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Studying the Beatles


(c) Ian Hammond 1999
All rights reserved

Where did Lennon's epochal Revolution 9 come from? A simple question that needs answering from a number of angles, including musical, cultural and commercial aspects. I'm going to concentrate on the musical angle in this article.

Before Beatles
The use of sound effects, loops, and backwards music pre-dates the Beatles. Beethoven created backwards/upside-down music by turning the viola part of a piece music upside down and improvising around it. Vaughan Williams transcribed a piece of music that he held up to a mirror. Beethoven also composed for mechanical devices.

Although the general listening public may be puzzled by the use of noise in music, a musician needs little explanation. George Martin released his own electronic music record under the name of Ray Cathode long before he met the Beatles. In the so-called argument interview Lennon says that he learned all he need to know about noise when the band used to go crazy on stage in Hamburg. The Christmas acetates show their ability to improvise with sound.

A number of sources have been proposed for Revolution 9.

John Cage's Variations IV was created by two performers each equipped with a sound studio and a array of sound effects. The recording captures segments of the performance which lasted many hours. Like Revolution 9, Cage's piece employs a sequence of sound effects and fragments of recordings. Beyond that there is little resemblance. However, Cage could hardly be considered unique. The fifties and sixties were full of avant garde music, some of which could be heard on the eclectic BBC. I have an 80 page bibliography dedicated to electronic music that was printed in 1964. Contemporary music was perhaps more accessible at time, in a period colored by beat poets and modern jazz, than it is now. The Hamburg Exis would have been another channel.

Glenn Gould's Soundscapes consist of oral history interviews which are mixed and overdubbed. I have yet to find anyone who has actually listened to more than a small part of these unlistenable pieces.

There is no evidence that Lennon had heard either Cage's or Gould's work before recording Revolution 9.

Searching for establishment influences is as useless as listing James Joyce as an influence for Lennon's books. In 1968, Abbey Road was pioneering recording studio techniques. Revolution 9 is a celebration of electronic artifacts as instruments. In any case, I will show below that Revolution was no more than a logical development of the techniques the Beatles had already developed.

Frank Zappa's own use of sound is more like street music than Lennon's sophisticated work. We know that Lennon listened to Zappa and Beefheart, however their influence would have been restricted to challenging Lennon.

The Rolling Stone's Satanic Majesties Request, released after Sgt Pepper upped the ante on the use of noise in mainstream pop, Lennon's home territory. The Stones finished side one of their 1966 album with a 10 minute instrumental. On Satanic they had a number of sections which consisted purely of noise or noise plus music. The Stones' were much closer to home than Zappa or Beefheart. Lennon participated in Stones' sessions at the time.

Apart from the fact that Lennon does not use a regular musical formation, there is little resemblance between the works cited above and Revolution 9. Lennon uses tape loops and dubs to imitate the sections of an imaginary orchestra and choir in a formally structured work where almost every detail has been skillfully mixed. The Zappa, Beefheart and most of the Stones' pieces are more closely related to free jazz than experimental music.

Yoko Ono is cited as a possible influence. Lennon has characterized her presence at the time as "inspiring him rather than inspiring the music". Ono certainly was a performer on Revolution 9. I will show below that Lennon's first attempt at Revolution 9 was more akin to the Two Virgins happening approach. The second attempt reverted to the techniques of pop music making. Yoko was there for the whole thing and she made decisions about which loops to use. It was somewhat under her influence, I suppose. Once I heard her stuff -- the just the screeching and the howling but her sort of word pieces and talking and breathing and all this strange stuff, I thought, My God, I got intrigued, so I wanted to do one. Lennon DSL159

The overwhelming major influence on Revolution 9 is the Beatles' work in 1966, 1967 and 1968 along with Lennon's own work at home. I will attempt to show below that Revolution 9 arose as a natural evolutionary step that began with Tomorrow Never Knows and the outros of Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever. To achieve that goal I will first review the Beatles' use of sound effects.

1966: Revolver
The Beatles use of noise on albums coincides with the adoption of LSD by Lennon and the Harrison's use of Indian music. The first such track recorded was Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows. Lennon's concept was a thousand chanting Tibetan monks. The rejected first take is based on a single repeating loop, techno style.

All four Beatles produced tape loops for the session which Martin and Emerick managed. Unexplained remains the fact that the musical loops are all in C major and use the same distinctive notes that Lennon's tune stresses. The piece finishes with a piano fragment (not unlike a passage in Two Virgins).

Tomorrow Never Knows was the first track recorded for Revolver and the track which closed the album.

Next was Lennon's Rain which introduced backwards singing. Lennon and Martin both claimed credit, however Tomorrow Never Knows already shows backward guitar. Rain features an Indian-style chorus and the first true-blue psychedelic Beatles outro. The band track was recorded fast and slowed down. The resulting slow motion drum part may have been the model for Starr's scuffed drum style.

The Beatles studio techniques were revolutionized during these two sessions.

