It’s un­doubt­edly the most con­tro­ver­sial track in the Bea­tles’ song­book. Now, as an ex­panded ver­sion of the White Al­bum is re­leased, Fab Four pod­caster CHRIS SHAW asks: Is Rev­o­lu­tion 9 an art state­ment or just an at­tempt to im­press Yoko Ono?

The New European - - News - BY CHRIS SHAW

Story of The Bea­tles’ most con­tro­ver­sial song as it turns 50

There’s a re­cur­ring theme in The Bea­tles’ record­ing ses­sions. More often than not the first song recorded for each new al­bum was writ­ten by John Len­non. Al­ways the pushi­est of the Fab Four, there may have been an­other rea­son be­hind this ha­bit­ual en­thu­si­asm – the songs were ex­per­i­men­tal be­yond their years, pushed new mu­si­cal bound­aries and usu­ally gen­er­ated an en­tic­ing cre­ative co­nun­drum for the record­ing en­gi­neers. EMI record­ing ses­sion doc­u­ments di­vulge a tan­gi­ble sense that ev­ery­body in­volved couldn’t wait to plunge into the stu­dio.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the Re­volver

ses­sions which com­menced on April 6, 1966. The first track to be recorded was Len­non’s Mark I, the work­ing ti­tle for what be­came To­mor­row Never Knows – a psy­che­delic mas­ter­class in tape loop skulduggery. Sim­i­larly, the 1967 epic Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band be­gan in earnest with Len­non’s In the Life of…, later re­named A Day in the Life. The band and en­gi­neers were col­lec­tively and unashamedly en­thused to get im­mersed in a gen­uinely ground-break­ing sonic sound­scape.

Cut to 1968. Rev­o­lu­tion 9’s ori­gins be­gan around a camp­fire in In­dia. Upon re­turn­ing from a spir­i­tual sab­bat­i­cal to ex­plore the teach­ings of Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi in Rishikesh, The Bea­tles were both men­tally re­ju­ve­nated and dis­en­chanted by their flawed guru. The gos­sip in the camp was that the Ma­har­ishi had been less than di­vine with one of the fe­male devo­tees. What­ever en­light­en­ment they’d gleaned from the weeks of tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion had been sul­lied by the spu­ri­ous ru­mours, so it was the sheer enor­mity of songs they re­turned home with that rein­vig­o­rated them most.

As can be heard on the White Al­bum

50th an­niver­sary set, a plethora of demos were recorded at Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s

Esher home. In 2018 these have been newly-mixed into stereo and reveal a warm­ing ca­ma­raderie be­tween the band. The vast num­ber of songs that had been com­posed in In­dia sug­gest that the long, balmy evenings sit­ting around the camp­fire with Dono­van, Mike Love and Mia Far­row had in­spired some earnest spir­i­tual com­po­si­tions Mother Na­ture’s Son, Child of Na­ture and Ju­lia as well as few throw­away sing-songs, such as The Con­tin­u­ing Story of Bun­ga­low Bill and Rocky Rac­coon.

De­spite the serendip­ity that en­gulfed the newly-in­spired Bea­tles, the new batch of songs con­tained some un­usu­ally darker mo­ments, touch­ing on sub­ject mat­ter rang­ing from the en­nui of fame (Glass Onion) and de­tached be­muse­ment (Cry, Baby, Cry) to the frus­tra­tions of ex­tra-mar­i­tal lust (I’m So Tired) and ut­ter re­sent­ment of fan­dom (Sexy Sadie). Note, all of these par­tic­u­lar songs were com­posed by Len­non. The Ma­har­ishi’s en­forced pe­ri­ods of soli­tude, in­ter­posed with ex­ten­sive med­i­ta­tion ses­sions, gave flight to long pe­ri­ods of re­flec­tion for the Fab Four. Not since the pre-fame years had they en­joyed this amount of time to pause, ques­tion their lives and make – for some – life-chang­ing de­ci­sions.

With this un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity to write a throng of new com­po­si­tions, The Bea­tles were keen to get the new batch down on tape. Len­non was the most en­thu­si­as­tic of all, hav­ing com­posed an al­bum’s worth of ma­te­rial alone. Record­ing ses­sions for the new al­bum com­menced on May 30 1968 and, in­evitably, it was one of Len­non’s songs that jumped to the front of the queue. How­ever, un­like pre­vi­ous al­bums, this time some­thing was dif­fer­ent. Rev­o­lu­tion was a mod­est four-bar blues, al­beit sat­u­rated by con­tentious apo­lit­i­cal lyrics.

