tabla, achieving a previously unimaginably powerful thwack. What remains unclear is how much of the sitar on the track was played by Harrison, but it seems likely that the intro is his while the remainder is played by an uncredited Asian Music Circle member.

Harrison has a sitar lesson in New Delhi, India, July ’66.

Harrison has a sitar lesson in New Delhi, India, July ’66.

With Love You To completed, work started on Paperback Writer which, because it was released as a single, did not appear on Revolver (a common practice in that era). This is also true of its B-side, Rain, recorded one day later. But both songs are clearly products of the same gloriously freewheeling mindsets that created the album.

McCartney had conceived the structure of Paperback Writer on the drive from central London to Lennon’s suburban home for an afternoon songwriting session. “I developed the whole idea in the car,” he explained. “I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said: ‘How’s about if we write a letter: Dear Sir or Madam, next line, next paragraph etc?’”

Opening with the most distinctively layered harmony vocals of their career so far, the song was propelled on a dynamic guitar riff underpinned by the loudest drum and bass combo yet heard on a Beatles single, thanks to Emerick’s now firmly established techniques. With typically tongue-in-cheek Beatles whimsy, Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocals bear no relation to the song’s lyric, as they sing instead the title of the French folk song Frere Jacques.

Rain, which was chosen as the B-side of Paperpack Writer, would have fitted perfectly on Revolver. Lyrically, it takes an off-kilter look at its subject matter. “Songs have traditionally treated rain as a bad thing, and what we got on to was that it’s no bad thing,” McCartney pointed out. “There’s no greater feeling than the rain dripping down your back. The most interesting thing about it wasn’t the writing, which was tilted seventy-thirty to John, but the recording of it.”

The new grainy guitar texture was achieved by recording the backing track at a higher speed than normal, then adding the vocals to the slowed down instrumental sounds. When Lennon went home after the session – in a somewhat altered state – he accidentally played the reel-to-reel tape backwards. “I sat there, transfixed, with the earphones on, with a big hash joint,” he later remembered. “I ran in the next day and said: ‘I know what to do with it, I know… Listen to this!’ So I made them all play it backwards. The fade is me actually singing, backwards, with the guitars going backwards.”

Dr Robert Freymann, a Manhattan doctor notorious for dispensing ‘good vibes’ – in the shape of vitamin B-12 shots laced with amphetamine – to his wealthy clientele provided the subject matter for the Lennon song they laid down on April 17. Explaining how Freymann inspired Doctor Robert, McCartney said: “John and I thought that was a funny idea – the fantasy doctor who would fix you up by giving you drugs. It was a parody on that idea.”

Perhaps not the album’s most captivating composition, Doctor Robert does contain an example of ADT (Artificial Double Tracking), a new recording technique developed by Abbey Road staffer Ken Townshend. ADT freed the band from the chore of recording their vocals more than once to fatten them up. Instead the system copied the vocal track then played it back alongside the original, out of sync by a matter of milliseconds, just enough to create a double image.

On April 20 the band were back in Studio 2, working on the songs Taxman and You Don’t Get Me, later retitled And Your Bird Can Sing. Harrison’s Taxman would be chosen to open the album, probably because of its dynamic opening bars and harsh, trebly chord slashes, but its most intriguing guitar-related fact is that the energetically crazed solo was played by McCartney. “I got the guitar and was playing around in the studio with the feedback and stuff, and I said to George: ‘Maybe you could play it like this.’ I can’t quite remember how it happened that I played it, but it was probably one of those times when somebody says: ‘Well why don’t you do it, then?’”

Later that day, Harrison and McCartney played the guitar duet on Lennon’s And Your Bird Can Sing, delivering a powerful, distinctly Byrds-like folk-rock workout, but they felt they could do better. By the time they returned to it a week later, everything was tightened up, the guitar parts flowed better and the rock was decidedly more evident than the folk.

Lennon never revealed what his song’s cryptic lyric was about, but one favourite interpretation is that it was an attack on Mick Jagger, whose ‘bird’ of the time, Marianne Faithful, could indeed sing.

The gloriously soporific I’m Only Sleeping was the next track they worked on, beginning on April 27 but not completed until May 5. Lennon was a notoriously snoozy kind of guy. In the contentious “more popular than Jesus” interview, journalist Maureen Cleave wrote: “He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more.’” There are known instances, notably Here, There And Everywhere, of McCartney working industriously on songs at Lennon’s Kenwood home while his writing partner remained in the land of nod.