Let's review the 1966 Lennon tracks:

I'm Only Sleeping Backwards guitar She Said She Said Indian style And Your Bird Can Sing Regular Dr Robert Regular Tomorrow Never Knows Indian, Loops, Backwards guitar Concept

Harrison contributed two tracks with Indian influence:

Taxman Indian style solo Love To You Indian style

The remaining tracks were regular. Yellow Submarine was the first Beatle track to employ a comedy section.

1967: Sgt Pepper
The first track recorded for Pepper was Strawberry Fields Forever. According to Martin, the song rewrote the rules, setting the model for the Pepper sessions. The final track spliced sections of two takes, one of them slowed down appropriately. Backwards cymbals make their first appearance. A mad Beatles percussion section forms the basis of the Brass version. The track ends with a burst of backwards music. The Beatles' outro style reaches early maturity.

Importantly, we hear spoken voices in the outro (and thirty years on we're still discussing "Cranberry Sauce", a line that would fit right into Revolution 9). The outro of Strawberry Fields would have made a great ending to Sgt Pepper, however, the track was milked for a single.

Interestingly, Lennon immediately produced A Day In The Life, an equally revolutionary song, which became the end track. Lennon explained his concept to fill the gaps with a climax (based probably on the traditional rock climax we also hear in Day Tripper). The piece finishes with a huge piano chord.

Lennon's pieces in Pepper time:

Lucy In The Sky Indian Benefit Of Mr Kite Chopped-up tapes Concept Good Morning Sound effects Concept A Day In The Life Avant garde break, effects, Concept Strawberry Fields Indian, Spoken, Backwards Tape matching

Harrison's one song was purely Indian.

McCartney's Getting Better featured Indian instruments. The remaining tracks were regular. A backwards solo constructed for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was discarded.

The album finished with a Nutopian piece for dogs and an endless loop of backwards spoken nonsense.

Lennon's contribution to Magical Mystery Tour was his Opus Magnum I Am The Walrus. Lennon explores the use of pure noise (leading to the bridge) and audio verite by recording a live Radio feed over the final mix.

Lennon supplied a home-recorded tape collage for the Spaghetti scene and the backwards outro for Flying, a band composition. The Bus Sleeping sequence has a backward melletron part.

Lennon's songs from the period:

I Am The Walrus Spoken, Direct radio feed Hey Bulldog Spoken outro dialog All You Need Is Love Multiple songs in outro Baby You're A Rich Man Indian, Effects Jesse's Dream Tape Collage Flying Backwards Melletron outro Sleeping Scene Backwards Melletron in Magical Mystery Tour bus scene.

It's noteworthy that two Lennon tracks, with various effects, did not get released at the time.

You Know My Name Effects, Spoken Across The Universe Backwards, Effects, Untrained singers

Harrison adopted electronic effects in this period. His film music for Wonderwall features electronic and backwards music.

The Inner Light Indian Blue Jay Way Indian, Effects, Backwards Only A Northern Song Effects, Noise, Avant garde All Too Much Feedback Wonderwall Indian, Effects, Timed

McCartney's songs continue to explore orchestral and band instruments. Bus sounds were added to Magical Mystery Tour.

1968: White Album

Two Virgins:
On the night Lennon recorded Two Virgins with Yoko Ono he first played her some of his electronic music. A preliminary study of Two Virgins seems to show that Lennon recorded himself and Ono over existing electronic tracks that Lennon had prepared, including a piano loop. While Ono sang and provided dialog, Lennon played a variety of instruments and also provided dialog. Essentially, the piece is a sixties Happening.

Revolution 20
The first month of White Album sessions was largely concerned with Lennon's versions of Revolution. No other piece of Lennon music received as much love and care as Revolution 9. The only other tracks recorded were Ringo's Don't Pass Me By and Paul's Blackbird.

Lennon must have been determined to challenge the Beatles. Breaking an old taboo, he brought his partner, Yoko Ono, to the sessions. His first goal was to record an overtly political song, Revolution, which he wanted released as a single. The outro planned for Revolution was planned to include tape loops and sound effects.

Perhaps Lennon was posing the question: "Are we still going to take chances brothers? Or are we going to start playing it safe?". "Revolution" was planned to be radical in the same sense that Revolver and Sgt Pepper had been. That meant going further than the unreleased seven minute It's All Too Much at least.

Speaking about Revolution 1, Lennon said:

Completely me... I absolutely wanted the Beatles to say something about the war.

The first take of Revolution - well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn't fast enough... But the Beatle could have afforded to put out the slow, understandable version of Revolution as a single...

But because they were so upset over the Yoko thing and the fact that I was again becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days, after lying fallow for a couple of years, it upset the applecart. I was awake again and they weren't used to it.

{Was it Yoko's inspiration?} She inspired all this creation in me. It wasn't that she inspired the songs; she inspired me... Lennon DSL158

Lennon's first version of Revolution, which I will call Revolution 20 (it was Take 20), was ten minutes long.

