There was a good discussion about Prog Rock over at Kevin Wolf's place last week. In the comments I allowed as how I thought the adjective "progressive" was largely bullshit, a nonexistent category. I also dislike the term because it implies that only music so labeled can cause music to "progress" -- whatever that means -- and anything not dubbed "progressive" is "regressive" or perhaps "reactionary." I'd also add that when popular music has progressed -- if we define it as undergoing a recognizable metamorphosis from one genre to another, like from jump blues to rock-and-roll, or from rock steady to reggae -- it certainly wasn't self-proclaimed "progressive" musicians who provided the impetus. Those changes are organic, they come from within a musical school, and not from some hothouse laboratory, some Kollege of Musical Knowledge. They come from growth, which is not the same thing as increased complexity.
Forty years ago today, on August 6, 1966, Revolver was unleashed on an unsuspecting -- and remarkably unprepared -- world. It's not been the been the same place since.
Sergeant Pepper is credited with being the first self-consciously integrated rock album -- never mind that the "concept" of the record is actually quite thin: A fictional band concert provides a framing device for the goings-on, and that's pretty much it. (Others have pointed out that it isn't really even the first "concept album"; a good case can be made for The Mothers' Freak Out! and for Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, both of which predate Pepper by at least six months. Nearly as good a case can be made for Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers!) The songs on Pepper don't comment on or elucidate each other, they don't share a common theme or subject matter, and the album doesn't progress (that word again!) from one point to another -- it doesn't really tell a story.
Revolver, on the other hand, does all of these things. If Rubber Soul, from late 1965, marked the moment that the Beatles began to see the world through the eyes of adults, then Revolver gives us the world as seen by adults who know they are going to die. Death is everywhere on this record -- from Eleanor Rigby's terribly sad, lonely and meaningless end (redeemed only by the accidental intercession of another pathetic character, Father Mackenzie, and made bearable by George Martin's achingly beautiful and empathetic string arrangement) to Lennon's obsession with druggy oblivion in three of his contributions: "I'm Only Sleeping," "She Said, She Said," and "Tomorrow Never Knows." Even "Taxman" has sardonic advice "for those who die."
But if Revolver acknowledges the inevitability of death, the album as a whole resoundingly rejects nihilism. It offers solace in adult romantic love, in psychedelic insight, in the innocence of childhood, and a healthy dose of Doctor Robert's cynicism. The album shows clearly the extent to which not only Harrison but all of the Beatles had internalized the Eastern insight, sympathetic with their own psychedelic explorations, that life is illusory, an extended dream. Lennon's persona in "Rain" (technically not on Revolver but very much a part of it -- even a key to understanding the Beatles' mindset in 1966) asks the vitally important question:
Can you hear meIf you listen carefully to a collection from Revolver's period like Rhino's Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire & Beyond, it becomes immediately apparent how astonishingly divisive the psychedelic experience was in the mid-Sixties. I haven't done a careful count, but an amazing number of the delicious obscurities in that collection set up an "us-and-them" division -- "us" being those who've had their eyes opened by LSD and "them" being the Squares who haven't. If the eye-opening experience of acid is that life (and, indeed, death) is a series of "states of mind," none of which is more valid or more "real" than any other, then it follows naturally that, as in "Rain," the Squares need to have their eyes opened as well.
That when it rains and shines
It's just a state of mind?
But it's Revolver's crowning achievement that it rejects this then-fashionable division in favor of universality. The abject Eleanor Rigby and the hopeless Father Mackenzie feeling his faith dying, these are not people who going to be "saved" by an impregnated sugar-cube -- these are desperate people in need of human compassion. The miserably depressed lover of "For No One," the fragmenting mind, desperate for the innocence of childhood, of "She Said, She Said" -- no glib oh-wow-man insight will work miracles for these people. The "state of mind" of these damaged individuals is far, far more complicated than "rain or shine," and the Beatles were immeasurably compassionate -- adult -- to present them to us in the painfully divided year of 1966.
The songwriting is absolutely masterful on this record. I can't but stand agape in awe of the technical prowess of "Here, There and Everywhere," in particular. The first verse concerns itself with "here"; the second with "there." On the word "everywhere," the song suddenly flowers outward, exploring a new key area, a new instrumental texture. For the rest of the song, the words "there" and "everywhere" serve as hinges to change from the home key to the key of the bridge and back again. A humble device, simplistic, even, but its execution is devastatingly deft. It can't be said enough: This assured and mature songcraft came from a young man who, less than three years before, had written "Hold Me Tight" -- a fine little rocker, one I'd be happy to play in a band -- but in formal layout and harmonic structure trite, trite, trite.
Progression in music is not a matter of more. To view progress as a question of more notes-per-beat, more incoherent harmonic complexity, more mathematically improbable time signatures, is to do violence to the central point of music, which is to draw us together. Revolver stands in its humane universal inclusiveness at the edge of a precipice, just before the world became irrevocably atomized, shattered, shredded by history. We still haven't put the pieces back together.
I fear we never will.