Although The Beatles made some of the cleverest and most infectious music of the 1960s, founder John Lennon felt that the band weren’t doing enough to promote social progress. And in an era of civil unrest in Ireland, France and America, it simply wasn’t enough to sit back and watch, if he wanted the band to remain relevant.
Always the most politically oriented of The Beatles, Lennon had striven towards sloganeering as early as 1965, when he wrote ‘The Word’, advocating for the freedom that should exist between two lovers, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation. But he had grown more resolute as a person over the years and no longer expected listeners to hide behind the lacings he and his bandmates laid out for them. He demanded attention and gave it to them with ‘Revolution’.
“The statement in ‘Revolution’ was mine,” he recalled in 1980. “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. For years, on the Beatles’ tours, Brian Epstein had stopped us from saying anything about Vietnam or the war. And he wouldn’t allow questions about it. But on one of the last tours, I said, ‘I’m going to answer about the war. We can’t ignore it.’ I absolutely wanted the Beatles to say something about the war”.
Lennon was in no mood to compromise, but he did agree to change the tempo of the track if it meant getting it on the airwaves. His more rustic treatment wound up on The White Album, now re-titled as ‘Revolution 9’. The faster, more frenzied rock tune was heard on the flipside to ‘Hey Jude’, the band’s most popular single, and Lennon’s personal favourite of Paul McCartney‘s work.
This rollicking makeover was less ambiguous than the original master, as the guitarist rejected destruction in all of its forms. Bolstered by Ringo Starr’s barrelling drum backings, Lennon sounded vibrant, victorious and valedictorian, keenly aware of the philosophy he wanted to express. In many ways, ‘Revolution 1’ was a stumbling block (‘in..out’, et al), but any criticisms of prevarication had long dissipated by July 1968, and the quartet emerged determined to demonstrate their aphorism with a series of blinding, burning licks.
This was art as rock, meaning that the guitars-traditionally centred behind the vocals in question were in the centre of the mix, meaning that Lennon had to scream over certain passages. He succeeded on the record, but the vocal demands were too great for him to re-create for the promotional video, leading McCartney to take over some of the denser harmonies.
The band appear clean-shaven, barring Starr, proudly flaunting his moustache from the back of the stage. In striking contrast to the shaggy, long-haired men on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the frontmen look buoyant, brandishing infectiousness that reminded viewers of the band’s earlier days as a fresh-faced four piece, and McCartney, always the youngest in appearance, seems to be having a blast.
Indeed, the band had intended to return to the live stages the following January and cornered themselves in Twickenham to finesse their live set. The songs were promising, but the band had underestimated the rigours of rehearsal, and no matter the determination, the band’s final concert was a patchy one, featuring few of the flairs that were heard on their most recent work.
It didn’t help that three of the songs-‘One after 909’, ‘Get Back’ and ‘Dig A Pony-were rushed into shape, none of them worthy enough of a spot on Abbey Road, or even as compilation album fodder. The vocal performances were solid, but the lyrics were so banal that the cracks emerged like the presence of an unloved season haunting an English town.
Lennon’s interests in The Beatles was fading, and he was growing more interested in the things that he had to say to the world, than the things he felt he had to say to his bandmates. He left The Beatles in 1969, having already issued ‘Give Peace a Chance‘, another anti-war track, as a solo artist. Fittingly, he offered The Beatles first refusal on ‘Cold Turkey’, his blinding dissertation on addiction, before recording it by himself. Liberated by the process, he began putting the pieces together for Plastic Ono Band, a scintillatingly produced record that denounced any interest he once had in organised religion (‘I Found Out’, ‘God’), before exposing the failings of his parents on the startling ‘Mother’.
It’s doubtful that McCartney would have put up with that level of soul-baring, but by 1969, Lennon was beyond caring. Yet he remained indebted to the work they did together, and keenly understood that without The Beatles, he could never have put so importance on the things he had to tell the world. ‘Revolution’ holds up with the majority of his solo rockers, complete with a collection of bone-crunching riffs and fills that helped seal his message to a mainstream audience.