Sgt Pepper Versus Revolver

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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Friend Stephen Kroninger sent me this list of the Beatles best albums today; not surprisingly, Revolver edged out Sgt. Pepper (with Abbey Road at #2!). This led to some interesting thoughts regarding Sgt Pepper versus Revolver, which I wanted to share.

I’ve written about my love for Pepper many times before (probably most lucidly here), and Nancy has written nicely here. It’s not as though the album needs defenders. Or does it?

For the record (ha), I definitely prefer Pepper; I listen to it more frequently, think it’s more interesting, and feel it is—decisively—a greater artistic achievement. I also think the songs on Revolver are mostly better. But an LP isn’t simply a collection of songs, or doesn’t have to be, and Pepper was really the first album to attempt to harness all aspects of the listener experience—the music, and the cover, and the lyrics, the packaging, even the “story” surrounding the performers—to get something very specific across, to create a specific experience for the listener. Revolver did some of this—the music and the cover are “in tune” with each other (as was Rubber Soul). But Pepper takes it much, much further.

Pepper is routinely slagged because “it’s a concept album with no concept.” This is, frankly, bullshit. When Pepper was released, millions of people across the West immediately got the concept, and what they got was an artistically coherent, incredibly visceral experience that was more or less what the Beatles intended them to get. What more could a concept album possibly do? In fact, I’d argue that narrowly defined concept albums (like, say, Zappa’s Freak Out or Nilsson’s The Point) are not capacious enough to be truly successful in an artistic sense. They certainly aren’t capacious enough to accommodate John, Paul, George and Ringo in full flood; Pepper goes down a bunch of blind alleys because John and Paul were at their apogee in late ’66 and ’67. They were hitting it so hard, they could leave “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” off the album…and we’re still having this chat.

So what was the “concept” behind Pepper? Was it Paul’s idea of The Beatles as a fictional band? Nah. That was a concept, fully fleshed out in the movie Yellow Submarine, but it was just the circumstantial seed from which Pepper was grown.

To find the concept behind Pepper—which I don’t think the Beatles defined, or could define—let’s start with Langdon Winner’s famous paragraph from 1968: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

Lest you think Pepper was simply a countercultural happening, upon the record’s release The Washington Post called it “a musical infinity” and intoned, “Music may never be the same again.” An ocean away, Kenneth Tynan was calling Pepper “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” I won’t add more; you can Google it.

Revolver, as great as it was, simply didn’t have anything like that kind of impact. In fact, it seems to have been released to a general sense of “ho-hum, another great Beatles record.” (Ray Davies hated it, but with all due respect, fuck him.) Yes, it made a huge impact on Brian Wilson, but that’s basically Don Drysdale admiring Koufax’s fastball. There aren’t even any stories of Mick and Keith hearing acetates of Revolver and throwing up in their mouths. (More’s the pity.)

And for the first 13 years after Pepper‘s release it, not Revolver, was considered to be the Fabs’ masterwork. The two battled throughout the 80s. Now, Revolver is regularly put in the top spot. There are a couple of reasons for this, one maybe you’ve thought of, and one maybe you haven’t.

Ringo and George never rated Pepper highly, because they didn’t have much to do, and were not shy about saying so. But it was John Lennon who regularly slagged psychedelia-era Beatles in general, and Pepper in particular, first in the Rolling Stone interview, and then in the interviews he did in support of Double Fantasy. He did this to downgrade Paul.

Psychedelia as a style of music required a heavy dose of studio magic, and that was Paul and George Martin’s thing, not John’s, and Lennon circa 1970-71 had a positive mania for reducing, and if at all possible removing, the contribution of those two guys in particular. If, say, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” relied on people other than John to sound awesome, and sprang from a source other than John’s own genius (read: trauma), then it couldn’t be good.

Therefore, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, being Paul’s thing, couldn’t be the Beatles’ height—if it were, the whole story being told to Jann Wenner and sold to the rest of us, would fall to pieces. And in the Double Fantasy interviews, admitting Pepper‘s pre-eminence would call the question that nobody wanted asked except for millions upon millions of Beatles fans: why aren’t you working with Paul McCartney, you dimwit?

