November 22, 2013

Beatles Quiz: “You say you want a revolution?” Should you count John (A) out, (B) in, or (C) both?

Pop quiz, Beatles fans. The question is: “You say you want a revolution?”

Should you count John Lennon: (A) out, (B) in, or (C) both?

If you said (A), you would be right — if you qualified it by saying it applied to the period between August 11, 1968 and November 22, 1968.

Lennon wrote the famous Beatles song “Revolution” after watching the news about the student riots in Paris in May of 1968.

Like many people around the world, he was shocked to see crowds of young people throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police, breaking shop windows and setting cars on fire, in a fairly unfocused show of displeasure with everything from university policies and the rights of French workers to the war in Vietnam.

In the original lyrics he wrote for “Revolution,” Lennon indicated that he supported efforts to make the world a better place, but did not support violence as means to that end:

       “You say you want a revolution
        Well, you know
        We all want to change the world…
        But when you talk about destruction
        Don't you know that you can count me out.”

The first version of “Revolution,” with the “count me out” lyrics, was released on August 11, 1968. It was the B-side of the 45rpm single that had “Hey Jude” on the A-side.

On November 22, 1968, the Beatles released their famed double album known as The White Album.

It included a version of “Revolution” under the title “Revolution 1.” This was a slower musical take of the song that had actually been recorded before the cut used on the single. In the final audio mix of “Revolution 1,” Lennon inserted a snippet of himself saying the word “in” after “count me out.” So, on that version we hear:

       “But when you talk about destruction
        Don't you know that you can count me out…In!

Why the change? Because after the original single version of the song was released in August, Lennon received heavy criticism from many leftist leaders and groups, who felt that “Revolution” dissed them and their positions on social issues.

Since Lennon actually agreed with many their positions, especially their opposition to racism and the Vietnam War and their support for better benefits for common working people, he felt conflicted after hearing their reactions. 

One reflection of his inner conflict was the “out…In!” in “Revolution 1.”

As noted in an excellent retrospective on Lennon’s music by Jon Wiener, Lennon once remarked: “I put both in because I wasn’t sure.”

Over the next few years, Lennon became increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward the social changes he supported and the continuation of the war in Vietnam.

In 1971, after the Beatles had broken up, Lennon wrote the song “Power to the People,” a phrase borrowed from the Black Panthers and other radical groups that actually did sometimes espouse violent revolution.

In the lyrics of that song, recorded by Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band, Lennon revisited the topic of revolution, writing:

       “Say you want a revolution
        We better get on right away...
        A million workers working for nothing
        You better give ‘em what they really own
        We got to put you down
        When we come into town
        Singing power to the people
        Power to the people.”

The record jacket for the “Power to the People” single showed a photo of Lennon with his clenched fist raised in a revolutionary-style power salute.

So, going back to the Beatles quiz posed at the beginning of this post: is the final answer (A), (B) or (C)?

I’m not sure. You decide. Power to my readers!

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