John Lennon became notorious for his political activism towards the end of the 1960s. Alongside his wife Yoko Ono, Lennon’s peace activism was a major focus of his celebrity image towards the end of The Beatles’ career, with the couple staging bed-ins and recording tracks like ‘Instant Karma!’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Lennon’s advocacy solidified his dedication to the counterculture and made him a thorn in the side of the Richard Nixon administration, which would forever be tied to Lennon’s legacy.
Prior to 1968, however, The Beatles were mostly apolitical. They had spoken out against segregation at their US concerts and had publically detailed their experiments with LSD, but when it came to issues like the Vietnam War, the Fab Four were largely silent. Part of that had to do with the influence of manager Brian Epstein, but after Epstein’s death, The Beatles had to guide their own image, and for Lennon, that meant increased political awareness.
“I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I thought it was time we fucking spoke about it, the same as I thought it was about time we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese war when we were on tour with Brian Epstein and had to tell him, ‘We’re going to talk about the war this time, and we’re not going to just waffle.’ I wanted to say what I thought about revolution.”
The result was ‘Revolution 1’, an acoustic blues shuffle that openly name-checked Mao Zedong and grappled with the destructive nature of overthrowing governments. It was far and away the most radical lyric that Lennon had written up to that point, and it all came to him while the band were visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram.
“I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India,” Lennon claimed. “I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it’s going to be all right. That’s why I did it: I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you, or whoever listens, to communicate, to say, ‘What do you say? This is what I say.’”
Lennon’s desire to have a more prominent voice in politics was met with apprehension. Although they participated in the recording of the track, Paul McCartney and George Harrison held strong reservations about releasing ‘Revolution 1’ as a single. Especially compared to some of the band’s other material, Lennon was exasperated at his bandmate’s reluctance.
“When George and Paul and all of them were on holiday, I made ‘Revolution ’, which is on the LP and ‘Revolution 9’. I wanted to put it out as a single, I had it all prepared, but they came by and said it wasn’t good enough,” Lennon said. “And we put out what? ‘Hello, Goodbye’ or some shit like that? No, we put out ‘Hey Jude’, which was worth it – I’m sorry – but we could have had both.”
McCartney and Harrison told Lennon that the original recording of ‘Revolution’ was too sow to be released as a single, but Lennon ultimately believed that his bandmates were threatened by his renewed interest in songwriting. After a fallow period marked by heroin use, Lennon had a short burst of major inspiration during the recording of The White Album.
“The first take of ‘Revolution’ – well, George and Paul were resentful and said it wasn’t fast enough,” Lennon surmised. “Now, if you go into the details of what a hit record is and isn’t, maybe. But The Beatles could have afforded to put out the slow, understandable version of Revolution as a single, whether it was a gold record or a wooden record. But because they were so upset over the Yoko thing and the fact that I was becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days, after lying fallow for a couple of years, it upset the applecart. I was awake again and they weren’t used to it.”