After Lennon was shot, fans and critics were extremely loathe to disagree with his memory and his widow. So Pepper‘s hold on the top spot began to loosen. But there’s a second reason that Pepper began falling during the Reagan years, and has been stuck at #2 (or now #3—Pepper-hating ASSHOLES!) ever since.

Upon its release, and certainly since, Pepper represented something a great deal bigger than The Beatles—and in 1967, there wasn’t a lot, culturally speaking, that was bigger than them. Pepper was, as it was intended to be, the most mature, most accessible, most durable and probably most important artistic expression of the utopian visions unleashed by all the psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD ingested in the US and UK since 1955 or so. That was Pepper‘s concept. Unlike Leary’s pronouncements, or Kesey’s Acid Tests, or the moveable feasts happening in the Haight or Notting Hill, Pepper immediately reached well outside the counterculture. You could say that perhaps the graphic art scene centered in San Francisco—the posters made by Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoco—were also a durable expression of this aesthetic, but they weren’t something your grandmother could appreciate. Unlike, say, “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Pepper, from the moment it dropped, embodied the hopes and dreams of the hippies. And when the scene soured, and Pepper was the only Pepper that had been created (apologies to SMiLE and Jimi Hendrix and Disraeli Gears)—when the great Day-Glo Utopia was not declared, and 1967 was followed God help us by nineteen-sixty-fucking-eight—the reputation of Pepper could not help but suffer. At the very least, it could be seen as a promise not kept; and at most it could be seen as the product of a short-lived and ill-considered cultural misstep—high art perhaps, great art for sure, yet based on a gimmick, a fad.

But psychedelia didn’t come from nowhere, and didn’t really go anywhere, either. Governments cracked down on the substances that were driving the experiences, and those relatively benign chemicals were replaced by other, worse ones, but the people playing Pepper in June 1967 could not unsee what they had seen, or unfeel what they’d felt. The conceptual shift delivered by that concept album couldn’t be reversed.

People tried, for sure they did; the history of the West since Thatcher and Reagan could be summed up as an attempt to put all that cosmic toothpaste back in the tube. We are dealing with the consequences of that self-mutilation now, which is kinda why I’m writing this, too late on a Saturday night spent drinking Guinness with a cider float. In 1987, and since, dissing Pepper in favor of Revolver wasn’t just about judging one collection of songs against another; it was about admitting a mistake. It was a way to say, “All that florid, eye-watering psychedelic nonsense—all that ‘we’re going to remake the world’ stuff—was bullshit, and we were just too young and immature and high to realize that things are as they are, and will always be as they are.” And it was a way to say, “The Beatles at their artistically biggest and most ambitious and most colorful and inventive was also bullshit, because all they were was musicians, and all they made were songs, and that kind of thing doesn’t change the world half as much as, say, the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the Peacekeeper missile or the IMF or the fact that Donald Trump’s parents didn’t love him enough.”

To which I reply: fuck that.

Revolver is a better collection of songs than Pepper; and I love it, too. But Pepper is, was, and will always be, a more distinct artistic experience; distinct in the Beatles’ catalog, and distinct as regards the other LPs of its time; and distinct even today. That counts. Pepper‘s historical prominence—and the calumnies committed against it as a result of that baggage—that also counts.

Pepper isn’t just a better LP than Revolver, it’s one of a handful of pieces of truly great popular art. Fifty-two years on, we can clearly see that Pepper is the primary mass-market artistic expression of a Utopian movement which continues on today; it is as close as your local store that sells incense and crystals. (Maybe that’s not as close for you as it is for me here in Santa Monica, but you get the pic.) That matters, has always mattered, and will always matter.

When people want to explain The Sixties, they play Pepper first—before all the other amazing and wonderful albums that were also created then. First. Before Revolver. Case closed.

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  1. Avatar Scott Freiman wrote:

    Great article, Michael!

    • Wow, coming from you that’s a huge compliment. Everybody, Scott does these amazing in depth Sonic explorations of Beatles albums which you can see in theaters (and even stream, right Scott?). They are stupendous.

