Note to readers: Today’s schpiel runs a bit long. Sorry about that, but all of a sudden there is a lot going on. If you have other things to do, you are forgiven.

The Beatles finally returned to the studio today, by my count 109 days after their last session. At this point producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick re-enter our story as key characters; dipping into Emerick’s book Here, There and Everywhere, we find this account of John Lennon’s return to the hallowed halls of Abbey Road:

George Martin, Phil [McDonald, assistant engineer], and I were sitting in the control room having a quiet chat when John suddenly burst through the door, in a hurry as usual. Trailing closely behind was a petite Japanese woman with a camera slung over her shoulder. Ignoring us completely, John sat her down on a chair in front of the plateglass window, and then immediately dashed out of the room and into the studio, joining the other three Beatles, who were waiting for the session to begin. She just sat and smiled at us, but she didn’t say a word. A moment later, John burst back in; he obviously realized that he had neglected to say anything to us.

“This is Yoko,” he said breathlessly, giving her a small peck on the cheek before disappearing out the door again.

For awhile Yoko just sat quietly, looking uncomfortable, says Emerick. But

Eventually John plucked up the courage to bring her into the studio. Taking Yoko by the hand, he led her out of the control room and into the small recording area where the other three Beatles were rehearsing. They completely ignored her at first. To begin with, John sat her down with Mal [Evans]. A little while later, he motioned her over and she plunked herself beside him … and that’s where she stayed for the remainder of the Beatles’ career.1

I’m tempted to conclude on that ominous note, but there is also the matter of the actual session, during which The Beatles had a few goes at a new number that John was calling “Revolution.” This was Lennon’s first attempt at an overtly political song, and one he came to somewhat reluctantly. According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write,

This wasn’t the song of a revolutionary but rather the song of someone under pressure from revolutionaries to declare his allegiance. Easily the most political of the Beatles and unapologetically left-wing in outlook, John had become a target for various Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist groups, who felt he should lend both moral and financial support.

Turmoil was in the air at this time. In March students protesting the Vietnam War had clashed with police in London’s Grosvenor Square; in May mass protests in Paris got so bad that President Charles de Gaulle briefly fled the country. There was also unrest in the U.S., Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and Italy.

So John may have felt that things were coming to a head, that he had no choice but to say something. But “Revolution” was written, or at least started, among the pastoral peacefulness of Rishikesh, and reflects a certain distance from things. There he had decided that politics was ultimately a dead end, that the only way to effect real change was to change people’s heads, and that everything was going to be alright, man.

But upon returning to Europe he encountered a charged and volatile atmosphere. He repeatedly rewrote the lyrics, trying to strike the right balance between political engagement and groovy utopianism. This is why after singing the lines

But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out

he couldn’t resist adding, rather schizophrenically,

In

John caught a lot of flak for his ambivalence, for “copping out to the system,” but he didn’t back down.

They’re saying we should smash the system. Now the system-smashing scene has been going on forever. What’s it done? The Irish did it, the Russians did it and the French did it and where has it got them? It’s got them nowhere. It’s the same old game. Who’s going to run this smashing up? Who’s going to take over? It’ll be the biggest smashers.

I for one think that John was on the right track. But head-changing is a long and difficult process with many reversals and complications. It’s a lot less satisfying that smashing.

Anyway… today The Beatles recorded 16 takes of “Revolution,” gradually focusing in on how they wanted it to sound. It was the last take, #18,2that ended up giving birth to not one but two “Revolutions”: #1 and #9.

Also absent from our neighborhood lately has been Mark Lewisohn, whose Complete Beatles Recording Sessions is a phenomenal resource that is only relevant when The Beatles are actually recording. I’ve missed his voice, so I’ll let him take it from here:

Take 18 was different, substantially different, and it was the basis of the final LP version. It began so soon after the previous take Geoff Emerick, in punching the talkback button simultaneously with the start of the song, announced “Take 18” over John Lennon’s vocal, the first take with vocals, in fact. John deliberately kept Emerick’s words as part of the song and thus they appear on the album. Secondly, this take did not stop after five minutes. It kept on and on and on, eventually running out at 10’17” with John’s shout to the others and to the control room “OK, I’ve had enough!”.

The last six minutes were pure chaos – the sound of a “Revolution,” if you like – with discordant instrumental jamming, plenty of feedback, John Lennon repeatedly screaming “alright” and then, simply, repeatedly screaming, with lots of on-microphone moaning by John and his new girlfriend Yoko Ono, with Yoko talking and saying such off-the-wall phrases as “you become naked” and with the overlay of miscellaneous home-made sound effects tapes.

That’s right, by the end of the day Yoko had managed to insinuate herself into the band. And possibly — though it seems strange to say it — for the better, at least this once. How you feel about that depends on what you think of “Revolution 9,” which was created in part from those last minutes of Take 18. I personally love that “Revolution 9” is part of the Beatles story; I don’t need to hear it very often, but I’m glad to know it’s there.

I know not everyone agrees, so come on…let’s have it.