ALEX JOHNSTON writes ...
Commonly agreed to be the Worst. Beatle Track. Ever.
A blot, we are constantly told, on an otherwise great album.
And, I mean…it’s hard to disagree.
The Beatles were a band whose signature trait was not that they were the heaviest, or the most complex, or the most avant-garde, or the best players, but the rarest quality of all: they had the most good songs.
And not only did they have so many good songs, they didn’t spin them out. If you aren’t crazy about the current song, never mind: the next one will be along in slightly less than three minutes.
And yet, they gave up a significant chunk of their longest album for an eight-minute sound collage.
In God’s name, why?
Let’s take a moment to consider where the Beatles were, when they made the White Album.
In August 1966, after a last and largely pointless tour of the US—pointless because nobody could hear them performing songs they’d played before anyway—they’d all finally agreed to stop touring. That autumn, they’d taken a break.
In November 1966, John Lennon first met Yoko Ono. This will become important later.
The same month, the Beatles went into the studio to record their next album. There were rumours in the press that they’d never play again, but they were on a creative as well as chemical high.
When Sgt Pepper was released in May 1967, it was a triumphant defiance of the claims that they were losing the plot. It was almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. It was their most commercially successful album yet, selling two and a half million copies within three months.
They went back into the studio almost immediately, hoping to keep the creative juices flowing, and because they had the idea for a television film, Magical Mystery Tour. They also needed to write songs for an upcoming animated film based on their music, Yellow Submarine.
In late August 1967, they discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and went on retreat with him in Wales.
Only a few days later, their manager Brian Epstein was found dead in his flat.
Talking about it years afterwards, John Lennon recalled his sense of doom on hearing the news:
I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, 'We've fuckin' had it now.’
The band had a meeting to discuss what to do next.
Paul McCartney was the one who had a plan, which was to keep working and finish their existing projects. Nobody else had any better ideas, so they went along with this.
In the meantime, Lennon wrote his blistering, surrealist rant, ‘I Am The Walrus’, which the band recorded mostly in early September.
Magical Mystery Tour was shot over a couple of weeks in September, then edited and shown on British TV on 26 December, supposedly as the Beatles’ Boxing Day treat. Since much of the film was in gaudy colour but most people owned black and white TVs, it was a disaster. The reviews were scathing. McCartney went on the David Frost Programme
the following day, to defend the film, which he didn’t exactly do:
Frost: I saw it today and I liked it…but I mean, why were people so puzzled by it, do you think?
McCartney: I think they thought it was bitty. Which it was, a bit. But you know, it was supposed to be like that. I think a lot of people were looking for a plot. And there wasn’t one. [audience laughter]
Frost: Did you have a point in mind when you... I mean, some point to get across at all when you did this?
McCartney: No. [pause. Audience laughter] See, that's the trouble, seriously. You gotta do everything with a point or an aim, but we tried this one without anything: with no point and no aim.
In February 1968, the band went to India for three months, to stay at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh.
Starr’s delicate stomach rebelled against the food, and he left after ten days.
McCartney got bored and returned a month later, and when Lennon heard soon afterwards that the Maharishi was making sexual advances on women attendees, he quickly grew disenchanted with the whole thing and left. He immediately wrote a scathing song about his disillusionment, ‘Maharishi’, which he quickly altered to ‘Sexy Sadie’ in order to avoid legal problems.
Harrison didn’t believe the accusations against the Maharishi, and he didn’t want to leave India. But he, too, returned to the UK with Lennon.
Harrison was already disenchanted with being a Beatle. In the spring of 1967, when they’d been writing and recording the material that would become Sgt Pepper, his original contribution had been the dour throwaway, ‘Only A Northern Song’. This had been rejected by the rest of the band, and Harrison had risen to the rejection and came up with the much more effective ‘Within You Without You’. But by early 1968, his fascination with India was a lot stronger than his fascination with the Beatles.
This would become a problem.
The whole Rishikesh thing may have been a symptom of the band casting about for some sort of spiritual leadership after Epstein’s death. And it may have reinforced Harrison’s impatience with having to do whatever the other guys wanted to do.
But it wasn’t a waste of time.
Lennon had stopped taking acid, and the result was a surge in his songwriting. They all came back from India with a lot of songs.
In May, the whole band convened at Harrison’s house, Kinfauns, and recorded demos of their new songs, as preparation for going into the studio. The demos have been issued as a bonus disc with the 2018 remix of the White Album, and they show the Beatles in an upbeat, collaborative mood.
