One of my musical hobbies is collecting cover versions. And, at one point, I tried to put together complete playlists of covers of every song on every original Beatles album (that is, not including the Anthology titles or any other collections…oh, and not including George Martin’s music from the why-does-it-still-exist-instead-of-its-handful-of-unique-tracks-being-on-Past-Masters? Yellow Submarine either).
At the time, one of the more difficult songs to find covers of was, unsurprisingly, “Revolution 9.” A few more have come around since then…which, also unsurprisingly, has become a particular little project of mine, collecting such covers.
It’s intriguing to look at how people choose to cover this track, which eliminates by its very nature many of the usual ways musicians “cover” other songs. At first hearing, it doesn’t sound as if the particular notes even matter—that they could have been nearly any note, that Lennon (primary architect of the track) was going for sound texture and feel rather than pitch. And, of course, there’s the fact that little on the track was performed for the track: it’s mostly bits and pieces from sound effects records, orchestral and other recordings, plus electronic effects and recitations of bizarre dialogue (performed largely by Lennon and George Harrison). So, if you’re going to “cover” the track, you have several options on how to approach it.
The seven covers I’m going to take a look at demonstrate many of those possible approaches. (Also: if you’re at all interested in the track, you must read Ian Hammond’s brilliant, book-length exposition of the track…sadly trapped in a mid-nineties-looking website, but at least it exists: <http://beatlesnumber9.com/1number9.html>.)
1. Alarm Will Sound <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WjfQSxcq0c>
One approach is to transcribe and (re)perform the sounds on the record. The modern classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound takes this approach, orchestrating the sounds in some cases to duplicate the instruments heard in the original, in others altering the sound characteristics either by approximating the (often acoustically altered) source materials or choosing completely different instrumental textures. One problem here is that we see actual, live performers doing these parts: the original, as a collection of tapes of live performers, sits directly between live performance as such, and (non-played) electronic reproduction on the other. The effect in this regard of the original is strongly disembodied…so, for example, to see people onstage rhythmically clapping creates a very different affect from hearing sounds of applause which are clearly decontextualized from the event, and the feeling, of a live audience applauding.
Also, Alarm Will Sound’s smallish ensemble cannot achieve the original recording’s sheer massive density of sound texture, nor the somewhat uncanny reactions we have in hearing sounds that are tape-reversed or speed-altered, or subjected heavily to studio effects such as reverb and echo.
Our reactions to those warped psychoacoustic spaces arising from the specific textures of the original cannot be be reproduced by a small, live orchestra performing on a straightforwardly illuminated stage. And because the piece is musique concrète, *all* elements of the sound are compositional, rather than being merely decorative “production.”
Effectively, it’s analogous to hearing a band cover a song and leave out a key instrument (say, the bass guitar part).
I think this performance would have been better served if the ensemble had been less foregrounded, performing even in the dark, or under much subtler lighting, etc. There’s an estrangement from the directly human that’s a crucial part of the uncanny effect of the piece, which is lost under these circumstances.
2. Gameboymusicclub <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYpe2a_Zc58>
As you might guess from the name of the act, this version uses cheap electronics…and while certain parts may seem to come from left field (like…where’d that fake sax at about 80 seconds in come from?), this is a surprisingly faithful rendition. Still a lot of voices and crowds…which is a good thing, because the arrangement makes me realize that, as I noted re the Alarm Will Sound version, the original occupies a space between sounding performed by live musicians and being completely artificial. The source sounds were live…but they’re manipulated and warped so that the original performance carries with it only a remnant of the sort of personal aura that comes with live performance. But because of that source, something of that effect remains, a diminished but potent if ghostly human intensity to the sounds.
That intensity is cooled considerably by the electronics here, which sound less performed than programmed…and of course the lofi sound sources lack the depth and texture of either acoustic instruments or recent, more complexly textured electronic/digital ones.
About halfway through we suddenly get a vintage videogame soundtrack part sounds like someone vaguely remembering part of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”: again, like the “sax” earlier, it doesn’t seem to parallel anything in the source…likewise the shuffle-beat drum a minute after that.
This doesn’t matter that much…except that my own reading of the original is strongly colored by Ian Hammond’s massive interpretation of the recording, who notes that one formative variable in the original is the types of instruments deployed in the piece’s three sections. Which is something I think I’d sort of internalized over the years…such that things that are both very close to the original (most of this) but significantly different (the “new” parts) thereby seem more jarring than if the entire version had been “new” parts.
3. The Thurston Lava Tube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVDfxwdvLBM>
You thought you’d never hear surf music again? How wrong you are!
This one builds on the original’s main hook (you didn’t think it had a “hook”? one listen to this version and you’ll realize that it does) and, being only two minutes long, clearly is a sort of digest of the original. One or two other key moments are reprised (“if…you become naked…”) but it’s mostly just the hook.
4. Kurt Hoffman’s Band of Weeds <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dCT4xPbWns>
So yr Downtown Jazz guys…they hear The Hook too, adding a little bit of sauce to it (an extra grace note or two at the beginning), in a version that adds distinctive grit and slop to an arrangement that nearly could be one of Duke Ellington’s ‘30s bands.
I like the way the piano intro of the original is reproduced here as one of those old-fashioned “choruses” (a part that introduces the song and is never heard again—largely out of fashion since the ‘50s, but think of “If I Fell”…).
Someone dosed the band, however—there’s a freakout two-thirds of the way through that I don’t think the Duke would have endorsed. Another digest (3 minutes this time), although they hit a few more key “Revolution 9” moments compared to the Thurston Lava Tube cover.
5. Chuck U “Revolution 9.5” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSODZGnkWbI>
This version uses an interview with Lennon about “Revolution 9” alongside someone else saying “number nine” (forwards and, of course, backwards).
It’s maybe appropriate that the artist changed the title of the track, since few musical materials here “cover” the sounds, melodies, and harmonies of the original. This is more of a reinterpretation of the piece, with many new bits arranged in a similar spirit. But its source is blatantly obvious—you just can’t say “number nine” more than once without evoking that source.
The new orchestral material near the end is kind of interesting, in that it strongly evokes the type of music the original uses without actually being any of that music.
oi6. The Analogues <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNJqz0icvVs>
This Dutch band’s entire raison d’être is reproducing, live, and in detail exacting as possible, the albums the Beatles did as a solely studio-bound unit.
This version, therefore, sounds very much like the original…but the Analogues have gone back and relooped, resampled, and recreated every sound on it. There are one or two places where they add things (notably the cantillating singer near the end), but for the most part, this is a rather impressive forgery of the original (except, of course, that the forgers have signed their names to it openly).
The video in this link is very cool: every sound has its corresponding visualization, which sometimes allows you to “hear” things you might not have noticed, once you see the visual component on the screen.
7. The Shazam <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zezS-UEkisk&t=24s>
Finally, we have a cover by an Actual Rock Band…and what they do here is, miraculously, turn almost every moment in the original into something plausibly “rock song.”
One subtlety: they shift a few of the key centers of the samples to make the entire thing develop a cohesive set of chord changes.
The most triumphant moment? The ending…when the band finds a smashing, slashing coda to an unreleased Who song in the original’s materials, complete with some drumming that’s over the Moon.
The version for people who think the original’s just 8 minutes of incomprehensible noise—this comes across like a somewhat avant-garde number…but in a rock idiom, not noise or musique concrète.
(If you just want to listen to all seven covers, click here.)