The Beatles line-up featured four talented musicians and three gifted songwriters; all of them working under one roof to create some of the most astonishing recordings in modern music. And yet, there is only one track credited to all four members. It also happens to be one of the most sought after recordings in The Beatles’ back catalogue.
In December 1966, Paul McCartney was introduced to David Vaughan through a mutual friend, Tara Browne, the young Guinness heir whose tragic death in a road accident partly inspired the lyrics for ‘A Day In The Life’. Following their first meeting, Vaughan approached McCartney and asked him to provide to contribute a couple of recordings for two upcoming events he was holding at the Roundhouse in Camden, London. The twin events were known as The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, but Vaughen preferred the simpler and far more evocative title of the Carnival of Light Rave.
At this time, McCartney and the rest of The Beatles were strapped down with the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. But, feeling generous, Paul agreed to make Vaughan’s recording. With a vague idea of the sort of sonic palette he wanted to use, he went onto the studio and sat down with the rest of The Beatles to record ‘Carnival of Light’, one of the group’s earliest attempts to craft truly avant-garde music. Paul led the session, taking a chunk out of the ‘Penny Lane’ sessions to record something for Vaughan’s kaleidoscopic event. This chunk grew into a full day of recording, leading to a good deal of frustration amongst the other Beatles, and, indeed, the studio engineers. As Geoff Emerick of Abbey Road recalled: “When they had finished George Martin said to me, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something more constructive’”.
Taped within a single day, ‘Carnival of Light’ is perhaps one of the most mysterious Beatles recordings there is. Indeed, very little was known about it until 1988, when Mark Lewisohn published The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. In his authorised biography of The Beatles, Barry Miles, a long-term friend of Paul McCartney, describes the recording: “The tape has no rhythm, though a beat is sometimes established for a few bars by the percussion or a rhythmic pounding on the piano. There is no melody, though snatches of a tune sometimes threaten to breakthrough.”
‘Carnival of Light’ sees the Beatles make a series of random sounds, responding to one another in call-and-response. Low organ notes are answered by percussive shimmers, all while John and Paul yell at one another with huge amounts of reverb on their voices. They give out shrieks, whistles, gasps, coughs, and have full-blown conversations, one of which ends with Paul asking the studio engineer ‘Can we hear it back now?'”.
A quick mono mix was made at the end of the session and handed over to Vaughan on a quarter-inch tape. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too impressed with The Beatles’ efforts. Nevertheless, the track was used several times during the Roundhouse events. Paul McCartney apparently wanted to include ‘Carnival of Light’ on Anthology II, a decision that was later vetoed by George Harrison, who, according to McCartney, didn’t like it because it was too avant-garde. But, despite Harrison’s efforts to disown the track, McCartney always asserted that the song was a product of all four Beatles. Speaking to Mark Ellen of Rocking Vicar magazine, Paul said: “This is a Beatle record. And they all just fell in with the spirit of it and I just said, Would you go on that and would you stay on that and would you be on that and we’ll just take twenty minutes to do it in real time? And they all just got into it.”
You’ll be pleased to hear that The Beatles did eventually release ‘Carnival of Light, which you can check out below.