Number Nine Scream: Art statement or attempt to impress Ono?
PUBLISHED: 16:23 09 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:51 10 November 2018
It's undoubtedly the most controversial track in the Beatles' songbook. Now, as an expanded version of the White Album is released, Fab Four podcaster CHRIS SHAW asks: Is Revolution 9 an art statement or just an attempt to impress Yoko Ono?
There’s a recurring theme in The Beatles’ recording sessions. More often than not the first song recorded for each new album was written by John Lennon.
Always the pushiest of the Fab Four, there may have been another reason behind this habitual enthusiasm – the songs were experimental beyond their years, pushed new musical boundaries and usually generated an enticing creative conundrum for the recording engineers. EMI recording session documents divulge a tangible sense that everybody involved couldn’t wait to plunge into the studio.
Take, for example, the Revolver sessions which commenced on April 6, 1966. The first track to be recorded was Lennon’s Mark I, the working title for what was to become Tomorrow Never Knows – a psychedelic masterclass in tape loop skulduggery. Similarly, the 1967 epic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band began in earnest with Lennon’s In the Life of…, later renamed A Day in the Life. The band and engineers were collectively and unashamedly enthused to get immersed in a genuinely ground-breaking sonic soundscape.
Cut to 1968. Revolution 9’s origins began around a campfire in India. Upon returning from a spiritual sabbatical to explore the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, The Beatles were both mentally rejuvenated and disenchanted by their flawed guru.
The gossip in the camp was that the Maharishi had been less than divine with one of the female devotees. Whatever enlightenment they’d gleaned from the weeks of transcendental meditation had been sullied by the spurious rumours so it was the sheer enormity of songs they returned home with that reinvigorated them most.
As can be heard on the White Album 50th anniversary set, a plethora of demos were recorded at George Harrison’s Esher home. In 2018 these have been newly mixed into stereo and reveal a warming camaraderie between the band. The vast number of songs that had been composed in India suggest that the long, balmy evenings sitting around the campfire with Donovan, Mike Love and Mia Farrow, had inspired some earnest spiritual compositions Mother Nature’s Son, Child of Nature and Julia as well as few throwaway sing-songs, such as The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Rocky Raccoon.
Despite the serendipity that engulfed the newly inspired Beatles, the new batch of songs contained some unusually darker moments, touching on subject matter ranging from the ennui of fame (Glass Onion) and detached bemusement (Cry, Baby, Cry) to the frustrations of extra-marital lust (I’m So Tired) and utter resentment of fandom (Sexy Sadie). Note, all of these particular songs were composed by Lennon.
The Maharishi’s enforced periods of solitude, interposed with extensive meditation sessions, gave flight to long periods of reflection for the Fab Four. Not since the pre-fame years had they enjoyed this amount of time to pause, question their lives and make – for some – life changing decisions. When the boys returned home, it’s fair to say that they were now men.
With this unprecedented opportunity to write a throng of new compositions, The Beatles were keen to get the new batch down on tape. Lennon was the most enthusiastic of all, having composed an album’s worth of material alone. Recording sessions for the new album commenced on May 30 1968 and, inevitably, it was one of Lennon’s songs that jumped to the front of the queue. However, unlike previous albums, this time something was different. Revolution was a modest four-bar blues, albeit saturated by contentious apolitical lyrics.
A marathon and exhaustive recording session commenced at 2.30pm and ran until 2.40am the following morning, by which time Lennon ended up laying on the studio floor to record his vocal track. The song now lasted 10 minutes and had transformed into something copiously more menacing. There was a collective resignation. This clearly wasn’t acceptable as the new Beatles single. How could it be?
Tentatively titled Revolution, and – as far as Lennon was concerned – recorded with the intention of becoming the new single, the group was dissatisfied with the results and the song remained in the can. Lennon, never one to take ‘no’ for an answer, had a rethink and so a new, snarling electric version was attempted in 18 takes, the last of which was deemed ‘best’. Nevertheless, best wasn’t good enough and it was relegated to the B-side of interim single Hey Jude. Years later, Lennon graciously conceded defeat and admitted that the better song won the day.
The two tracks couldn’t be more different. The A-side was a bona fide classic and the first rock anthem, while the B-side, despite being a huge departure from all that had gone before, remained a prototype – hinting at The New Yardbirds, but never quite inventing Led Zeppelin, rather ‘implying’ them. Its strength is its ambivalent frustration – possibly the angriest song ever written about non-commitment.
Between 1967 and 1969 Lennon and McCartney’s battle for single A-sides was a one-sided affair. After the 1967 Summer of Love classic, All You Need is Love, every Beatle single was a McCartney song (with the exception of George Harrison’s Something and, notably, Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko.
