Music

The White Album: Side Four

The potential breakthrough and the impending breakup, the final side celebrates the Beatles' artistic experimentation -- and the creative contradictions that signaled their eventual end.

25. Revolution 1

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: May 30-31, and June 1-4 and 21, 1968 at Abbey Road

It doesn't matter if it's your first time: you turn to side four expecting novelty, but you've heard this all before. Listening in 2001, it's the same tune you heard covered at a 9/11 benefit. In 1987, you recognized the distorted guitars from a Nike ad; two years earlier it was a Ford commercial. Even if you got there as early as anyone, on November 22, 1968, "Revolution 1" was hardly revolutionary. The real surprise came three months earlier when, on August 28, the Beatles released their "Hey Jude" single, carrying on its b-side both a musical and lyrical jolt to an unsuspecting audience. This version, recorded six weeks after the album take, is how "Revolution" entered the world.

Lennon had wanted to release the original recording, but was overruled by his band mates who all thought it too slow. All parties compromised a bit, and a faster, rougher version was recorded and released, though never as a single. This likely had more than a little to do with McCartney's other objection to the song: its political content which he deemed a poor fit for the band's style. "Revolution 1" is the most overtly political song the band ever released, and it's this distinction that, its many musical merits aside, earns the song so prominent a place in the Beatles canon.

Why Lennon wrote "Revolution" in 1968 is no mystery. For such a socially engaged artist to have made it through that tumultuous year without commenting on events through his work would have been the real surprise. "You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world": These lyrics are now familiar to the point of cliché, but when they first flew off the aft side of a 7-inch, they were hardly platitudes. Thanks to the success of three straight masterpieces (Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), the Beatles had largely shed the image cultivated in their early career and revealed a more mature, yet undeniably playful, psychedelic flower power ethos. "Revolution" played brilliantly against type.

"You say you'll change the constitution / Well, you know / We all want to change your head / You tell me it's the institution / Well, you know / You better free your mind instead." In a sense, Lennon's lyrics are small-c conservative. They express skepticism about the wisdom and efficacy of rapid social change and lament the futility of mere finger-pointing. The slower pace of "Revolution 1" emphasizes this mournful undercurrent, while the b-side's unrestrained roar provides an ironically triumphalist counterpoint. But this certainly isn't a right-wing song, no matter how aggressively the forces of reaction try to lay claim to it (National Review once laughably named it one of the 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs).

"But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." These are the lines conservatives most emphasize in their attempts at appropriation, but it doesn't take a staunch anticommunist to be troubled by the Great Leap Forward, and besides, these lyrics are primarily an appeal to pragmatism. You don't win converts by praising tyrants. So, Lennon's words weren't a broad assault against the counterculture movement nor were they a blanket dismissal of anti-war protestors. This was, after all, the man who'd go on to write "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance". What "Revolution" represents isn't partisan vitriol or mindless self-denunciation, but the thoughtful, measured sentiments of a politically engaged man who knew which side he was on, but wasn't always comfortable with those standing next to him.

But agree or disagree with this interpretation, one fact remains uncontroversial: few listeners experience "Revolution 1" outside the context of The Beatles. It's the b-side that gets all the glory. It's that version that you remember, that you hear in your mind at the mere mention of the song, that you recognize spilling out from the earbuds of a fellow subway passenger, and yes, it's that version that sells you sneakers. Poor, overlooked "Revolution 1" just has to settle for being one of the very best songs on one of the very best albums by the greatest band of all time.

-- Nav Purewal

 

26. Honey Pie

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: October 1-2 and 4, 1968 at Trident Studios

In the book Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs, "Honey Pie" doesn't rank, but is mentioned once. It's described as "somewhat ridiculous". Somewhat ridiculous? It is ridiculous: a dive-right-in tribute to British music hall, something akin to vaudeville in the US. "Honey Pie" is fluff, albeit fluff with a great melody and sharp musicianship -- not unlike much of the Beatles' discography. Of course the joy of playing fluff wears off eventually, as it did with the Beatles, but in this moment, one preserved on record for eternity, it sounds like they're having a ball.

Clearly McCartney's baby, the song is a tribute to showtune music of the past that keeps all of the goofy theatricality intact, right from the intro, which sets the scene firmly within the world of show business. And not showbiz today, but that fantasy world of yesteryear. "Now she's hit the big time," McCartney announces, his voice juxtaposed with the sound of a scratchy phonograph. When the main tune rolls in on a piano, you can practically see McCartney bounding across the stage with a hat and cane, that silly grin on his face. The silliest part is McCartney's near-scat singing in one section: a growl that turns into a falsetto cry. "I like this kind of hot kind of music," he sings, seemingly on the fly, unable as always to resist making a sentimental statement, even while hamming it up.

The song's a costume -- one of many the Beatles wear on The Beatles. And yes, the rest of the band is in on the act too. Lennon's contribution is most notable. He goes at the jazz angle with a Django Reinhardt-like guitar solo, a nimble one that almost slips into the background at first, but becomes the song's secret star once you catch on. It's the scene-stealer at the back of the stage, the one the audience really remembers later on that night. Or maybe that guitar solo just adds to the atmosphere, which is romantic but not. "I'm in love but I'm lazy," runs the basic sentiment, and the song itself doesn't seem to care much about love, at least compared to the joy of grinning under the spotlight, or listening to someone else ham it up through a fuzzy radio.

It's probably the kitsch factor that has made "Honey Pie" a cover of choice for easy listening/vocal jazz types, like Barbara Streisand, even. The song's goofy shuffle isn't about rock 'n' roll, though the song does foreshadow the multitude of rock bands in years to come willing to throw in non-rock horns or get theatrical. "Honey Pie" dares to be goofier than any of those bands are likely brave enough to be. It holds little back for entertainment, like those music hall performers giving it all for the applause of the crowd. And though "Honey Pie" is often cast aside as one of the album's low points, so much of The Beatles is silly, goofy, corny. The Beatles are a corny band, after all, and not just McCartney. Did you see Help? Yellow Submarine? A Hard Day's Night?

The "putting on a show" quality of "Honey Pie", and the entire "White Album", comes from that same place. The Beatles told dumb jokes and wore costumes, not just in their early years but most of the way through. Don't forget about that. Don't mistake their "ridiculous" side for weakness or a lack of substance, either. Every tough-faced, hard-living rock band is putting on just as much of an act, even the Stones. But if the White Album is itself a variety show, and it is, then "Honey Pie" could just be the heart and soul of the album. It's at least as representative, maybe more so, of the double-album's essence as any of the more serious or "classic" songs. "Honey Pie" is a lark, but so is the album. It's Beatles on Vacation.

-- Dave Heaton

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