may it serve you well

Originally published on, August 9-10, 2005.  A post about the scariest, creepiest song I’ve ever heard.  I’m not alone in this, though: Facebook has something like 3 or 4 groups for people who were equally terrified by this track.


Like most people my age, I went through a Beatles phase on my way to general music fandom. American radio was still Beatles-besotted throughout the ’70s, and there were books and magazines about the Fab Four everywhere. Until John Lennon died, you could be forgiven for thinking they’d just taken a long hiatus in 1970. They were absolutely unavoidable. So I heard them on the radio constantly, and I liked what I heard.

My first Beatles album (and my second or third-ever LP) was Meet The Beatles, followed closely by Abbey Road. Neither affected me as much as Sgt. Pepper, though. My parents took me to the mall for my sixth-grade graduation and allowed me to pick out an LP; I picked Sgt. Pepper. I listened to every day, two or three times a day, for months; I’d never heard anything like it. It was complex enough, yet melodic and whimsical enough, to capture my preadolescent mind.

I began taking Beatles albums out of the library and making crude cassette copies. Eventually, inevitably, I stumbled across The Beatles, better known as The White Album. I knew the hits – “Back In The USSR,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Birthday” – from the radio. I was especially interested in hearing “Revolution 9,” though. I’d read that it was some kind of extended evocation of Paul’s death, which intrigued me.

I took the album home. I immediately put on “Revolution 9.” It scared the hell out of me.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was not at all prepared for the sheer…creepiness captured in those eight minutes. Virtually everything about the song suggested nightmarish terror: the muttered voices, the horrifying sound effects (including car crashes and fires), the agonized screams that punctuated the mix every now and then, and that awful, calm, matter-of-fact repetition of the phrase “number nine, number nine…” Everything about “Revolution 9″ seemed calculate to evoke an almost benign murderousness. To my 11-year-old mind, it was an aural snuff film.

I listened to it once, all the way through. That was the last I heard of the White Album for years. I put the album back in the jacket and returned it to the library as soon as I could. I didn’t dare play another song for fear that I’d accidentally hear “Revolution 9″ again. Whenever I heard a White Album track on the radio I’d immediately switch the dial for fear that “Revolution 9″ was next on the playlist. For literally years, I had nightmares about “Revolution 9.” For better or worse, no other piece of recorded sound had ever affected me to this extent.

I didn’t dare listen again until my senior year of college. By then I’d been a DJ for a few years, and I’d heard all kinds of disturbing and unusual music. So I wasn’t really surprised that “Revolution 9″ didn’t shock me anymore, but you cannot imagine the courage it took to actually play it again.

I had another chance to evaluate the White Album this past weekend. I traded in some CDs at Vintage Vinyl and the Record Exchange (the latter an enormous, cluttered shop inside what looks like a former bank building), and on a whim decided to pick it up. “Revolution 9″‘s sway over me has long since passed, but what I forgot was how creepy the White Album so often is. Unlike the polished Pepper or Abbey Road, it leaves its seams exposed – there are strange spoken-word interludes, slightly unnerving falsetto vocals, almost-flubbed first takes and half-finished song ideas. “Helter Skelter” and “Piggies” would have felt like bad trips even if Manson never existed; “Long Long Long” ends with an eerie, disturbing wail. This is the sound of the Beatles deconstructing; it’s the most unseemly aspects of “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am The Walrus” as presented by four bored, at least slightly antagonistic superstars. Even the moments of levity, like “Ob-La-Di” and “Birthday,” fail to completely disperse the demons.

And yet, amongst all this weirdness you will find some of the most underrated gems in the entire Beatles catalog. “I Will,” “Cry Baby Cry,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (love the firebell percussion), “Julia,” “Martha My Dear…” I mean, these are all brilliant songs, and they still haven’t been overplayed to death. Between the White Album and Yellow Submarine (“Hey Bulldog,” “It’s All Too Much,” “Only A Northern Song”), there’s a whole chunk of the Beatles’ 1967/1968 catalog just begging for the Mojo revisionist treatment.

I’ve listened to “Revolution 9″ three or four times this week in its entirety. When I listen now, I am reminded of what it was like to be young, unsophisticated, and just discovering music’s power. Until “Revolution 9,” I had no idea that music could shock as well as delight or inspire. I understand why it frightened me, and why the White Album as a whole was so off-putting. I’m just glad I’m now at the point where I can appreciate this work rather than run from it.

Speaking of the Beatles’ weird side: was anyone else ever creeped out by John & Yoko’s late ’60s side projects?  I’d read about their albums and movies, and their descriptions always seemed sinister, even frightening, to my young mind. I mean, a 22-minute track consisting of the words “John” and “Yoko?” A film entitled Rape, which consisted entirely of some poor victim being chased around with a camera for 90 minutes? I had already been scarred by “Revolution 9;” I wasn’t about to mess with any of that. Now I’d probably be more interested.

I have heard Two Virgins. It wasn’t scary as much as interminable. I haven’t sold it, but nor have I ever made it to side 2.

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