In Beatles history, 1966 has largely gone down as the year that Beatlemania began to self-destruct. A visit to Japan resulted in protests over the Beatles’ plans to play at Budokan, and exposed how normally screaming crowds had left them unable to skillfully perform their own songs live. A trip to the Philippines inadvertently turned into a disaster of legendary proportions. And the U.S. tour threatened to be an even worse ordeal, with John’s “more popular than Jesus” remark spurning outrage, boycotts, mass burnings of Beatles records, and even death threats.
But despite the unparalleled traumas, John, George, and Ringo saw conceptual doors open as they began experimentation with LSD, while Paul continued his journey with marijuana. In fact, 1966 can easily be read as the year that the Beatles started to take control of their own career. Pushed by the stresses, heartaches, and terrors that seemed to greet them at every new tour date, the band finally put their collective foot down. In a move unheard of then and still highly unadvised now, they decided they would no longer tour, but instead dedicate all of their musical time to writing and recording. They also used their clout to force EMI to accept that they could no longer expect two albums and two singles a year. For the first time, the Beatles had no new LP for Christmas and made Revolver their definitive, almost sole musical statement for the year. And oh my, what a statement it was.
Unlike some other years, where it seemed that one Beatle’s skills tended to dominate over the others’, in 1966 there were no clear winners and losers. Seemingly out of nowhere, George displayed astounding songwriting proficiency; John was inspired to push boundaries and get psychedelic; Paul wrote some of his most complex and enduring pop songs yet; and Ringo continued to back everyone up with some of the finest drumming of his career.
1. Tomorrow Never Knows
At the time of its release, Tomorrow Never Knows shocked and alienated some audiences. Even the sitar and backwards guitars appearing earlier on the album could not have prepared them for what the once cute and wholesome Fabs had in store — John’s haunting, droning, automatically double-tracked vocal; Ringo’s insistent, pulsating drums; lyrics pulled from the Tibetan Book of the Dead; and tape loops that mimic squawking birds and eerie orchestral strings; and certainly, no catchy, radio-friendly pop hook. As the last track on Revolver, Tomorrow Never Knows was not just the Beatles’ most ambitious, experimental track yet, it also served to preview what 1967 would bring.
From Revolver’s last track to its first, Taxman is not just among George Harrison’s best Beatles’ songs, it’s also one of the Beatles’ absolute best album openers. The gravelly murmured, repeated count-in and cough set a tone of surrealism and irreverence, as the song proceeds to knock the wind out of you by transitioning into one of the greatest basslines ever written. George manages to sing in a tone that drips as much sarcasm as his witty and indignant lyrics do, with the beautiful backing harmonies adding a note of irony — especially as government leaders are directly named. The blistering guitar solo goes on to appropriately convey the overall tone of resentment at the song’s heart while remaining as aurally spectacular as the rest of the track. Indeed, the defining feature of Taxman may in fact be that it is always, always over too soon.
3. Paperback Writer
Speaking of basslines, once Paul gets out his Hofner, he’s really not joking around. The sound here has often been called “lead bass” — it’s an apt description, though it should in no way be taken to discount the work of George and John’s aggressive double lead guitar. Ringo’s drumming is laid back and cool, and the harmonies here are among the most complex that the group ever attempted. Heard properly only in mono, Paperback Writer was quite an odd pick for a Beatles single, but it worked.
4. Got to Get You Into My Life
Paul McCartney’s somewhat lyrically-concerning love song for pot features perhaps the finest horn section on any Beatles track — a move which ensures that the song can be read as nothing other than a jubilant celebration. Questions of potential substance dependency aside, Paul’s soaring and sometimes raving vocal also displays the sincerity of his devotion. And while we’re on the topic of vocals, the fade out is the reason that this is one of the few tracks where I personally find that stereo is actually superior to mono.
5. Eleanor Rigby
Eleanor Rigby is among the most popular and revered songs in the Beatles’ catalog. It’s also quite arguably among the most universal. Few of us live a life as unsatisfactorily solitary as poor Eleanor, but who among us cannot at some point at least wistfully relate to a song about all the lonely people? The strings and Paul’s plaintively beautiful vocal helped to ensure that it would be a classic the instant the master was completed.
Bonus Track: Rain
John’s laconic B-side track to Paperback Writer features the absolute best drumming Ringo Starr ever did. Not exactly a hit or one of the Beatles’ better known songs, it’s still absolutely superb — and quintessential 1966. While there remains a dispute as to whether the idea was John’s or George Martin’s, the track also features the first use of backwards vocals — something to toy with many people’s heads for many years. And while I maintain that this track is all about Ringo, Paul’s there with his bass again, kicking ass and taking names.
What would your list have looked like? Personally, I’m still mourning the necessity of leaving off I’m Only Sleeping. Are you outraged by the omission of Here, There and Everywhere? And what about George’s classic I Want to Tell You? While new material was scarce in 1966, nearly every single track was a winner. See a full list of Beatles songs by year here, and drop your own picks in the comments.