Revolution Carnival

Admiring John Lennon’s creative genius

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The best rock and roll performers have tended to make impetuousness a virtue. We learn of accounts of how Brian Wilson labored over studio creations like Pet Sounds and Smile for ages, but the more readily available go-to examples of rock and roll inspiration center on Bob Dylan leaving in a given take despite microphones picking up the scrape of his jacket buttons on his guitar, or the Animals nailing “House of the Rising Sun” in a single early morning attempt. We like the idea of genius rising up in one inspired moment, and we also like the idea of an artist being secure enough in what they’ve just wrought to let it ride, knowing that it is more than good enough — it will last.

Within the Beatles, John Lennon had a famous — or infamous — lack of patience when it came to recording. He wanted a number in the can, and he wanted to move on to the next. Better yet if it was one of his songs and not Paul McCartney’s, given their more or less friendly completion. Friendly enough, anyway, that they’d help each other out with tips, newly added bits, criticisms. For the band’s early period, Lennon was easily the most productive composer between the two. If you go back through the discography, you’ll see that he dominates. There is a shift around the time of Revolver, when McCartney pulls ahead by the same margin. The death of manager Brian Epstein in August of 1967 led to a big McCartney growth spurt in terms of handling the bulk of the songwriting and directing the group. Lennon, simply, seemed to acquiesce, which hadn’t seemed to be in his nature up until then. There was a combination of burnout, a giving in to lethargy, but also a change in how songs were going to be written.

Lennon was rock’s greatest first-blast writer, as I think of it. Schubert, in the classical mode, was a first-blaster there. That is, Schubert could be welcoming you to his small home, hanging up your coat, and writing a song in the meanwhile. When the title song for the A Hard Day’s Night film was up for grabs — with the caveat that it was going to include the titular line as invented by Ringo Starr — Lennon raced off and wrote it as fast as possible, beating McCartney.

But something significant changed for Lennon with his song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Yes, there was the lethargy and fatigue, but there was also a change in process, with Lennon becoming someone who realized his art through a series of exacting stages. The journey of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a fascinating one, from a bucolic strummer of a quasi-English folk song, to a mildly electric number of gossamer beauty, to a psychedelic ballad, to a psychedelic blast of hard rock, to a fusion, ultimately, of these last two forms. The song was clearly one that meant a lot to him, as did “I Am the Walrus,” which he wrote one line at a time, once a day, returning to his typewriter to add it to the waiting page. And this takes up to the White Album (which is technically titled The Beatles, though no one then, or now, has ever called it that), that would be on the Beatles’s minds for large parts of 1968.

The White Album, a two record set, is the great off-off in the Beatles’ catalogue. It is weird, and gloriously so. There are songs about animals that are grouped together. Songs don’t so much end as fade into others so that both are sometimes going at once. Non-songs that are song-ish happen between the songs. The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term Carnivalesque in an attempt to parse the works of Rabelais, and the White Album is rock’s true Carnivalesque album. It involved a lot of studio time, retakes and experiments to try anyone’s patience, with Lennon developing a real animus towards McCartney over the latter’s seemingly unslakable desire to get “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” right. There was a lot of humoring going on. As George Harrison said, part of the result was that this was when the rot set in, and the Beatles themselves could see that their collective had a finite number of days remaining.

We must remember to consider the stark contrast this album provided with all Beatles discs that had come before, excepting one. There is what I think of Beatles sheen on nearly every LP the band had, a product of studio overlay. The sheen can vary from record to record. For instance, there is a rhythm and blues veneer, a conscious sonic flavoring, to With the Beatles, in something like George Martin’s carefully constructed piano parts to the otherwise frantic and flat-out flaying cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money.” That sheen is a long way from the kaledescopic euphonic brand that we find on Sgt. Pepper. The one exception, pre-White Album, was the Beatles’ first long-player, Please Please Me, which is essentially a set of songs cut live in the studio. This is a band playing very hard together, playing almost desperately, as if they have spent too many successive nights on the road, resulting in frayed voices and tired fingers, and come to your town to play to a half-filled hall, with their aim being to convert every last person there to a loyal fan.

There is no such placation in the sonics of the White Album, and this was an attitude that would have perfectly suited John Lennon the Liverpool rough-and-ready youth, John Lennon the Hamburg tough, and especially John Lennon the auditory privateer/avant-garde explorer of 1968 who retained his rocker’s heart. The Beatles could also play better than they’d been capable at any other time. They didn’t need to make themselves supplicant to your desires as a listener; they were making this music for themselves, knowing that if they carried through on their talent, everyone else would come along.

