Did John Lennon Break Music?
"This is the music of the future. You can forget about all the rest of the shit we've done, this is it. Everybody will be making this stuff one day. You don't even have to know how to play a musical instrument to do it!" -John Lennon, 1968
Is Revolution #9 the most influential Beatles song? That song on the White Album that everybody skips and some people call ‘unlistenable’. It’s the song most likely to top the ‘worst Beatles song’ lists.
But Revolution #9 has had lasting impact on music; more than you might imagine. Because Lennon was right and he predicted the shape of the musical world to come.
To unpack Revolution #9 we have to go back in time a bit to the 1940s, around the time Lennon was born, and the invention of Musique Concrète. The mid-20th Century was a time of musical experimentation. The avant-garde and modernist movements in music, sparked by Igor Stravinsky's riotous The Rite Of Spring, had come into full bloom with a new generation of musicians eager to ask ‘what is music anyway?’
This is when we first saw pioneering work in abstract electronic music, experiments in surrealism and other musical forms that reject traditional musical structure. The early sound-collage technique of Pierre Schaeffer would come to be called Musique Concrète. This was the original form of sampling: taking existing sounds, electronic noise, and any other interesting audio that composers could find, then turning these into loops and constructing ‘music’ from them.
Schaeffer in turn inspired other artists such as as Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage. You may not have heard their music, and some people consider it unlistenable noise. But not the Beatles.
John Lennon and George Harrison along with Yoko Ono, who had studied under Cage, were passionate about new and experimental music and the compositions of everyone listed above were on their playlist while they were preparing The White Album. Revolution #9 is pure Musique Concrète. Other popular artists at the time were conducting similar sound experiments, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart come to mind, but they were in an artsy niche. The Beatles’ White Album was heard by absolutely everyone.
The irony of Lennon's "everybody will be making this stuff" comment is that, in 1968, almost nobody would have been capable of making that stuff. Lennon had to commandeer an entire studio engineering department, with multiple tape decks all around the room and huge loops of magnetic tape stretched across it. But he clearly saw that the future was coming and the process would become easier.
Within a few years DJs began to rise in New York City, taking the first steps towards a new sampling culture. Lennon himself noticed this in a 1974 interview, comparing the early DJs' process to his own process for making Revolution #9.
As hip-hop hit the scene alongside the first wave of affordable samplers and drum machines, the floodgates opened. Bands utilizing Musique Concrète concepts suddenly exploded onto the scene, such as the seminal samplers Art Of Noise or early proto-industrial group Coil, the harbingers of Nine Inch Nails. By the 1980s, ‘noise’ had truly become music and, just as Lennon predicted, anyone could do it.
You Say You Want A Revolution? The revolution never ended. Today, young generations of musicians and other sound artists are finding new ways to express themselves. Genres like Mallsoft and Vaporwave and music based on degraded analog sound sources carry on the tradition. The piece ‘NEWS AT 11’ from ?? Corp mashes up numerous clips and snippets of music from the 80s-90s, lovingly preserving every bit of hiss and warble from those old sources.
Perhaps you’ve noticed how many movie trailers have been using distorted, slowed down, or echo-y versions of classic songs This is Vaporwave creeping into the mainstream. It might not have happened without Revolution #9 breaking people's ears first. John Lennon saw the future, started the revolution, and we’re living in it.
Why would you want to break someone’s ears? Especially someone in the age group that was around when this music first came out? Yoko, now there is some ear breaking music!
Music is obviously not broken, though much of the recorded music business may be broken, at least for the time being. People have always made music, whether they knew how to play insturments, were musically trained, or were able to sell it to anybody. That isn’t going to change anymore than birds are going to stop singing. Music institutions and academies is another question.
Rea;;y enjoyed the post. The Beatles did an amazing job of incorporating the avant guard into their work (don’t forget Paul!) and taking it to the world. The White Album’s #9 is a great example as is Pepper. I think John was catching up a bit, but always quickly. I love hearing what Yoko brought to the White Album as background vocalist, collaborator, muse, and mentor to John. Her conceptual art is still very under-appreciated. They were a great team together especially on Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Double Fantasy!
Very cool article! It is my belief that The Beatles are to Popular Music what Beethoven was to Classical Music. They were the best at recognizing what had come before and pointing the way ahead for future generations of composers. Many of the groups and solo artists that came after them can be traced back to a single Beatles song (Chicago -Got to Get You in to My Life; John Denver -Mother Natures Son; James Taylor -Blackbird just to name a few). They have certainly influenced my life in many ways and inspire me in my creative endeavors.