This week’s Deep Beatles involves a complicated story and even some mathematics. Get comfortable and follow along this long and winding road …
During their 1968 stay in India, the Beatles received not only spiritual enrichment but creative inspiration. All four composed numerous tracks during their stay, many ultimately appearing on the White Album. Few songs may have as complicated a history and meaning than “Revolution 1,” the John Lennon-penned track that posed one question: Did the Beatle count himself “out” or “in’ when it came to radicalism?
According to Kenneth Womack’s Beatles Encyclopedia, Lennon wrote “Revolution 1” as a response to the attempt by Chairman Mao to eliminate his enemies in the People’s Republic of China. It can also be seen as a response to other 1960s issues such as Vietnam, student uprisings, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it’s going to be all right. That’s why I did it: I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you, or whoever listens, to communicate, to say ‘What do you say? This is what I say.’”
When the Beatles returned from India, Lennon recorded a demo for “Revolution 1” at George Harrison’s Kinfauns studio. Confusingly, this demo features the same tempo as the later single version. They finally entered Abbey Road Studios on May 30, 1968 to lay down the track. Under George Martin’s usual direction, they recorded 16 takes, the last of which formed the basis of the final version. Interestingly, this over 10-minute rendition would also inspire the avant grade “Revolution 9.” During the last six minutes of take 16, the Beatles transitioned into an aimless instrumental jam, with Lennon repeatedly screaming “all right” and Ono adding moans. Lennon would take this section, add tape loops and various sound effects, and create the White Album’s most challenging track.
Work on “Revolution 1” continued the following day, with Lennon laying down two vocal tracks and Paul McCartney overdubbing bass. McCartney and Harrison also executed the famous “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals at this time. A perfectionist, Lennon remained dissatisfied with his lead vocal, insisting on rerecording it during a June 4 session. Wanting to alter his voice, he lay down on the studio floor while engineer Geoff Emerick held a microphone over his head. Paul McCartney and George Harrison added more backing vocals, singing “mama, dada” repeatedly toward the end of the song. When “Revolution 1” was eventually edited down, this section was lost.
Ringo Starr contributed more percussion, Lennon added a guitar section, and McCartney played an organ part. At one point all four Beatles recorded a loop of them singing “ahhh” in high-pitched voices, but this was later discarded. Evidence of this 11-minute version surfaced in 2009, when this early rendition of “Revolution” leaked online. (It became known as the “take your knickers off” version, as Lennon yells “take your knickers off and let’s go” at the beginning of the recording.) On June 21, Harrison overdubbed his lead guitar and a Martin-conducted horn section was completed.
Originally Lennon wanted “Revolution 1” released as a single. The other Beatles, however, vetoed the idea. In his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon explained that “the first take of ‘Revolution’ — well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn’t fast enough. Now, if you go into the details of what a hit record is and isn’t, maybe. But the Beatles could have afforded to put out the slow, understandable version of ‘Revolution’ as a single, whether it was a gold record or a wooden record. But because they were so upset over the Yoko thing and the fact that I was becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days, after lying fallow for a couple of years, it upset the applecart. I was awake again and they weren’t used to it.”
When the others refused to release “Revolution 1” as a single, Lennon suggested reworking the song as a fast rocker for the B-side of “Hey Jude.” That single was released before the White Album, even though “Revolution 1” was actually recorded before the fast version.
The slower take begins with guitar picking, followed by a sloppy edit featuring Geoff Emerick saying “take 2.” After Lennon says “ok,” a strange sound enters the scene that resembles a washboard. That sound never reappears, but the horns and fuzzy guitars round out the picture. McCartney executes some impressive descending bass lines, while the guitars and horn section participate in a call-and-response exchange. Lennon’s voice sounds more intimate, jumping out of the speakers. His quiet, breathy delivery here contrasts wildly with his screaming performance on the single.
Interestingly, there is an extra drum beat (three instead of two) right after the final repetition of “you know it’s gonna be all right.” Listening closely with headphones reveals various noises deep in the mix, most notably a scraping sound right before the fadeout, as if Lennon or Harrison dragged a pick over the guitar strings.
Another title for “Revolution 1” could be “Dichotomies,” as the song is packed with contradictory sounds and lyrics. John Lennon said in a later interview that the “out/in” line reflected his indecision in whether passive resistance or radicalism would better promote change, and the entire track addresses that uncertainty. In a gentle tone, Lennon addresses issues of oppressive regimes, violence, and hatred. “We all want to change the world,” he sighs. But is destruction the answer? The “out/in” lyric follows, underscoring his reluctance to join in such an action.
Contributing money to good causes may be another solution, he muses, but “if you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.” Changes to government and the constitution may help, Lennon adds, but expecting a dictator to solve our problems is not the answer. (“But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”) Perhaps the most important line — one that resonates in today’s political climate — remains “You say you got a real solution / Well, you know / We’d all love to see the plan.” In other words, just talking about revolution and change isn’t enough. Specific ideas and action can accomplish great things, but one must be careful not to put too much faith in charismatic leaders or devolve into hatred.
As Lennon virtually croons about such serious concepts, Harrison and McCarney contribute backing vocals straight out of a 1950s doo-wop track. Why would a song addressing current political issues contain such a throwback? The answer may be revealed in the line “Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right.” Faith in humanity and an optimistic outlook may be the ultimate tools of a revolution rather than settling for the status quo or surrendering to violence and oppression. However, the abrasive, distorted guitar suggests an element of anger that bubbles throughout the track, seemingly undermining this positive attitude.
In or out? Passive resistance or radical activism? “Revolution 1” never provides solutions or definitive answers, reflecting the turbulent time period in which the track was written and recorded.
“Revolution 1” stands as the Beatles’ first overtly political statement, and previews the material John Lennon would record in his solo career. This slower version exposes Lennon’s indecision and uncertainty, and his candid approach to songwriting would flourish on the Plastic Ono Band (or “Primal Scream”) album. This early version represents the Beatles’ newfound willingness to tackle controversial themes — something they were not free to do in their earlier career — and signals the beginning of Lennon’s unapologetically political songwriting.
A postscript to “Revolution 1”: On September 4, 1968, the Beatles entered Twickenham Studios to tape two promotional films for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” (the single version). Michael Linsday-Hogg, who had also directed the “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” clips, oversaw the production, which featured the group singing live to the prerecorded backing tracks.
Interestingly, the Beatles decided to integrate two elements of “Revolution 1” into this version. Lennon inserted the “count me out/in” line, while Harrison and McCartney added the “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals. The clip eventually aired on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops” on September 19. Using Beatles mathematics, this makes four versions of the song: “Revolution 1,” “Revolution,” “Revolution 9,” and … “Revolution 17”? “Revolution 1.9”? You decide.
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