One of Lennon’s pet projects on the White Album, and another track that illustrates his new found process style of composition and recording, was “Revolution.” A while back, one of those potential grails that makes all of us excited emerged in the form of “Take 20” of the song, which runs to a mighty eleven minutes. The Beatles were not the Grateful Dead. Almost all songs are under five minutes, with most in the three-minute range. Lennon could not make up his mind with “Revolution.” The single version, which backed “Hey Jude” — how’s that for a combo? — has the loudest intro in rock history with that famous guitar riff. It’s actually less of a riff — as it’s not much of a motivic pattern at all — and more just a mighty, distorted bellowing. A primal scream in guitar form, that re-screams throughout the song. The song kicks along nicely with an in-the-groove backbeat. What you fail to notice, perhaps, is that this song about a revolution has next to nothing going for it in terms of a lyric that might bring about a revolution, or provide any kind of guiding specs for one. It’s vaguer than vague; empty words. Could mean anything.

For the White Album version, the guitar bellowing is dropped, and we get a loping tempo. The screaming is removed from the vocal, and Lennon opts for this near-falsetto, which is quite sing-songy. Then there is “Revolution #9,” the sound collage he made with Yoko Ono, that the other three Beatles and producer George Martin hoped he would not insist on having on the record, but insist he did, thus creating the song — if we’re calling it a song — that more Beatles fans have skipped over than any other. I used to skip it, before I got into it. There are football chants, snatches of random conversation between lovers, this enveloping ambiance that holds you in a world just as the White Album itself does, before releasing you into the record’s closing number, the often overlooked, and earnestly beautiful, “Good Night,” another Lennon composition, sung by Ringo Starr, despite McCartney having marveled over how well his partner sang it.

There was never really a connection between the versions of “Revolution” the song and “Revolution #9” the collage, until this “Take 20” surfaced. It is the missing link in John Lennon’s “Revolution” process. It’s also a reminder that “Revolution” was less a musical exercise in doctrine, and more a work of sonic painting, not unlike what you see Radiohead up to in recent years.

A studio engineer announces the take, prompting Lennon to don his best old woman’s voice and intone, “Take your knickers off and let’s go.” The White Album version of “Revolution” has a prominent guitar part at its start, this slowed-down, de-volumized, riffier version of what occurs with the single. It is the song’s most pronounced sonic element. Here, it has been discarded. George Harrison’s backing vocals are prominent. This was unusual. When you heard him backing up a singer, you usually got Lennon or McCartney doing so with him. This could be because Harrison was the Beatle most willing to venture down this particular road with Lennon. Beatles fans usually think Lennon was the rebel, but it was always Harrison, right back to the days when he was a mid-teen hanging out with his future bandmates.

The Beatles were also using each other as backing musicians throughout the White Album sessions, and it wasn’t uncommon for two of them to be in one studio room working on a song, while the other two were in another. Minus that guitar riff, the song doesn’t so much feel smaller as much as it seems to be leaking into something else, into another kind of musical art, layers becoming removed to get down to sound elements. There is a chorus, sung by Harrison, with McCartney’s girlfriend at the time lending assistance, of “mama, dada, mama, dada.” What we’re really working off of is the White Album “Revolution” template, this being a new mix, with grafted elements. What we might think of as the proper version of the song — based on what we know of the White Album — trails into a hubbub of collage experiments which sound like outtakes from the “Revolution #9” session. This is the meet-up of two contrasting sound forms, in one cut, at once a display of impetuousness — in thinking that these halves could be joined, just as the halves of “Strawberry Fields Forever” were — and extended concentration and protracted implementation.

We have to seemingly antithetical polarities melding as one with this take. Is it rock and roll? Is it classical music? Is it carefully intended? Is it aleatoric? How about, it’s all of these things at once, the paradoxes be damned, and it succeeded in suturing together forms we previously held as disparate, that could, in fact, make for winning bedmates, as, I suppose, Lennon and Yoko Ono would with their bed-based protests for peace. In the bigger picture of the White Album, this song/blend represents a freeing of the creative Id, that idea that whatever you harbor, if you can bring it off artistically, it’s not going to be “too out there” or some such, even if it doesn’t make the final cut of the official product, as this work did not. I also have the sense that this was the pinnacle of Lennon’s artistic aims, that if you had granted him total freedom to realize the ideas he had in his head as his particular brand of angry young rebel/genius, once he was mature enough to feel out the edges of those ideas, accept the more traditionally feminine aspects — let us call that the classical music bit here — to play alongside the overt machismo of northern English rock, you’d end up somewhere, to paraphrase Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby, here at this very spot.

Lennon quickly made off with this rough mix personally. No doubt he deliberated, again, on how to best realize his “Revolution” concept, deciding that next moves should entail cutting this new work in two, extending the back half, and (re)installing the guitar riff on the first. It’s a Carnivalesque process, even, and totally befitting this great sonic carnival of an album. This matches the spirit of the thing, but it should also enspirit us. We normally think that removing something creates an absence, but what if an absence helps create a potent something? What if a process endemic to one undertaking builds and boosts the spirits of a parallel one? Even a contrasting one? That which we don’t see or hear can, in the final accounting, be a work of art that is more powerful for being in absentia. That is, until we hear or see it up close. Then it’s powerful anew, and from a whole different vantage point. •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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