Friday, 21 February 2020

10:63 Revolution (pt.3) Will the real Revolution please stand up?

Revolution vs Revolution 1

Welcome to the post (and song) that threw the spanner in the works of my blogging through the Beatles catalogue. But I'm here to just poke a big stream of consciousness stick down the plug hole of musical constipation ... wait … let me start again …

Revolution and Revolution 1 are unique in the Beatles catalogue. Not merely remixes (Across The Universe), or out of the vault alternative takes (One After 909 on Anthology), or a new piece built on the bones of an existing one (Revolution 9). These are two completely independent attempts on the same song. The Beatles covering the Beatles. Just imagine if Lennon had wanted to release both versions of Strawberry Fields Forever instead of stitching them together?

So before analysing the song it feels apposite to ask: Which is the real version? The right version? The original version? The best version? And is that four ways of asking the same question?

You can attempt to answer via

  • chronology
  • personal chronology (i.e. which one you heard first)
  • personal preference
  • authorial intent

First, the TL;DR version confirming the world and John Lennon agree with all my prejudices followed by the TL;BIRIAA (Too Long But I Read It All Anyway) version in which I hope to change your mind.

TL;DR - Revolution 1 (aka 'the album version') is the definitive version


Chronology: It was recorded in Jun 68, a month before the single version.

Personal chronology: I heard the White Album as a kid on my sister's TDK120 cassette – I didn't hear the single till I started Beatles Songwriting Academy in 2009. So there.

Personal preference: That fuzztone is like someone poured itching powder into my eyeballs and it's the most prominent element on the record. Bad tones do have their place on great records (in the background or just prior to something awesome, making it sound even awesomer).

Authorial Intent: Lennon was happy with the album cut and it was only after Paul and George vetoed it as a single that he decided to rerecord it. His comments in 1980 reveal he still considered the album cut to be better.

Convinced? No? Let's dig deeper.


Just like Let It Be/Abbey Road, Revolution has a convoluted timeline. Revolution 1 (album version) was recorded first, but released second. The promo video for the single replaced the vocals with a 'live' take (to get around Musician Union rules against miming) and could be considered a third distinct version.

Revolution 1 - recorded 30, 31 May; 4, 21 June
Revolution - recorded 9-12 July
Revolution - released 30 Aug
Revolution Video - recorded 4 Sep
Revolution Video - released 8 Sep (Frost on Saturday)
Revolution 1 - released 22 Nov (UK), 25 Nov (US)

If you were sentient in 1968 you would have heard the 'do-over' almost a full two months before the original. That's a long time to get used to the over-distorted freakout before encountering the laid back jam session. Alan W. Pollack sounds like someone who encountered the single first, calling it “the 'true' version of the song, and the album cut … a remake ... a veritable parody of the single version”.*

First time listeners from 1969 onwards probably heard the album cut first unless they arrived via the 'Blue Album' (The Beatles: 1967–1970) or Past Masters.


As a rock guitarist I've spent countless hours sampling the nuances of distorted guitar tones like a sommelier of sound. Distortion vs overdrive, pedals vs amp, transistors vs tubes, pre amp or power amp of course humbuckers vs single coils. This single is covered with the stankiest DI'd-to-the-desk “full spectrum of frequencies”* fuzztone, a sound so bad that record buyers were returning their 'defective' singles, only to be met with the explanation “it's called distortion, apparently. It's meant to sound like that”.*

And though George Harrison didn't love the album version, he wasn't impressed with the the single either, “I think Revolution is pretty good and it grooves along, but I don't particularly like the noise that it makes; and I say 'noise' because I didn't like the distorted sound of John's guitar.”*


Was the album version a demo to be reworked? Did they need two attempts to get it right? Or was the single (recorded second) merely a cover of the album version?

Lennon seems to have been perfectly happy with Revolution. Re-recording it only became an issue when, according to John, “George and Paul ... said it wasn't fast enough”* and vetoed it as a single. Perhaps the guys weren't comfortable with releasing such a overt political statement or “Paul felt that the song simply wasn't all that good”* but fudged the issue.

To be charitable to Paul and the others what they were hearing was not what we hear on The White Album. 'Revolution 1 (take 18)' was a sprawling 10 minutes 29 seconds of hippy flavoured jam. Eventually the second half was lopped off and allowed to carrying on mutating into Revolution 9 like some weird alien limb. It would be understandable if they had mentally consigned such freakishness to the 'album track' bin and were unable to hear it with fresh ears, especially knowing Lennon had no problem with flaunting his experimental underwear in public.

At the same time Paul was pushing for Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to be the single. Neither writer would back down and both set about rerecording their songs to break the deadlock.
“John had defiantly taken [Paul] up on the challenge and so was insisting that they cut it again, faster...that was typical of him in those days; that was his vibe: pissed off”.*
Lennon had a history of needing to speed up his songs. Help and Please Please Me were dirge-like till George Martin got hold of them. Antagonised by Paul, John vented his frustration on the piano, propelling the remake of Ob-La-Di into more ragged, less commercial (and arguably better) territory. On the Revolution single Lennon was taking a similar wrecking ball to his own song but what you are hearing is not the 'soundtrack to a revolution' but two songwriters fighting for an A-side (before Hey Jude came along and rendered the point moot).