  2. Avatar Linda wrote:

    Pepper is my favorite too Michael. Interestingly Pepper used to be my son’s favorite but now it’s Revolver. We’ve had many debates over this. While I’ve always appreciated Revolver (especially Tomorrow Never Knows) and recognized it for the great album it is, when I want to listen to a middle period Beatles album, I always reach for Pepper or Rubber Soul, but usually Pepper. My reasons are simple. I like the heavier guitar and bass sound of Pepper.

    • I LOOOOVE Tomorrow Never Knows.

      Revolver is the countdown; Pepper is the blast off.

      • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

        Revolver is a better collection of songs than Pepper; and I love it, too. But Pepper is, was, and will always be, a more distinct artistic experience.”

        Thanks for putting that so beautifully, Michael — you articulate something I’ve felt but not expressed as clearly.

        I have two reactions to the whole Revolver vs. Pepper question:

        [in a highly sarcastic voice]”Yeah, let’s play Sophie’s Choice with albums when there’s no need to (like cutting the White Album down to one disc). Because if you have two kids, or two towering aesthetic achievements, you have to choose one, amirite?”

        [in a more reasonable voice]”People say Revolver is the thing, but I prefer Pepper.”

        • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

          Totally agree with this, Nancy!

          It’s so hard to compare and rank Beatle albums and/or songs. They all are so special and wonderful in their own ways.

  3. Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

    I agree, although I like individual songs on Revolver —Pepper is a more important, and even *more* fully realized, piece of art from so many different angles. A few random thoughts:
    – A lot of Beatles “where did it go wrong” analysis focuses on how John couldn’t handle how successful Pepper was, despite being Paul’s baby—and around here, we like to point out that that only happened because John ceded some ground in 1967 to McCartney, mellowed out by acid (and determined to destroy his ego). What would have happened if John had been more fully in control of his ego, and not tripping so often that it actually changed his personality? What if, like Paul, he’d only taken LSD four times? Paul was cresting in late ’66-early ’67, and he wasn’t going to be denied. Was it necessary for the group to continue that Paul get space to lead Pepper? Revolver shows a schism forming between Paul’s tracks, which are almost all genre experiments reflecting a talent for composition that goes beyond—and in a different direction than—rock and roll, and John’s and George’s, which seem to be showing how rock can soak up the exotic and otherworldly while still using traditional instruments.
    – It’s crucial to Pepper’s success that it began as an album about childhood, and I suspect that’s where John’s influence would have led further, had he been inclined to lead. The Edwardian Pepper band works because it’s suffused with a slippery-reality version of nostalgia for a different era. John had the easiest and most direct access to childhood of the four, in all its very real complicatedness. But the only place to put Strawberry Fields would’ve been before the title song—an opening act—just like the only place to put Day in the Life was after the show was over.
    – There’s a fascinating page on Facebook that collects photos of Beatles recording sessions, and after looking at the Pepper ones…John looks *rough* in a lot of them. He looks ill, glazed, and out of focus. I know he only did LSD the one time, during Getting Better, but it cannot have been a comfortable time for him. Paul, meanwhile, looks bouncing with energy and rail-thin… See here:

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      Good points Michael.

      Wasn’t Paul doing cocaine at this time? He has admitted he used it for a year or so. This would explain his thinness and excess energy. (Which He always had an abundance of anyway).

