The Beatles: In Defense of Revolution 9

Skip The Beatles' "Revolution 9" at your peril. It's music, not noise.

The Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the Recording Studio

Turn me on dead man.

Long before conspiracy-minded rock fans screwed up their needles playing records backwards, to paraphrase George Carlin, The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” was a spooky experimental tour de force of hidden meaning. Marketed as one of the first boy bands, the mop topped sensations were best known for being at the toppermost of the pops. The ultimate pop band was also at the forefront of the rising underground scene.

While The Beatles are best known for writing love songs, not only catchy romantic ditties, but songs about the larger concept of love, they had a very dark side to their output that defied easy categories. John Lennon could be particularly scary. He forced George Harrison to arrange a guitar solo that had to sound better backwards on “I’m Only Sleeping,” and shoveled out frightening amounts of ziti in the film Magical Mystery Tour. He always needed more.

The Beatles broke musical boundaries. When most rock and roll songs had three chords, theirs had upwards of twelve, some of them finger-crushers, in their early works. While most rock songs kept a steady measure, the Beatles explored odder time signatures, and Ringo Starr’s drumming made it sound seamless. “All You Need Is Love,” for instance, begins in 7 time; “Happiness is a Warm Gun” has a section where the guitars are in 3 and the drums and bass are in 4. Guitarist George Harrison introduced eastern semitones and backwards guitar leads and fills. Paul McCartney introduced tape loops as a substitute for a thousand monks on mountaintops in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

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Peter Brown’s The Love You Make has its flaws, but it is probably the best contemporary insider portrait of McCartney in any book. Carefree and in love in swinging London, the most melodic bassist in contemporary music sought out anything that would fill his need for sound. He went to the classics, music halls, theater, and delved deep into the most cutting edge experimental music of the time.

Like Harrison was famous for playing Ravi Shankar records (or inviting the master stringman personally) to everyone within listening distance until John McLaughlin couldn’t take it and formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, McCartney happily shared his treasured finds, like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge,” to a gleeful handful of bandmates, eager to put their spin on anything. The Beatles were in good musical company. Frank Zappa regularly touted the works of Edgard Varèse, who exemplified what was called musique concrète, and maybe the gritty sound of the pavement made them think of their working class port city home.

Just because the Beatles exemplified a new direction by having long hair didn’t mean they didn’t also aspire to old notions of longhaired taste. Sure, they loved Chuck Berry. But while they might also have rolled over Beethoven, they were huge fans of his lyrics. Inspired by composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen, which McCartney cited for his contributions to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the unreleased 14-minute Beatle soundscape “Carnival of Light,” “Revolution 9” included Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Farid al-Atrash’s Arabic song “Awal Hamsa,” Vaughan Williams’ “O Clap Your Hands,” Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, Schumann’s Symphonic Studies, “The Streets of Cairo,” and the violins from “A Day in the Life.” A year later, the song would influence Luigi Nono’s “Non Consumiamo Marx.” Decades later, Marilyn Manson put out a 10 minute sonic collage called “Revelation 9” as a B-side. 

While “Revolution 9” is most associated with John Lennon, it was actually a collaboration with George Harrison, with Yoko Ono contributing conceptual art. McCartney had delivered the first sound collage, “Carnival of Light,” which the Beatles recorded on January 5, 1967, for the Roundhouse Theatre’s “The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave” which ran in late January and early February 1967. Under the watchful eye of former Goon Show producer George Martin, the band had already been experimenting with non-musical sonics for their Christmas fan messages. Some of these were like radio plays, which told stories with everything but pictures.

Recording a drawing of a revolution

In 1970, the main composer told Rolling Stone the song was “just like a drawing of a revolution.” John Lennon was a visual as well as a musical artist. He went to art school. He didn’t graduate, and when he painted the Casbah Club without his glasses he used the wrong paint, but his visual artistry would expand into film. One of the most jarring and evocative bits from the Magical Mystery Tour film, Aunt Jessie’s pasta dinner, was directed by Lennon. He would go on to direct several experimental films, exploring time lapse techniques and other camera innovations with Ono. “Revolution 9” is extremely visual. It is a cinematic soundscape where listeners can fill in their own images.

