1966 was a watershed moment for The Beatles. Having exhausted themselves with a relentless schedule, the group decided that the best thing they could do was take a well-deserved break, leave behind those endless stretches of tarmac and haul up in Abbey Road Studios. It would prove to be a career-defining move. The album they came out with, Revolver, featured some of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s finest songwriting, marking a huge development in their sonic and lyrical approaches.
In a way, Revolver served as an antidote to a burgeoning sense that somewhere along the road The Beatles had wandered astray. In 1987, George Harrison explained that the group’s popularity eventually stopped them from progressing as musicians. “We became popular, and all this stuff happened where we sang the same songs a lot, we still had a laugh, it was still good fun though,” the guitarist said. “But you know the-that side of it, of playing like as a musician lost the edge there because we just played the same tunes that we play recorded, go around the world singing the same ten songs and every year, we’d lose one and add a new one, and it got a bit boring being fab.”
The group’s decision to stop touring allowed them the opportunity to refocus their attention on what really mattered. As Harrison told Guitar World in 1992, this led to a heightened awareness of their craft. “We just became more conscious of so many things,” he said. “We even listened deeper, somehow. That’s when I really enjoyed getting creative with the music-not just with my guitar playing and songwriting but with everything we did as a band, including the songs that the others wrote. It all deepened and became more meaningful.”
With Harrison’s mentor Ravi Shanker guiding him towards a new sensitivity to the connection between spirituality and music-making, the songs came thick and fast, many of which Harrison bought to the table when The Beatles sat down to record Revolver. One of his favourites was ‘I Want To Tell You’. According to the musician, it signified not only an evolution in his own songwriting but an explosive development in rock music as a whole. Regarding the track, Guitar World pointed out how it “marked a turning point in your playing and the history of rock music writing. There’s a weird, jarring chord at the end of every line that mirrors the disturbed feeling of the song. Everybody does that today, but that was the first time we’d heard that in a rock song.”
Harrison responded: “I’m really pleased that you noticed that. That’s an E7th with an F on the top, played on the piano. I’m really proud of that because I literally invented that chord,” the guitarist said. “The song was about the frustration we all feel about trying to communicate certain things with just words. I realised the chords I knew at the time just didn’t capture that feeling. So after I got the guitar riff, I experimented until I came up with this dissonant chord that really echoed that sense of frustration.”
Harrison’s chord was later adopted by John Lennon, who used it during the creation of Abbey Road. “If you listen to ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy),’ Harrison continued, “It’s right after John sings ‘it’s driving me mad!’ To my knowledge, there’s only been one other song where somebody copied that chord – ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ by the Pretenders.”
All these years later, ‘I Want To Tell You’ sounds blisteringly fresh. Blending highly melodic and atonal passages, the track sits somewhere between a piece of Byrds-esque jangle-pop and a twelve-tone composition by Schoneberg, Ligeti or Messaien. It’s mesmerising, perplexing and utterly unlike anything else of the era. No wonder George was so proud.