Revolution 9

Helter Skelter

Paul is dead

Revolution 9 is a sound collage that appeared on the Beatles’ 1968 eponymous release (popularly known as the ‘White Album’). The composition, credited to Lennon–McCartney, was created primarily by John Lennon with assistance from George Harrison and Yoko Ono. Lennon said he was trying to paint a picture of a revolution using sound. The composition was influenced by the avant garde style of Ono as well as the musique concrète works of composers such as Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

British music critic Ian MacDonald remarked that ‘Revolution 9’ evoked the era’s revolutionary disruptions and their repercussions, and thus was culturally ‘one of the most significant acts the Beatles ever perpetrated,’ as well as ‘the world’s most widely distributed avant garde artifact.’

The recording began as an extended ending to the album version of Lennon’s song ‘Revolution.’ He, Harrison and Ono then combined the unused coda with numerous overdubbed vocals, speech, sound effects, and short tape loops of speech and musical performances, some of which were reversed. These were further manipulated with echo, distortion, stereo panning, and fading. At over eight minutes, it is the longest track that the Beatles officially released during their existence as a band.

‘Revolution 9’ was not the first venture by the Beatles into experimental recordings. Following Paul McCartney’s lead, the group had introduced avant garde styling in their 1966 song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and, in 1967, they recorded an unreleased piece called ‘Carnival of Light.’ McCartney said the work was inspired by composers Stockhausen and John Cage. Stockhausen was also a favorite of Lennon, and was one of the people included on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album cover.

Another influence on Lennon was his relationship with Ono. Lennon and Ono had recently recorded their own avant garde album, ‘Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. Lennon said: ‘Once I heard her stuff – not just the screeching and howling but her sort of word pieces and talking and breathing and all this strange stuff … I got intrigued, so I wanted to do one.’ Ono attended the recording sessions and, according to Lennon, helped him select which tape loops to use. In a 1992 interview for Musician magazine, Harrison said that it was he and Ringo Starr who selected the sounds, sourced from EMI’s tape library, including the ‘Number nine, number nine’ dialogue. Authors Chip Madinger and Mark Easter write that the content of Harrison’s lesser-known experimental piece ‘Dream Scene,’ recorded between November 1967 and February 1968 for his ‘Wonderwall Music’ album, suggests that Harrison had a greater influence on ‘Revolution 9′ than has been acknowledged. In his book about the Beatles’ White Album, titled Revolution, David Quantick lists Lennon, Ono, and Harrison as the ‘actual writers,’ despite the Lennon–McCartney composer’s credit.

Although other songs on the album were separately remixed for the mono version, the complexity of ‘Revolution 9’ necessitated making the mono mix a direct reduction of the final stereo master. McCartney had been out of the country when ‘Revolution 9’ was assembled and mixed; he was unimpressed when he first heard the finished track, and later tried to persuade Lennon to drop his insistence that it be included on the album. Lennon said that the final editing was done by himself and Ono alone.

Lennon later said of the track and its production: ‘Revolution 9 was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution. All the thing was made with loops. I had about 30 loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects.’

Much of the track consists of tape loops that are faded in and out, several of which are sampled from performances of classical music. Works that have been specifically identified include the Vaughan Williams motet ‘O Clap Your Hands,’ the final chord from Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, and the reversed finale of Schumann’s ‘Symphonic Studies.’ Other loops include brief portions of Beethoven’s ‘Choral Fantasy,’ ‘The Streets of Cairo,’ violins from ‘A Day in the Life,’ and George Martin saying ‘Geoff, put the red light on.’ Part of the Arabic song ‘Awal Hamsa’ by Farid al-Atrash is included shortly after the 7-minute mark. There are also loops of unidentified operatic performances, backwards mellotron, violins and sound effects, an oboe/French horn duet, a reversed electric guitar in the key of E major, loud cymbals and a reversed string quartet in the key of E-flat major. A loop from the ‘Revolver’ track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is also evident.

Segments of random prose read by Lennon and Harrison are heard prominently throughout, along with numerous sound effects such as laughter, crowd noise, breaking glass, car horns and gunfire. Some of the sounds were taken from an Elektra Records album of stock sound effects. The piece ends with a recording of American football chants (‘Hold that line! Block that kick!’). In all, the final mix includes at least 45 different sound sources.

The unusual nature of “Revolution 9” engendered a wide range of opinions. English biographer Mark Lewisohn summarized the public reaction upon its release as ‘most listeners loathing it outright, the dedicated fans trying to understand it.’ Music critics Robert Christgau and John Piccarella called it ‘an anti-masterpiece’ and commented that, in effect, ‘for eight minutes of an album officially titled The Beatles, there were no Beatles.’ Alan Walsh of Melody Maker called it ‘noisy, boring and meaningless.’

Ian MacDonald noted that the structure suggests a ‘half-awake, channel-hopping’ mental state, with underlying themes of consciousness and quality of awareness. Others have described the piece as Lennon’s attempt at turning ‘nightmare imagery’ into sound, and as ‘an autobiographical soundscape.’ The loop of ‘number nine’ featured in the recording fueled the legend of Paul McCartney’s death after it was reported that it sounded like ‘turn me on, dead man’ when played backwards.

Based on interviews and testimony, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi asserted that Charles Manson believed that many songs on the ‘White Album’ contained references confirming his prediction of an impending apocalyptic race war, a scenario dubbed ‘Helter Skelter.’ According to American songwriter and prosecution witness in the Manson family murder trials Gregg Jakobson, Manson mentioned ‘Revolution 9’ more often than any of the other album tracks, and he interpreted it as a parallel of Chapter 9 of the Book of Revelation. Manson viewed the piece as a portrayal in sound of the coming black-white revolution. He misheard Lennon’s distorted screams of ‘Right!’ as a command to ‘Rise!’ Speaking to music journalist David Dalton before his trial, Manson drew parallels between the animal noises that close Harrison’s ‘White Album’ track ‘Piggies’ and a similar sound, followed by machine-gun fire, that appears in ‘Revolution 9.’

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