Lennon said he used “about 30 loops” and “fed them onto one basic track.” Although the Beatles’ Anthology says he snipped the refrain from a recording that said “this is number nine-hundred megacycles,” Lennon told Rolling Stone it was cut from a snippet of tape of “an engineer’s testing voice saying, ‘This is EMI test series number nine.’” Lennon loved the number 9. It turned out to be his “birthday and my lucky number and everything.” When he married Yoko, he took the name Ono so he would have the letter O nine times in his full name.

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“Revolution 9” began recording on May 30, 1968. Lennon finished the final live mix on June 20, using machines in all three Abbey Road recording studios. You can hear a tape run out at the 5 minute 11 second mark, making Lennon and Harrison add more overdubs. “Revolution 9” is the longest track that the Beatles officially released. It runs more than eight minutes, topping “Hey Jude,” which ran 7:11.

The piece fits between the cynical lullaby “Cry Baby Cry” and a song that’s even shorter than “Her Majesty,” “Can You Take Me Back,” so short, it barely takes up a groove, much less a song title on the album cover. McCartney recorded the piece while sitting in front of a mic with an acoustic guitar gearing himself up for another take of “I Will.”

If you believe Beatles mythology, George Martin and the other Beatles tried to get Lennon to drop the song from the final album. Though McCartney tells Jools Holland (of Squeeze fame) in Anthology, that it was barely an argument, saying “it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album, shut up!” and put it out. Lennon and Ono had recently recorded their own avant-garde album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, which came out on November 11, 1968. The “White” album came out on November 22, 1968, so haters blamed Yoko.

A new dimension in sound

On a personal note: I was five years old when The Beatles, aka The White Album, came out. My old man was doing construction on a record and head shop called the Pop Shop and it had been returned because there were two side twos, sides three and four. My parents used to throw a lot of parties and nobody thought about skipping this song. Long before the Paul is Dead conspiracy theories, “Revolution 9” had its own. I remember my father saying, “You think ‘Revolution 9’ is weird? Revolution 27 is three times as weird.” He had no idea that the bootlegs I would collect later in life would bear this out, it came to him intuitively. “Revolution 9” had that effect on people.

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Like Jerry Seinfeld says about Plan 9 from Outer Space, of all the alternate takes of the band’s most dividing musical piece, this was the most effective. There was a “Revolution 9 Take 20” that topped ten minutes and ended with six minutes of pure chaos. One take began with the album’s “Revolution 1” that segued into a six minute backing jam with sound effects and tape loop solos.

It’s music, not noise

I’ve seen people post in articles, chat groups, and Facebook pages that “Revolution 9” isn’t a song, but a hodgepodge of sounds. It is ridiculed derisively as if the mere existence of the song is a taint to the body Beatle. But it is more than a song. It is a musical composition. It doesn’t have an intro, verse, chorus, middle eight and outro. It has movements. It builds in scope like symphonic pieces. Tchaikovsky’s top 40 hit from 1880, 1812 Orchestra, I’m looking at you. The dramatics of the two pieces are very similar. Both contain hymns. Both contain recurring musical themes, sometimes not made of notes, but John Cage wrote pages of music containing only rests. Try notating “Revolution 9.” There are call and response fugue sections, leitmotifs and, when you get down to it, the largest orchestra the Beatles ever got to play with.

Sometimes songs need more than mere music. “Yellow Submarine” would be nothing without the sloppy sound effects. George Martin’s hastily taped together calliope music snips bring carnival popcorn to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The speed adjusted loops in “Tomorrow Never Knows” push the song into the dislocated consciousness of acid awakening.

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Never underestimate the innate musicianship of Lennon, Harrison, or Ono. They are playing tapes rather than instruments, yes, but the overall piece has musical structure, melodies, rhythms, counterpoint and full movements. The piece begins in B minor. The song would be worth it for the sonic chord that comes right after “Take this brother, may it serve you well.” A combination piano chord, guitar feedback, and radio tone, it is as musically recognizable as the accidentally discovered feedback in the beginning of “I Feel Fine.” There is singing. Right after the fire sounds, and before the gunfire, Lennon goes from a pained to a bluesy moan. He sings “again and again.”

