Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Revolution 1

Robert Bunter: This is one of many examples of a Beatles song that seems to invent a singular and charming musical world that could have set the template for an entire career. The texture of the whole thing is just gorgeous - bleary guitars and dreamy vocal tracks are further softened by mellow horns and hint of distant psychedelic sound effects. Meanwhile, some stinging lead guitar and the bracingly direct political sentiments of the lyric keep the whole thing from sliding into a goo-puddle.

Richard Furnstein: "Revolution 1" finds our heroes stumbling out of beds on a Sunday morning. A snippet of a boogie woogie acoustic guitar is picked up off of the studio floor, John nervously asks "Okay?" as the band kicks into a fresh take. It's a little studio vérité, a humbling back-to-basics approach for a band that once wanted their bass guitars to sound like acid raindrops sliding down a stained glass window and their vocals to sound like the Dalai Lama transmitting across the peaks and valleys surrounding Tibet. "Revolution 1" is John's original vision for his indecisive musical call to arms, where the state of being "in" or "out" is equally "alright." And we almost can't blame him for indecision with a heroin drip this slow.

Robert Bunter: It's not really kosher to dwell on Lennon's alleged heroin use (which is said to have started around this time), but it's difficult to listen and not detect the seductive opiated mood that permeates this track. Everything is slow and dreamy and languorous; after thoughtfully examining the age-old political question of whether the ends justify the means, the smiling stoned singer ultimately has nothing to say but "Don't you know it's gonna be alright?" The sinister undertones of heroin use are also audible,  just below the surface of the Beatles' catalog as officially released. The blissful dope nod of "Revolution 1" originally functioned as but the introductory segment of the harrowing bad trip that is "Revolution 9." This connection has been known to fans for years; John discussed how the two songs fit together in published interviews. For a long time, however, the only hint of how they might fit together was the nearly-unlistenable "From Kinfauns To Chaos" bootleg, which features about 40 minutes of Yoko mumbling into a tape recorder while sitting in the corner of the Abbey Road control room. In the background, you can hear several segments of "Revolution 1" merging into "Revolution 9," but you have to sit there and listen to Yoko's self-involved navel-gazing monologue, which is at times quite gross. Luckily, that's not the end of the story. A few years ago, the Beatle fan world (or what I like to call just my regular daily life) was rocked by the unexpected release of "Revolution 1 (Take 20)" in pristine stereo. I have lots more to say but I'm rambling over here. Richard?

Richard Furnstein: I'm right here, and I'm with you. "Take 20" essentially writes a new White Album tracklist in my mind: side four of the double album should have been largely committed to the full "Revolution 1/9 Suite." As currently constructed, we suffer through a premature fade on "Revolution 1" and are shaken out of this gentle dope protest into McCartney's gooey soft shoe routine in "Honey Pie." Sure, "Revolution 9" appears later in the track listing after some more helpings of light fare, but by then we've written off the side opener as throwback pop music and not a precursor to the sonic overload and icy depths of "Revolution 9." The use of "Revolution 9" as a separate track, positioned late in the double album's running order, seems like an unnecessarily apologetic move from The Beatles. These geniuses didn't have to tiptoe around our blissfully sleeping heads on their way to the revolution. It was their responsibility to jostle us awake and drag us into the horrifying unknown. As it stands, "Revolution 1" can be easily misinterpreted as a throwaway track (the cloying "shoobedoowop" backing vocals are the biggest offender of the realized version).

There is thunder and lightning but no rain. Everything is purple and yellow, but it’s dark. Wait a minute, that’s not moonlight – there are UFO’s up there!
Robert Bunter: Cloying? I disagree, I think this is another example of the White Album’s tendency to use ‘50s rock cliches to add an ironic detachment to the material (see “Back In The USSR” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”), as well as their intrinsic usefulness for musical effect. Paul and George’s doo-wop harmonies, in addition to being groovy, are a big part of the unique texture of this crucial track. Visualize a street-corner R&B vocal group in 1959, except they’re being heard in crystal-clear high fidelity instead of the opacity of scratchy 45’s or AM radio. They’re laying down mellow harmonies in the moonlight urban alleyway, but instead of stupid saxophones, they are surrounded by gentle acoustic guitars and distant French horn chords. The lead singer’s voice is double-tracked (BUT THIS IS HAPPENING IN REAL TIME) and he’s singing about Mao Tse-tung and he wants to “change your head.” There is thunder and lightning but no rain. Everything is purple and yellow, but it’s dark. Wait a minute, that’s not moonlight – there are UFO’s up there! Do you hear those sound effects? I smell laser beams, plus there are street gangs … bloodshot youths rising up against the oppressors, thirsty for violence. But just as they move to unsheathe their weapons, their hands are stilled by this weird celestial doo-wop group and their consciousness-expanding French horns. Get your head out of your butt, Richard. Those “shoobedoowops” pack more of a wallop then “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Loves You” put together, if you just have ears to hear.

