Beatles deserve more credit for Revolution 9
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 21:09
The Beatles wrote and performed what is perhaps the world’s most widely recognized and beloved music. It seems that ,even forty years after the Fab Four’s dissolution, their music is played no less often on the radio or on the earphones of millions than it was in the 1960s. Though I do not consider myself a Beatles fan (there are only four or five songs in the Beatles’ oeuvre that I enjoy and listen to frequently), I must admit that the band’s musical achievements were, and remain, absolutely titanic.
The Beatles’ greatest contribution to musical art is not graced by the same adulation as is much of their work. It towers over the charming songs of the White Album, infusing it with a dissonant darkness unexpected on an album whose name evokes levity and clarity. “Revolution 9” is hated, feared, avoided and unappreciated by most, but its haunting, droning intonation of “number nine, number nine, number nine…” is as instantly recognizable as any of The Beatles’ beloved lyrics. It is the most complex, intricate and powerful composition of the band’s entire catalogue.
“Number Nine” is a sound collage, an avant-garde experiment with a form of composition called musique concrète. Works composed accordingly are not limited to guitar, bass and drums or even to the instruments of the orchestra, commonly using recorded sounds, spoken words and electronic tones. Clips of operatic fanfares are fused together into a cohesive composition with football chants (“Block that kick!”), inane chatter between George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and the drone of aircraft and road traffic. The hundreds of individual elements comprising “Revolution 9” are looped, played backwards, distorted, rapidly shifted between stereo channels and swell from very soft to very loud and back again, weaving in and out of the overall texture of the music. It is a work of staggering complexity that perhaps has been so poorly received due to incredibly daunting effort needed just to understand it. Even today, there are many musical elements in the composition that remain unknown. No one knows who is performing them or who composed them. “Number Nine” still hides away innumerable secrets in this regard.
John Lennon, who was almost entirely responsible for the concept and arrangement of “Revolution 9,” despite its attribution to “Lennon-McCartney,” described it as a “painting in sound [of] a picture of revolution.” We can’t be sure if Lennon meant his composition to have a specific political meaning, but what we can say with certainty is that “Revolution 9” takes part in a revolution of artistic expression and broadcasts a particular revolutionary viewpoint to an unwitting consumer audience. “Number Nine” demonstrates that it is possible to crate art that relies upon allusion not as a device, but as a basic constitutive element of a composition. Though the song was not the first piece of art to be written in this way – James Joyce’s “Ulysses” predate it by fifty years – it showed that the recording studio itself can act as a musical instrument or an ensemble in the arrangement of old elements to create new meanings.
It is difficult, however, to decipher those new meanings when confronted with such complexity as we find in “Revolution 9.” This, in a way, bespeaks the paradox of modern life. Everywhere in the world, we are surrounded by information demanding to be processed by our brains, but the sheer volume overwhelms us and we are unable to understand much of it.
It may be that “Revolution 9” disturbs and confounds so many people because it reminds them too vividly of the nature of their world. Life is not like “Love Me Do” or “Let It Be,” though we often imagine it to be so. Life is instead a mix tape of sorts, a sound collage full of charm, insanity, horror and, perhaps, even beauty. I think this is for the best. After all, not much about “Love Me Do” is left up to interpretation. The greatness of “Number Nine” is that it is rich with disparate and elaborate meanings, and that each listener is free to call his own into existence.