    • @Michael, to reiterate some of what you said: the magic of Pepper comes from precisely where the four guys were personally, and in relation to each other, during those crucial months. How John was home, bored, prowling London on acid surrounded by a shifting retinue of freex, and Paul was Mr. Music Machine; how George had one foot turned towards India, and Ringo just marking time. How they were working with George Martin. How Brian was still alive. And how they were being challenged — would they survive without touring? What could that possibly look like?
      If I ever write a Beatle screenplay, it would be from August 29, 1966 to August 29, 1967 — Candlestick, to Brian’s funeral. That is the period when the Beatles change from a wonderful little Sixties band — defined by Beatlemania — into THE BEATLES. Something infinitely greater. Something that gives them a scope and depth that simply dwarfs what they had been, as well as contemporaries like The Kinks (great band) and Stones (great band). And how they dragged the rest of us along through that hyperspace leap.
      Anyway, Pepper couldn’t have had the same, one-of-a-kind alchemy if John had been who he was a year earlier — and to me, the alchemy was gone after “All You Need Is Love.” By the time of MMT, it’s all slightly…overripe. But with Pepper, I *don’t* think it’s a question of absence. I don’t think John’s a vacant zombie during Pepper–the music doesn’t show that. But I do think that the acid created the emotional/psychological space in the band for Paul to grow into a full partner. That process was bumpy — could it have happened without acid? I’m not sure. Paul walked out during Revolver, but Pepper was apparently happy. So much to say that I think had John NOT been traveling the cosmic highways and byways, Pepper wouldn’t have been what it is. Probably more like Revolver…if it happened at all. John was often weirdly limited in his view of what the Beatles could or should be, once they’d made it to “the toppermost.”
      Re John’s health during Pepper: don’t discount the smoking, hence the suppression of appetite. And yes, Paul was on coke for some portion of this period. LOTS of CONFIDENCE!

      • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

        “I don’t think John’s a vacant zombie during Pepper–the music doesn’t show that.”
        I agree. As you note, Pepper is a very fleeting moment that couldn’t really have been prolonged indefinitely. As I mentioned in that Abbey Road post, John’s still doing all the little things in Pepper. But I do think he is somewhere very strange, and sometimes very dark, between November ’66 and August ’67 — the difference is that the old support systems are there: Brian, his friendship with McCartney, Cynthia, etc. All the things that enabled him to be John Beatle.
        “John was often weirdly limited in his view of what the Beatles could or should be, once they’d made it to “the toppermost.”
        I don’t think the John-led Beatles would have made it much further than Rubber Soul, honestly. To me, Rubber Soul is John’s Sgt. Pepper: the ultimate long-playing expression of what the Beatles could be, grounded by one of his strongest batches of songs during a year when he was red-hot. For the Beatles to become THE BEATLES, Paul needed to emerge (remember, he was two years younger) into his own. Acid probably prolonged the Beatles, because a less mellow John Lennon would have been likely more resistant to a stronger and even more confident Paul McCartney. And Revolver is this truly unique Pax Beatannica where John and Paul’s prolificness, confidence, vision, and desire to lead are just about equal, and somehow, just somehow, find a balance. When they tried that again in 1968, disaster ensued.
        Also agree about MMT being “overripe.” MMT is also interesting because it’s the closest the Beatles come to repeating themselves pre-1969. The opening “theme song” is the same, but not as good as Pepper. There’s a music hall number from Paul, less witty than When I’m 64. There’s a freaky Indian number from George, less inventive than Within You Without You. There’s a terrifying LSD song from John. All this music is good, and MMT the album is one of my favorites because it’s the last album made by a group of friends, but it’s clear that heading into 1968, they faced a dilemma–they had apparently gone as far as they could, under current conditions (post-Epstein, etc.) with that brand of psychedelia, yet for the moment, neither Paul nor John had ideas for where to go next. I think George Martin was right that more symphonic thinking would have been the next logical step, and Paul clearly was receptive to that. I think under different conditions (had Brian lived, for example), John might have been receptive to it, too.

        One other note, because I like to point out the generally untold role of drugs as “more than just things they did”: Just about all of the Beatles’ musical changes to date had been influenced by choice of substances interacting with innate talent (i.e., speed: frenetic, excited, early Beatles music; pot = acoustic, less frenetic Beatles foe Sale through Rubber Soul-style records; LSD = Revolver, Pepper, etc.). It was unfortunate that the substances being introduced to the counterculture in 1968 were a terrible mix with the joyous curiosity that the Beatles did best.

