Notes on "Revolution 9" (R9)
FORM Beginning -> Middle -> End (w/fadeout)
The Duke was having problems
- Friends and lovers have, for years, been preparing for this eventuality;
"Ha, ha! what you gonna do when you get up to 'Revolution 9,' wise guy?"
- To date, we've examined more than 150 Beatles songs using an essentially
unvarying analytical apparatus. The normalizing filter through which
we've run these songs has yielded a nice set of apples-to-apples images
which allow us to reasonably trace the patterns and techniques used from
one song to the next.
- But now, along comes this exceptional track which would seem to "prove"
(in the archaic sense of "challenge") all the rules and be opaquely immune
to our accustomed method of analysis. You run it through the program
anyway just to see what happens and the results are analogous to the output
you get from running a binary file through your Dos2Unix text filter.
From the perspective of your filter's expectations, it's a simple case of
Garbage in, Garbage out; no negative connotation intended.
- So here we are. No possible escape and no easy answers. I think we
have to settle in this case for bigger picture ruminations than we're
used to and let the measure-by-measure stuff ride. Can we handle
the challenge? No reply.
To be where you belong
- It's not a "song," you say; not a "brief composition written or adapted
for singing," as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary. Yes,
it does contain some bits of singing, but that's not of primary focus.
There's nothing here in the way of the alternating formal sections, chord
progressions, articulated phrases or characterizing tunes you've
learned to expect. And brief it surely is not.
- Therefore, it doesn't fit in on a Beatles album, you say.
"Within You Without You"
tested your patience but this one is just more than you can
- But let me turn it around on you: in spite of what you may think about
its belonging there, you cannot deny that it IS on a Beatles album; so
there! You're trapped against your will by the experiential nature of
the record album medium into encountering this track where it is to be
found. And that indelibly influences your evaluation of, and reaction
to both the track itself as well as the album which contains it.
- John's relevant axiom reads, "there's nowhere you can be that isn't
where you're meant to be." You can derive, as if by corollary, the
notion that the White album would NOT be improved by R9's omission
but rather would be somehow lacking something essential in that case;
similarly, you would hear this track very differently if it was
completely by someone other than the Beatles, or had been released by
them as an independent single.
- Another John, Cage that is, wrily asked in one of his lectures on
the compositional process: Which is more musical, a truck passing by
a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream
- It's the radical, progressive elements that demand your undivided
attention while you immediately encounter the piece.
- What you react to, especially in context of a "rock album" is the
absence of the large number of traditional musical values you rightly
expect. So strong are your conditioned expectations that the very
first time you ever listen to this track you subconciously strain your
patience hoping that it's all going to turn out to be some kind of prankish,
nightmare, surprise intro to a real song. I'd love to poll a statistically
significant number of listeners re: how many seconds they lasted into a
first listen of R9 before getting the point and giving up the wait.
- Even though the track apparently provides no coherent narrative threads,
your mind has a way of imposing or projecting a continuity onto it,
especially after repeated listenings. Thiis phenomenon bears some analogy
to the way in which your subconcious tries to account within the plotline
of your current dream for random sounds that otherwise might rouse you
from your slumber.
- As one of the more infamous achievements of the mid 20th century
avant garde, this form of musical composition challenges the listener
on both psychological and philosophical grounds. The extent to which
the pervasive ambiguity of content teases the listener into projecting
a personalized vision of continuity onto the music opens up a radical new
dimension to the experience we call "listening." Similarly, the
extent to which the background "noise" of real life provides the same
kind of narrative ambiguity if we bother to attend to it as thoughtfully
as we do to so-called music, then the line between what we call a
"composition" and what is merely "random noise" is significantly blurred
if not erradicated.
- My gut suspicion is that in this piece John was using a process
driven more by stream of consciousness than by the literally random,
"Aleatoric" techniques much favored by the more serious members of the
Chance musical movement. Their argument is that the more rigorously
random the composition, the more level a playing field is offered the
listener on which to do his thing. Whereas, if the composition, no
matter how superficially ambiguous, is based on a plotline provided
by the composer (no matter how subconcious), the playing field is
no longer level; or at the least, the game is somewhat rigged.
It's a distinction worth making though in context of R9 and a Beatles
album it's largely academic.
The farther one travels
- There are several counterbalancing conservative factors here as
well. You can more easily discern these by stepping back from the
track and reflecting on it in afterthought.
- The raw materials of the track, for example, are virtually all from
pre-recorded musical and spoken sources, as well as some real life
noises. Nothing here is "synthesized" from scratch. As a collage,
all its elements were found objects in nature. Curiously enough,
the choice of musical clips is heavily weighted toward the classical.
Don't underestimate the impact all of this has on the finished product.
Alright, granted: John was putting his thumb on the scale in recording
some of the recitation pieces specifically for the purpose of using
them here, but this is another nit, a real one maybe, but of academic
significance in this context.
- The random anti-narrative effect of the track notwithstanding, some
of the sound sources recur furtively as motifs. None of them continues
to reappear over the entire duration of the piece, but like familiar faces
in a crowd scene, you pick out of the mix the title phrase, the slow,
soft piano piece in the style of Chopin, the several classical snippets
for orchestra or chorus, and the recitations by John, George,
- The post processing of the various tape sources is gently limited to
modifications of speed, running some of the tapes backwards, and
a great deal of crosscutting between sources. Stockhausen's "Gesang
der Junglinge" which has been acknowledged by Paul and others as an
influence on the Beatles, is quite adventurous and technically arcane
in the way it electronically manipulates its raw vocal sources; especially
considering it's origins back in '55/'56. I dare say that the semi-amateur
low-tech approach to which R9 clings is the root of much of its charm; it
also is the saving grace that girds the piece against accusations of
Nothing to get hung about
- Just like Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," a particularly tough-totake
but undeniably seminal piece of atonal, Vienese hot house expressionism
from 1921, "Revolution 9" has the dubious distinction of being more
notorious and more talked about than enjoyably listened to.
- It's a piece of music that inspires passionate reactions on both
sides, even if the conventional wisdom does, right or wrong give rate
it a big fat Turkey.
- I prefer to take a measured view -- it's neither anathema nor Lennon's
supreme offering. If R9 were a film you might render its capsule entry in
Halliwell's film "Guide" as follows:
Synopsis: Dream-like collage of musical and spoken tape sources conjures
up a mysteriously apocalyptic mood.
Assessment: Moderately ambitious media experiment. Not bad at all, but
historically much more important because it appeared on a pop music album
with the Beatles imprimatur no less, than because of anything specifically
ground breaking or outrageous in its production values.
"Oh, it's a laugh a line with Lennon. Anyroad up ... It's all your
Copyright (c) 1998 by Alan W. Pollack
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