Richard Furnstein: Hey man, don't blame me. I'm just a field correspondent reporting from the war. Many interpret the doo-wop backing vocals as overly playful, making the track seem like more milky nostalgia ("Back In The U.S.S.R."). It significantly distorts the message of the song for many. I love it, and I am totally into your version of the street corner apocalypse. I just think most people are seduced by the scuzz rock single version, so the original White Album arrangement seems a little too light and unfocused. The rhythm's in the guitars, but the destruction is in the mind. John's retreat to the loud rock ("single ready") arrangement leaves "Revolution 1" in a confusing, pencil sketch state. I don't think that was the intention, as "Take 20" demonstrates in vivid blood-red tones.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, the stark, high-energy single version of “Revolution” is the polar opposite of the breezy, slow-motion doo-wop of “Revolution 1.” The slow version was the original recording, but the heavy rock single was the first to be released. Listeners who hear “Revolution 1” as a rough demo can be forgiven (the introductory studio chatter heightens the effect), but not after they’ve read this blog. Now they know that the slow version of “Revolution” is John’s otherworldly doo-wop heroin masterpiece and the fast version is a sportswear commercial. In my fantasy world, the Beatles released at least three more albums in this vein – slow acoustic political songs with sweet harmonies, gentle production touches, French horns and sound effects. That would be a recipe for some platters that would certainly get plenty of “revolutions” on my Dual 1229 hi-fi phonograph machine!

Original Beatles fan art by Andrew Jones

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Think For Yourself

Richard Furnstein: What to say about this one? George sneaks another minor key, grouchpuss, slightly aggressive song into The Beatles non-stop party. However, this time he dresses the song up in the finest dancing clothes. Paul applies a wobbly fuzz bass, which lacks any real sustain or depth. Ringo piles a bunch of fun percussion all over this track (one of my favorite features of the Rubber Soul album). John and Paul toss a pile of sweet harmonies over George's awkward delivery on his sneering verses ("you've got time to rectify all the things that you should"). But, gosh, listen to the rude drive of the chorus. George is pissed again: let's dance!

Robert Bunter: George's mind had been opened to new levels of reality by Ravi Shankar and marijuanabis. Looking down at the rest of humanity from the lofty perch of his elevated consciousness, he sees a bunch of ugly kids and square adults. "Think For Yourself" (like "Don't Bother Me" before it) is ostensibly about a romantic relationship, but really it's George addressing his audience. "Leave me alone, you stink," he seems to say. "I'm not interested in anything but God and my wife and my Carl Perkins records." Pretty soon he's even going to lose interest in the Beatles. Good for him. I hope he managed to achieve some kind of mental nirvana while he was stinking up the world's greatest records with garbage like "For You Blue" and "The Inner Light." Praise the Lord!

Richard Furnstein: The sixties were a free wheelin' time, but you still had to hide your disdain for human beings in a cloak of misogyny and sneering judgment. This was famously John's edgy mode ("Run For Your Life" he warned a lowly woman/all humans), but George would prove to be the king of misguided anger. "I've got a word or two to say about the things that you do" he sneers, sounding like a stepfather grabbing your ear before you head off to the snooker match with the boys. George was all too happy to climb to the top of the mountain as The Beatles matured. However, his goal wasn't cosmic enlightenment, he just wanted to get away from the fat, ugly people waddling around the gift shop at base camp.

Robert Bunter: The raw session tapes for this song have leaked, and they provide a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. You can hear the boys (well, three of them - Ringo is inaudible since it was a vocal tracking session) descend into locker-room humor and wacky voices, pausing every so often to go to the bathroom. When they return, they're coughing and sniffling loudly and making oblique references to "lighting the torch." Personally, I would have loved the chance to goof about with these charming lads, but I can guarantee you I'd be utterly incapable of keeping up. They would have sneered at me and had Mal Evans escort me right the hell out of Abbey Road. Even in my fantasy world I know that the brotherly camraderie of these geniuses was a closed circle, with no room for a homely young fan. George would have looked over at me on my way out the door while he thickly sang, "Do what you want to do / and go where you're going to" and then John would have lit a fart. It's my fantasy but I'm keeping it honest. These are the facts.

George would mount this judgemental, hectoring steed many more times over his career, but never as charmingly as he does here.
Richard Furnstein: This is a great point. It is almost a gift to approach The Beatles as a legacy. I can't imagine comprehending and adjusting to these advanced human beings during the time of impact (much less joining them in mind altering trips to the bathroom). They always had a leg up on the rest of the human race. "You sing? Neat, we're better. Oh, cool hair. Maybe you should grow it out. See, our haircuts are great. You like these new boots? They are named after my band." It must have been absolutely humiliating for all involved. I can barely deal with the feelings of inadequacy now and I'm a grown man in a new century. At least we can look back on the impact of The Beatles and reason that they were the result of a different time (extreme acts from ancient black and white human beings like Hitler's pure evil and Einstein's baffling theories). We have the benefit of trying to live up to new and increasingly shoddy pop culture standards.

Robert Bunter: That's right. Kids of today probably have no difficulty imagining themselves fitting in comfortably at the Animal Collective studio tracking sessions or at Ron Jon's Surf Shop with Jack Johnson and Eddie Vedder. The bar has been lowered.

Anyway, "Think For Yourself" represents the dawning of a new growth for sullen George Harrison and his thick, phlegmy voice. The other Beatles, as usual, elevate the proceedings, but the real star here is the Dark Horse on his high horse. George would mount this judgemental, hectoring steed many more times over his career, but never as charmingly as he does here.

Original Beatles fan art by Nate Johnson (