Despite Revolution’s relegation to the flip side, the original acoustic version played on Lennon’s mind and, once it had been established that the new Beatles album was to be a double, he was determined not to leave the original to languish in the vaults of EMI. He was intrigued by the long and exhaustive fade out. The protracted chanting that concluded Hey Jude was undoubtedly inspired by this version of Revolution, but was constructed exquisitely by building on the layers, adding striking orchestration with every bar. By contrast, Revolution 1 (as it was to be retitled) languished in two mesmerising chords, vaguely embellished by quodlibet screeches and grunts. It was the final few minutes that caught Lennon’s ear and he decided to add overdubs: Yoko Ono’s “If you become naked”; random phrases and noises; and, crucially, tape loops. As more and more layers were added, combined with an assortment of ad-libs from the original recording, “Riiiiiiiiight…..” Lennon gradually faded out the original song, so all that remained were the ‘noises’. Thus Revolution 9 was born.
As with Tomorrow Never Knows, two years earlier, tape loops were to play an integral part in his rethink of this recording. Why this obsession with an unused track? Typically, unreleased Fabs recordings were just that, remaining hidden away until the mid-1990s Anthology releases. The answer lies with a Japanese conceptual artist who Lennon had met 16 months earlier.
In November 1966 John Lennon flew back from Spain after filming his role of Private Gripweed for the Richard Lester movie How I Won the War. A photograph exists of John with his wife Cynthia arriving at London airport and the joy in Cynthia’s eyes is palpable. Returning to the normality of suburban life must have been a relief for John’s wife and her elation is in clear contrast to the somewhat glazed expression in John’s eyes. The photograph proved to be prophetic as only a couple of days later John attended an art exhibition at London’s Indica Gallery where he met a New York artist who was part of the avant-garde Fluxus movement. Her name was Yoko Ono. John’s love for Yoko was a slow burner and it took two years of occasional correspondence before it finally hit him. By the time The Beatles were in India, he ran to receive the daily letters Yoko posted and his desire was all encompassing, encircled with an adoration he’d not felts so strong since the loss of his mother.
Much has been discussed about the presence of Yoko during the White Album recording sessions. The story goes that John brought Yoko to the traditionally male-only sessions, causing ructions and dissension among the ranks. Yoko has often – and unfairly – been blamed for the band’s demise, but changing dynamics within the band played a more potent part in the growing tensions.
In 1968 George Harrison had a newly found confidence - largely due to his leadership role in the recent trek to Rishikesh. For the first time he had taken a lead role in the band, and his band mates were happy to follow his lead, buoyed on by his infectious enthusiasm for Indian mysticism. Spurred on by this credence he composed a deluge of new songs, but upon returning from India his new found fervour was rapidly quashed when priority was given, as always, to the Lennon & McCartney compositions.
Always the one to be left behind, Ringo Starr had spent much of the Sgt Pepper sessions languishing – a grievance suffered by drummers to this day. Once his drums had been put down on tape there was little left for him to do. This neglect had happened before. In 1964, during a spell in hospital with tonsillitis, the Beatles unceremoniously opted to proceed with their tour and he was unceremoniously replaced by session musician Jimmie Nicol. Four years later it took a matter of days for Ringo to return early from India, partly due to a food allergy and partly due to a hatred of insects. By the time his friends had returned, the dejection had sufficiently eaten away at him that he briefly quit during the White Album sessions. Despite the collective plea for him to reconsider, not to mention the bouquets of flowers that filled the studio upon his return, Ringo surely couldn’t have failed to notice that two new songs had been recorded in his absence (both Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence feature Paul on drums).
Meanwhile Paul was ‘in between relationships’ – although in truth he had three love interests at this time. His partnership with Jane Asher was now in its death throes and he had taken solace in the comforting arms of American scriptwriter Francie Schwartz and fashion mode, Maggie McGivern. Seemingly blasé about embarking on a serious relationship, it’s worth noting that (with a handful of exceptions) Paul didn’t compose a single love song between 1967 and 1969. It was only when he and Linda Eastman became established as a couple that he actively started writing love songs – a tradition which he has continued to this day.
Paul’s time was taken up by the influx of new projects spawned from The Beatles’ newly founded Apple Records. Expecting similar support and enthusiasm from his bandmates, he was instead met with increasing indifference and his self-enforced role as ‘interim Brian Epstein replacement’ (their manager had died the previous year) resulted in him reluctantly emerging into an authority figure to be rebelled against.