Lennon had written the lyric on April 25, on the back of a car-phone bill. But at the first studio session, McCartney noticed the lack of a middle eight, and supplied the more upbeat ‘Keeping an eye on the world going by my window…’ section.

In the wake of Lennon’s ‘discovery’ of backwards recording techniques during the making of Rain, it was now virtually de rigueur to try everything backwards – just in case. Harrison’s eight-measure solo in I’m Only Sleeping was one beneficiary of that process. The technique was somewhat refined, however, because Harrison deliberately crafted a solo which he thought would sound good in reverse, then asked George Martin to transcribe it backwards. What followed was an exhausting nine-hour session during which Martin conducted Harrison painstakingly through the reversed notation until he got it right. “I can still picture George hunched over his guitar for hours on end,” Emerick wrote in 2006, “headphones clamped on, brow furrowed in concentration.”

When he finally managed to play the solo, it was reversed before being inserted into the track.

In control: (l-r) Brian Epstein, George Martin and Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road.

In control: (l-r) Brian Epstein, George Martin and Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road.

Eleanor Rigby, begun on April 28, was a very different story. Folk-rock hit maker Donovan, one of McCartney’s near-neighbours, has recalled a day that spring when the Beatle turned up at his house uninvited: “He knocked on the door and said: ‘What are you doing?’ I said: ‘Writing songs. What are you doing?’ ‘I’m writing songs too…’ He sat down, and I said: ‘Okay, what do you got?’ ‘He said: ‘Well, I got this,’ and he sang this: ‘Ola Na Tunjee/Blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay.’”

Sing those words in your head to the tune of Eleanor Rigby and its easy to see where Paul was headed. He always considered melody the most important element in a song, and frequently tried out different words before settling on a final version (famously, Yesterday was called Scrambled Eggs for several weeks).

There’s no definitive account of precisely how he got from ‘Ola Na Tunjee’ to ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but McCartney’s version holds that he combined the first name of actress friend Eleanor Bron with a sign he saw in Bristol advertising wine merchants Rigby And Evens Ltd. Most curiously, though, there’s a 1939 gravestone bearing the name Eleanor Rigby in St. Peter’s churchyard in Woolton, just yards from the hall where Lennon and McCartney first played together in 1957. McCartney himself has acknowledged that he might have seen that stone as a teenager, and unknowingly unearthed it from his subconscious while working on the song.

Once he had the name and the lyric outline, the others helped piece together the rest, but in the final version, only the voices of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison are heard, backed by a pair of string quartets, arranged impeccably by Martin. In response to McCartney asking if the strings could sound more ‘biting’, Emerick again used close-mic’ing, this time with a separate mic on each instrument. The result was a dramatic improvement in the sound definition – rich, resonant strings with a front-and-centre clarity previously unheard on record.

Another flirtation with the classical world came about during the recording of For No One, which began on May 9. It had started life back in March as Why Did It Die, a McCartney song composed in a Swiss Alps ski resort chalet after an argument with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Neither Lennon nor Harrison took part in the recording, on which McCartney played piano, clavichord and bass, with Ringo on drums and tambourine.

“Occasionally we’d have an idea for some new kind of instrumentation, particularly for solos,” McCartney has said. “I was interested in the French horn because it was an instrument I’d always loved from when I was a kid. It’s a beautiful sound. So I went to George Martin and said: ‘How can we go about this?’ And he said: ‘Well, let me get the very finest.’”

For a fee of £50, Martin got Alan Civil, principal horn player for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who remembers: “I thought the song was called For Number One, because I saw ‘For No One’ written down. Anyway, they played the existing tape to me, which was complete, and I thought it had been recorded in rather bad musical style, in that it was ‘in the cracks’, neither B-flat nor B-major. This posed a certain difficulty in tuning my instrument.”

Civil’s horn part was constructed by McCartney singing the melody he wanted to George Martin, who then transcribed it for Civil to sight-read. But they slyly slipped in a top F, one note higher than the instrument’s usual range. “Alan looked up from his bit of paper: ‘Er, George? I think there’s a mistake here – you’ve got a high F written down,’” McCartney remembers. “Then George and I said: ‘Yeah,’ and smiled back at him. And he knew what we were up to, and played it. These great players will do it.”

