Book excerpt: What Goes On
Recorded May 30–31 and June 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 20, 21, and 25, 1968 for the White Album
—this time, the improvisatory chaos is that of Lennon’s external world, instead of his inner disorder, the more usual inspiration. Brilliant, visionary, and the Beatles’ most challenging experience. Don’t give up on it too easily!
Many Beatles tracks explore fadeouts as trick mirrors that veer into alternative soundscapes. Even early on, many songs continue inventing themselves into the silence: the way Lennon’s double–tracked vocal splits apart near the end of “Not a Second Time,” or how backward guitars come unspooled on “I’m Only Sleeping.” Others tracks prolong interest in material that seems to have ended (the leap-frogging chorale at the end of “Good Day Sunshine,” the false endings to “Helter Skelter” and “Get Back,” or the muted lead vocal in the final lap of “Yer Blues”). Sometimes these experiments lead to twisted non-endings, like those of “Doctor Robert,” which cadences on the “wrong” II harmony just as the fadeout ends, or “Long, Long, Long,” which flickers and fades like a dying ember. When he toyed with backward tapes on “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Rain,” Lennon chased the hallucinogenic effects straight into some silent tunnel, as if a black hole had sucked the song into nothingness.
By the time they reached “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a mere fadeout couldn’t tame the song’s emotional furies—so a fade back-in returned the chaos, as if the void disgorged the song back in triumph, melted and distended beyondrecognition, with “lyrics” curdled into gibberish (“Cranberry sauce”) and instruments melting like time itself. The brief string coda to “Glass Onion” reiterates this molten dissolve. “A Day in the Life,” their grandest orchestral finale, had too much pretension to rely on its inconclusive E major chord, so it drifted off into artificial decay, synthetically holding back silence through compression and gain amplification, until the void yawned and an inaudible dog whistle on the run-out groove—meant to wake awestruck stoners from their daze—further punctuated the mood. A cackling inner groove of a manic looped snippet of conversation mocked this tragic overhang, as if the Frankenstein track had spooked even the Beatles into mannered gibberish. It’s like Harrison’s nervous laughter serving as a palate cleanser after the humorless “Within You Without You.”
So if a fadeout symbolized an alternate world, what might such a world sound like? What if entering a fadeout became the track’s core idea, its gravity, its subject? What if the racket that swarms around “All You Need Is Love,” which includessnatches from Bach, “She Loves You,” and “In the Mood,” echoing Pepper’s celebrity collage in a parade of recognizable hooks, worked out to be the raw material itself? Could a randomized quilt of noise and found sound suggest the underside of the Beatles’ utopian melodies?
“Revolution 9” began with “Revolution,” another Lennon newspaper narrative, which addressed shifting realities; throughout the summer of 1968, each day brought new disruption. Lennon drafted it that May, as Paris and the heart of Europe erupted in a sweeping class revolt. A student protest about dorm conditions mushroomed into a broader working-class protest against the treatment of workers, and millions marched in the streets carrying situationist slogans. Business came to a halt; the government shut down. That summer, as the Beatles recorded the White Album, more protests erupted, and the world seemed to reel in reaction to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago showcased police brutality beyond its typical racial outlines, and President Alexander Dubček mounted a series of reforms in Czechoslovakia—freedoms in the press and the economy—that baited the Soviet overlords. The American literary critic David Wyatt subtitled his 2015 history of the period When America Turned: Reckoning with 1968, and few doubted that the season brought defining incidents. It all made the reaction to John F. Kennedy’s death just five years earlier seem mild.
Among rock’s youth audience, the mood on the ground grew anxious: a revolutionary spirit felt palpable, especially against totalitarian forces, but elections in late June returned de Gaulle’s government in France, and by August Russian tanks invaded Prague. Lennon could be flippant about politics and cultural conflict (“more popular than Jesus”), but his response this time around held out ambivalence as a mark of sanity or caution. His spirit went with change, but tactics, heated rhetoric about “any means necessary,” and street violence, even against the most fearsome repression, filled him with doubt.
Lennon famously recorded two versions of “Revolution,” but not before writing two answers within the song: if “revolution” in the political sense meant “destruction” or violence, he sang “Count me out . . . in,” with obvious ambivalence. The first version (recorded on May 30) clocked in at over ten minutes, with a fadeout that trumped everything that came before. (This song-form anticipates McCartney’s “Hey Jude” trick, where the “Nah-nah-nah-nah” tail eats the song’s body.) This track would be Lennon’s comet, and its tail questioned the stability of meaning beyond “I Am the Walrus”: trailing off into increasing chaos, the last six minutes of “Revolution,” take 20, simulated a reflecting pool of the era’s clashing ideologies, the noise of the streets caught and metamorphosed in sound. The result captured a slow- burn psychedelia seared by roaming guitar feedback and repeated shouts of “aaaaaaall right” and “riiiiiiiiiight!” that drifted off into a dreamscape, an extended sound collage that could never be mistaken for a mere fadeout. Instead, the fadeout itself became the bed for a new song, as if every song the Beatles had ever faded into returned in zombified abstraction, between two deaths. Some passages resemble the amorphous transitions in “A Day in the Life,” where ominous glissandos threaten to shake the needle from its groove, time from its meter, and the listener from the protagonist’s newspaper narrative. Indeed, a snatch from “A Day in the Life” orchestra rehearsals is sampled in “Revolution 9.” Lennon responded to rebellious energy with wary optimism: he sided with the protestors while picking apart their rhetoric. “Revolution 9” plants doubt in the weirdly upbeat inconsistency of “Revolution.”
