Revolution #9: The Beatles’ Musique Concrète Sound Collage Performed Live!

By on March 5, 2015

On February 28, 2015, at the 1500-seat Alex Theater in Glendale, California, we were among the sold-out audience on hand to witness members of the Wild Honey Orchestra collective paying special tribute to the Beatles’ 1968 so-called “White Album” — this was a benefit show for the Autism Think-Tank NJ, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission of facilitating the medical and psycho-social stabilization of child & family.

Bringing together a team of world-renowned medical experts via tele-medicine, this innovative outpatient medical center is designed to provide a multidisciplinary team approach to the identification and treatment of the complicated medical comorbidities of autism.

REVOLUTION 6

The White Album is the biggest-selling album in the Beatles’ catalog, having been certified by the Recording Industry Assn. of America with U.S. sales of more than 19 million copies since its release in 1968, placing it at No. 10 on the RIAA’s list of all-time bestselling albums.

The evening was chock-a-block full of great, heartfelt moments, and memorable performances of all of the songs from the double-LP, but those of us in attendance were particularly thrilled to hear a live looped-tape and piano performance of the Beatles’ musique concrète sound collage, “Revolution #9,” which had been assembled by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and engineer Chris Thomas for a 8-minute and 22-second Stockhausen-inspired sonic collage (Stockhausen’s composition Hymnen was composed in 1966 and was premiered either ’66 or ’67, and Lennon has been quoted as saying it was a source of inspiration).

“‘Revolution 9′ was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution. All the thing was made with loops. I had about 30 loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects. One thing was an engineer’s testing voice saying, ‘This is EMI test series number nine’. I just cut up whatever he said and I’d number nine it. Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realise it: it was just so funny the voice saying, ‘number nine'; it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was.”

~ John Lennon, “The Rolling Stone Interview: John Lennon, Part II,” Rolling Stone (RS75: February 4, 1971)

REVOLUTION 1

In front of a giant glowing white orb that was rolled out onstage at the beginning of the performance — looking like something straight out of the creepy late-‘60s British sci-fi series “The Prisoner” — and backed by Julia Ewan’s visual projections against the theater’s backdrop, a talented duo comprised of musicians Jim Mills and Heidi Servey, who have their own band in Los Angeles, EXTRA, ascended from the theater’s orchestra pit on an elevated riser, and, with the help of two Akai mixers, which is essentially using technology far beyond what was available in 1968, triggered the various effects live, with Mills occasionally intoning into a microphone and adding various vocal snippets that are all very familiar to #9 fans.

REVOLUTION 2

Many of the tape loops and special effects had been re-created beforehand by keyboardist/arranger/singer/percussionist Darian Sahanaja, a member of the Brian Wilson Band, who stood in the wings and watched. Jim and Heidi were accompanied by Debbie Shair, who is a former member of the touring version of the Wilson sisters band Heart, on perfectly-played piano, matching note-for-note what you hear on the Beatles’ recording. A lucky donor named Alan Friedenthal (who earned the right to do it with a big donation to the Autism Think Tank) contributed the “number nine” mantra, which they recorded and looped live, right before our eyes and ears.

REVOLUTION 4

We asked Jim Mills if he would tell us how “Revolution #9″ came together:

Mills: I’d been dissecting it off and on for about ten years, maybe. I still want to put it all down in book form sometime. Not all the snippets are known. A few have been out there for a while (one comes from Vaughan-Williams’ ‘O Clap Your Hands’, one is from Sibelius), but it takes time to figure out just which versions and everything. I still have a long way to go, but it’s a fun hobby. I have been able to track down all the sound effects (baby, war, etc.) though. There’s also mellotron, piano, talking, and John’s vocal from the original ‘Revolution 1′ outro (‘riiiight!’ etc.)

Mills: “When the Wild Honey people were talking about how to do the album, the inevitable came up: how are we going to do THAT? That’s when Darian piped up saying that he knew someone who had been working on it, and if anyone could do it for real it’d be his friend Jim (me). Willie seconded that, because I’d talked to him about it in the past too. Darian called me and suggested I get involved. I loved the idea, but knew I’d need technical help: I knew it would be cool to remake these loops and do it all live, so I needed equipment I didn’t have. Darian ended up BUYING two Akai mixers for the project, as well as donating a sampler and a laptop to hold all the sounds, pretty much made it possible!

I organized the sounds that needed to be remade, and charted out when they needed to come in, etc. Darian, Heidi and I did three of the loops on the first night, but after that, Darian pretty much ran with it. He’s not the biggest fan of the piece, but I think he really got into remaking these 2-second orchestrated miniatures. He did an amazing job! Then we loaded them all up, as well as the original non-musical sound effects (baby, school bell, etc.) and started hammering it out. Debbie figured out her own piano parts based on the album. She also did a great job. I wasn’t worried at all. I made the ending “Yoko” “you become naked” tape myself the morning of the show! Heidi whispered a bunch of Yoko stuff into a cassette, and I picked the best bits and whipped it up with some other noises. Total last-minute.”

REVOLUTION 3

Regarding the backdrop:

Mills: “Julia Ewan is a photographer (used to work at the Washington Post) and artist who knows a lot of those people. She had been sounded out early on about doing something visual — maybe play the Beatles’ version and make a film, before I came on the scene. When I got involved, it seemed natural to try to combine the ideas. She did all the films herself. She had some of it worked out, then we talked for an afternoon, and then she went away and did it all. I came up with the idea for Rover from The Prisoner, as an enigmatic symbol. But I didn’t know it would look as good as it ended up looking. I don’t know who did the lighting, but it was great. David Perkins was the name of the projectionist who lent a projector and worked with Julia on it.”

REVOLUTION 5

Rising up from the orchestra pit was the idea of Robin Danar, the sound guy. Probably mostly so the equipment didn’t have to be onstage the whole night, but he really liked the idea of the staging too.

Finally, I think it’s somewhat historic in that I don’t think the piece has ever been covered really before. People interpret it, play bits of it, do dancing or visuals to the Beatles’ version, anything but actually playing it loops and all. There was one orchestrated version by a chamber group called Alarm Will Sound which was pretty impressive (it’s on YouTube), but even that’s not the same. I think this is the first.

(A big thanks to our contributor Chris Morris for the invite and good company)

REVOLUTION FEATURED

Bonus:

Commissioned drawing of The Beatles (pencil and ink) by Brian Methe, Tetratos Potraits Dibujos (2009).png

Commissioned drawing of The Beatles (pencil and ink) by Brian Methe, Tetratos Potraits Dibujos (2009)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.