Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: July 10 and 11, 1968
Released: August 26, 1968
11 weeks; no. 12 (B side)
In the spring of 1968, the Vietnam War raged on, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and strikes and student protests in Paris brought the French government to its knees. When the Beatles — who had long been outspoken critics of the Vietnam War — hit Abbey Road Studios to make the White Album at the end of May, the first thing they recorded was "Revolution," which was also the first explicitly political song the band ever released. "I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I thought it was time we fuckin' spoke about it. The same as we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese War [when we were] on tour with Brian [Epstein]. We had to tell him, 'We're going to talk about the war this time, and we're not going to just waffle.'"
The first version of "Revolution" the Beatles recorded was a slow, bluesy shuffle that eventually became "Revolution 1." (The last six minutes of the master take were a menacing jam that was sheared off and eventually became "Revolution 9.") On July 10th, they returned to "Revolution" for a charged-up electric take — the best-known version of the song, which ended up as the B side of "Hey Jude." It was the hardest-rocking performance the Beatles ever caught on tape, from Lennon's scalding guitar introduction (a reference to Pee Wee Crayton's 1954 blues single "Do Unto Others") to the final howl. "John wanted a really distorted sound," engineer Phil McDonald said. "The guitars were put through the recording console, which was technically not the thing to do. It completely overloaded the channel. Fortunately the technical people didn't find out. They didn't approve of 'abuse of equipment.'"
The crucial lyric difference between the two versions was a single word. "Revolution 1" included the line "When you talk about destruction/Don't you know that you can count me out . . . in." (As McCartney noted, "John was just hedging his bets, covering all eventualities.") But by the time the Beatles cut the single version, it was an unambiguous "count me out." While the mainstream media praised Lennon's stance — Time approved of the song's criticism of "radical activists the world over" — the hard left was unimpressed. Ramparts magazine called its ambivalence a "betrayal."
"The lyrics stand today," Lennon said in 1980. "They're still my feeling about politics: I want to see the plan. . . . I want to know what you're going to do after you've knocked it all down. I mean, can't we use some of it? What's the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, change the system. It's no good shooting people."
Appears On: Past Masters