“I wanted to put it out as a single, but they said it wasn't good enough...We recorded the song twice. The Beatles were getting real tense with each other. The first take, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn't fast enough. Now, if you go into the details of what a hit record is and isn't, maybe. But The Beatles could have afforded to put out the slow, understandable version of 'Revolution' as a single, whether it was a gold record or a wooden record”.*

Interviewed 12 years later, John has no problem dismissing other songs he's written as “embarrassing”, “disgusting”, “a horror”, “garbage”, “crap”, “abysmal” and “lousy”* but here it's instructive he says “they said it wasn't good enough”. Undoubtedly the remake has more energy, due to key, tempo and timbre. The bassline moving off the root note more also helps. But the majority of musical changes are arguably cosmetic (see here for a full breakdown).

Unconvinced about the intersection of tempo and commercial appeal, when Lennon describes Revolution 1 as “the slow, understandable version” he wasn't just implying the album cut was better but also that the remake somehow obscured the core message.

It's this point that I want to dig into as it's the reason why the single is less successful and points to an instructive lesson about songwriting.


Authorial intent is key - to assess how well the song 'works' we need to know what the author was trying to achieve, and in Lennon's case, to say.

Written in an ashram in Rishikesh Revolution 1 was a hippie manifesto for peace. The title Revolution occurs ONCE in the entire song. After Lennon opens with “YOU say YOU want a revolution” he spends the rest of the song telling us what HE wants – which is for everyone to chill out and enjoy a little bit of moderate, well-managed change. The chorus (the emotional heart of any well constructed song) is

Don't you know it's gonna be... all right
Don't you know it's gonna be... all right
Don't you know it's gonna be... all right

It's just the kind of thing you'd expect a man who's been meditating on a mountain, half a world away from riots, invasions and assassinations, a man who “really thought that love would save us all".*

And he reaffirmed this stance at the end of his life, “the lyrics stand today. It's still my feeling about politics. I want to see the plan. That is what I used to say to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Count me out if it is for violence. Don't expect me to be on the barricades unless it is with flowers. As far as overthrowing something in the name of Marxism or Christianity, I want to know what you're going to do after you've knocked it all down. I mean, can't we use some of it? What's the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, change the system. It's no good shooting people.”*

Lennon's attitude was unpopular in 1968 and open to the charge that the Beatles were out of touch millionaires. Cocooned in the studio when Bobby Kennedy was shot and Paris rioted, holidaying as Czechoslovakia was invaded, and literally retreating from worldly distractions as Reverend King was assassinated. Harrison expressed the tension in the cut verse to While My Guitar Gently Weeps “I look at the trouble and hate that is raging … as I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing”.

But out of touch or not, that is what was Lennon trying to express. So to say “the madman-on-a-street-corner raving of the single resonates more sympathetically with the sense of the lyrics”* or dismiss the album version as a “song about revolution with all the bite taken out”* is wrong.

Revolution is an anti-revolution song.

In the remake the message of the chorus (“Don't you know it's gonna be alright”) is obscured by the missing words and a lack of vocal reinforcement and the only ambiguity in the lyrics - “count me” - is removed.

Pressured by the band to remake the music in “a much more commercial style”* Lennon paradoxically made choices that pleased no one. Masking his peacenik sentiments by punching up the music didn't impress the radical left who labelled the song "a lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear"* at the same time leaving out the one thing they would have approved of - the ‘count me in’ - “Because I’m a coward – I don’t want to be killed”* by the establishment who continued to view hippy counter culture as a threat anyway.

John didn't like the remake, George didn't like the guitars and Geoff Emerick is probably right saying “I think Paul felt that the song simply wasn't all that good”*. In the 40 years since Paul has never covered Revolution or performed it live.

It's worth noting that when the Beatles recorded the 'video version' (adding live vocals to the single backing track) they undid every change that they could – Lennon adding the “in” back 'in', Paul and George singing “Don't you know it's gonna be” three times and reinstating the almost universally derided “shoo-bee-do-wop" backing vocals.

There is a good song, perhaps a great (if misunderstood) song hidden within two unsuccessful recordings. Perhaps it needed a decent cover version like Marmalade's take on Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da*. Something that followed the author's blueprint but had some distance from the distracting circus that the band's life and creative process had become.

In future posts we'll look at the song itself.


A veritable parody of the single version
Alan W. Pollack

Full spectrum of frequencies distorted
Geoff Emerick in Andy Babiuk: Beatles Gear (p.222)

It’s called distortion, apparently
Chris Ingham: The Rough Guide To The Beatles (p. 254)

I didn't like the distorted sound of John's guitar
George Harrison in Beatles Anthology (p.298)

George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn't fast enough.
John Lennon in Beatles Anthology (p.298)

Personally, I think Paul felt that the song simply wasn't all that good
Geoff Emerick: Here, There And Everywhere (p. 252)

That was typical of him in those days; that was his vibe: pissed off.
Geoff Emerick: Here, There And Everywhere (p. 252)

The slow, understandable version
John Lennon in David Sheff: All We Are Saying (p.187)

Embarrassing, disgusting, a horror...
John Lennon in David Sheff: All We Are Saying (various places)

I really thought that love would save us all
John Lennon in Jann Wenner: Lennon Remembers (p.132)

The lyrics stand today. It's still my feeling about politics. I want to see the plan.
John Lennon in David Sheff: All We Are Saying (p.187)

The madman-on-a-street-corner
Alan W. Pollack

A song about revolution with all the bite taken out
Erik Didriksen in a message to author

A lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear
New Left Review quoted in Revolution: Wikipedia

A much more commercial style.
John Lennon 1971 Interview

I’m a coward – I don’t want to be killed.
John Lennon 1971 Interview

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was covered by Marmalade and went on to be a no. 1 hit just as McCartney anticipated.


Thanks to Rod 'Downburst' Johnston, Ross Durand, Zecoop, Erik Didriksen

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