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The Beatles Songs: Revolution 9

The history of this controversial Beatles track

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The Beatles Songs: Revolution 9

A mock bootleg 45 of "Revolution 9"

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Revolution 9

Written by: John Lennon (100%)
(credited as Lennon-McCartney)

Recorded: June 10-11, 20-21, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: June 21 and 25, August 20 and 26, 1968
Length: 8:11
Takes: 3

Musicians:

John Lennon: tape loops

Available on: (CDs in bold)

The Beatles (a/k/a "The White Album"; UK: Apple PMC 7067-8; US: Apple SWBO 101; Parlophone CDP 7 46443 2; CDP 7 46444 2)

History:

  • "Revolution 1" was the first song recorded for the Beatles' "White Album," the original acoustic version of what would become "Revolution," the raucous (and very electric) hit single. However, both Paul and George felt the original was too slow and laid back -- and possibly too political -- for the airwaves, and a reluctant Lennon shelved "Revolution 1" until he re-recorded in its hit single version six weeks later. In the meantime, however, he trimmed down the original recording, which ended with a full six-minute coda consisting of sound effects, snippets of conversation, unused vocal harmonies, and John himself screaming the words "All right!" over and over while lying on the studio floor (courtesy of a boom mic specially rigged by Abbey Road engineers for the occasion).
  • The initial overdubs on the coda were made on May 30th and June 4th, when John still hadn't decided to split the song in two. On June 6th, he took the trimmed coda from "Revolution 1" and set about adding more samples of music and sound effects to the musicless sound collage, creating loops on that day and also June 10 and 11. John had already experimented with this kind of idea before on Revolver's "Tomorrow Never Knows," and had previously mixed in a live BBC broadcast of King Lear into "I Am the Walrus" as it aired. But none of the Beatles had ever attempted anything this ambitious in the genre of "musique concrete." "Revolution 9" was designed as a sound painting assembled completely from received elements or "found sounds," inspired by the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, two experimental composers John learned about from his new paramour, Yoko Ono.
  • Over 45 snippets of sounds were ultimately used in the track, some taken directly from the vaults of the Abbey Road tape library, some brought in by Lennon himself, having been taped off his radio at home. These were added to the conversation he'd already taped with Yoko for "Revolution 1," as well as a second recording of John and George, made on June 20, sitting around spouting complete nonsense as if it contained deep meaning. The elements used include:

  • a live recording of Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes"
  • sped up violins isolated from "A Day in the Life"
  • Sibelius' "Symphony No. 7" (final chord only)
  • the sound of a crowd at a football game
  • a choir and violin recording, played backwards
  • Lennon playing the mellotron at home, also backwards
  • a recording of The King's Chorale performing the operatic "O Clap Your Hands" by Vaughn Williams
  • unknown classical piano, oboe, horn, guitar, clarinet, mellotron and violin pieces
  • a brass fanfare
  • George Martin telling engineer Geoff Emerick: "Geoff, put the red light on," distorted and looped
  • possible Abbey Road library tapes marked "Vicar's Poems," "Queen's Mess," "Come Dancing Combo," "Organ Last Will Test.,"' "Neville Club," "Theatre Outing," and "Applause / TV Jingle"
  • a snippet of Beethoven's "Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra, and Choir: Opus 80"
  • an Indian passage on oboe, reversed
  • Yoko Ono humming a very high a6 note
  • a woman's laughter, a baby cooing, a car horn, a glass breaking, crowd sounds, and gunfire
  • at 5:11, the sound of John quickly rewinding one of the tape loops

  • The song's main hook, as it were, came from another tape library recording, this time an unknown engineer from London's Royal Academy of Music declaring this to be "examination tape number 9." Lennon had always been fascinated by the number 9, as it came up so often in his life; John had been born on a 9th day and met Yoko on another 9th. So he removed all but the last two words and looped them, panning left to right: "Number nine... Number nine..." This loop, one of the only constants in the piece, eventually gave this version its unique numerical title.
  • The snippets recorded for "Revolution 9" were added to the excised basic tracks of "Revolution 1" on June 20th, 1968. Because recording technology was still fairly primitive, John decided to mix all the tapes in together, live, as if he were making a performance in the studio. (A similar process had been used for "Tomorrow Never Knows.") All three control rooms in Abbey Road were utilized, with all the tapes started in unison and fed into John's master control in Studio 2. Mixing the elements randomly as they progressed, John came up with three performances he liked, the last of which he decided to use for the track.
  • The track was finally completed on June 21, 1968, after some more sound effects were added; it was edited down from 9:05 to 8:12, and the strange cacophony was almost complete. On October 21, however, during final mixing for the album, John added two snippets to the front of his work: one was a snippet of an unfinished song called "Can You Take Me Back," ad-libbed by Paul during the September 16 recording of I Will, and the other was a conversation caught between producer George Martin and Apple office manager Alistair Taylor:

