The Beatles have never released anything more radical, daring and forward thinking than 1968’s “Revolution 9.” Nothing in their prior work — the death-obsessed drone of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” 1967’s apocalyptic “A Day in the Life” — could have prepared a Beatles fan for the sonic hurricane near the end of the White Album.
Even 50 years later, the jury’s still out on whether “Revolution 9” is an avant-garde masterpiece or a self-indulgent mistake. Comparing it to other Beatles songs seems specious; it doesn’t resemble anything they had released before or since. It seems to erase any signifiers of a rock band in favor of a cavalcade of strange found sounds.
By now, the story of the Beatles’ experimental years has been rehashed many times over: sitars, Moogs and Leslie speakers, guitar tracks sped up and slowed down and played backwards. But with “Revolution 9,” it’s worth considering how far they really pushed those tendencies by jettisoning any traditional Western metric of music and venturing into Cage or Stockhausen territory.
Diving into EMI Studios’ sound effect bank wasn’t even a new Beatle trick; on 1966’s “Yellow Submarine,” they conjured a sound-world of crashing waves and captain’s orders, and 1967’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” features a mosaic of barnyard animal sounds.
John Lennon had been messing around with a coda at the end of Take 20 of his “Revolution,” using homemade tapes featuring titles like “Vicar Poems,” “Queen’s Mess” and “Organ Last Will Test.” The motif was a testing tape by an anonymous engineer intoning: “This is EMI test series number nine.” This accidental find was of some significance for John; “It turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything,” he later recalled to Rolling Stone.
Lennon edited the tape to just repeat “number nine” again and again, panning it back and forth in the stereo field. It was the launching pad for a bona fide cacophony. Mangled classical snippets from Beethoven, Sibelius and Schumann wheeze to life only to sputter out.
Lennon and George Harrison follow along with their non-sequitur prose. “Industrial output / Financial imbalance / The Watusi / The Twist,” Lennon mutters. “El Dorado,” Harrison comments. “There ain’t no rule for the company freaks,” they whisper together, six times over. Meanwhile, there are American football chants (“Hold that line / Block that kick!”) and an eerie recording of Yoko Ono talking about becoming naked.
This was surely all a hard pill to swallow back in the day, and this challenging track would take on a critical reputation as an overlong slog. “Justly maligned,” opined David Marsh and John Swenson in 1979’s New Rolling Stone Album Guide. “The most unpopular recording the Beatles ever made,” declared Mojo‘s Mark Paytress in 2003. Perhaps most scathingly, NME‘s Alan Smith chalked up “Revolution 9” to “pretentious … idiot immaturity.”
The White Album had also infamously stuck in Charles Manson’s craw as a work of prophecy; Aside from “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution 9” carries the brunt of this association. He’d taken Lennon’s repeated cries of “ride!” as “rise!” to substantiate his paranoid visions of a race war. He egged on his murderous followers by conflating the title with the Book of Revelation, Chapter 9.
But “Revolution 9” is worth exhuming from its cultural baggage. To today’s ears, it’s not ponderous or negative, but giddily weird. This especially goes for its recently unveiled 5.1 version, included in this month’s 50th Anniversary Edition of the White Album. If you haven’t zoned out to the track in a while, this is your best opportunity in years.
Even producer George Martin, who sometimes felt pushed out of the frame during the White Album’s sessions, was enraptured by their bizarre noise experiment. “I love ‘Revolution 9’,” he’s quoted as saying in the 50th Anniversary book. “You could sit in front of those two speakers and actually see things happening if you shut your eyes. It wasn’t music, but it was a sound picture.”
It’s shocking to consider that this “sound picture” came a mere five years after “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They’d shattered pop convention on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, but no moment on either album came near this level of abstraction.
It also stoked fan-first communion; in its disembodied moans, “Revolution 9” practically invited public misunderstandings, late-night debates and fruitless hunts for meaning. Backmask the “number nine” sample, and you hear something like “turn me on, dead man,” which helped stoke the “Paul Is Dead” fires.
If the Fab Four legend began with screaming girls and police barricades, this is that noise reflected back at the world. If you’ve got a Beatle-suspicious person in your life who thinks they’re all mop-tops and smiles, give them a dose of “Revolution 9.”