Unpopular Beatles songs are relatively few and far between. True stinkers in the band’s catalogue don’t seem to crop up all that much, but negative reactions tend to be saved for the band’s more experimental or twee outings. ‘You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and ‘Wild Honey Pie’ are usually dismissed as novelty tracks, but none are of interminable length or aggressively un-musical origins. The same can’t be said for the band’s most notorious track, ‘Revolution 9’.
Even though he doesn’t perform on the track, Paul McCartney saw a link between the tape loop experiments he was doing on his own at the time and the final product of ‘Revolution 9’. When discussing the track, McCartney said: “‘Revolution 9’ was quite similar to some stuff I’d been doing myself for fun,” he recalled in Anthology. “I didn’t think that mine was suitable for release, but John always encouraged me”.
Indeed, ‘Revolution 9′ actually could trace its roots back to one of The Beatles’ most acclaimed songs: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. The Revolver album closer was an experiment to see if the band could compose with tape loops: some of Ringo Starr’s drumming, some of random chords, some of Indian instruments, and some of random noise. The results were so psychedelic and exciting, it’s no wonder that the band kept going back to loops to see if lightning would strike twice.
It wouldn’t, however, as ‘Revolution 9’ is among the most discussed and widely reviled Beatles songs in their entire recorded output. In a contemporary interview in 1969, Lennon didn’t appear too phased by the reaction. “I don’t know what influence ‘Revolution 9’ had on the teenybopper fans, but most of them didn’t dig it,” Lennon recalled in Anthology. “So what am I supposed to do?” he added.
Lennon gave a more in-depth analysis of the song to Rolling Stone a year later when he commented: “‘Revolution 9’ was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution,” Lennon claims. “All the thing was made with loops. I had about 30 loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects”.
“One thing was an engineer’s testing voice saying, ‘This is EMI test series number nine’. I just cut up whatever he said and I’d number nine it,” Lennon adds. “Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realise it: it was just so funny the voice saying, ‘number nine’; it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was”.
Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn summarised ‘Revolution 9’ well when he described its reception as “most listeners loathing it outright, [with] the dedicated fans trying to understand it”. Most reviews were unkind, although the track continues to have its defenders from mans of the avant-garde.