I have not heard outtakes of Revolution 20. Let's try to picture it. The first four minutes became Revolution 1. The last six minutes probably began with the band pumping and Lennon moaning "alright" (we hear that in Revolution 9). Lennon and Ono improvised vocally. A dozen sound effects or so were dubbed.

At some point the rhythm section, drums and guitars, drop out all together. That also happens on What's The New Mary Jane. According to Lewisohn, Lennon did most of the dubbing alone. His Beatle brothers were no longer pursuing this path. Indian influences were also dropped at this time.

The form of Revolution 18 is like that of It's All Too Much or All You Need Is Love: a long outro with various things going on. The difference would be that the outro on Revolution 20 would have been more dissonant. Perhaps the tracks that best compare would be the outro of Only A Northern Song" or the dissonant section of What's The New Mary Jane.

A White Album with Revolution 20
Revolution began life as a typical big Beatles track with an outro, destined to end an album, building on the tradition of Walrus etc. Nothing special, just the next step in the evolutionary path.

What would the album have looked like? The last side might have begun with What's The New Mary Jane, running through Honey Pie, Savoy Truffle, Good Night, Cry Baby Cry and closing on the ten minute version of Revolution 20.

The Big Snip
Some time after June 4 Lennon decided to split the song into two pieces. He may have decided to shorten Revolution 1 for release as a single, which was certainly his intention.

He may have initially planned to simply take the six minute outro and develop it further. Schwartz reports that rerecorded some loops that he was dissatisfied with. One possibility is that some of his home tape loops may have had too much background hiss (very audible on Two Virgins). Another possibility is that the outro just didn't work as he had envisaged.

In any case, a tape Lennon took home of take 20 from the June 4 dubbing session is the last we hear of the 10 minute version. Two days later he was back collecting loops for the stage adaptation of In His Own Write" and for Revolution 9. He spent three sessions at least preparing the loops.

Lennon waited almost two weeks, until June 20, before he recorded the basic track of Revolution 9. Apart from other projects with Ono, he needed to get a night where he could utilize all three studios in the building. He also required one person per loop, so I guess most of the technical staff must have been present. That would have taken some planning.

Well, the slow version of Revolution on the album went on and on and on and I took the fade-out part, which is what they do with disco records now, and just layered all this stuff over it.

It has the basic rhythm of the original Revolution going on with some twenty loops we put on, things from the archives of EMI. We were cutting up classical music and making different-size loops, and then I got an engineer tape on which some test engineer was saying, "Number nine, number nine, number nine."

All those different bits of sound and noises are all compiled.

There were about ten machines with people holding pencils on the loops -- some only inches long and some a yard long.

I fed them all in and mixed them live. I did a few mixes until I got one I liked. Lennon DSL159

So, in essence, the piece began as an attempt to apply a "happening" (with Ono) to the outro of Revolution 20. Lennon discarded the result, but it led him to develop to develop a separate piece, Revolution 9.

What remains unexplained is how and when he decided to adopt the technique of using loops to orchestrate Revolution 9 and to structure the work so clearly. There is no parallel for either of these features in any of the works cited as potential influences.

I spent more time on Revolution 9 than I did on half the other songs I wrote. It was a montage. Lennon DSL159

For pleasure I would never listen to [my own records]. When I hear them, I just think of the session... the eight hours of mixing Revolution 9 -- whatever... I remember every detail of the work. Lennon DSL47

See the next article in this series, Revolution 9 and Stockhausen for a discussion of Hymnen, a 1967 work of Stockhausen's which is said to provide a precedent for the structure of Revolution 9 and even the phraze "Number nine".

Following the Stockhausen article is a piece on Underground Events 1966/1967 which outlines contemporary underground musical events in London.

After Revolution
Revolution 9 can be seen as the (logical) conclusion of the experimentation that characterized Peppertime.

It's facile to suggest that the Beatles gave birth to rap, punk, techno and the rest. On the other hand, the Beatles' influence is enormous and lasting. I hear "Revolution 9" when I listen to the Beastie Boys, but perhaps not for the reason you might think. The Beastie Boys use loops etc instead of augmenting their band with additional musicians, not just for sound effects. That's basically what Lennon did on Revolution 9: he used loops as instruments, not just as noise. But to suggest an origin for the Beastie Boys in John Lennon would be akin to suggesting an origin for Revolution 9 in John Cage.

As a Beatle, Lennon's interest in noise as a major focus ends with Revolution 9. He did not complete Mary Jane. The initial "it's a goal" ending for Glass Onion was dropped. The Beatles had moved on.

In his mainstream work, he limited himself to using noise to color the edges of tracks rather than play a central role. The use of white noise on I Want You is a prime example. Double Fantasy has a good deal of interesting noise.

Lennon continued his avant garde work with Yoko Ono in sound, on film and with happenings based on their JohnAndYoko image until about 1972.

IAN HAMMOND'S BEATHOVEN: PAGE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, - Back To Revolution Number 9

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