The Revolutionary Year
By Steve Turner
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 2013, Mark Lewisohn published the first volume of his multi-volume series The Beatles: All These Years, which explored the group from the birth of the individual Beatles up until the end of 1962 in intricate detail. While the world is waiting for Lewisohn to complete the second (and eventually the third) volume of this mammoth work, Steve Turner has provided his own in-depth study of the Fab Four with Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year, in which he focuses on a year that saw the Beatles go through massive changes as writers, performers, and in their personal lives. Turner begins by looking at the state of the Beatles in December of 1965 to set up his status quo. In the subsequent twelve chapters, each one covering a month in the life of the band, he follows the Beatles, collectively and individually, as well as Brian Epstein and, to a lesser extent George Martin, to explore what they were doing. His selection of 1966 allows him to look at their last concerts in the UK, their final international tour that included protests in Japan, a diplomatic incident in the Philippines, and the fallout in America from the interview John gave to Maureen Cleave at the beginning of the year. It also looks at the creation of Revolver, the early planning of Sergeant Pepper's Lonley hearts Club Band, John's appearance in the film How I Won the War, George's growing interest in Indian music and the beginning of his apprenticeship with Ravi Shankar, Paul's complex relationships with Jane Asher and Maggie McGivern, and John's first meeting with Yoko Ono.
Through it all, Turner relates what is going on in the Beatles' lives back to their growth as musicians. The top musical act in the world for several years, their relationship with other musicians, from the Kinks to Bob Dylan, to the Beach Boys, helped challenge them to go beyond what they had already done. Their desire to have individual voices also mean there was some competition within the band to find that next level. Their growing use of LSD in addition to marijuana, gave them the perception that their music could achieve so much more than just being silly love songs.
Turner's descriptions of the Beatles concerts early in the book are also interesting. While the popular image of the screaming fans at sold out stadiums is a very real aspect of life as a Beatle, what is often missing from the depictions of the concerts is their brevity. While Paul McCartney played 37 songs during a two hour forty minute concert in June 2022, the Beatles playlists in 1966 were around 12 songs long and could last for only half an hour, padded out by several opening acts.
While Turner is relating the story of all the Beatles, he tends to focus on John, Paul, and George as the most productive of the Beatles during the year. Ringo makes appearances throughout, but is rarely the focus on Turner's work, spending much of the year quietly hanging out at his home with Maureen, visiting John on the movie set in Spain, and telling Cleave that he is the least financially secure of the group since he doesn't have the songwriting credits Lennon, McCartney, or Harrison have. This focus on the individuals is a precursor to the eventual breakup of the band, four years later, even if everyone involved denied a rift was forming at the time.
The Beatles spent much of the year apart, aside from their touring time. Even after they moved into the studio to work on Revolver, the sessions often only included a portion of the group as they experimented with multi tracking and the use of instruments which were not considered standard for pop bands. A flurry of names from tabla player Anil Bhagwat to classical musicians like Neville Marriner crop up. One of the intriguing aspects of their inclusion was Turner's repeated mention that as classical musicians, members of the avant garde, or eastern musicians, working with the Beatles was just another job for them.
Turner's book, looking at a specific year in the evolution of the band, explains how the Beatles went from being a highly successful and popular band to being a trendsetter and experimenting with music and technology. As he notes in his epilogue, the Beatles were able to synthesize what other musicians were doing and introduce the results to a larger audience. The fact that the music was being produced by the Beatles meant that is was almost automatically accepted and served to stimulate further innovation, not only from other bands, but amongst the Beatles themselves.
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