A marathon and ex­haus­tive record­ing ses­sion com­menced at 2.30pm and ran un­til 2.40am the fol­low­ing morn­ing, by which time Len­non ended up lay­ing on the stu­dio floor to record his vo­cal track. The song now lasted 10 min­utes and had trans­formed into some­thing co­pi­ously more men­ac­ing. There was a col­lec­tive res­ig­na­tion. This clearly wasn’t ac­cept­able as the new Bea­tles sin­gle. How could it be?

Ten­ta­tively ti­tled Rev­o­lu­tion, and – as far as Len­non was con­cerned – recorded with the in­ten­tion of be­com­ing the new sin­gle, the group was dis­sat­is­fied with the re­sults and the song re­mained in the can. Len­non, never one to take ‘no’ for an an­swer, had a re­think and so a new, snarling elec­tric ver­sion was at­tempted in 18 takes, the last of which was deemed ‘best’. Nev­er­the­less, best wasn’t good enough and it was rel­e­gated to the B-side of in­terim sin­gle Hey Jude. Years later, Len­non gra­ciously con­ceded de­feat and ad­mit­ted that the bet­ter song won the day.

The two tracks couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. The A-side was a bona fide clas­sic and the first rock an­them, while the B-side, de­spite be­ing a huge de­par­ture from all that had gone be­fore, re­mained a

pro­to­type – hint­ing at The New

Yard­birds, but never quite in­vent­ing Led Zep­pelin, rather ‘im­ply­ing’ them. Its strength is its am­biva­lent frus­tra­tion – pos­si­bly the an­gri­est song ever writ­ten about non-com­mit­ment.

Be­tween 1967 and 1969 Len­non and Mccart­ney’s bat­tle for sin­gle A-sides was a one-sided af­fair. Af­ter the 1967 Sum­mer of Love clas­sic,

All You Need is Love, ev­ery Bea­tle sin­gle was a Mccart­ney song (with the ex­cep­tion of Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s

Some­thing and, no­tably, Len­non’s

The Bal­lad of John and Yoko.

De­spite Rev­o­lu­tion’s rel­e­ga­tion to the flip side, the orig­i­nal acous­tic ver­sion played on Len­non’s mind and, once it had been es­tab­lished that the new Bea­tles al­bum was to be a dou­ble, he was de­ter­mined not to leave the orig­i­nal to lan­guish in the vaults of EMI. He was in­trigued by the long and ex­haus­tive fade out. The pro­tracted chant­ing that con­cluded Hey Jude was un­doubt­edly in­spired by this ver­sion of Rev­o­lu­tion, but was con­structed exquisitely by build­ing on the lay­ers, adding strik­ing or­ches­tra­tion with ev­ery bar. By con­trast, Rev­o­lu­tion 1 (as it was to be reti­tled) lan­guished in two mes­meris­ing chords, vaguely em­bel­lished by quodli­bet screeches and grunts. It was the fi­nal few min­utes that caught Len­non’s ear and he de­cided to add over­dubs: ran­dom phrases and noises; and, cru­cially, tape loops. As more and more lay­ers were added, com­bined with an as­sort­ment of ad-libs from the orig­i­nal record­ing, “Ri­i­i­i­i­i­i­i­ight…..” Len­non grad­u­ally faded out the orig­i­nal song, so all that re­mained were the ‘noises’. Thus Rev­o­lu­tion 9 was born.

As with To­mor­row Never Knows, two years ear­lier, tape loops were to play an in­te­gral part in his re­think of this record­ing. Why this ob­ses­sion with an un­used track? Typ­i­cally, un­re­leased Fabs record­ings were just that, re­main­ing hid­den away un­til the mid-1990s

An­thol­ogy re­leases. The an­swer lies with a Ja­panese con­cep­tual artist who Len­non had met 16 months ear­lier.

That meet­ing had come in Novem­ber 1966, when Len­non at­tended an ex­hi­bi­tion at Lon­don’s Indica Gallery and en­coun­tered a New York artist who was part of the avant-garde Fluxus move­ment: Yoko Ono. Len­non’s love for Ono was a slow burner and it took two years of oc­ca­sional cor­re­spon­dence be­fore it fi­nally hit him. By the time The Bea­tles were in In­dia, he ran to re­ceive her daily let­ters and his de­sire was all en­com­pass­ing.

Much has been dis­cussed about the pres­ence of Ono dur­ing the White Al­bum record­ing ses­sions. The story goes that Len­non brought her to the tra­di­tion­ally male-only ses­sions, caus­ing ruc­tions and dis­sen­sion among the ranks. She has often – and un­fairly – been blamed for the band’s demise, but chang­ing dy­nam­ics within the band played a more po­tent part in the grow­ing ten­sions.

