Possibly the most sought-after unreleased Beatles track, ‘Carnival Of Light’ was an experimental composition recorded in January 1967.
An early excursion into the world of avant garde music, which would culminate more than a year later with the release of John Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’, ‘Carnival Of Light’ was led by Paul McCartney, and taped in a single day during the ‘Penny Lane’ sessions.
In 1966 McCartney had a piano painted in psychedelic colours by the design team Binder, Edwards and Vaughan. McCartney met David Vaughan through a mutual friend, Tara Browne, the Guinness heir whose death partly inspired the lyrics of ‘A Day In The Life’.
The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave
In December 1966 Vaughan asked McCartney to contribute a recording for two events, to be promoted by the designers in the Roundhouse venue in Camden, London, on 28 January and 4 February 1967. The events were variously known as The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave or the Carnival of Light Rave.
Although McCartney was in the early stages of recording the Sgt Pepper album, he agreed to make a recording for Vaughan. In spite of this, Vaughan wasn’t entirely impressed with the results:
I asked Paul to do it and I thought he would make more of it than he did; I thought this was a vehicle for him, if anything was. My trouble is, I expect everybody to drop everything. I forget other people have got things on.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The events also featured taped contributions by Unit Delta Plus, a collective whose members included Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and fellow electronic music pioneer Peter Zinovieff.
Of all The Beatles’ recordings, relatively little is known about ‘Carnival Of Light’. It came to light in 1988, with the publication of Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.
The recording was described by Barry Miles, a long-term friend to Paul McCartney, and the writer of his authorised biography. Miles reportedly played a part in the genesis of 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 break through. The Beatles make literally random sounds, although they sometimes respond to each other; for instance, a burst of organ notes answered by a rattle of percussion. The basic track was recorded slow so that some of the drums and organ were very deep and sonorous, like the bass notes of a cathedral organ. Much of it is echoed and it is often hard to tell if you are listening to a slowed-down cymbal or a tubular bell. John and Paul yell with massive amounts of reverb on their voices, there are Indian war cries, whistling, close-miked gasping, genuine coughing and fragments of studio conversation, ending with Paul asking, with echo, ‘Can we hear it back now?’ The tape was obviously overdubbed and has bursts of feedback guitar, schmaltzy cinema organ, snatches or jangling pub piano, some unpleasant electronic feedback and John yelling, ‘Electricity’. There is a great deal of percussion throughout, again much of it overdubbed. The tape was made with full stereo separation, and is essentially an exercise in musical layers and textures. It most resembles ‘The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet’, the twelve-minute final track on Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! album, except there is no rhythm and the music here is more fragmented, abstract and serious. The deep organ notes at the beginning of the piece set the tone as slow and contemplative.
Many Years From Now
Paul McCartney is said to have wanted to include ‘Carnival Of Light’ on Anthology 2, but the decision was vetoed by George Harrison. Since then, McCartney has occasionally mentioned a desire to see it released.
In April 2002, Mark Ellen of the Rocking Vicar website revealed that he had questioned McCartney about the recording towards the end of an interview for The Word magazine.
Rocking Vicar: Just one last question – ‘Carnival Of Light’: does it actually exist?
Paul McCartney: It does exist, yeah. We recorded it in about fifteen minutes. It’s very avant garde – as George would say ‘avant garde a clue’ – and George did not like it ’cos he doesn’t like avant garde music.
RV: Who wrote it?
PM: It’s officially me. I instigated it. No there’s no lyrics, it’s avant garde music. You would class it as… well you wouldn’t class it actually, but it would come in the Stockhausen/John Cage bracket… John Cage would be the nearest. It’s very free-form. Yeah man, it’s the coolest piece of music since sliced bread!
RV: This is early ’67?
PM: I was asked about ’67 to do it by Barry Miles – you know, who did my book Many Years From Now – and he asked me to do it for this event at The Roundhouse called Carnival Of Light, so that’s how it got its title. And he asked me to write a fifteen to twenty minute piece, and I was into that kind of thing, not on record with The Beatles, but just for that. I went into the studio and said to the guys, Look we’ve got half an hour before the session officially starts, would you mind terribly if I did this thing?
RV: So this is with the other Beatles?
PM: With the other Beatles. 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.
RV: Why don’t you release it?
PM: I actually have a project I would like … I’m involved … One of the many things I did, I did a thing called The Grateful Dead Photo Film, using Linda’s snapshots and making them move, dissolving between them and making them into a film, a short art film, which I showed at festivals and things. And I’m actually in the process – although everything else and its uncle is holding it up – but I’ve got a Beatles photo film on the go and I would love to use it as part of the soundtrack of that.
RV: There was a rumour it was going to come out on Anthology. What happened with that?
PM: It was up for consideration on The Anthology and George vetoed it. He didn’t like it. Maybe its time hadn’t come.
In the studio
‘Carnival Of Light’, as it has since become known, lasted 13’48”, and constituted the basic track along with a series of overdubs. During the recording Paul McCartney briefly sang ‘Fixing A Hole’ on the piano, according to Dudley Edwards of Binder, Edwards and Vaughan.
A breakdown of the piece was given by Mark Lewisohn in 1988:
Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.
But of all the frightening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like ‘Are you all right?’ and ‘Barcelona!’
Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up to the control room: ‘Can we hear it back now?’
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions
‘Carnival Of Light’ took up the majority of the 5 January session, which lasted between 7pm and 12.15am.
When they had finished George Martin said to me, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something more constructive.’
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
According to Lewisohn, a mono mix was made at the end of the session, which was then given by McCartney to Binder, Edwards and Vaughan on a quarter inch tape.
The Beatles’ recording was played a number of times during the two Roundhouse events. Dudley Edwards has claimed that it was subsequently taken to America by Ray Anderson, who assisted with the events’ light shows.