In Defense of the Beatles' Much-Loathed "Revolution 9"
Yesterday marked 50 years since the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show, an (DUH) historic moment that changed the course of music history forever. Yes, there's been much hullabaloo and hoopla over a half-century of the Fab Four this week, and rightfully so: their music has united generations of listeners and has arguably influenced everyone who recorded sound in their wake, at least to some degree. That said, as universally heralded as the Beatles are, love has a tendency to beget hate, and it's safe to say that the band are responsible for one of the most universally hated songs of all time, "Revolution 9."
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons The Beatles Arrive at Kennedy Airport
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The "end boss" of their 1968 self-titled double record ("The White Album"), "Revolution 9" has been confusing, disturbing and generally upsetting listeners for decades. I remember being in grade school and first picking up an interest in music. I asked my father, as he was first introducing me to the Beatles, if the group had any songs he didn't like. I'll never forget the look of disgust on his face as he described the first time the needle of his record player filled the room with the oft-maligned sound collage and exasperatedly saying "Come on guys, that's not a song!" From that point on, I've always been fascinated by the vitriol inspired by "Revolution 9." I recall my freshman dorm at NYU having the entire building's iTunes libraries linked, allowing me to not only see who else at Goddard Hall had substantial Beatles collections, but notice the most obsessive listeners going out of their way to rate "Revolution 9" with only one star, even if it was the only rated track in their collection.
Perhaps it's understandable why it's hated. It's eight minutes and twenty-two seconds without melody, overt emotion, or (with the possible exception of the repetition of "Number Nine") any catchy trademark Beatles earworm to get stuck in your head. It's at the very end of a groundbreaking album and immediately follows the soothing "Cry Baby Cry," a song that's, and I mean this as a compliment in the best of ways, by-the-numbers Beatles. It's the longest track they ever released, with several fake-out endings that ensure the weirdness keeps on going. Remember, this was before the internet, or even zines, allowed fans to connect and immediately attempt to decipher what oddity one of the most calculating perfectionists groups in pop music history had written.
But is it bad? Is it a mistake? Should its only merit be that it was the center of the promotional campaign for the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards on 9/9/99?
At just over 45 years following its commercial release, a case could be made for "Revolution 9" being more important as a recording now than ever. With the rise of sampling changing the industry 30 years ago and the accessibility of the internet allowing for a mash-up craze to thrive in a post-Grey Album world, perhaps the openness of subsequent generations to sound collages and more jarring audio experiences could be traced back to this bold exhibition from the most beloved group on the planet.
While I recall theories in my early days on the internet that "Revolution 9" was John Lennon's attempt to tell the story of his life through sounds (not a bad guess by any means, as it would sound downright logical in the realm of Beatles fandom/mythology), Lennon had already explained the method to his seeming madness in a 1970 issue of Rolling Stone where he referred it as "an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution."
Considering the time and dedication it must have taken for all the reversed classical music samples and sound fragments to be chopped, taped together and processed, it makes it all the funnier that the track's trademark repetition of "Number 9" came from, according to Lennon, an engineer stating "This is EMI test series number nine" at the beginning of a recording. It's a joke with a set-up that very few would have a context to get. It wouldn't be the first or the last time the Beatles could have an endeavor described in that manner, but it's probably the most notorious.