In 1968, Har­ri­son had a newly-found con­fi­dence – largely due to his lead­er­ship role in the re­cent trek to Rishikesh. For the first time he had taken a lead role in the band, and his band­mates were happy to fol­low his lead, buoyed on by his in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm for In­dian mys­ti­cism. Spurred on by this, he had com­posed a del­uge of new songs. But upon re­turn­ing from In­dia his new-found fer­vour was rapidly quashed when pri­or­ity was given, as al­ways, to the Len­non and Mccart­ney com­po­si­tions.

Al­ways the one to be left be­hind, Ringo Starr had spent much of the Sgt Pep­per ses­sions lan­guish­ing – a grievance suf­fered by drum­mers to this day. Once his drums had been put down on tape there was lit­tle left for him to do. This ne­glect had hap­pened be­fore. In 1964, dur­ing a spell in hos­pi­tal with ton­sil­li­tis, The Bea­tles un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously opted to pro­ceed with their tour and he was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously re­placed by ses­sion mu­si­cian Jim­mie Ni­col. Four years later it took a mat­ter of days for Starr to re­turn early from In­dia, partly due to a food al­lergy and partly due to a ha­tred of in­sects. By the time his friends had re­turned, the de­jec­tion had suf­fi­ciently eaten away at him that he briefly quit dur­ing the White Al­bum ses­sions. De­spite the col­lec­tive plea for him to re­con­sider, not to men­tion the bou­quets of flow­ers that filled the stu­dio upon his re­turn, Starr surely couldn’t have failed to no­tice that two new songs had been recorded in his ab­sence (both Back in the USSR and Dear Pru­dence fea­ture Mccart­ney on drums).

Mean­while Mccart­ney was ‘be­tween re­la­tion­ships’ – although in truth he had three love in­ter­ests at this time. His part­ner­ship with Jane Asher was now in its death throes and he had taken so­lace in the com­fort­ing arms of Amer­i­can scriptwriter Fran­cie Schwartz and model Mag­gie Mcgivern. Seem­ingly blasé about em­bark­ing on a se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship, it’s worth not­ing that (with a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions) Mccart­ney didn’t com­pose a sin­gle love song be­tween 1967 and 1969.

Mccart­ney’s time was taken up by the in­flux of new projects spawned from The Bea­tles’ newly-founded Ap­ple Records. Ex­pect­ing sim­i­lar sup­port and en­thu­si­asm from his band­mates, he was in­stead met with in­creas­ing in­dif­fer­ence and his self-en­forced role as ‘in­terim Brian Ep­stein re­place­ment’ (their man­ager had died the pre­vi­ous year) re­sulted in him re­luc­tantly emerg­ing as an au­thor­ity fig­ure to be re­belled against.

It was Len­non who re­turned from In­dia the most changed. Hav­ing spent much of 1966 and 1967 in an Lsd-fu­elled sub­servient stu­por, he re­turned from the sub­con­ti­nent a man ob­sessed and in­fat­u­ated by Ono – to the ex­tent that he was con­cerned that Mccart­ney might pounce on his new love. “He warned me off Yoko once,” Mccart­ney re­called. “You know: ‘This is my chick’ – be­cause he knew my rep­u­ta­tion – and we knew each other rather well.” Ever the diplo­mat, Mccart­ney did not crit­i­cise Ono’s pres­ence in the record­ing stu­dio, but con­firmed that she treated the band as lit­tle more than ‘couri­ers’. While clearly aware of the ten­sions, Mccart­ney also noted that Len­non may have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cer­tain amount of para­noia: “John sus­pected mean­ness when it wasn’t re­ally there,” he ob­served.

Ge­orge Martin was less pru­dent, stat­ing: “It was no longer the happy-golucky four­some that it used to be. There was an­other per­son in the stu­dio whose thoughts were ac­tu­ally… even if they weren’t spo­ken, im­ping­ing on what we were do­ing. It was un­com­fort­able.”

But it was Har­ri­son who had the most se­ri­ous reser­va­tions, de­scrib­ing Ono as “a wedge driv­ing be­tween John and us”.

“She was sud­denly ‘in the band’,” he com­plained. “She didn’t start singing or play­ing, but she was ‘there’ – just as Neil [As­pinall, the band’s long­time as­sis­tant] or Mal [Evans, an­other long­time as­sis­tant] were ‘there’. There was a def­i­nite vibe – like a weird vibe. That’s what both­ered me. At that point she didn’t re­ally like The Bea­tles be­cause she saw The Bea­tles as some­thing that was be­tween her and John. So the vibe I picked up was that she was like a wedge that was try­ing to drive it­self deeper and deeper be­tween him and us.”

Har­ri­son even con­fronted Ono and Len­non, claim­ing Bob Dy­lan and a few oth­ers had said she’d got a bad name in New York. The com­ments clearly up­set Len­non, who re­called: “They [The Bea­tles] all sat there like a f***ing jury and judged us. I don’t know why I didn’t hit him.”

