Did John Lennon Break Music?-4OurEars

Did John Lennon Break Music?

"This is the music of the future.  You can forget about all the rest of the shit we've done, this is it.  Everybody will be making this stuff one day.  You don't even have to know how to play a musical instrument to do it!"  -John Lennon, 1968

Is Revolution #9 the most influential Beatles song? That song on the White Album that everybody skips and some people call ‘unlistenable’. It’s the song most likely to top the ‘worst Beatles song’ lists. 

But Revolution #9 has had lasting impact on music; more than you might imagine. Because Lennon was right and he predicted the shape of the musical world to come.

To unpack Revolution #9 we have to go back in time a bit to the 1940s, around the time Lennon was born, and the invention of Musique Concrète. The mid-20th Century was a time of musical experimentation. The avant-garde and modernist movements in music, sparked by Igor Stravinsky's riotous The Rite Of Spring, had come into full bloom with a new generation of musicians eager to ask ‘what is music anyway?’

This is when we first saw pioneering work in abstract electronic music, experiments in surrealism and other musical forms that reject traditional musical structure. The early sound-collage technique of Pierre Schaeffer would come to be called Musique Concrète. This was the original form of sampling: taking existing sounds, electronic noise, and any other interesting audio that composers could find, then turning these into loops and constructing ‘music’ from them.

Schaeffer in turn inspired other artists such as as Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage. You may not have heard their music, and some people consider it unlistenable noise. But not the Beatles.

John Lennon and George Harrison along with Yoko Ono, who had studied under Cage, were passionate about new and experimental music and the compositions of everyone listed above were on their playlist while they were preparing The White Album. Revolution #9 is pure Musique Concrète. Other popular artists at the time were conducting similar sound experiments, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart come to mind, but they were in an artsy niche. The Beatles’ White Album was heard by absolutely everyone.  

The irony of Lennon's "everybody will be making this stuff" comment is that, in 1968, almost nobody would have been capable of making that stuff. Lennon had to commandeer an entire studio engineering department, with multiple tape decks all around the room and huge loops of magnetic tape stretched across it. But he clearly saw that the future was coming and the process would become easier.

Within a few years DJs began to rise in New York City, taking the first steps towards a new sampling culture. Lennon himself noticed this in a 1974 interview, comparing the early DJs' process to his own process for making Revolution #9. 

As hip-hop hit the scene alongside the first wave of affordable samplers and drum machines, the floodgates opened. Bands utilizing Musique Concrète concepts suddenly exploded onto the scene, such as the seminal samplers Art Of Noise or early proto-industrial group Coil, the harbingers of Nine Inch Nails. By the 1980s, ‘noise’ had truly become music and, just as Lennon predicted, anyone could do it.

You Say You Want A Revolution? The revolution never ended. Today, young generations of musicians and other sound artists are finding new ways to express themselves. Genres like Mallsoft and Vaporwave and music based on degraded analog sound sources carry on the tradition. The piece ‘NEWS AT 11’ from ?? Corp mashes up numerous clips and snippets of music from the 80s-90s, lovingly preserving every bit of hiss and warble from those old sources.

Perhaps you’ve noticed how many movie trailers have been using distorted, slowed down, or echo-y versions of classic songs  This is Vaporwave creeping into the mainstream. It might not have happened without Revolution #9 breaking people's ears first. John Lennon saw the future, started the revolution, and we’re living in it.

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And don’t forget Paul McCartney’s tape loops in “Tomorrow Never Knows”.


Sounds like a commie construct/movement to me!

Charles Lessick

Music is meant to stimulate the senses, look at nature, do you think the birds sing songs to scare each other away. Music is meant to draw you in, stir you up, or calm you down, bottom line, to sooth your soul. Don’t weaponize music. Let the music be for what it was originally intended. We have a new toy called software, there is no substitute for natural sound of a musical instrument or the pure sound of the human voice un altered. The pendulum swings back and forth with all things. In the end the truth is revealed and the search for a deeper meaning becomes the new guest and the process starts all over again. The better, more accurately your electronics are at honestly reproducing sound, the better chance you have at sharing your view with another person, and that is where my sound of choice has been Grado cartridges. I’ve tried other brands, but always referred back to what sounds the most uncolored, realistic sound of the original source material. Lots of variables in sound reproduction. For me Grado helps distinguish between fatiguing to listen to and not. My challenge is probably being unaware of how much better the next model up sounds compared to what I have, and I am pretty low on the price/model scale. I like to remind myself that it is not about the electronics, It’s about the music!

Mike Mckillip

Yet another post putting The Beatles on a pedestal
I consider most Beatles music “unlistenable” !
Yes, they changed music, but not for the better.
Thank goodness Crazy Phil Spector was there along with Motown
to give us some really wonderful alternatives to listen to.
He even produced a few Beatles songs which became some
of the best they’d ever done.


Interesting thoughts, but I can’t help but notice the conflation between sampling and “free” composition. Ornette Coleman and his counterparts had pioneered “free jazz” before “Revolution #9” — I can’t help but wonder whether these types of compositions influenced Lennon and The Beatles as well.

Certainly, starting with The Beatles’ decision to focus on making recorded music vs. live music drove them to consider the studio environment as one of their “instruments.” There were other studio magic experimentation moments in albums before the White Album, and I would view “Revolution #9” as a progression in that type of experimentation.

Sampling, on the other hand, as you’ve pointed out were created by DJs and perfected when digital audio workstations became common. Using studio recorded snippets, by editing or other studio processes, during The Beatles’ experimentations is very different than reusing the work of others to create new compositions.

Eric S. Levy

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