Monday, May 25, 2009

Revolution #1

Though I personally prefer the fuzzy aggressive madness of "Revolution #2," John Lennon himself favored "Revolution #1," the more laid-back track on the White Album. In fact, this was the version that he wanted to release as a single, and the reason "Revolution #2" exists is that the other Beatles argued that he'd need to rock it out a bit more for it to be single-worthy. There was also, apparently, some alarm from the others about releasing such an overtly political song in the highly charged political climate of 1968-- although I seem to recall Paul backing off this version of the story in recent years and making it sound like the whole thing was totally okay with him, so it's possible too much has been made of a John/Paul split here (or that Paul is afraid of being retroactively seen as uncool, which is also totally believable).

Anyway, today it's "Revolution #1," so numbered because it's the first recorded version.

John wanted to sound super, super relaxed on this one-- because it's gonna be all right, kiddies, at least if you believe his refrain here-- so he experimented with a lot of different ways to sing it before settling on singing lying down. This does lend the performance a certain breathy, mellow quality, as though John's trying to tell the New Left to chill the hell out already. What also helps, of course, is the "shooby doo-wa" backup sung line, the prominence of John's acoustic guitar, and the lazy shuffle of Ringo's drumming, which kicks in a little in the fills going into the refrain but stays (I think) the tiniest bit behind the beat throughout, just to keep it groovy. Note, too, the nice understated use of horns-- I'm particularly into the way they sustain those notes underneath the "when you talk about destruction" bit to ratchet up the tension into the refrain. They never draw attention to themselves, but it wouldn't be as great without them, for sure.

My favorite bit, though, might be George's lead guitar, which is killer throughout, from the juiced up triplets that start the song off to the little bursts of sound that punch up the refrain to every cool flourish in between. I don't know if George overdubbed these riffs over the basic track later, but it almost sounds that way-- as if John asked him to just make it more interesting anywhere that it felt necessary to do so.

This was a song that meant a lot to John, and a lot of ink has been spilled elsewhere analyzing the "Revolution"s as a part of his personal development, or something-- Ian MacDonald has a particularly cogent essay in the book that I recommend here all the time (I swear I read others, but MacDonald's is just so awesome). Suffice it to say for my kind-of-lazy purposes that this was one of those songs that John obsessed over in the studio and devoted heaps of takes to (see also: "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Across the Universe," and many more). In this case, I think it turned out well, and even if I might prefer to rock out to #2, the more I listen to #1 the more I appreciate its production.

I don't think the sessions for "Revolution #1" were the very first ones that Yoko sat in on, but they were among the first, and her contribution to this song lay in the weird orgiastic stuff that she and John wanted to throw onto the last fadeout. While the White Album version of the song went out in essentially normal pop song form, other versions were decidedly weirder. The most famous alternate take is Take 20, of which only two copies existed-- until this year, when the track went out into the world in all its glory! Now that one of the Beatley Holy Grails has been found, you can hear how this slow bluesy thing ended up morphing into the sound-piece that is the world's universally agreed upon least-favorite-Beatles-track, "Revolution #9." I posted this a while ago, and the EMI people pulled it down, but it's made its way back to the internet, because nothing can stop Beatles fans who want to listen to every last thing the band ever recorded. (As John would say, power to the people, you know?) Enjoy!

"Revolution #1," released in the U.K. side D track 1 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. #9 is everyone's least liked beatles song? well, you know, i'll trade it 4 ten dig a ponys.

    it is on my single-album white album fantasy record.

  2. Frankly, I'm with you-- #9 gets too short a shrift. But there do tend to be pretty strong opinions otherwise. :)

  3. you got me going on this one. i brought out the white album and started thinking: what would i have done with this material? some songs are clearly superior. but even the mediocre material has merit. one can categorize and pair. say, one silly love song for paul and one class rebellion song for john. or, say, glass onion and why don't we do it in the road. but the more i thought about it, the whole thing makes sense. it is 'the beatles', circa 1967-8. moreover, should all the best tracks be chosen only, the fans might be a little freaked by how hard edged it would sound, e.g., helter skelter, while my guitar gently weeps, revolution(s) 1 and 9! even with blackbird and julia in the mix, such an album would lack the lightness that they always tried to preserve. so their choice is understandable.

    i'm glad i'm not alone listening to #9!