The first song to be recorded for the White Album, ‘Revolution 1’ was written in India in early 1968. It was inspired by the 1968 student uprising in Paris, the Vietnam war and the assassination of Martin Luther King, and heralded a political awakening for John Lennon.
Early 1968 saw a profound shift from the hippy-era’s believe in peace and love, towards political turmoil, protest and struggle. An increasingly politicised and energised Lennon watched the unfolding events with interest, and decided to put his feelings into song, aware of the risk of alienating The Beatles’ fans.
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.
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.’
Rolling Stone, 1970
The song started life simply as ‘Revolution’. The Beatles didn’t anticipate recording it more than once, and it was only when the other members vetoed it as a single release that Lennon considered the faster reworking for the b-side of ‘Hey Jude’.
When George and Paul and all of them were on holiday, I made ‘Revolution ’, which is on the LP and ‘Revolution 9’. I wanted to put it out as a single, I had it all prepared, but they came by, and said it wasn’t good enough. And we put out what? ‘Hello, Goodbye’ or some shit like that? No, we put out ‘Hey Jude’, which was worth it – I’m sorry – but we could have had both.
Rolling Stone, 1970
Although recorded after ‘Revolution 1’, the faster ‘Revolution’ was released before the White Album. It divided audiences, with many condemning Lennon’s unwillingness to take part in the protests. When he recorded ‘Revolution 1’, however, Lennon was less certain of his position, opting to be counted “out, in”.
Paul McCartney was uneasy about such a political song becoming a single, and with George Harrison’s backing he vetoed Lennon. As a result, the song was re-recorded in its faster form, satisfying Lennon’s wish to see the song on a Beatles single.
The first take of ‘Revolution’ – well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn’t fast enough. 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. 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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
In the studio
The Beatles began recording ‘Revolution 1’ (then simply titled ‘Revolution’) on 30 May 1968, more than three months after their previous recording session at Abbey Road.
Sixteen takes were recorded on this first day. They were numbered 1-18, although there were no takes 11 and 12. The recording had piano, drums and acoustic guitar all on a single track of the tape, and John Lennon’s vocals on another.
The final attempt, take 18, was substantially longer than other attempts. It lasted 10:17, and formed the basis of the album version.
Despite Lennon’s shout at the 7:31 mark, “OK, I’ve had enough!”, the final six minutes descended into a mostly discordant instrumental jam. It included feedback, Lennon repeatedly screaming “All right”, and moaning from Lennon and Yoko Ono. This later formed the basis of ‘Revolution 9’, with the addition of a number of tape loops and sound effects.
Take 18 was released in full in 2018 on the super deluxe 50th anniversary reissue of the White Album.
Lennon re-recorded his vocals on 4 June while lying on the floor of Abbey Road’s studio three, in an attempt to make his vocals sound different.
John decided he would feel more comfortable on the floor so I had to rig up a microphone which would be suspended on a boom above his mouth. It struck me as somewhat odd, a little eccentric, but they were always looking for a different sound; something new.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
A number of other recordings were made for ‘Revolution 1’ on this day. McCartney and Harrison taped more backing vocals, singing “Mama, Dada, Mama, Dada” repeatedly towards the end of the still lengthy recording.
Ringo Starr also recorded more drums and percussion. Lennon added a guitar part played through a volume pedal, and McCartney taped an organ part. Two unused tape loops were also made: all four Beatles singing a high-pitched “Ahhhh”; and what Mark Lewisohn describes as “a rather manic guitar phrase, played high up the fretboard”.
An 11-minute rough mix of ‘Revolution 1’ leaked online in February 2009. The mix, numbered RM1, reveals how the song evolved into ‘Revolution 9’, with the extended jamming and various tape loops, and begins with John Lennon announcing “Take your knickers off and let’s go”.
Listen to the mix (the audio cuts in and out before the music begins):
‘Revolution 1’, with its final title in place, was completed on 21 June 1968. Two trumpets and four trombones were recorded, and George Harrison overdubbed a lead guitar part.