UK, 1968, pop rock / rock
The Beatles – The Beatles: This is the Beatles’ passage to India, popularizing the West’s flirtation with the East and all things “exotic”. Their spiritual guide in all this? Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who blew their English minds by telling them that “heaven is like electricity—you don’t see it; it is within you”. Such “wisdom” hooked the Fab Four, and they followed the maharishi to northern India, believing that this form of spiritualism offered real answers through meditation, relaxation, and peace after years of fame, fortune, and publicity. Let’s just ignore the total irony of this situation–the fact that Lennon was always anti-religious.
Could this respite in rural India help the Beatles rise above their worldly concerns and viewpoints? And can this actually be called a respite, since reporters and photographers followed them to the compound? The mere presence of the Beatles in India was enough to popularize Eastern spiritualism in the 1960s West. (Of course, after a few days of nothing happening, the reporters, in boredom, left.) This trip was pretty much inevitable, since it was nothing more than an extension of the drug experience. People were looking for euphoria, looking for god-figures in everything. Harrison actually took it seriously and grew quite devout through meditation. Devoted to what, though? The quiet Beatle wasn’t giving away his secrets. Though Lennon, too, tried taking his seclusion seriously, he had trouble concentrating, what with the troubles in his marriage and the fact that Yoko kept sending him letters, with little poems like “I’m a cloud, look for me”. Lennon was quickly smitten.
McCartney and Starr weren’t as keen as their two bandmates on the whole spiritual enlightenment thing, and besides, there was still music to make. Lennon and McCartney learned to fingerpick their acoustic guitars, the former writing “Julia” (a goodbye to his mother and hello to Yoko) and “Dear Prudence”, the latter writing “Blackbird”. Actually, most of the songs for The White Album and Abbey Road were written during their stay in India.
It didn’t take long for problems to arise, however. The maharishi started using the Beatles’ name to promote himself through spoken-word albums, and he even had the stones to ask the band for 25% of their earnings. Add a bit of sexual predation of the female devotees and the maharishi found himself the subject of an absolute character destruction in the form of “Sexy Sadie”.
The album itself—hmmm, well the criticism that the double album has too much filler is a valid complaint. Many of the songs are substandard for the band, but I just don’t think they cared. They didn’t have to prove themselves anymore, and they were working more and more apart all the time. When they were in the studio, Yoko was always there, always interrupting sessions, not happy to just sit in the recording booth, and started giving her opinions as if she was a creative participant in the band. She “helped” Lennon with his songs, and then, as Harrison famously noted, “the rot set in”.
After India, the Beatles grew ever more insular, wanting to work alone, keeping to themselves, valuing their privacy above any public considerations. Lennon and McCartney continued recording while Harrison & Starr went to America, and Lennon was working on “Revolution 9” alone. McCartney was perfecting “Blackbird” alone. And then Lennon & Harrison completed “Revolution 9” while McCartney was in America. The dynamic of the band was being redefined (falling apart?).
“Revolution 9” is the band’s most unpopular track ever. McCartney and Starr were straight up pissed off about it, but Lennon’s thoughts on it were that this was the music of the future, music without the necessity of instruments. As far as sound experimentation goes, however, this track is definitely the most relevant and enduring. It was influenced by two main sources, the first being social disturbances in England, the second being Yoko herself. Her art show displayed a new type of avant-garde, and Lennon, listening to her spoken word art, wanted to try something new. Naturally, Yoko helped make decisions on which tape loops to use. So what the hell is actually inside “Revolution 9”? About 100 fragments of classical music, opera, Lennon’s voice, Yoko’s voice, Harrison’s voice, applause, gunfire, choir music, football fans, and of course a man saying “number nine”. Lennon thought 9 was significant, it being not only in his address but also his birthday. Derp.
“Revolution 1” grew out of a jam session of “Revolution 9”, wherein all kinds of weird ideas were fielded, like how random sounds can be used to make music, like how fun it would be to sample sound bytes from other previously-recorded sources. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s response to a criticism saying he was capable of writing only soft ballads, so he tried to create as loud and dirty a sound as he could. I’ve read critics who maintain this is the first “heavy metal” song. Bollocks! It’s an infamous song, though, considering how Charles Manson chose to interpret a song about a carnival ride, a song about the rise and fall of an empire. America’s most notorious mass murderer believed “Helter Skelter” contained prophecies about a coming race war between blacks and whites.
Other notable tracks (for me) include “Mother Nature’s Son” (inspired by a maharishi lecture), “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” (John thought the other Beatles were paranoid about Yoko), “Honey Pie” (an homage to British music-hall style), “Savoy Truffle” (Harrison sniping Clapton for his love of sweets), and “Cry Baby Cry” (where George Martin plays harmonium).