The Beatles didn’t only break musical barriers. They broke topical barriers and flirted with lyrical controversy. Besides writing a clever double entendre to sing about oral sex, they were banned by BBC  Radio for singing about “getting high with a little help from” their friends on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The background harmonies on the Rubber Soul song “Girl” is “tit tit tit.” On “Revolution 9,” you can hear intermittent shushing, followed almost immediately by the word “it,” making shit.

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One song, many meanings

What does it mean? What does it matter? What does anything mean, which might even be one of the meanings. There are times when I listen to “Revolution 9,” that I hear Lennon and Harrison’s psychic torment at being in the biggest show on earth, for what it was worth. And then on to a future where they as a group, whose every song landed in the number one slot on the charts, regardless of how far out it was in a time before John Denver, would barely crack the lower level of the top ten as solo artists. Individual bandleaders forever stuck at number 9. Block that kick becomes block that hit.

It opens with Alistair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s personal assistant, apologizing to “cheeky bitch” George Martin for forgetting the claret before the sad piano. The listener can hear the disintegrations of the band through spliced recording tapes reassembled, sometimes seemingly randomly, other times in orgasmic cadences.

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One of my daughters says it feels like you just got high for a free last period class in high school and got scuttled to a pep rally. Paranoia kicks in just as the cheers come intermittently and every jock looks like they’re wearing the number 9 on their jerseys. “Block that kick.” Either that or the stage between dying and death, which she said she can’t determine from a pep rally. Other times it sounds like a riot.

Fuck Charles Manson for ruining “Revolution 9.” He didn’t just mastermind the death of Sharon Tate, the LaBiancas, and the ’60s. He tried to take out the White Album itself, dragging it down into Death Valley with him while he intoned Chapter 9 of the Book of Revelation in A minor. Fuck Manson on a rolling donut. Fuck him right in the ear.

The same can be said for Detroit radio station WKNR’s DJ Russ Gibb who forever skewered the Beatles mythology with the “Paul Is Dead” rumors when he first played it backwards in October 1969. Hey, the Beatles were no strangers to death conspiracies. They landed in a mourning America months after the Kennedy assassination and made happy melodies for dark themes. “Baby’s in Black” is about Lennon telling Astrid to live her life after Stu Sutcliff died. But he turned the incident into a song about a guy wanting to screw the girlfriend of his dead best friend. On a whim, no less. The nursery rhyme sounding “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is about a budding serial killer.

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McCartney had been photographed in a funereal pose since the Beatles pre-fame Hamburg days. Who knows what “Death Cab for Cutie” was really about, but cutie could have been a meter maid named Rita, and there had been whispers around swinging London parties that a terrible crash had taken the bass out of the Beatles and it had been replaced by a cello. There are a lot of string parts in “Revolution 9,” and McCartney, either knowing a cool angle or not, growled and threw guitar picks at reporters trying to determine whether he was still breathing.

But the Paul is Dead rumors hijacked “Revolution 9,” and alternate possibilities to reverse plays. The turntables on some old record players would play backwards if you jiggled them enough times to freak out the rubber band. Listening to “Revolution 9” backwards doesn’t quite pack the musical punch, but it creates an equally vast aural landscape. The movements don’t work because they are jerky.

The benefit of listening to the song as a five year old was that revolution was a thoroughly abstract idea to me. The song could have been noisy finger-paint, it didn’t diminish what the song brought out in the mind’s eye. Take away the concept of revolution and the song can take the listener on many journeys, backwards or forward. The musical arrangement of the found sounds evoke a world of mystery and change. The dissonance fills the listener with vague notions of dread and deliverance. Songs like “Strawberry Fields” and the Doors’ “People are Strange” and “The End” were able to give glimpses into this offbeat dimension, but “Revolution 9” fills in every alleyway, conference room and boudoirs. And it sounds like everything was okay after a night of lovemaking. There is a morning after.

A modest transcription of the synopsis of the piece

How does the song paint the picture of a revolution? After a brief, apologetic discourse, a single piano plays a few measures of what sounds like a song of reminiscence while the largest single digit is repeated on the left and the right. The repeated “number 9” could sound like a warning of maximum capacity, or because it is at the brink of the break to double digits, it could warn that a new reality is on the horizon. A blip turns into a short broadcast, over ominous anticipatory strings, and a spark is fired. A brief moment of backwards music shows the initial disorientation of whatever just broke through the consciousness.