With its plangent, descending bassline, For No One’s understated mood of weary resignation provides a stunning contrast to the vibrantly experimental tracks that surround it.

On May 20 the band briefly left the confines of Abbey Road to film promos for Paperback Writer and Rain in the grounds of Chiswick House in West London. They returned to the studio on the 26th to continue the tradition of including one song sung by Ringo on every Beatles album. McCartney recalls the origins of Yellow Submarine thus: “I was laying in bed in the Ashers’ garret… I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, so I wrote it as not too rangey in the vocal, then started making a story, sort of an ancient mariner telling the young kids where he’d lived.”

During the same Donovan encounter when McCartney had sung him Ola Na Tunjee, he also sang him, Donovan says, “another song that was missing a verse. It was a very small part, and I just went into the other room and put together ‘sky of blue, sea of green’. They had always asked other people for help with a line or two, so I helped with that line.”

Several people contributed words here and there for the lyrics to Yellow Submarine. A second recording session on June 1 turned into a mini-party with guests including Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd and a gaggle of Abbey Road staffers, all of them handed noise-making devices, ranging from chains to old bathtubs, dredged from the trap room, an under-stairs cupboard described by George Martin as “full of general sorts of percussion instruments”. Yellow Submarine even used an ancient cash register, which was used again in 1973 by Pink Floyd for Money.

Inevitably, down the years, critics and pundits have allocated symbolic significance to the song’s lyrics, sometimes drug-related, sometimes socio-political, but McCartney has always remained adamant that “it’s a happy place, that’s all. You know, it was just… We were trying to write a children’s song. That was the basic idea. And there’s nothing more to be read into it than there is in the lyrics of any children’s song.”

Which is not quite the case for Harrison’s I Want To Tell You, which was put together on June 2 and 3. Superficially it’s a simple tale of a young man tongue-tied in the presence of a pretty girl, but Harrison revealed that it was actually about “the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit” caused by taking LSD.

His acid daze did not, however, prevent him from innovating musically; the song includes a rare use of the chord E7flat9, with which he was inordinately chuffed. When asked what it is, Harrison explained: “That’s an E7 with an F on top played on the piano. I’m really proud of that, as I literally invented that chord… John later borrowed it on I Want You.”

Neil Innes, of novelty act the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (and later The Rutles) vividly remembers recording an inconsequential music-hall song in Studio 1, during which he “snuck out, down the corridor to outside their studio, and I could hear very clearly what they were doing. They were working on one of George’s songs, and it was just fantastic listening to this, especially this F over the E.” At that moment, Innes realised just how far out of The Beatles’ league he was creatively. “Then I had to go back to our studio and record My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies.”

As the Revolver sessions neared their end, time was being taken up with mixing and overdubbing. But on June 8 they spent the first of two days recording Good Day Sunshine, which McCartney has described as “very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream, the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel”. Neither as technically complex nor as musically sophisticated as many other tracks on Revolver, it nevertheless includes a neat piece of studio trickery in the shape of George Martin’s honky-tonk piano solo, which was recorded slow, then speeded up to give it some extra zip.

It took three days, June 14-16, to record the sublime Here, There And Everywhere, but the writing of it, at Lennon’s Weybridge home, was much faster. “It was written quite quickly,” McCartney recalls, “out by the swimming pool in St George’s Hill while I was waiting for John to wake up one morning.” By the time Lennon woke, the song was almost complete, although McCartney concedes that when they went indoors to finish it, “John might have helped with a few last words”.

Harrison in Chiswick Park in 1966, for the promo shoot for Rain and Paperback Writer.

Harrison in Chiswick Park in 1966, for the promo shoot for Rain and Paperback Writer.

The last song recorded for Revolver was She Said She Said. According to Lennon it “was written after an acid trip in LA during a break in The Beatles’ [1965] tour, where we were having fun with The Byrds and lots of girls… Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid, and kept coming up to me, sitting next to me and whispering: ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ He was describing an acid trip he’d been on.” Lennon’s home demos reveal that after getting the basic idea for the song he changed it several times, added new sections and sought advice from Harrison. Harrison recalls that Lennon “had loads of bits, maybe three songs, that were unfinished, and I made suggestions and helped him to work them together so that they became one finished song”.

Lennon was evidently not entirely happy with She Said She Said, because it was not a serious contender for Revolver until the last moment, when they realised they were one song short.