Here’s the thing: seven of those songs were by McCartney:
- Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da
- Mother Nature’s Son
- Rocky Raccoon
- Back in the USSR
- Honey Pie
—five were by Harrison:
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- Sour Milk Sea
- Not Guilty
—and fourteen of them were by Lennon:
- Child of Nature
- Revolution 1
- Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey
- Cry Baby Cry
- Sexy Sadie
- Yer Blues
- Dear Prudence
- Glass Onion
- I’m So Tired
- The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
- What’s The New Mary Jane
- Mean Mr Mustard
- Polythene Pam
A comparison of the above lists with the final track listing of The Beatles shows that, of the songs the band had written in Rishikesh, 85% of McCartney’s ended up on the new album, 71% of Lennon’s did (which was still more than McCartney’s total), but only 40% of Harrison’s did.
Of the remaining songs that went on the album, two were by Lennon (‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and ‘Good Night’), four were by McCartney (‘Wild Honey Pie’, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Martha My Dear’), one was a Lennon/McCartney collaboration (‘Birthday’), and one was by Starr (‘Don’t Pass Me By’).
Only two were by Harrison (‘Long, Long, Long’ and ‘Savoy Truffle’.)
While we’re talking chronology, let’s not forget that two other songs were recorded during the White Album sessions, and released as a single: McCartney’s ‘Hey Jude’ and the faster and louder remake of Lennon’s ‘Revolution’.
The other track was the one that wasn’t a song:
Something else happened in May 1968—specifically, on 19 May.
Cynthia Lennon was on holiday in Greece. John Lennon had been messing around with tape loops and doing sonic experiments for his own amusement. He rang up Yoko Ono and invited her round to his house.
When she arrived, he played her some of his tape collages and she suggested that they make their own. They did. (This would become their first album together, Two Virgins.) Then they had sex for the first time.
(At least, that we know of.)
There are conflicting stories about the atmosphere in which The Beatles was recorded.
For a long time, the most-told story has been that the mood was generally tense and unfriendly. Biographers such as Philip Norman have solemnly informed us that Lennon and McCartney disliked each other’s songs on the album, with McCartney supposedly considering Lennon’s too harsh, and Lennon supposedly considering McCartney’s too sweet and cloying.
This is a little hard to credit, considering that McCartney’s songs include the epic racket of ‘Helter Skelter’ and the exuberant ‘Back in the USSR’, while Lennon’s include the wistful ‘Julia’, the nostalgic ‘Good Night’ and the syrupy ‘Child of Nature’, which Lennon would admittedly withdraw from consideration. (Years later, Lennon rewrote the words but not the tune and turned it into the far more moving ‘Jealous Guy’.) When Giles Martin was reviewing the studio tapes in preparation for his 2018 remix of the album—about which I’d love to rave, but now’s not the time—his main impression was of how much fun the band appeared to be having:
It is clear from listening to the tapes that their collective spirit and inventiveness were, in fact, stronger than ever. Following the development of a recording from an early take to a production master, you hear how, as all four worked tirelessly together in the studio, they carved out a sound and ‘feel’ for each song. On the many tapes that have been carefully preserved from the sessions, there is extraordinary inspiration—mixed with plenty of love and laughter.
This is, of course, a communication from the heart of Beatles Central in 2018, reflecting the image that the band would like people to have of them.
It’s in keeping with the statements Peter Jackson has made about the upcoming The Beatles: Get Back, which will supposedly present a different image of the band in 1969 from the chilly, quarrelling group seen in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be.
However, the Beatles went into recording the album with a huge amount of songs: more than they usually had. And whereas the previous year, John Lennon had been made easy-going and passive by all the acid he was taking, he now wasn’t taking acid, and was back in full opinionated form.
Also, just before the sessions began, he had got together with Yoko Ono and was bringing her into the studio.
So, these were the pressures:
- A rhythm guitarist/co-leader who was full of newfound confidence, and had a new partner who was also his new artistic collaborator, and a collapsing marriage;
- A lead guitarist whose patience with being a Beatle was wearing thinner by the month;
- A bass player/co-leader who was writing some of his best songs, and was determined to get them recorded;
- A drummer who just wanted everyone to get along;
- A f***ton of new material;
- The need to prove, after the Magical Mystery Tour fiasco, that they still had it;
- The urge to experiment.
What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s continue the story.
One of the peculiar habits the Beatles developed around 1966–68 was to make the weirdest or most adventurous track on the album really early on in the process.
This happened when they convened in the studio to record what would become Revolver. The last time they’d been in the studio was in November 1965, to record ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Girl’.
Between November ’65 and the first day of Revolver sessions in April ‘66, John Lennon had his first experiences with LSD. The result was that when he came into the studio, the first song the band tackled was his song about what it was like to be on LSD, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which was tacked on the end of Revolver because it was by far the weirdest thing on the album, and a stunning finale.