Amid these ten­sions, it’s rather sur­pris­ing that the line-up for Rev­o­lu­tion 9 com­prised solely of Len­non, Ono and Har­ri­son. With Har­ri­son and Starr in the US, Len­non re­fused to let the un­re­leased ver­sion of Rev­o­lu­tion re­main dor­mant, and on Mon­day June 10, 1968, he re­turned to the record­ing, spend­ing two days adorn­ing the track with sound ef­fects. The first half of the orig­i­nal song was em­bel­lished with a brass sec­tion and even­tu­ally ap­peared on the White Al­bum as Rev­o­lu­tion 1. As the repet­i­tive two-chord song re­fused to die, the record­ing was sprin­kled with a va­ri­ety of un­usual spices, in­clud­ing Fran­cie Schwartz’ back­ing vo­cals, Len­non’s ad-libbed vo­cals, ex­per­i­men­tal screams blast­ing out “Al­ri­i­i­i­ight” and eerie Ono-es­que vi­brato stac­catos. How­ever, it was the fi­nal half that piqued Len­non’s cu­rios­ity and it was only when he de­cided to ditch the mu­sic al­to­gether and work with the over­dubs that the ba­sis of a newly-planned sonic night­mare sound col­lage was gen­er­ated. Two years ear­lier, the tape loops for To­mor­row Never Knows

con­sisted of Mel­lotrons and hap­haz­ard vo­cal­i­sa­tions. This time, Len­non chose to adorn the new track with or­ches­tral sam­ples, such as Robert Schu­mann’s Sym­phonic Etudes, Op.13; Vaughan Wil­liams’ O Clap Your Hands; Beethoven’s Choral Fan­tasy; and the fi­nal chord from Si­belius’ Sym­phony No 7.

Ad­di­tional over­dubs in­cluded snip­pets from Elek­tra Records’ Au­then­tic Sound Ef­fects – such as fire crack­ling and a gun bat­tle, as well as Greensleeves, re­versed, of course.

Poignantly, while Len­non was por­ing over the record­ing in EMI Stu­dio 3, Mccart­ney was in Stu­dio 2, sin­gle­hand­edly record­ing and com­plet­ing

Black­bird in less than six hours. By the time Har­ri­son and Starr re­turned, Mccart­ney had him­self flown to the US, and so it was on the evening of Thurs­day 20 June, 1968, Len­non, ex­plor­ing as many tapes and sound­scapes that he could get his hands on, dis­cov­ered an EMI ex­am­i­na­tion tape for the Royal Academy of Mu­sic.

A mono­tone voice an­nounc­ing the ninth in a list of ques­tions im­me­di­ately grabbed Len­non’s at­ten­tion. Nine was his lucky num­ber and it was this mo­ment that the third in the Rev­o­lu­tion tril­ogy was birthed. Har­ri­son ac­com­pa­nied Len­non for this ses­sion and the two Bea­tles can be heard read­ing out pe­cu­liar phrases such as “There ain’t no rule for the com­pany freaks”. Five days later the track was com­plete, and as EMI en­gi­neer Brian Gib­son re­called: “For weeks af­ter­wards ev­ery­body was go­ing around the build­ing mut­ter­ing “num­ber nine, num­ber nine, num­ber nine’.”

Rev­o­lu­tion 9’s cul­tural rel­e­vance is com­pounded by the capri­cious­ness of the snip­pets of data blast­ing out – per­haps, the per­fect ac­com­pa­ny­ing video would be to scroll down and scan the myr­iad of words and images in your Twit­ter feed. On a re­cent episode of the I am The Eg­g­pod pod­cast, writer David Quantick com­pared Mccart­ney’s open­ing teaser,

Can You Take Me Back, as the white rab­bit go­ing down the hole, beck­on­ing the cu­ri­ous lis­tener to fol­low, only to lead them into a night­mare Abbey Road Won­der­land. A por­ten­tous ob­ser­va­tion, it high­lights the fact that 50 years on,

Rev­o­lu­tion 9 is no less threat­en­ing. A malev­o­lent au­ral col­lage, it not only cap­tures the as­sault of ar­bi­trary in­for­ma­tion we ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery mo­ment of the day via the won­ders of so­cial me­dia but ef­fort­lessly cap­tures the con­fu­sion and in­credulity that bom­bards a gen­er­a­tion that Len­non could never have imag­ined. All this just five years af­ter She Loves You

BE­GIN­NING OF THE END: John Len­non, Yoko Ono and Paul Mccart­ney in 1968

Photo: Michael Webb/key­stone/getty Images

Photo: Hul­ton Ar­chive/ Getty Images

SPIR­I­TUAL JOUR­NEY:The Bea­tles at the Rishikesh in In­dia with the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi in March 1968

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