It was John who returned from India the most changed. Having spent much of 1966 and 1967 in an LSD-fuelled subservient stupor, he returned from India a man obsessed and infatuated by Yoko Ono - to the extent that he was concerned that Paul, the confirmed bachelor, might pounce on his new love. “He warned me off Yoko once,” McCartney recalled. “You know: ‘This is my chick’ - because he knew my reputation – and we knew each other rather well.” Ever the diplomat, Paul did not criticise Yoko’s presence in the recording studio, but nonetheless confirmed that she treated the band as little more than ‘couriers’. While clearly aware of the tensions, Paul also noted that John may have been experiencing a certain amount of paranoia: “John suspected meanness when it wasn’t really there,” he observed.
George Martin was less prudent, stating: “It was no longer the happy-go-lucky foursome that it used to be. There was another person in the studio whose thoughts were actually… even if they weren’t spoken, impinging on what we were doing. It was uncomfortable.”
But it was George Harrison who had the most serious reservations, describing Yoko as “a wedge driving between John and us.”
“She was suddenly ‘in the band’,” he complained. “She didn’t start singing or playing, but she was ‘there’ - just as Neil [Aspinall] or Mal [Evans] were ‘there’. There was a definite vibe – like a weird vibe. That’s what bothered me. At that point she didn’t really like The Beatles because she saw The Beatles as something that was between her and John. So the vibe I picked up was that she was like a wedge that was trying to drive itself deeper and deeper between him and us.”
George even confronted Yoko and John, claiming that Bob Dylan and a few others had said she’d got a bad name in New York. The comments clearly upset John, who recalled: “They [The Beatles] all sat there like a f***ing jury and judged us. I don’t know why I didn’t hit him.”
Amid these tensions, it’s rather surprising that the line-up for Revolution 9 comprised solely of John, Yoko and George.
With George and Ringo in the USA, John refused to let the unreleased version of Revolution remain dormant, and on Monday 10 June 1968 he returned to the recording, spending two days adorning the track with sound effects. The first half of the original song was embellished with a brass section and eventually appeared on the White Album as Revolution 1. As the repetitive two-chord song refused to die, the recording was sprinkled with a variety of unusual spices, including Francie Schwartz’ backing vocals, John’s ad-libbed vocals, experimental screams blasting out ‘Alriiiiight’ and eerie Yoko-esque vibrato staccatos. However, it was the final half that piqued John’s curiosity and it was only when he decided to ditch the music altogether and work with the overdubs that the basis of a newly planned sonic nightmare sound collage was generated.
Two years earlier, the tape loops for Tomorrow Never Knows consisted of mellotrons and haphazard vocalisations. This time, John chose to adorn the new track with orchestral samples, such as Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op.13; Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands; Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy; and the final chord from Sibelius’ Symphony No 7. Additional overdubs included snippets from Elektra Records’ Authentic Sound Effects – such as fire crackling and a gun battle, as well as Greensleeves, reversed, of course.
Poignantly, while John was poring over the recording in EMI Studio 3, Paul was in Studio 2, single-handedly recording and completing Blackbird in less than six hours.
By the time George and Ringo returned, Paul had now flown to the USA, and so it was on the evening of Thursday 20 June 1968 that John, exploring as many tapes and soundscapes that he could get his hands on, discovered an EMI examination tape for the Royal Academy of Music. A monotone voice announcing the ninth in a list of questions immediately grabbed John’s attention. Nine was John’s lucky number and it was this moment that the third in the Revolution trilogy was birthed.
George Harrison accompanied John for this session and the two Beatles can be heard reading out peculiar phrases such as “There ain’t no rule for the company freaks.” Five days later the track was complete, and as EMI engineer Brian Gibson recalled: “For weeks afterwards everybody was going around the building muttering ‘number nine, number nine, number nine’.”
Revolution 9’s cultural relevance is compounded by the capriciousness of the snippets of data blasting out – perhaps, the perfect accompanying video would be to scroll down and scan the myriad of words and images in your Twitter feed. On a recent episode of the I am The EggPod podcast, Emmy Award-winning writer, David Quantick, compared Paul’s opening teaser, Can You Take Me Back, as the white rabbit going down the hole, beckoning the curious listener to follow, only to lead them into a nightmare Abbey Road Wonderland. A portentous observation, it highlights the fact that 50 years on, Revolution 9 is no less threatening. A malevolent aural collage, it not only captures the assault of arbitrary information we experience every moment of the day via the wonders of social media but effortlessly captures the confusion and incredulity that bombards a generation that Lennon could never have imagined. All this just five years after She Loves You.