It happened again in November ’66 when they started recording what would be Sgt Pepper, and the first track they tried to get down was Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. That particular song ended up taking multiple sessions and didn’t get on the album, but after the Christmas break, when they came back to the studio in January 1967, the first track they began recording was, of course, ‘A Day in the Life’—which, again, ended up as the most far-out thing on the album, and was placed at the end.
Sure enough, when the Beatles went into the studio on 30 May 1968 to record their untitled new album, the first song they recorded was Lennon’s ‘Revolution 1’.
After doing multiple takes of the song, Take 18 turned into a free-form improvisation, with Lennon turning his repeated cries of ‘Alright’ into moans and screams, the song slowly unravelling. It was, to say the least, like nothing they’d done before.
Lennon liked it, and over the next few days he and Ono overdubbed new sounds and vocal noises onto the song’s latter section, with McCartney and Harrison adding backing vocals chanting the phrases Mama…Dada… over and over again.
Lennon took home a tape copy of the ten-minute ‘Revolution 1’, and a couple of days later, he came in to the studio having decided to cut the freak-out section from the end of the song, and leave the original song without it.
On subsequent sessions, on 6, 10 and 11 June, Lennon steadily worked on adding overdubs to the basic track of the ‘Revolution 1’ freak-out section, while McCartney was recording and finishing ‘Blackbird’ in a different studio.
He was continuing his experiments with making sound collages on tape.
But this time, he was doing it on the Beatles’ time, for a Beatles record. And Yoko Ono was with him while he was doing it.
The 10 June session was notable for being the first time the Beatles had recorded in the studio with some of them not even being in the country at the time: Harrison and Starr had gone to the USA on 7 June and didn’t get back until the 18th.
On 20 June, in a long session lasting from 7pm to 3.30am, Lennon finished all but one of the overdubs on what had become, at this point, a solo track, bringing in Harrison and Ono to add voices. The engineers on the track conceded that Lennon had basically produced it himself.
An examination tape for the Royal Academy of Music yielded the phrase Number nine…, which was looped and stuck at the front.
Lennon, Harrison and Ono operated the faders on numerous tape loops, including:
- A recording of George Martin saying Geoff, put the red light on
- A choir, with backwards violins
- A symphonic work played backwards
- A snippet of the orchestral overdub from ‘A Day in the Life’
- Lennon playing the mellotron, played backwards
- Miscellaneous symphonies and choirs
‘Revolution 9’ was finished on 25 June, with some last overdubbing.
The sessions for the new album, which had the working title of A Doll’s House, continued.
When Paul McCartney heard the new track that Lennon, Harrison and Ono had made without him, in the words of engineer Richard Lush who was present at the 20 November session, ‘it didn’t get a fantastic reaction.’
McCartney had always been the one who was in touch with the avant-garde art and music scene. When Lennon had been smoking dope and getting fat in the suburbs in 1965–66, McCartney had been living in a flat in the house of his girfriend Jane Asher’s family in the centre of London, where every night he and Asher could step out the door and go to a play or attend a gallery opening or hang out in the groovy Indica bookshop, which McCartney had funded and even helped to fix up.
McCartney had been the one to bring in avant-garde techniques and use them on Beatles records: tape loops on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, controlled collective improvisation on ‘A Day in the Life’, helping to bring Lennon’s songs to another level.
And now his partner had got together with someone who was deeply embedded in that scene, and was sticking his own version of an avant-garde piece of music right onto a Beatles record, without involving the others. (Except Harrison, who had been miffed anyway because so few of his songs were making the cut.)
Lennon and McCartney had a joke: McCartney liked to say that he should make a record called Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, and Lennon always said ‘You should do that! It’d be great!’
And now Lennon had gone too far, taking up most of one side of an album with a series of shouts and noises and snippets and voices and pure sound.
It’s as if McCartney listened to ‘Revolution 9’ and thought Oh, we’re making that sort of an album, are we? Doing whatever we want? Right, then.
The Beatles continued to record through July and August, in many cases recording in sub-groups or even by themselves. Recordings were increasingly held up by long band discussions, during which engineers were told to go and have a tea break.
On 20 August, McCartney was overseeing guitar and brass overdubs on ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ when Lennon and Starr entered, and what had been a cheerful atmosphere suddenly froze: engineer Ken Scott said ‘You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.’ It lasted as long as Lennon and Starr were in the room, and when they left, McCartney relaxed and became cheerful again.
Starr had taken to arriving at the studios before the others showed up, and sitting in the reception area, waiting for them to arrive, sometimes for hours.
On 22 August, during the recording of ‘Back in the USSR’, he told the others he’d had enough, walked out of the studios and went home.