        • Thanks for the comment, @Michael. Yours always get me going.
          Pepper is a very fleeting moment that couldn’t really have been prolonged indefinitely
          Yes, to me it’s like Dylan’s year of miracles which began with Bringing It All Back Home and ended with Blonde on Blonde (or, really, his motorcycle crash — which might not have happened at all? Different post). This is why I always bring in Pepper‘s historical milieu, because it was the history that was happening around John, Paul, George and Ringo–the attitudes of the people they were around–which helped them make Pepper, and made Pepper so great. Just like those same things flavored White a year later. And some of my love for Pepper and distaste for White is this flavoring, caused by things wholly apart from the band. You can’t “hear” Pepper properly without knowing about Swinging London, Carnaby Street, and the amount of positive energy that was flowing in ’66 and ’67, and you can’t “hear” White properly without knowing about Tet, MLK, RFK, May ’68, the Democratic Convention…Why didn’t Manson gravitate towards Pepper? Because Pepper is, even with “A Day In the Life,” a fundamentally optimistic album, whereas White is to my ear fundamentally pessimistic.
          It was unfortunate that the substances being introduced to the counterculture in 1968 were a terrible mix with the joyous curiosity that the Beatles did best.
          Indeed. But inevitable. As George discovered on his trip to San Francisco, the substances you’re talking about had hit the Haight as early as mid-67, as LSD turned to STP, and heroin replaced pot. I’ve always felt that this progression wasn’t exactly natural — to believe otherwise is to subscribe to the “gateway” theory, and I don’t. I suspect that sources of the earlier, more benign substances were dried up on purpose, and new ones were introduced. Was this part of Operation CHAOS? Impossible to say, but it did achieve their aims, and we know that the military intelligence nexus was developing all sorts of new chemicals (and starting to bring heroin over from Southeast Asia).

  4. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    Great post Micheal.

    To me, the more logical comparison would be Rubber Soul and Revolver. George Harrison in Anthology, said that he thought there wasn’t much difference between the two. Personally, I have always chosen Rubber Soul as my favorite.
    I love almost every song, and there’s just something “soulful” about it.

  5. Avatar Alejandra wrote:

    Hola, soy nueva por aquí, debo decirle al administrador y colaboradores, que encuentro muy ilustrativo este blog. ¡Buen trabajo!
    About this post: Make rankings – especially those about Beatles music – will never be the wisest thing to do, they always trigger controversies and debates (maybe that’s the idea?) that always point to a some kind of “bias”, whether consciously or not by the author, because regardless of his objectivity, the assessment he gives to the weighted work will always be influenced by his own taste, his mood, his points of view and even his beliefs.
    Having said that, I can say that I have always preferred “Revolver” to “Pepper”, and it is precisely because I like its songs more, they suit my mood. However, I have never believed that it has greater musical or historical value than “Pepper”, and although I’m not as eloquent as MG explaining my own reasons (the language barrier does not allow me ) I must say, that when I hear “Pepper ” I can perceive its musical greatness, its artistic superiority, its surreal atmosphere, how well built it is, and the effort dedicated to its recording, more than in any other album.

    Plot Twist: My favorite album is “Abbey Road”, it reaches my soul and has the power to ignite my inner flame. Musically: It is the most contemporary album recorded 50 years ago.

    • @Alejandra: Very well said.
      Strangely, for me it is the very timelessness of abbey Road that makes me…trust it less? To me it feels closer to something like Dark Side of the Moon or ELO’s Out of the Blue than, well, even White. Maybe this is my version of Michael Bleicher’s recent post.
      While I love some of the songs on Abbey Road, and the guitar duel is probably one of my favorite pieces of Beatle music, it’s not a place I like to visit, like Revolver or Pepper or MMT or AHDN.

  6. Yup, this is what I was trying to say about Abbey Road, too. More than any other album, it’s held together by craft–four (okay, often three) individuals plus their producer, doing what they’ve learned how to do very, very well, to make a sterling LP. Until you get to the medley, there’s less sense of discovery than most other Beatles LPs. It’s doing what they know how to do, very well. Even on White, there’s more a sense of “we’ve never done this before, here goes…”, to my ears. Which is great for what it is, on AR. That supreme confidence, that professionalism, make it sparkle. But I personally prefer the rawness, even though that’s a weird word to use for the hyper-produced Beatles, of the prior albums.

