The Beatles were kings of the B-side. They put out a carousel of tracks in this capacity that other groups would have committed deadly sins to have as a lead single. On the surface, ‘Revolution’ was simply another throwaway track, but its long-term effect on the band’s relationship was seismic.
The song was written during their retreat in India, a time when they studied meditation in Rishikesh, and Lennon was in a zen-like state that he transferred into the track. The first version that the band recorded is titled ‘Revolution 1’, which is slower, more melodic, and flowery than the re-jigged attempt that would become the B-side. Whereas ‘Revolution’ is a back to basics, straightforward rock number intended as a single, but ended up being slumped on the other side of ‘Hey Jude’, much to Lennon’s grievance.
Lyrically, ‘Revolution’ is a nuanced effort that sees Lennon offer a complicated message rather than a simple answer. When writing the song in 1968, there was a political uprising on both sides of the Atlantic by the so-called ‘New Left’ who demonstrated on the streets their disgust against the Vietnam war and the infamous campus riots of ’68 in France.
However, at this stage, Lennon was yet to become radicalised with his politics, and his beliefs were rather moderate. In principle, he agreed with the general message that things needed to change, yet his journey was still in its infancy. He was one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, and his moral compass stopped him from staying silent any longer about the atrocities going on outside his window. ‘Revolution’ was the first step of Lennon using his voice for good.
The singer wasn’t yet the face of the anti-establishment that he’d soon become, but the first few seeds had been planted inside of him and had begun to grow. On ‘Revolution’, surprisingly, Lennon voices his concerns about the movement and pleads “to see the plan” of those seeking to bring down the system.
Lennon later quipped to David Sheff in 1980 about the track, “I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution. I thought it was time we fucking spoke about it, the same as I thought it was about time we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese war when we were on tour with Brian Epstein and had to tell him, ‘We’re going to talk about the war this time, and we’re not going to just waffle.’ I wanted to say what I thought about revolution.”
Adding: “I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it’s going to be all right. That’s why I did it: I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you, or whoever listens, to communicate, to say ‘What do you say? This is what I say.'”
Lennon was desperate to get the song’s message as far and wide as possible, but McCartney didn’t believe the tempo of ‘Revolution 1’ was suitable for a single. In response, Lennon hastily created a new, faster, and more feral arrangement in a desperate bid to maximise the track’s impact.
“The first take of ‘Revolution’ – well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn’t fast enough,” Lennon told Sheff. “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.”
He added: “But because they were so upset over the Yoko thing and the fact that I was becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days, after lying fallow for a couple of years, it upset the applecart. I was awake again, and they weren’t used to it.”
Undoubtedly, the saga surrounding the song marked a turning point in The Beatles’ career as the tension grew to unsustainable levels within the camp as their creative desires stretched in four different directions. Furthermore, the inner-turmoil manufactured by ‘Revolution’ was a sorry sign of things to come.