When the Beatles released "Hey Jude,” the track that would become their most commercially successful single release 40 years ago, its B-side "Revolution” would "only” make it to No. 12 on the charts. Yet John Lennon’s meditation on the turbulent summer of ’68 is every bit as hard-edged and timely as McCartney’s "Hey Jude” was stately and emotionally transcendent. If ever a single disc personified the yin/yang of Lennon and McCartney’s contrasting muses, this was it.
In an era when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been recently assassinated, American cities were engulfed in fiery rioting and the Democratic Convention in Chicago would become a bloody battleground between anti-war protestors and police, Lennon seemed much more interested in questioning frames of mind and motivations, doing it with a song that was more sonically raw and hard-charging than anything the Beatles had released to date.
Musically, the single version of "Revolution” has been hailed as one of the forerunners of hard rock and metal, a thread the Beatles would soon pursue with even more mondo-distorto glee on McCartney’s manic White Album standout, "Helter Skelter.” Yet it was a sharp contrast to the more deliberately languid, largely acoustic version (dubbed "Revolution 1”) that would also grace the same album, a track that the band had already recorded six weeks earlier. In its conception, the original White Album version of "Revolution” had changed very little ― other than being given a tempo a tortoise might appreciate ― from the quarter-inch demo tape Lennon had laid down with his bandmates at George Harrison’s Esher bungalow the last week of May.
"We recorded the song twice,” John Lennon explained in one of his last interviews. "The Beatles were getting really tense with one another. I did the slow version and I wanted it out as a single ― as a statement of the Beatles' position on Vietnam and the Beatles’ position on revolution. For years, on the Beatle tours, Epstein had stopped us from saying anything about Vietnam or the war. And he wouldn't allow questions about it. But on one tour, I said, ‘I am going to answer about the war. We can't ignore it.’ I absolutely wanted the Beatles to say something.”
"The first take of ‘Revolution’ ― well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn't fast enough,” Lennon said with the frankness that had long been his trademark. "Now, if you go into details of what a hit record is and isn’t ― maybe. But the Beatles could have afforded to put out the slow, understandable version of ‘Revolution’ as a single. Whether it was a gold record or a wooden record. But because they were so upset about the Yoko period and the fact that I was again becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days, after lying fallow for a couple of years, it upset the apple cart. I was awake again and they couldn't stand it.”
But as it had done so many times before, the Beatles internecine squabbling once again yielded superlative results in the studio. The laid-back groove of the album version was supplanted by Lennon’s maniacally overdriven Epiphone Casino and the band’s other guitars plugged directly into the recording console, with his bandmates rising capably to the occasion and frequent Rolling Stones sideman Nicky Hopkins contributing rollicking, equally distorted electric piano flourishes to the session.
What hadn’t changed was the song’s central message. Rooted in the steadfast commitment to non-violence that had informed the previous year’s innocent anthem "All You Need is Love,” Lennon was tackling the turbulent politics of the day with his cynicism intact. "The statement in ‘Revolution’ was mine,” he assured. "The lyrics stand today. It's still my feeling about politics. I want to see the plan. That is what I used to say to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Count me out if it is for violence. Don't expect me to be on the barricades unless it is with flowers.”
And yet the playful Lennon also couldn’t help but tease listeners he knew hung on every Beatles lyric, obsessing over ― and frequently misinterpreting - them in the bargain.
When it came time for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who’d also directed the band’s "Hey Jude” promo film (as well as several other previous clips), to film the band performing "Revolution” ― or rather singing it live over a pre-recorded music track – Lennon literally had it both ways with one of the song’s key lyrics, singing "But when it you talk about destruction/Don’t you know you can count me out…in…”
The clip aired on David Frost’s The Frost Programme in September, with Lennon wielding his late-Beatles stalwart Epiphone Casino, its finish sanded off in an effort to open up its tone, as well as a rare appearance by George Harrison’s cherry-finish Les Paul Standard.
That instrument had once been Rick Derringer’s in his "Hang On Sloopy” heyday with the McCoys ― where Rick had gotten it from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian. Originally a gold-top, Derringer had the instrument factory-refinished to cherry. It eventually found its way to Eric Clapton, who gifted it to Harrison a few weeks before Clapton added his signature solo to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Ironically, four decades after it became the surging soundtrack to the ’60s most pivotal year, the song has morphed into a tourist attraction at Las Vegas’ Mirage Hotel. At the Revolution Lounge, a venture created by Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil in conjunction with their long running Vegas Beatles retrospective Love, patrons can belly up to the Abbey Road bar, marvel at the 30,000 dichroic crystals that adorn the ceiling in the spirit of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” while sipping a Strawberry Fields cocktail.