    More than that, the vibe on AR is…adult, rather than ageless. The Beatles aren’t friends, but they’re also not even actively engaging–trying to connect–with each other the way they were on White (and failing to do successfully). I get the vibe on Abbey Road that they’d figured out, generally, that the only way to make this record in a reasonable amount of time was to keep things friendly, professional, and surface level as much as possible. I couldn’t explain how, but I got that vibe from the music itself even before I learned anything about the group’s history or the recording sessions. With Abbey Road, it’s almost like a couple going into a dinner party all smiles after a big fight in the car on the way over, or a family holding it together for Christmas dinner.

  7. Avatar Alejandra wrote:

    For me, the generation gap between all of us who are admirers of The Beatles, plays an important role that influences when assessing which is the best album. I think the new generations are better related to Abbey Road because it sounds more of this era compared to the other Beatles albums. I know many people who began their journey with AR and until they assimilated all the background and historical contexts of The Beatles music, began to connect with their previous works and it was at that moment that they finally could “almost” affirm: “This is my album “.
    Before any other record, the first one I heard from the band was the “Beatles at the BBC” compilation of early songs… and I loved it, chronologically it was the best starting point to know their music and I thank the luck that happened that way because that allowed my appreciation for their art to grow along with their own artistic development.
    So, that there are many people who value “Revolver” (or other) above “Pepper” does not mean that it is their definitive choice, perhaps they are simply still accumulating baggage.
    ¡Hasta la vista!

  8. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    Another thought-provoking post Michael. I’ll address the substance of it in another comment; what follows is just personal taste.
    I’ve always vastly preferred Revolver to Sgt. Pepper. The former’s been my favourite Beatles album more or less from the beginning, while there are plenty of albums I get more of a kick out of than Pepper: Abbey, White, Rubber Soul, HDN…hell, if I’m in a suitably rootsy mood I get more out of Let It Be.
    There’s a delicious iciness to Revolver that blew my mind when I first heard it at 12 or so. I remember just being mesmerised by all the choppy guitar riffs, the trippy backwards lines, the drones and spaced-out harmonies. John and George are churning out these sharp rockers that drip acid in every sense of the word, while Paul of all people contributes the bleakest song-novellas in the catalogue: ‘buried along with her name’, ‘in her eyes you see nothing’. Everything sounds so crisp and dry, not a note out of place.
    I enjoy a range of sentimental and feelgood music, but as the years have gone on I’ve realised that I have a soft spot for music that combines emotion with a coldness and distance that evoke distant planets. It’s there in ‘waiting for that sleepy feeling’ followed by that first-of-all-time backwards solo; the unearthly way John sings ‘I know what it is to be saaaaad, and you’re making me feel like I’ve never born’; ‘well, well, well, he’ll make you…’ over that psychedelic organ; the entirety of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. As I got older and explored more music I heard the same thing in “Because”, “Eight Miles High”, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, “See Me Feel Me”, “Wuthering Heights”, “The Great Curve”, “I Feel Love”. The surreality of “Oh! You Pretty Things” and the disjointedness of Low. The impossibly gritty funk-pop of Innervisions. James Murphy’s indie-robot voice intoning ‘Us and them o-ver and o-ver again’ and ‘One touch is ne-ver e-nough’. Alien music, beamed from unknowable parts of the imagination.
    With a couple of exceptions – “Day in the Life”, obviously, the irresistible joie de vivre of “Rita” – Pepper doesn’t have much of an emotional effect on me at all. I’m impressed but not moved, seduced or thrown off balance – it’s great in the way The Wizard of Oz is great, not Citizen Kane. When I’m listening to it I miss Abbey Road’s ethereal harmonies, White’s eeriness, With the Beatles’ rawness, Rubber Soul’s sheer beauty. And Revolver’s alien voices from distant worlds.

  9. […] the album I’m sworn to defend. If you haven’t read Mike’s excellent piece already please do so now – I’ll […]

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