This work of audio montage by John Lennon
is perhaps the single least understood Beatles
song ever recorded. It is perhaps the least appreciated song ever recorded by any of The Beatles
. Most people never give it more than a peripheral examination before pushing the forward button on their CD player, or turning the thing off entirely and getting a beer
. It is in fact quite an obnoxious, and in some ways disturbing piece. So most don't appreciate the work beyond the surface. There's actually many layers to John Lennon's Revolution #9, or Number Nine
To an untrained ear, Number Nine
sounds like chaotic noise. Many critics and historians do not even classify it as a song
. You can't dance to it. You can't sing to it. It was in fact John Lennon
's creation, with some assistance by Yoko Ono
and George Harrison
. It's believed Ringo Starr
's voice can also be heard, as well as a bit of Paul McCartney
's piano playing. Legend has it John was on some major drugs
at the time. And why not for goodness sake? These were the 1960
s after all. The piece is quite maddening on the surface, and hard to appreciate without the use of controlled substances
. Number Nine
is to say the least, an acquired taste
. Truly revolutionary for its time, progressive, rebellious, and defying categorization -- John Lennon was quite definitely ahead of his time. In fact, many of the things he was experimenting with here are now commonplace in many forms of music today, including industrial music
, hip hop
and pretty much any dance mix
of a previous hit.
John Lennon defied the conventions of thought
itself with this piece. He purposefully seeks to make you laugh
and make you cringe
. He successfully stirs emotion
s in people, even if it's to shirk and turn away in disgust. Were one to give Number Nine
a chance however, one would next experience a revelation similar to that one finds when they are looking through partially open blinds, they can tell there's a car parked in the driveway outside, even though they can only see half of the picture. We fill in the gaps as we listen to Number Nine
. Our mind tries to make sense out of it as it plays. What was John thinking? What can I find myself? Therefore, upon slightly closer inspection of the avant-garde
musical composition, we find ourselves upon a journey both to seek order in the apparent chaos, and we look deep within ourselves for things to fill in the gaps and lack of meaning.
The raw materials of the track are practically all from pre-recorded musical and spoken sources. Predominantly things John had laying about the studio. Previous rehearsal sessions and snippets of work from other songs that didn't make it on the White Album
are immersed throughout the piece. Several sound effects that came from stock collections in the EMI sound archives are also prevalent. George and John got together a few days and recorded themselves reading randomly from the day's newspapers. Yoko did some recordings, but beyond that, very little was recorded specifically for the piece. Most of the materials used were 'found' by Lennon himself, and used as he deemed appropriate.
Again, on the surface it appears John wrote his own rules and made things up as he went along. Truthfully though, John was following some very old formulaic rules of music structure. In Ian Hammond
's incredible online work Beathoven Studying the Beatles
, he suggests that what John was actually creating with the use of prerecorded material, whether by accident
or by design
was a fugue
. It is most definitely a musical score
. "Lennon uses tape loops and dubs to imitate the sections of an imaginary orchestra and choir in a formally structured work where almost every detail has been skillfully mixed."
Instead of an orchestra, John uses everything from snippets of recordings from orchestras to snippets of his own voice to the sound of a baby crying to practically anything he could get his hands on, in order to attempt an experience similar to that of an orchestra. With careful examination, one can find that the pieces do not randomly float in and out. Each recording loop and dub gets a distinct amount of time. Almost as if there were an internal rhythm to it. When it came to sound, John was a control freak
Yoko Ono was definitely an inspiration, but even though she assisted in decision-making, were he alive today John would probably tell you this project was definitely his. While perhaps not 100%, he was the driving force. At best, Yoko Ono was inspiring him; not the music. She had done works similar to this with her own voice as the primary instrument. After hearing her work, Lennon set out to try one with her assistance. Number Nine
is the result.
What follows is a sample listing of what can be heard on Number Nine
on a piece by piece breakdown for only the first minute and a half. I'd go further but this is starting to give me a headache
. I'll try to return to it later but you can get a better run down at the Beathoven Studying the Beatles
website. I used his source as a reference, and I have also listened to the piece myself repeatedly while composing this for verification. Probably why I have a headache. I strongly urge anyone interested in The Beatles
or in experimental music to check out Hammond's website. http://www.geocities.com/~hammodotcom/beathoven/revhome.htm
It's quite an eye opener.
Revolution Number Nine (first ninety seconds)
- Alistair Taylor: "I'd have got you a bottle of claret if I'd realized George..."
George Martin: "Well do next time..."
Alistair Taylor: "I forgot all about it... will you forgive me?"
George Martin: "Yes... you bitch"
- A dreamy 3/4 piano waltz in b minor. Sounds like McCartney's work to me.
- EMI taped voice (This is not John): "Number nine" spoken and looped, with a specific 5/8 rhythm, and toned at the key of B with "nine" a B flat.
- Symphonic strings. Slow. 4/4 time. E flat.
- Piano played backwards at 4/4 time. This was possibly Lennon. Some call this the Backwards melletron.
- Agitated backward strings. Fast. 4/4. Perhaps from the rehearsals of the orchestra for A Day In The Life. *
- Operatic brass fanfare fragment. Brass/cymbal/timpani/choir climax. 3/4.
- John Lennon: "then there's this welsh rarebit pair of sun brown underpants." with waltz in background.
- Hunting horn bass. 12/8 probably from a Beatle session warm up.
- Backward Duck Oboe. 3 bars of 4/4 (some triplets)
- Backward solo violin. Fast 6/8. B flat to A flat.
- A dub of a stretto choir.
- Waltz and Backwards Piano. John Lennon: "They found a shortage of grain in Hartfordshire, and every one of them knew..." Stretto stops. leaving the backward piano and voice. Then the piano goes away, "...that as time went by, they'd get a little bit older and a little bit slower (but they)... the air-force set thing..."
- Waltz still, with John Lennon: "manufacturing person who's ... your fivers, forgive me, give me ... district was leaving... intending to pay for..."
- Stasis Strings at E flat still. Voices unintelligible. Return of brass?
- High pitched laughter at C sharp - probably female.
- Single electric guitar note in the key of A.
- After the guitar and before the baby, we get strings and brass with the lady's cackle again, bouncing in and out percussively.
- Baby sound (or is that the duck oboe?) with John and George's voices fading back in.
added August 25th, 2002
* Ashley Pomeroy says "Revolution 9 the 'Agitated backward strings. Fast. 4/4', if you play them backwards, actually appear to be part of a conventional rock song with a rhymic backing, presumably another track from the album."
With just a look at the opening, it's clear intense care and diligence was put into this work, to have the sounds each get their due, and they flow in and out of one another, though not without flaw. Though the equipment John was using at the time was state of the art for the late sixties, it was also not a match for today's digital standards. Legend also has it that the bulk of this work was cut and dubbed in real time, with John Lennon using all three studios at EMI simultaneously, and at least twenty tracks running and ready to be brought in or faded out John's fancy whim as he stood at the main control board like a mad conductor. Or perhaps conduit might be a better word.
The piece is really simply amazing, even if you can't dance to it.