Usually the One You Skip on the Beatles’ White Album, “Revolution No. 9″ caught my attention again the other day — and I listened to it, really listened, for the first time in ages. As brash and off-putting as it can sometimes be, the song is really the complete realization of a series of John Lennon tape-loop experiments that began on several earlier songs — including “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from 1966′s Revolver and (more famously) in the outros for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I am The Walrus.”
Lennon never gave any complete explanation, I don’t think, for orchestrating this extended composition with noises and loops. He reportedly spent weeks on the recording, which was originally written as an extended coda to what would become the song called “Revolution 1″ on The White Album. And he wasn’t finished with the idea, continuing to fiddle with it for years on a trio of subsequent ambient-sound solo recordings. (The most infamous moment, perhaps, from the period was when he called back and forth with wife Yoko over a range of emotions — and their own pulses — during the entirety of Side 1 of 1969′s The Wedding Album.) This overtly experimental period, in fact, lasted until 1972 when he staged, along with Yoko, a series of outsider art exhibits, books, recordings and stunts. But I’m not sure Lennon had a more complete realization of these concepts, and certainly never had one that ended up in more people’s every-day lives.
Each sound on the convoluted, but fascinating “Revolution No. 9″ appears to represent an instrument or group of instruments. The rising emotions have a power that suggests the dying of a life, or the end of time. Throughout, a recurring theme is found in the words “number nine,” and no small amount of mythology has built up around it. Lennon considered 9 to be of great significance. And, perhaps it was: He was born on the 9th of October, as was second son Sean. He lived at 9 Newcastle Road in Liverpool, then later lived at the Dakota in New York City. That’s on 72nd Street; the digits add up to … 9. One of his earliest compositions was a train song “One After 909″ — which later appeared in a live version on Let It Be. He also had a hit in the 1970s with a tune called “No. 9 Dream.” Finally, he was shot on 72nd Street, and declared dead at 11:07 (again, digits add up to 9) in the Roosevelt Hospital on 9th Avenue. Although, this all took place in New York on Dec. 8, in Lennon’s birthplace Liverpool (five hours ahead), it was the morning of … the 9th.
Maybe all that means something, maybe not. It’s weirdly interesting, though … like “Revolution No. 9,” even if the bulk of the Beatles’ core fanbase never really connected with Lennon’s vision here. They should have. It was seen back then as off-puttingly avant-garde, and maybe is now, too. But to my ear, the tune — messy, unformed, completely stream of consciousness — can be rightly hailed today as the first flowerings of punk. (Husker Du, here we come!)
Lennon stumbled upon some other things that were frighteningly prescient along the way. “Every one of them knew,” he, in an otherwordly voice, intones on this track, “that as time went by they’d get a little bit older and a little bit slower.” The remaining Beatles certainly did. (After all, we later learned that Paul McCartney was capable of a series of too-precious disasters like “Spies Like Us” or, say, “Say, Say, Say.”) But “Revolution No. 9″ — not necessarily listenable in the context of the Beatles’ renowned pop perfection, yet a still-powerful argument for his frisky genius — ensures that Lennon never will.