    Taylor: (I would have brought a) bottle of claret for you if I'd realised. I'd forgotten all about it, George. I'm sorry.
    Martin: Well, do next time.
    Taylor: Will you forgive me?
    Martin: Mmm... yes.
    Taylor: ...Cheeky bitch.

Trivia:
  • Interestingly, back on January 5, 1967 during the sessions for "Penny Lane," Paul had already created a similar sound collage, the still-unreleased "Carnival of Light," a song created for a charity event which also featured an excess of found sounds, instrumentation, and random yelps from Paul and John. John joked that Paul should do an entire album in the same vein and call it Paul McCartney Goes Too Far," but Paul never followed through on that idea, probably because he considered it not commercial enough. (Paul was not present during the performance of "Revolution 9," having been called away to America on Apple business.)
  • As it was, all three band members fiercely resisted the idea of "Revolution 9" being included on the White Album. However, John -- already seething over "Revolution 1" being denied as a single -- absolutely refused to go along, insisting it be included. It was eventually buried as the second-to-last track where it ironically served as a climax, with John's ironic ballad "Good Night" serving as a sort of lullaby antidote.
  • Lennon's lifelong friend Pete Shotton claims that the ridiculous conversation John and George have with each other on "Revolution 9" came from a night at Lennon's Kenwood home, when all three sat in his attic dropping acid. Opening the window to let out some marijuana smoke, they supposedly began shouting nonsense at the trees and recording it. This may have been the source for the duo's repeated phrase "There ain't no rule for the company freaks!"
  • One of the cornerstones of the "Paul Is Dead" phenomenon, this song's "Number Nine" chant supposedly reveals "Turn me on, dead man" when played backwards. In addition, John's nonsense lines about "his hair was on fire and his glasses were insane" were said to be descriptions of the car crash that supposedly "killed" McCartney.
  • Some pressings of the "White Album" treat "Can You Take Me Back" as the end of the previous song, "Cry Baby Cry," while some consider it the intro to "Revolution 9." The conversation between Martin and Taylor is louder in mono.
  • John and Yoko soon recorded their own full album of "musique concrete" experimentation. Titled Unfinished Music #1: Two Virgins, it (and its followup Unfinished Music #1: Life With the Lions,) was not received very well by either Beatles fans or critics, although avant-garde composers tend to consider "Revolution 9" an excellent example of the genre.
  • Charles Manson, the cult leader who would soon lead his family of hippie runaways to commit murder in his name, convinced them that the "White Album" was a coded call for a race war, one which Manson himself had been chosen by the Beatles to begin. To Manson, "Revolution 9" was the sound of this apocalypse; he noted that the Bible chapter "Revelation 9" is the moment when the apocalypse begins to occur, and also heard John's edited cries of "Riiiiight!," from the original "Revolution 1," as "Rise!" Manson thus instructed his followers to write "Rise" on the wall in their victims' blood.
  • Although most listeners don't think of it in terms that specific, many have certainly commented on its apocalyptic quality; coupled with its bizarre and groundbreaking genesis, it makes this track the most controversial the Beatles ever created under their name.
  • Marilyn Manson, no doubt also noting the similarities between Lennon's groundbreaking work and the Bible chapter, created his own sound collage called "Revelation 9." The Simpsons classic "B-Sharps" episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet," which parodied several Beatles elements, featured character Barney Gumble making a similar song with his new Japanese girlfriend, which consisted entirely of his burps and her recitations of "Number 8... Number 8..."
Covered by: Phish, Def FX, Little Fyodor, Alarm Will Sound, The Neil Cowley Trio
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