Revolutions per Minute

Revolutions per Minute


The Beatles’ Revolver

“Try not to dwell so much upon…a bunch of fifteen year olds made from dinosaur bones singing, ‘Oh yeah’ / Again and again / Right up to the end.”

– Father John Misty, “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”

Within my musical collection, I own not one but two vinyl copies of the Beatles’ landmark album Revolver (1966). One is the stereo mix, the other is the mono mix. They sit on my shelf like prize pieces of art waiting to be played. I look at the artwork: an intricate mix of photographs and drawings of the Beatles themselves. By the artist Klaus Voormann, it is a striking display of black-and-white psychedelia that would inform the countercultural aesthetic of the 1960s. Yet, this is just the first half of the experience. After the initial step of gazing at the artwork and the text, one proceeds, naturally, to taking out the record and placing it on the turntable. Drop the needle and the record’s sound emits from the speakers: “1, 2, 3, 4.”

From the grooves, the Beatles circa 1966 are conjured into any space and time from the spinning disc. It’s magic, and it is frightening when you really think about it. Impressed onto this disk made of polyvinyl are voices of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr along with their instruments and effects. Though disembodied, they continue to live on exactly as they were the moment their sounds were recorded and pressed into records made of oil that probably came from “dinosaur bones,” as noted by Father John Misty. Just as the initial uses of recording were meant to capture the voices of those who had passed away, or to capture the sounds of faraway places for scholarly purposes, we continue these basic notions with music.

As an early example of using the album as an art form itself, the Beatles shaped their sounds and creations into the roughly 35 minutes the disc could handle. This was during a period of transition for the band as they shifted from live performances into a studio-based group. Revolver contains with its innovations of studio technology and use of equipment to literally manipulate their sound. This included: manipulating speed, backward recordings, looping, double-tracking, and the inclusion of non-traditional rock instruments, like the sitar and an octet. Thus, the focus is placed on the recording and the record itself to fully project their work as they intended it to be listened to. This was before the invention of sophisticated technology that could allow artists to emit similar effects live on stage today. In a sense, recording was not simply the capturing of a live sound anymore—the record could be molded, shaped, and directed to create a newer experience altogether. Of course, this musical journey that the Beatles have envisioned goes hand-in-hand with its tangible form: the vinyl record.

Music, as an abstract art form, can only really take the shape of time and space in its truest sense. Yet, with the vinyl record and the many other incarnations of musical recording materials, music becomes shaped by its container. Before streaming it was CDs, cassettes, records, cylinders, and more. For the record company, the vinyl record is the product they sell—the music is just what fills it in. Early records were meant to entice people into buying turntables that were more like furniture for the household. The record was secondary and a pure novelty. Music becomes commoditized through this transformation into a tangible object. The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” can be consumed in a physical sense through the production of its encasement: the artwork, the text, the record sleeve, and the vinyl disc itself. Just as the idea and template of the “single” would be formed by the limitations of the 45 rpm disc, the product that is Revolver takes it shape in the form of a 33 1/3 rpm. In creating their musical product, the Beatles take advantage of the format, and allow for its properties and reproducibility to inform the creation of the album into an experience for their many listeners.

Over the last couple of years, vinyl as a musical medium has received a resurgence in interest. This is odd, especially given the availability of music through digital media like the mp3 and streaming. One would think there is no real difference between the two forms as we take in music for its aural qualities. Yet, when a recording is etched into the groove of a record or transcribed into 0s and 1s, it becomes attached its container that shape one’s experience. The second-hand copy of Revolver with all of its hisses and crackles become the experience of listening to songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It is a part of the information given by the record itself. Even though the songs are the same, the medium affects one’s relationship with the music. With the physicality and mechanical process of listening to music on vinyl, it seems there is a fetishizing aspect that creates a unique experience: The record can be held, flipped over, watched, and even smelled.

There is a certain aura that emanates from the Revolver record that is different from listening to it on my phone through a streaming service. I place my copies on a shelf, because I feel there is higher value inherent with the record’s physicality. Despite never really being able to touch or feel the sonic qualities of the music itself, the record allows for it to become more real. By placing a needle, I feel I have summoned this music from nowhere. This pressed vinyl has allowed for these collections of songs to inhabit the past, present, and future. On this disk, the Beatles have become made of dinosaur bones, and their sounds will play again and again up to the end.

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