An acerbic counterpoint to the honey of Here, There And Everywhere, it required a nine-hour session on June 21, during which Harrison played bass because McCartney and Lennon had become embroiled in a squabble.

Once it, and therefore the album, was done, producer George Martin reportedly sighed: “All right, boys, I’m just going for a lie down.”

As soon as the album was mixed, The Beatles played three dates in Germany, followed by a brief Far Eastern jaunt. But even while on the road, the album was uppermost in their minds. On June 26, the day of their gig in Hamburg, they finally decided on a name for it, discarding suggestions including Abracadabra, Four Sides Of The Eternal Triangle, Magic Circles, Pendulum and After Geography (Ringo’s jokey take on the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath). The multi-layered pun of Revolver won the day, finding favour with all of the band.

Also during the German trip, in Essen on June 25, they played Got To Get You Into My Life for support band Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers. “Paul and John came in the dressing room and let us hear Got To Get You Into My Life,” Bennett recalls. “They’d thought it would be great for us because of all the brass. John played his guitar and Paul ‘dah-dah-dah’d the brass parts. Right away, even like that, I knew it was brilliant for us.”

Cliff Bennett and co. recorded the song at Abbey Road with McCartney as producer. “We were mesmerised with the things he did,” Bennett says. “New techniques like putting limiters on the piano, stuffing the grand piano cover inside the bass drum to get that flat-slap sound, things like that. Actually, I preferred the old ‘ba-boom’ sound from a bass drum, but we went along with it.”

At two am, when McCartney called it a day, Bennett still hadn’t done his vocals, so they reconvened the following morning. “Paul lived just along the road, so he turned up in his pyjamas, carpet slippers, and a jacket over his pyjama top. Must have walked round the corner like that, which I thought was hilarious.”

Germany calling: Munich, 1966

Germany calling: Munich, 1966

Revolver was released in the UK on August 5. On its front cover was a surreal mixed-media artwork by Klaus Voormann, the bassist with Manfred Mann and a friend of The Beatles since their early days in Hamburg. Having heard Tomorrow Never Knows, Voormann had decided: “They were being so avant-garde. I thought: ‘The cover has to do the same thing. How far can I go? How surreal and strange can it be?’”

His instantly striking collage, part line drawing and part photographic, ingeniously coupled modern art with commerciality. “We were very pleased,” McCartney enthused. “We liked the way there were little things coming out of people’s ears, and how he’d collaged things on a small scale while the drawings were on a big scale. He also knew us well enough to capture us rather beautifully in the drawings. We were flattered.”

Voormann was paid £40 for his work, which reduced Beatles manager Brian Epstein to tears of joy on first seeing it. It was subsequently awarded the 1966 Best Album Cover Grammy.

Cliff Bennett’s version of Got To Get You Into My Life was released on the same day as Revolver. The feeding frenzy accompanying any new Beatles album meant that virtually anyone lucky enough to acquire a pre-release test pressing headed straight for the nearest studio to record one of its tracks. Thus August 5 also saw the release of Here, There And Everywhere by The Fourmost, Good Day Sunshine by The Tremeloes, Tax Man by The Loose Ends, and two versions of For No One, one by Marc Reid and one by Brian Withers. In the coming weeks, Cilla Black released yet another For No One, while Episode Six went for Here, There And Everywhere. Intriguingly, apart from Bennett’s single, which peaked at No.6 in the UK, none of the other versions were noticeably successful, probably because so many people already owned the album that buying an inferior version seemed pointless.

Revolver’s commercial impact was immediate, the album topping the UK chart for seven weeks and the US chart for six. Culturally, although there had been earlier instances of psychedelic music, mostly in San Francisco, London and New York, Revolver opened the floodgates, and changed the thinking, and the chemical preferences, of young rock and pop visionaries worldwide. It’s hard to imagine the careers of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and many others without the trail blazed by Revolver.

Even beyond the music world, The Beatles could now be seen as a socio-economic force. On August 10, just days after the release of Revolver, the American stock market wobbled because the price of shares in their US label, Capitol Records, dropped sharply. The reason was that Lennon’s observation that The Beatles were now “more popular than Jesus” had triggered bans and burnings of Beatles records. Of course, before too long their popularity would recover, but the incident made it clear that the music industry, and The Beatles themselves, were now seriously big business.

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