The Beatles’ longest recorded song has been interpreted by some critics as an avant-garde masterpiece, and by others as a mess of auditory garbage. But which one is “Revolution 9”, and how would we know?
For the past month, we’ve been looking back through the archives of music history to find our songs each day, using the date to guide our hand. In that time, we’ve covered lots of Beatles songs, but today our discussion will be a bit different than usual. For one, “Revolution 9” wasn’t chosen because it was recorded or released on this particular day. It just happens to be the ninth of September, 2019, which seemed appropriate.
What will make our discussion of “Revolution 9” different from others, is that it is an inherently different song. There isn’t a single one like it that the Beatles recorded, and there are still few like it to this day. So to get a better idea of it, we’re going to dig a bit deeper than usual.
But before that, first let’s get some context by taking a quick look at the album it appeared on.
The White Album
Their only eponymous release, what is commonly referred to as The White Album, due to its blank white cover. Released in 1968, it was the Beatles’ ninth studio album. It is the album that some mark as the beginning of the end for the fab four, as during recording, arguments over creative differences, along with the inclusion of Yoko Ono during sessions, rose tensions among the band.
Despite the tension, The White Album has since been viewed as one of the Beatles’ greatest albums ever recorded. Conversely, it has also been criticized by some for being too simple, long, and boring, while at the same time, too apolitical for the turbulent climate of the time.
The fragmented ensemble of styles found in The White Album is one of its most noticeable characteristics. Each track seems to be a miniature feature of a different genre or style, with the Beatles’ own twist. From the ska-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, to the heavy rock of “Helter Skelter”, to the nursery rhyme-inspired “Piggies”, the Beatles really stretch their songwriting muscles.
But the most interesting contribution to the collage of styles found on The White Album might just be Lennon and Yoko’s “Revolution 9”.
“Revolution 9” is the final track on The White Album, and more of a collage of sounds than a true song. The track was created with the heavy use of tape decks, overdubbed vocals, and sound effects that were distorted, reversed, panned, or faded. These experimental recording techniques, often heard in other Beatles songs, are taken to their extreme in “Revolution 9”.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jon Lennon talks a bit about how he created “Revolution 9”.
“‘Revolution 9’ was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; that was just like a drawing of revolution…Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realize it; it was just so funny the voice saying “Number nine”; it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was”.
Despite his insistence that the song was largely an experiment and a joke, there were many who adopted their own interpretations of the song. One of the most famous of those came from Charles Manson, who claimed that it inspired him to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders. While we can count this one out as a real interpretation, it just goes to show the unpredictability of audience interaction almost any song can get.
Just so we don’t end things on a dark note, let’s just take a moment to appreciate that John Lennon’s “Revolution 9” was a political and musical experiment, but also a joke. It was his ability to walk the line between opposing ideas and emotions that made so many of the Beatles’ songs work. Also, I think he’d appreciate that we’re discussing “Revolution 9” on 9/9/2019. But that’s just my own guess.
That about does it for our discussion today. I hope you enjoyed listening to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, and hope you learned a thing or two about it in the process. Let us know below how you think it stacks up to other Beatles songs.
We’ll be back tomorrow with another song to keep you going throughout the week.