Saturday, October 3, 2009

Revolution #9

Well, after a couple days of Zombie Songs, we'll return to what remains of the more standard catalog with the scariest Beatles "song" they ever recorded. Everyone who hated the last couple days' songs is sure to hate this one at least as much. I'm beginning to suspect that October might be bad for my blog traffic.

See, "Revolution 9" is sort of unfair, because rather than just flirt with different genres as we've heard Beatles songs do before, it simply is in a different genre than the entire rest of the Beatles catalog. The track would be no less flummoxing if it had been a fugue, or an orchestral piece in sonata form, or a huge gospel chorus, or something (though it might be more pleasant). The most revolutionary thing about "Revolution #9" is that it's here at all. After all, as has been noted, John was hardly the first person ever to record a piece of music out of tape loops and samples. (He wasn't even the first Beatle to do so-- Paul beat him to it by a year or two.) But putting it on the White Album, an album released by the biggest, most dominant-in-pop-culture rock band ever? That's freaking nuts. If I'm remembering my undergrad music history classes correctly (hardly a sure thing) there was a bit of a political element to the musique-concrete and sound-collage movements anyway-- or at least a desire to explode western presumptions about music theory, which I'll just go ahead and read as political. John's making "Revolution #9" into a Beatles track seems to be trying to explode presumptions about what a Beatles track is, so I think it might be working similarly. Of course, it's all influenced by Yoko Ono. Yoko's art was largely about bringing the values of the avant-garde to the masses, and there might be no better example of that having been done than "Revolution #9.

The part that's UNFAIR about "Revolution #9" is that its genre basically shuts a door on my writing anything intelligent about it. See, I'm hardly any kind of knowledgeable writer anyway, and frequently when I've felt lazy over the course of the last year I've coasted on kind of not-that-inspired assertions about songs, like "I like that guitar part" or "Paul is a cutie" or whatever. Even when I do try to dig deeper and do the songs justice, most Beatles songs are composed of your standard issue diatonic chords, which I, like other amateur musicians, can at least observe and remark upon. But this musique-concrete thing is something I'm unversed in, so you'll read nothing very insightful here. Of course, my problem is shared by most of "Revolution #9"'s listeners. We just don't know what to MAKE of the thing. So allow me to refer you to some people who DO for further reading before I move on: here's this, and here's this. These will be helpful for anyone interested in the piece's structure, sound effects, and so on.

Still and all, I suspect that I like "Revolution #9" more than a lot of other people-- I know it's often cited as people's least favorite song. I, for one, wouldn't call it my favorite, but I'd still rather listen to "Revolution #9" than "The Fool on the Hill." The piece just works for me as a soundscape. If you close your eyes and sit back and kind of let it settle over you like a slowly wafting goosebump-inducing cloud (or mushroom cloud), you feel things. There are elements of terror, of hilarity, of emptiness, of melancholy, and it all feels very real and very intense. I know this sounds like a silly reason to like something, and if we were talking about a pop song, you'd be kind of right, because if you can't feel anything listening to a pop song, it's basically failed. But other avant-garde sound collages I've heard (which was in college-- and I do want to stress again my lack of expertise) leave me a lot colder. And avant-garde musicians in general seem to have less fun than rock stars do. Composers like Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage, who both had an influence on "Revolution #9" at least indirectly, seem to have talked a lot about playfulness and fun in their music, but any of that that might have existed gets buried under boatloads of pretension and analysis and mathematical babble for me. (Whereas the music of say, Satie or Poulenc, who came about a generation earlier, actually is playful and fun to listen to, and thus more revolutionary, in my opinion. But I'm digressing.)

So "Revolution #9" is pretentious as hell, but here it is on a Beatles album. Which kind of democratizes it. It says, it's okay to like this. (In fact, I swear "Revolution #9" is less pretentious than "The Fool on the Hill" and its awkward thesis about how vaguely artsy people are inherently better than everyone else.) I think my husband likes this track even more than I do-- believe it or not, he just walked through my study as I was writing this and started singing along, as much as one can. He's also very into contemporary electronic music, which probably owes some kind of debt to "Revolution #9" even though most of it sounds quite different. (Contemporary electronic sounds more musical compared to this track-- while it might play around a lot with dissonance and timbre and rhythm, it always feels like there's more melodic material. Which is kind of interesting.)

Oh, one more thing I should say before signing off: "Revolution #9" was born out of playing around with the long coda on "Revolution #1." The tracks are so different that it was always hard to imagine how that could ever be possible, but this year there was a fantastic leak of one of the great lost Beatles tracks: "Revolution #1 take 20." It's totally the missing link between the two "Revolutions," and listening to the "Revolution #9" madness all unfolding over a steady beat makes the whole thing a lot more accessible. I love this, actually. If you haven't heard it before, do it now, because it rocks. Enjoy!

"Revolution #9," released in the U.K. side D track 5 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Just writing to let you know, Meg, that I'm still with ya! I have to admit I was kinda hoping that i had missed this song, like maybe you'd posted it in January before i discovered your blog and began visiting daily. Oh well. I gave a listen and actually stuck with Rev #9 for 1:30, but that's as far as i could go.

    Geez, this is three days in a row with me hating the featured song. But that's okay, gotta cover 'em all, right? And what you write is always interesting and worth reading, so don't sell yourself short. Onward and upward!

  2. Would have preferred a fugue ...

  3. What bothers me about Revolution 9, more than anything, is the idea that John and Yoko thought they were bringing enlightenment to the masses with this. It reeks with condescension -- something I don't think the Beatles were ever known for. Lennon is talking down to his fans with this piece. I find it hard to hear it any other way.

  4. See, Anon, I think we disagree. I'm not sure it talks down to people-- or at least that's not its intention. I think it's a good-faith effort to expose the masses to the avant-garde and open up their minds to it. I mean, that's just what I hear, so make of it what you will. And the Beatles were so into other kinds of experimentation and playing around with genre that this level of experimentation might have been unavoidable.

    Given all that, though, I too would have preferred a fugue.

  5. My head hurts! Mustn't listen to it on headphones again. well maybe not never...

  6. First time heard Revolution9, it was so depressing, but I forced myself to listen till it finished. And after I almost could not take it anymore, then ... "Now, it's time to say goodnight ..." WOW! What a relieve. It's a genius arrangement.
    I think White Album would never be complete without Revolution9, and in fact, it was one of the reasons why I love White Album and why I love The Beatles