From the distance, at about the 36 second mark, please don’t shoot me if I’m a little off, is an urgent oncoming intrusion. It could be a siren, it could be a crowd, there are “flip flip” sounds that could be helicopters to Radar on M*A*S*H. A backwards cymbal crash at 53 seconds heralds horns that could come from some kind of Revolutionary championship theme. The one minute mark finds us in a backwards loop, it could be a back room meeting. It is smoky and secret. It smells of clever collusion. This also passes through the chatter, from left to right.

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Time goes by and people get a little bit older, and a little bit slower. The people who put themselves in power grew lazy and hedonistic, while there are conversations underground, at the minute-twenty-two second mark. We hear the faint sound of something burning as another blip transmits the revolutionary message so the flame will grow.

Meanwhile, at 1:30, we hear beautiful dance music, for the wealthy class to sway to, but it is slightly off. Something is amiss at a party in a mansion, perhaps? Discordant chords and sound impose themselves in a clash for dominance at 1:34.  By 1:48 the flames have been fanned and the odd music has passed the messages through the rich housewives. We hear a stab of guitar sustain from “Revolution 1,” but the ladies laugh it off at about 1:57. But we hear the birth of an idea through a baby’s gurgle.

Religious choruses go up against eastern street music as the “number 9” refrain goes global and by 2:23 it makes a triumphant landing, heralded by horns, which turn into ominous chordal sustain. Some people seek spiritual shelter and comfort, while others take to the streets. At 2:37, someone shushes, a moment later someone responds with the word “it.” This shit is repeated intermittently. Someone calls the skipper as the rebellion crosses ponds. Lennon’s shouts of “right” from “Revolution 1” dubs become more and more insistent until everything is temporarily all right.

Bells chime and we hear a happy carnival sounding loop at 3:14, but there is talk of revolution everywhere. Again we are shushed, this time louder, and the “it” is a prominent response by 3:17. Everything is bouncing off everything else and the centrifugal force is propelling the rebellion into a movement by 3:22. The snake charmer theme seduces the listener through a growing minefield of subversive maneuverings until we learn “they are standing still” and we move to the second movement of the piece.

Harrison tells us the message, “number 9,” is delivered by telegram, and Lennon makes the noises of it being sent at the four minute mark. But we can’t tell what he was saying because his voice was low and his high was high. But the crowd cheers, because someone is telling them it’s going to be alright, as soon as the riots are over.

Number 9 is fully prominent at 4:29 as the movement grows so large it is everywhere. In every home. The authorities can’t keep up with it, as we hear the ascending string loop of sirens overtaken by the sounds of the masses at 4:53.

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At 5 minutes everything changes. We are awash in white noise as a new reality takes over the painting of the dream of a revolution. By 5:08 somebody is throwing someone out of somewhere and he lands with the shattering of a champagne glass by 5:12. There are shouts at the gates, while the wealthy rock stars are planning trips to the dentist. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton and your taste for “Savoy Truffle,” you’re gonna have to get them all pulled out.

A guitar chord is sustained throughout the middle five minute period as even the punters can’t block that kick. There is serious danger, suffering and burning at the 5:50 mark. This is where the real fighting begins, we hear gunfire, possibly artillery. Looting and the national guard? People again run to the church for comfort. Others find solace in the snake charmers, dancing the “Watusi” and the “Twist,” because the real revolution started with rock and roll. But who comes out on top?

Take this brother, may it serve you well. The third and final movement brings the payoff and introduces Yoko. Maybe it’s not that, she asks a grudgingly interested Lennon upon an awakening, maybe even then. Again and again, he hears this as it creeps into his consciousness and, perhaps has to wake up and write a song about it, by 7:40. He can get it out there if he becomes naked. Even the punters like that. Hold that line. Block that kick.

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There aren’t many Beatles songs I skip, the only two that come to mind are “Hold Me Tight” and “A Taste of Honey,” but not all the time. This isn’t a push for conversion. If you hate the song now, you’re not going to love it after reading this. But it is a plea for appreciation. A lot of work went into this piece. It makes musical sense for what it set out to do and evokes a definite emotional response.

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It was revolutionary. It still revolves. Put a needle on it and give it a fresh listen.