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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.

29. Revolution 9

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: June 6, 10-11, and 20-21, 1968 at Abbey Road

"Revolution 9 was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution."-- John Lennon
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery... A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence..."
--Mao Zedong

Except for Charles Manson, every Beatles fan seems to despise this musique concrete track the most. But if they listen closely, they might understand that the song really is a revolution, just not necessarily the kind that they imagined or wanted to know about.

The musical roots of "Revolution 9" come not only from Ono's Fluxus background, but also theatrical compositions from avant composers like Berio and Kagel. McCartney and Harrison had been skewing song form (with the unreleased "Carnival of Lights" and the soundtrack Wonderwall Music, respectively), but their experimentations were not being included on official Beatles albums. Even the band had made a habit of screwing with the conventions of 4/4 time and verses and choruses on "Tomorrow Never Knows", "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", and "I Am the Walrus" (all Lennon tunes, too). "Revolution 9" is an extension, or logical conclusion, of these outré urges from what was the world's most popular band.

If you think about the song conceptually, what was Lennon really saying? For all extensive purposes, it's a political song, but not one that takes sides or preaches viewpoints. It's more like the Stones' "Street Fighting Man", the Mothers of Invention's "Trouble Every Day", or Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On", describing problems and divisions, but in a more graphic way here. In some ways, "Revolution 9" is akin to Dylan's early electric phase where he rejected protest songs and crafted surreal songs of spiritual and existential crises.

But in a way, "Revolution 9" is about something more personal for Lennon. (He was doing similar experiments along with Ono at the same time, which would soon turn up as their Two Virgins album.) McCartney and George Martin hated the song and begged Lennon to keep it off the album, but he refused. He didn't care if it would alienate or confuse fans. Lennon wanted to make a statement by keeping it on a Beatles record. In a way, it's saying what the rest of The Beatles is only telling its listeners obliquely -- for all extensive purposes, the Beatles were finished.

It wasn't just that "Revolution 9"'s anarchic structure blew apart the band's image or sound; it was also loaded with references to the Beatles themselves. Just as "Glass Onion" gleefully picked apart the group's myth with all sorts of sly lyrical references, or "I'm So Tired" told of Lennon's spiritual malaise, "Revolution 9" contains torn bits of "Revolution" and "A Day in the Life", and supposedly tapes of Beatles fans screaming for them (as well as the dead McCartney clues, if you want to believe those). In some ways, Lennon was recycling and digesting these Beatles snippets and salvaging them for the madness that they had become. You could argue that Lennon wasn't just describing turmoil in the streets, but also in his own group. Just as he was ambivalent about the idea of insurrection on "Revolution 1", he was also torn about the Beatles themselves. Within a year, he would quit the group, effectively spelling the end of the band. His first "proper" solo album, 1970's Plastic Ono Band, would be a purging of his persona and the group.

But other than this historical drama, "Revolution 9" shouldn't be seen only as an annoying, useless noise-fest. For one thing, there are some nice musical bits submerged there (the intro piano, lulling mellotron tones, the frantic strings) and plenty of humor too -- when Alarm Will Sound recently covered it live for their 1969 series, these two points finally became clear; playing it alongside Stockhausen gave the piece the context it usually lacked alongside the other Beatles songs on the "White Album". And the song definitely had fans outside of Manson's Family: Nurse With Wound, Negativland, Ground Zero, and others all seemed to take "Revolution 9"'s m.o. as their blueprint, and maybe have the tune to thank for helping to open up the avant world to the rock/pop world. That might be the song's real legacy, detractors be damned.

And not surprising, the song does sound even creepier backwards, as you can hear here. It really does sound like some guy is saying, "Turn me on dead man."

-- Jason Gross

30. Good Night

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: June 28 and July 2 and 22, 1968 at Abbey Road

Beatles fans have always considered Lennon the smart Beatle, the intellectual whose cleverness offset the pop sensibilities of McCartney, the spirituality of Harrison, and the goofiness of Starr. Listeners believed Lennon was the witty Beatle, the one who made the band bright and brainy. This may be true, but John was more than that. He was also the sappy Beatle, the one who most wore his emotions on his sleeve. Nowhere is this more evident than on The Beatles' closing song.

Lennon composed "Good Night" as a lullaby for his five-year-old son Julian. Lennon never recorded a version, although McCartney told an interviewer about the time when Lennon sang it to the band in order to teach it to Starr. McCartney said Lennon's singing of the tune revealed the tender, loving, generous side of Lennon and is one of McCartney's favorite memories of the deceased Beatle.

Starr sings "Good Night" on the record, and is the only Beatle who performs on the track. No other Beatle sings or plays a note. George Martin arranged an orchestra that consisted of 12 violins, three violas, three cellos, three flutes, one harp, one clarinet, one horn, one vibraphone, and one string bass. The Mike Sammes Singers provided back up vocals.

Lennon wanted the song to sound soft and lush. "Good Night" follows the wild weirdness of "Revolution 9" and like all lullabies, it is meant to soothe the listener. This is evident from the first notes. The strings softly swirl and crescendo in welcome. Something celestial happens, as if dreamland is a place right next to heaven, if not paradise itself.

The lyrics are simple and easy to understand. From the very beginning, the meaning is clear. "Now it's time to say good night / Good night, sleep tight," Starr croons in a hushed tone. He never raises his voice. Starr wants you to slumber and rest easy. The most commonly repeated phrase, in a song full of calming redundancies, is "dream sweet dreams". The corniness of the sentiments border on self-parody, but Starr's richly sung intonations make it clear that the song is meant to comfort. The interplay between Starr's voice and the grand instrumental arrangements that surround him heighten the effect. If Starr's voice is a yawn, then the orchestrations are a sigh. Sleep is the time when all people can be the gods of their perfect worlds.

This impression is reinforced by the softly whispered, spoken word ending, "Good night, good night everybody / Everybody, everywhere, good night". Note that the record that began with a song called "Back in the U.S.S.R." ends with a call to "everybody, everywhere" and acknowledges the band's global audience. The Beatles know that millions of people across the earth are hungrily waiting to hear what the band has to say. And the Beatles say now is the time to chill.

The Beatles released this album into a world of wars and civil unrest. In America, the nation had recently elected a conservative, Republican president, Richard Nixon, instead of a liberal Democrat for the first time during the '60s. There were revolutions of one sort or another happening here, there, and everywhere. Several other songs on the album reflect that the Beatles were aware of this unrest, but here they are asking their listeners to relax. "Close your eyes / And I'll close mine," Starr intones in a dulcet voice. Yes, this is Lennon offering words of comfort to his little boy, but when Starr sings it, he is talking to all of us. There will always be problems. We will always need to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, and as another closing song written by Lennon from a previous album says, tomorrow never knows.

-- Steven Horowitz

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