Naturally, all ten minutes became unwieldy, even for Lennon. So he cut it in two: the first segment became “Revolution 1,” which we now know as the opening track of side 4. (When this track got vetoed for the new single, Lennon picked up the tempo to create “Revolution” for the B–side of “Hey Jude.” That faster performance gleefully cops its opening cannonade guitar from a 1954 Pee Wee Crayton side, “Do unto Others.”) The remainder of this original tape got much more treatment, extension, and manipulation to become “Revolution 9,” which opens with Yoko Ono’s plaintive piano chords draping a sound engineer’s test script (“number nine, number nine”) for a maniacally calm recurring loop. (This anonymous voice long got mistaken for Lennon’s own, even though he deliberately chose the speech of a random engineer to ricochet across the stereo channels.) This oracular voice became the only narrative thread as a tableau of street sounds, radio signals, private conversations, trilling strings from the “A Day in the Life” session (0:24–0:29), a backward piano phrase from Schumann (0:29–0:43), choral singing with brass and cymbals, forwards and backwards, from Vaughan Williams (0:53–0:59), a symphonic cadence from Sibelius (2:18+), Farid El Atrache’s “Awal Hamsa” (7:12+), and much more—at least forty-five different sources, many found in EMI’s tape library—all surfaced and submerged again, with various recordings played backwards and at double speed. Lennon and his uncredited co-composer Ono, with some help from Harrison, worked on it over numerous sessions in June, taking over the entire shop (Studios One, Two, and Three) on the twentieth of that month, urging engineers and staffers to hold up tape loops with pencils from across various rooms as Lennon worked the mixing board, fading noises in and out. The method resembled some ofthe processes used on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” using the six-minute vamp of the original recording of “Revolution” as the backing track: the musical undulations stem from Lennon’s spontaneous responses to sounds as they floated in and out of earshot, playing the recording console like an electronic instrument.
Apparently at first a random assemblage of loops (as was the calliope mélange of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), the track makes little pretense of structure or organization; mapping it out proves useful only as a diagram of convulsion. But listen closely and often enough, and contours emerge, anticipations build to uncertain release, and, paradoxically, seemingly random gestures begin to acquire preordained certainty, like a dance into the unconscious joining chance with fate. After years of growing familiarity with the track’s bold, erratic shapes, it begins to reveal how naked tape machines might be invested with souls, how fantastic technical trickery can yield an indelible human personality.
The cultural context of “Revolution 9” struck contemporaneous listeners like so much background noise. But the piece survives as a surprisingly adroit example of musique concrète, which McCartney enjoyed dabbling in, particularly in hislegendary “Carnival of Light” of January 1967, recorded—but never released, even on bootleg—for a psychedelic light show in a London night club. With its impudence and length (which tests pop attention spans), the eight-minute track, the group’s longest, prompts more debates about its merits than any other Beatles song. If the listener has difficulty appreciating the incoherent nature of “Revolution 9,” as many do, consider Picasso’s painting Guernica. Portraying Franco’s use in 1937 of Nazi bombers to rain havoc and death on the Spanish citizens of Guernica, the huge canvas shows nothing but ugly atrocity—a woman holding her dead baby, a disemboweled horse—but its monochrome composition (particularly in suggesting the hope of light against the darkness of despair), as well as its authoritative command of emotions, is guided by an aesthetic beauty. So can the singular beauty of “Revolution 9” be approached, all of Picasso’s severity and rigorous parallelisms deeply felt in Lennon/Ono’s aural annihilation.
Perhaps this is where, even as the other Beatles tried to talk Lennon down off this particular ledge, the band revealed how much it frequently preordained the digital era, where sounds might be manipulated with ease, and an aural collage could someday be assembled with audio-processing software like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, or Audacity. Lennon held his ground: on a double album, he sensed, people would forgive a touch of excess. And if it pissed fans off, all the better: the Beatles had exposed a mainstream audience of music lovers to the most experimental electronic ideas in academia through composers like Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse, and Karlheinz Stockhausen (who appears on Pepper’s cover). If it didn’t enchant the curious, it might just signal how far the Beatles meant to stretch form, and how artists chase new ideas beyond what their audiences can comprehend.
In a quixotic reversal of content creating its own accidental form, several experimental groups began performing the number: in 1992, Kurt Hoffman’s Band of Weeds put it on their album Live at the Knitting Factory: Downtown Does the Beatles (Knitting Factory Records), and the jam band Phish included it when they mounted the entire White Album onstage for a 1994 Halloween concert, released in 2002 as Live Phish Volume 13. More recently, the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound has programmed the piece, and “Revolution 9” anchors the Fab Faux’s many stage performances of the White Album. The cohesion of the piece might be measured in the distance between your expectations of how it might sound live and the performed versions’ proscribed variations—the distance between one’s memory of a dream and its artificial re-enactment. If spliced tape loops and a mixing board could or even should be reproduced as performance material, “Revolution 9” has the kind of cultural significance to deliver expressive power, even as inverted philosophy, or, as critic Greil Marcus called it, “an aural litmus of unfocused paranoia” (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/lennons-music-a-range-of-genius- 20101207).3
It’s also impossible to separate “Revolution 9” from its successor, “Good Night,” a tender lullaby awash in strings that brings a hush to the album’s four sides. Lennon had Ringo sing it, as if it were far too sentimental for the man who sang“Glass Onion” and “Yer Blues.” And just as when McCartney had tossed the drummer a “Yellow Submarine,” Ringo carries “Good Night” past the finish line with unflinching sincerity. As if to slam the case shut, the same month the White Album came out, Lennon and Ono released their first “solo” album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, with the couple posing nude on the cover. That obscenity firestorm upstaged whatever dismay might have shrouded “Revolution 9” as a cultural affront. Ironically, nothing on Two Virgins, an oddly coquettish venture, contests “Revolution 9” for sheer sound-twisting audacity and composerly authority.