Alan Johnson on Revolver by the Beatles: “The greatest testament to an incredible phenomenon”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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The album wasn’t a recognisable art form before the Beatles. If the British pop stars of the time, Cliff, Billy, Marty or Adam released an LP it was to earn extra royalties from their regurgitated singles. When, in February 1964, Cathy McGowan broke the news on Ready, Steady,Go! that the Beatles had reached No 1 in the US charts, her teenage audience knew that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t destined to be reproduced as an album track. For UK followers, the Beatles could be relied upon to invariably provide only new music for the extra outlay required to buy an LP.

Then came the rhapsodic phase when every new record seemed designed to take the pop album to a new and previously unobtainable level. Sandwiched between Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper in this amazing trilogy was Revolver. When it was released in the summer of 1966 I was working at Tesco in Hammersmith King Street where the man who delivered the Nevill’s bread at 8.30 every morning also carried a stock of contraband EMI albums, which he sold at half price.

It was from Fred the bread man that I acquired the musical highlight of that or any other summer. (I like to think there was an egg man somewhere destined to carry knocked-off copies of Magical Mystery Tour.) The title’s clever pun enshrined the way we listened to music at the time (and are increasingly doing so again); putting a slab of vinyl the size of a large pizza on to a turntable, applying the needle and listening as it moved through the five or six tracks on that side before turning it over to complete the process.

What glorious music emerged from Revolver, the first fruits of the Beatles’ decision to concentrate on the studio rather than the stage. Familiarity has made it impossible to recapture the initial impact of tracks such as “Eleanor Rigby”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Got to Get You into My Life” or “Tomorrow Never Knows”. On one album they demonstrated their complete mastery of every rock music genre from R&B to psychedelia. For me, and I suspect millions of others, it remains the greatest testament to the incredible musical and cultural phenomenon that was the Beatles.

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Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle. His books include In My Life: A Music Memoir (Bantam Press)

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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