A journey into the Beatles’ fascination for 1950s and 1960s electronic music
You all know Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Grammy Award-winning album cover, a collage of pictures of famous people from different fields hanging on a wall behind the Beatles themselves. The initial idea for the artwork was proposed by Paul McCartney, who also chose German modern composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as one of the few musicians to make the cover. Stockhausen is fifth from the left in the top row, between American comedians Lenny Bruce and W.C. Fields.
Now we will deal with a collage of a different kind, Beatles’ controversial song Revolution 9, from 1968 double LP The Beatles, mostly known as The White Album. This time the sleeve, designed by pop artist Richard Hamilton, is plain white and therefore has a minimalist touch, in contrast with the musical kaleidoscope portrayed by the 30 tracks, mostly written by the Fab 4 in India during their Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Released as they were just about to break up, it is their longest album and Revolution 9 is their longest recorded song. It was credited Lennon/McCartney as usual, but its main author was John Lennon, influenced by musique concrète and electronic music composers as well as by fiancée and avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, whom he had met a couple of years before during the Unfinished Objects and Paintings show at London’s Indica Gallery.
Revolution 9 is probably The Beatles most-discussed creation. It allows no mild sentiment: you either love it or hate it. Even Paul McCartney didn’t agree with the inclusion of the track on the album.
But nothing comes out of nothing and Revolution 9 was not the first Beatles’ experiment with avant-garde music. 18 months before, McCartney had made a similar collage, the 14-minute improvised -and unreleased- track called Carnival of Light, put together in the Abbey Road studios in London while also working on Penny Lane. John Lennon’s tape-loop experiments had begun on several earlier songs, such as Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966), Strawberry Fields Forever (Sgt Pepper’s, 1967) and I am the Walrus (Magical Mistery Tour, 1967). However, Revolution 9 takes the use of backwards music, tape loops and sound effects to the extreme.
As the title suggests, the song is linked to the 1968 song Revolution 1, a slower version of Revolution, the B-side of the Hey Jude single. The final six-minute outro from the recording was cut from Revolution 1 and became the starting point for Revolution 9, which was going to last for over eight minutes and include numerous layers of tape loops, overdubbed vocals, sound effects faded in and out, manipulated and distorted. Some tapes were John’s, others were taken from the Abbey Road archives.
The number in the title derives from a fragment repeated throughout the song, the memorable male voice repeating the words “number nine”. That loop comes from an engineer’s testing voice saying, “This is EMI test series number nine.” Nine is not a random number: John was born on the 9th of October and he claimed that 9 was his lucky number. Curiously, the same number is pronounced by a male voice at the beginning of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1967 electronic piece Hymnen, often quoted by critics as one of Lennon’s probable sources of inspiration for Revolution 9.