What is a “Revolution”? The question might precede a lengthy disquisition on political philosophy; it might presage a manifesto redefining an old, worn-out term; it might open up a vinyl-era flight of theoretical fancy over the qualitative dimension of Revolutions Per Minute. As an opening gambit to a discussion of The Beatles’ “Revolution” (and “Revolution 9”), perhaps the question ventures on the truth of versions, alternates, “takes,” as much a part of history as toppling regimes and mass movements.
How does all of this heaviness get into pop music? Ask John Lennon. Well, no, ask his music. Ask the history of his music, the alternates, the hidden intentions, false starts, discarded revolutionary movements. Ask, “Revolution Take 20,” the alternate take of “Revolution” that you hear above. “Revolution 20” has a lot to say. It tells us about how a noisy, upbeat shooby-doo-wop blues proclaiming the power of love over violence did not originally do so with such starry-eyed optimism and comforting pop brevity (the kind of thing that sells Nikes, for instance). “Revolution” had other intentions, which we only glimpse in the song’s severed vestigial tail “Revolution 9,” and which we may have had quite enough of, thank you, in the arty weirdness of Yoko Ono’s most experimental work.
You see, “Revolution” and non-Nike-worthy “Revolution 9” once belonged to the same animal, a creature that evolved from Lennon’s (and Ono’s) fascination with musique concrète, and with deconstructing rock music into something unrecognizable. The kind of revolution “Revolution 20” stages isn’t the dichotomous option between peace & love theatrics or reactionary violence—it’s a revolution of form, which is what Lennon seems to be after here, a new way of being that dissolves contradictions in the silly Freudian shtick of Paul McCartney and George Harrison singing “Mama… Dada…” over and over as the classical tropes of rock and roll warp and wobble around them in disintegrating pitch shifts, radio noise, and spoken word non-sequiturs.
At over ten minutes in length, “Revolution Take 20”—which appeared as a mono mix on a 2009 bootleg CD called Revolution: Take… Your Knickers Off (after a piece of Lennon humor at the intro)—is more than an alternate take. It’s an alternate history, one in which Lennon doesn’t just lay in bed for peace; he lays down on the studio floor to record his vocals, and all the while his mind actively disassembles rock and roll. As the recording engineer Brian Gibson remembers the session: “John decided he would feel more comfortable on the floor so I had to rig up a microphone which would be suspended on a boom above his mouth. It struck me as somewhat odd, a little eccentric, but they were always looking for a different sound; something new.”
That Lennon ultimately decided to divide this monster into Revolutions 1 & 9 does not mean that he’d given up on making “something new.” Perhaps it was a marketing decision; maybe he realized that he had a hit on his hands. Less, cynically, perhaps he felt that pop music could not contain the weight of his desire to move beyond, or to dissolve, the seeming false choices on offer.