“Revolver” was actually the first Beatles album I ever listened to, and it blew my mind, but I’m not sure I was ready for it at the time, and my mind recovered . . . for a time.
Seventh Grade Record Report
It was 1972. I was 12 years old, attending seventh grade in a single-grade building that had once been my village’s high school and was now, nearly 70s years later, a somewhat Dickensian looking institution of dark hallways, warped creaking floors, and rattling radiators. We had “music class,” taught by Mr. Drew. I’m no longer sure if this was a class everyone took, or just those of us who had failed at instruments or chorus. In any case, it was a great class. The key aspect of the class that I remember was record reports — having learned the fundamental elements of popular music (verse, chorus, bridge, that sort of thing), each week a few students would bring in a record (usually a 45) and break it down. We’d report on the artists and instruments, the song structure, the beats per minute (had to count that out in those days). We’d talk about the lyrics and what they meant (if anything). And we’d sit there and listen to the song.
This created a problem. I didn’t own any records. We barely had a record player at home, and my mother’s few albums included some unlikely Christmas collections, the “Camelot” and “Dr. Zhivago” soundtracks, one now-very-dated comedy album by Bill Dana, portraying “Jose Jiminez In Space.” I think that was literally the collection.
I was just awakening to popular music; it may have been just as that school year started that I was given an alarm clock-radio, which gave me access to the miracle that was Top 40 radio in the early ‘70s. (I did have some portable transistor radios before that, but having to listen to music with one tiny earphone buzzing in your ear was something I mostly found wearying.) For the first time, I could listen to music out loud (until, of course, I was told to turn it down).
Mom makes me uncool
So, faced with a need to produce a record report, and having no records to report on, I made a serious mistake and told my mother that I needed to buy a record. You might think that would lead to an offer to drive me to the record store (or permission to take the bus across the river, which I don’t think I was allowed to do just yet). But that wouldn’t produce the proper level of embarrassment, would it? So, while I thought I was going to go and get to select my own music, instead what happened was that one Thursday night (that’s when downtown was open late in those days) my mother came back home and proudly handed me a brand new album.
My mother didn’t know much about popular music (though she would never admit that), and what she did know, she knew from television. So what she brought home was something familiar, guaranteed clean, and safe for a 12-year-old. She brought home “TCB,” the hit soundtrack from the 1968 TV special featuring Diana Ross and the Supremes with The Temptations.
Okay. That might not sound too bad, but . . . this record is taken directly from the broadcast special. It has instrumentals, long introductions, showtunes, snippet versions of hits (“Stop! In the Name of Love” clocks in at 1:12), and . . . medleys. Did you know that someone once thought it was a good idea to make a medley of “A Taste of Honey,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Do You Know The Way to San Jose,” and “Mrs. Robinson”? They did.
From a record report point of view, I had nothing to work with here, because nothing was really put together like a normal record would be. Intros were taken up with actual introductions, outros segued into other songs, it was hard to even tell where a track began or ended. At this remove, I honestly don’t even remember what song I tried to turn into a record report, but I know that it did not work. Our music teacher wondered if I even understood the assignment – I had brought in an entire album, I had a song that didn’t really begin or end properly, and if I remember right it had an odd tempo change so I couldn’t even work out the beats per minute. I did understand, I just didn’t know how to complete it with the tools I’d been handed. He was a kind man, and seemed genuinely disappointed.
There would be another try, however, and 12-year-old me understood the fatal flaw in my previous attempt. This time, no parents would be involved.
The magic of the Scotia Public Library
One of the most magical places in my entire life was the Scotia Public Library. The library was (and is) within the historic Abraham Glen house, originally built in the 1730s and one of the very few surviving wood frame houses from that period. Set on the edge of the village’s large public park, it was a cramped, cozy little refuge that at this point in my life was introducing me to an entire world I barely knew anything about. And, it loaned out records. At this time, I was mostly using it to borrow Bill Cosby records – yes, he did horrible things, and yet sometime we should talk about how important it was to the soft, forming brain of a kid in an all-white community that an African-American man was telling stories that sounded just like the things that happened to me and my friends, and that we could quote his stories word for word to each other.
So I went to the library, in search of something that could cover up the horrible stain of my previous record report, something that could get it off my permanent record. And there, in the small stack of records, was an album by The Beatles. The Beatles, who pretty much invented pop music as we knew it in 1972. Clearly, I could not go wrong doing a record report on a Beatles song. Plus, the cover on this record was insanely cool looking. The album: “Revolver.”
Holy cow. I had never heard anything like it. Who had? The album opens with “Taxman,” with a crazy topic for a popular song, gritty vocals by George Harrison, instruments that sounded like nothing I’d ever heard.
That flows right into “Eleanor Rigby.” Once again, I had never heard anything like it. It is dark, mournful, talking about topics that are hard to imagine dealing with in song. “No one was saved.” Oh. My. God. Yes, the rest of the album is amazing (even absent three tracks that everyone outside the US was provided). But with “Eleanor Rigby,” I had my record report.
I do remember that, while the song had an easily identifiable verse structure, there was a little bit of consternation as the only instruments on it were strings, not the usual guitar/bass/drums combo that would have been featured in most record reports. And bringing in an album borrowed from the library, rather than a 45, did get me a raised eyebrow, but at least this time I had appeared to understand the assignment.
When it was all over, I did borrow “Revolver” several more times. It was the only Beatles record I knew until some friends got the “red” album a couple of years later. But I didn’t buy my own copy. As seventh grade progressed, and that Top 40 radio started taking control of my brain, I would go off in a number of other directions with my very limited spending money. It wouldn’t be too long before I would buy my first record. We’ll get to it.
Capitol was almost done mucking about with The Beatles’ records. For this one, just just omitted tracks — “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert” — which they had just released a couple of months before on “Yesterday and Today.” It doesn’t ruin “Revolver” by any means, but it is definitely missing something without them. But if you’d had to leave something off, “Yellow Submarine” would have gotten my vote. There are only two songs in the Beatles catalog that consistently cause me to jump up and cross the room to lift the needle, and that’s one of them.
My first copy, sadly, is the US version. I fact, it was some years before I knew that those missing songs belonged to this album. But I’m not bitter. (And I have the UK version in The Beatles Collection.)
Was the extreme embarrassment of that first record report, of being found to actually possess no records, the reason I’ve had to keep adding to my collection all these years? Hmmm….