The remaining Beatles finished the basic track the next day, without him. A flurry of phone calls ensued, with Starr voicing his feelings to the others that they were all a trio and he was left out; Lennon and McCartney replied, independently of each other, that they felt the same way. The three sent Starr a telegram imploring him to come back, in which they called him ‘the best drummer in the world.’
On 5 September, he returned to the studio. (He’d actually rejoined the group the previous evening, for the shooting of the ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ promo films.)
The band went on recording, sometimes collaborating enthusiastically, swapping instruments around for effect, sometimes working alone in separate studios.
On 9–10 September, McCartney finally got to go too far himself in the recording of ‘Helter Skelter’, which ended up featuring Lennon on bass, the band’s assistant Mal Evans on trumpet, and Harrison running around the studio with a lit ashtray over his head.
On 16–17 October, the Beatles had their only 24-hour session: the sequencing of the album, now retitled The Beatles at the suggestion of cover artist Richard Hamilton. Lennon, McCartney, George Martin, Ken Scott and John Smith worked out the running order of the 31 songs that were deemed to be good enough, and linked them with crossfades and edits, none of the usual three-second gap. It lasted from 5pm on Wednesday to 5pm on Thursday.
On 22 November, The Beatles was finally released.
Why did the Beatles include ‘Revolution 9’ in the White Album?
The years 1965–67 were, for John Lennon, years of confusion, doubt and torpor. His massive indulgence in drugs came about in part as a way of dealing with his unstable sense of what sort of person he was supposed to be. Lennon masked his shyness with aggression, whereas McCartney was naturally personable and confident.
In Yoko Ono, Lennon met someone who was as artistically ambitious and intellectually restless as himself. To some extent, their personalities fused into John’n’Yoko. This is what caused him to bring her into the studio, disconcerting the other Beatles.
This is why he wanted to meet her on her level, by making art that was as confrontational as her own art had been. (Ono’s Cut Piece is still one of the more remarkable piece of early 60s performance art.)
By making ‘Revolution 9’ and putting it on the White Album, Lennon was pushing the band forwards, giving them licence to go too far, top that, go on, ya bastards.
If it weren’t for ‘Revolution 9’, we probably wouldn’t have had the furious rush of egotism that compelled the band’s members to step forward and force as many of their songs as possible onto the album. And yes, the same egotism caused them to fight and have strops—but when they jelled, they jelled to an astonishing degree. (Don’t forget that it was in the midst of all this that McCartney came out with ‘Hey Jude’, which Lennon instantly heard as McCartney giving his blessing to the Lennon-Ono relationship, and as a result, was highly enthusiastic about.)
And yes, the album contains such daft novelty songs as ‘Bungalow Bill’ and ‘Rocky Raccoon’, and a children’s lullaby, and a Beach Boys homage, and some trippy-as-fuck psychedelia, and a 30s jazz pastiche. And these are fun, if you like that kind of thing, but maybe not grade-A Beatles material (except perhaps the infernally catchy ‘Back in the USSR’.)
But it also contains songs as direct and haunting as ‘Long, Long, Long’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Julia’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, ‘Revolution 1’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey’.
But here’s the thing:
If it had only contained those songs, if it had been the single album that George Martin thought it should have been, a dozen or fourteen good, solid songs with no craziness or weird shit, it would have been a fine album, but…
…it would have been the Beatles’ ninth album.
Instead, The Beatles is a monster.
We can’t listen to it now without thinking of Manson, reading hatred and murder into its songs.
The author Devin McKinney, in his book Magic Circles, called it the Beatles’ best album, and hears in it the sound of Vietnam, even in a peaceful song like ‘Mother Nature’s Son’:
Something is wrong. The track overall has the tonal shading of heavy skies, sinister lurkings in tall grass, with crepuscular horns and the underbeat of an unresonant drum; it is delivered in the disaffected voice and depressive mien of a shellshock victim.
Elsewhere, McKinney hears in the come on come on come on come on of ‘Me and My Monkey’:
a platoon of soldiers rushing with heads down through a jungle clearing.
And I argue that the album wouldn’t have these shadows, this sprawling, unruly quality, if it weren’t the vast dark cloud of ‘Revolution 9’ hovering over the making of it, from the very beginning.
John Lennon may have made ‘Revolution 9’ partly in order to impress his new girlfriend. And partly because he wanted to feel like an avant-garde artist.
But in so doing, he helped set the tone for the making of the album.
And that’s why I think ‘Revolution 9’ not only belongs on the White Album.
I think it’s the best track on what I’m coming around to thinking is their best album.
Thanks for reading.
Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, Harmony Books, 1988
Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Vintage (2nd revised ed.), 2005
Giles Martin, ‘Introduction’, Booklet from The Beatles & Esher Demos, Apple/Universal, 2018
Devin McKinney, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Harvard, 2003