The History Of The Beatle’s Revolution
The Story Behind The Band’s Most Political Song
The year was 1968. Chaos enveloped the globe. In the United States, civil rights and anti-war activists clashed over the escalating conflict in Vietnam. The assassination of political and civil rights leaders like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King spread distrust and panic amongst the populace.
In Europe, Soviet tanks rolled in the streets of Prague as the Kremlin tightened an iron grip around its empire. Student protestors poured into the streets of Paris, nearly shutting down the French capital.
John Lennon and The Beatles felt this mounting tension. As the calendar year turned, the band departed to India for a meditation retreat. It was here on the rolling hills of Rishikesh where Lennon sketched out the song Revolution — the group’s response to the growing unrest.
In the coming months Lennon’s idea would sprawl into three separate tracks. Two conventional tunes released on record and as a single, and one spaced-out song collage that remains the most experimental and controversial recording in the group’s catalog.
While Revolution may not rank as the most popular Beatles song, its genesis and influence is among the most fascinating. It shows both the band responding to the times, and gives us a glimpse at the creative process in the later stages of their career. Here is a brief look at the recording and reception of Revolution.
The Beatles never intended to be a political band. In fact, manager Brian Epstein did everything he could to steer the band away from speaking about social issues. He wanted the group to remain a pop act, not a political organization.
But as cultural norms shifted in the 60s, the group changed with them. The band began experimenting with psychedelic drugs and eastern spirituality. By 1968, the once lovable mop topped quartet now sported shaggy hair and hippy clothing.
Despite their evolution, the group had yet to take a stand on the collective calls for rebellion and dissent. This silence rankled leaders of the counterculture. French film-maker Jean Luc-Goddard even accused the group of being “corrupted by money”.
These accusations, as well as Epstein’s death in 1967, compelled the band to clarify their position. As Lennon explained to Rolling Stone Magazine:
“I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it’s going to be all right. That’s why I did it: I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you, or whoever listens, to communicate, to say ‘What do you say? This is what I say.”
Lennon returned to the UK determined to address the subject in song.
Early Recording (Take 18)
On May 30th 1968, The Beatles began recording Revolution. Lennon paired his lyrics with a down tempo blues guitar riff.
On the last take of the day (known as Take 18 in Beatles lore), the group broke out into an extended jam session. The final 6 minutes of the recording featured improvisational and vocal interludes with members of the group laughing and screeching into the microphone. This psyched out coda would provide the inspiration for Revolution 9.
While Take 18 never made it onto any Beatles albums, it provided the skeleton for all three versions of the song. It was released to the public as part of the 50th anniversary edition of The White Album. Check it out below:
The track titled “Revolution 1” is one of the two versions of the song released on the White Album. It’s a more polished recording of the first four minutes of Take 18. On the track producer George Martin removes the experimental outro and adds horns and backing vocals.
Revolution 1 is perhaps the most stripped-down version of the song. It’s bare boned and moves at a crawling tempo. This shows in both the music and lyrics.
In this rendition, Lennon seems even more unsure of where he stands on the revolution. After delivering the line “but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know you can count me out” he meekly adds the word “in” — as if to appease all sides.
Revolution (Single Version)
Lennon remained determined to release Revolution as a single. However, he received push back from his bandmates. Both Paul McCartney and George Harrison thought the tune was too slow to catch the ears of the audience. They doubted it could chart as a single.
Eventually the band reached a compromise. They would record a more upbeat version of the song to release as a single, and plug the slow version towards the end of their ever-expanding White Album.
The single version of Revolution injected the song with a hard rock energy. It replaces the down tempo blues with distorted guitars. The lyrics themselves take a more decisive stand with Lennon firmly stating that if you talk about destruction, you can “count him out.”
Despite Lennon’s insistence, Revolution did not end up as a single. It served as a B-side to McCartney’s smash hit Hey Jude. However, this recording remains the most popular version of the song, and continues to be a fan favorite.
The final version of Revolution bears little resemblance to the two previous iterations of the song.
In fact, “song” might not be the most accurate word for the recording. Lennon describes Revolution 9 as a sound collage. It stretches the final 6 minutes of the Take 18 and adds additional layers, overdubs, effects, and tape loops. Lennon says:
“That was a picture I painted in sound of the revolution, which was complete murder and killing and people screaming and kids crying and all that, which is what I really thought it would be.”
There is a wide range of opinions on Revolution 9. Many fans consider it the worst thing The Beatles’ ever released. While some critics praised the groups bold experimentation. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner said: “Revolution 9” was “beautifully organized” and “had more political impact than “Revolution 1”
Love it or hate it, the song leaves an impression. Listen below if you dare:
Did The Beatles Revolution stick it to the establishment and shake the world?
The song was met with a tepid response from the counterculture. Many ignored Lennon’s feeble endorsement of revolution, and dismissed his insistence that all “would be alright”. The song reached peak infamy when Apple Computer used it in a television ad.
As a single Revolution enjoyed modest success. It peaked at number 12 on the Billboard music chart (a relatively unimpressive accomplishment for Beatles standards). It remains a popular song, but nowhere near as beloved as songs like Let It Be and Hey Jude (the song released ahead of Revolution as a single).
The experimental Revolution 9 birthed its own twisted legacy. It fueled the “Paul is dead” rumors. Some saw its chaotic structure as a sign of the Apocalypse — most notably cult leader Charles Manson who references the song multiple times in his manifesto.
While Revolution may not have changed the world, it provides a fascinating look at the band and the times. It shows how the seeds of an idea can morph into three entirely different products- each inspiring a legacy of its own.
For that alone it stands out as a worthy subject of discussion.