And he had. In January ’67 he’d recorded an avant-garde abstract sound collage of his own, the still-unreleased Carnival Of Light, for The Million Volt Light And Sound Wave show at London’s Roundhouse. Paul’s interest in the avant-garde significantly predated that of Lennon’s. It’s more than likely that his opposition to John’s Revolution 9 had less to do with its radical nature than with the fact it was an inferior version of John Cage’s Fontana Mix, released a whole decade earlier.
Up to and including Sgt. Pepper The Beatles were leaders. Revolution 9 recast them as followers. Yoko might have fast-tracked John into the avant-garde, but whether he had an actual aptitude for it was never considered. His Beatle status guaranteed Revolution 9 an audience, but didn’t guarantee that it was any good, or indeed any more valid, than the efforts of any other enthusiastic novice in the field.
Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention had concluded 1966’s Freak Out (the very first double album, and the only one other than Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde released prior to the White Album) with The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet, a sound collage not dissimilar to Revolution 9. In March 1968 the Mothers’ Pepper-parodying We’re Only In It For The Money had featured the accomplished Varese-esque musique concrète of The Chrome-Plated Megaphone Of Destiny. Rather than being a brave new harbinger of an age yet to come, Revolution 9 was the least influential and, arguably, least original piece on the White Album.
The most enduring lesson Paul McCartney learned while serving his apprenticeship on the Reeperbahn was that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you want to keep your audience satisfied while you exercise your right to artistic freedom, he reasoned, you’ve got to give them a bit of what they fancy while you’re at it, no matter how excruciating it might seem.
“We’ve always been a rock group, The Beatles,” Paul said a week before the White Album’s release. “It’s just that we’re not completely rock’n’roll. That’s why we do Ob-La-Di one minute and this [the stripped-back 12-bar blues Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?] the next. When we played in Hamburg we didn’t just play rock’n’roll all evening, because we had these fat old businessmen coming in and saying play us a mambo or a rumba. So we had to get into this kind of stuff.”
With Lennon insistent on the inclusion of Revolution 9, the equally hard-nosed McCartney figured that the only way to render eight minutes of avant-garde medicine palatable was with an awful lot of sugar. He was compelled to balance out Revolution 9’s uncompromising approach with Honey Pie’s syrupy schmaltz, Martha My Dear’s music-hall bounce, and Rocky Raccoon’s kid-friendly yarn of feuding frontier folk. Then there was Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da itself, a song memorably defined by John Lennon as “granny music shit”.
But in between the self-indulgence and the saccharine lay the sheer brilliance. The real reason we’re here: The Beatles’ enduring blueprint for rock.
With the White Album effectively delineated as four solo projects knitted together, the obvious question is: which one of The Beatles was it that first stumbled upon rock’s holy grail? And the answer? All four of them. Every one of rock’s key ingredients can be found scattered between Lennon’s Yer Blues, Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Ringo’s Don’t Pass Me By and McCartney’s Helter Skelter.
Yer Blues is the sound of pure disaffection, rock’s essential fuel. Lennon would retrospectively redefine its unalloyed passion as mere parody, a mocking comment on the burgeoning British blues boom. But there’s no doubt that its suicidal lyrical undertone was genuine. And whether he meant it or not, he certainly sounded like he did – especially on its key ‘feel so suicidal, even hate my rock’n’roll’ a line, a sentiment that encapsulated the disillusionment felt by a generation poised to abandon the utopian optimism of the Summer Of Love for its decidedly darker flip-side. The following year would see the doom-laden Yer Blues template – complete with the iron-booted bass drum thud that Ringo adopted across the entire White Album – echoed in the sound of Led Zeppelin.