Avant-Garde a Clue

The Beatles: “Carnival of Light” (1967), John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr: vocals, organ, guitar, tambourine, effects, loops. Possibly the most sought-after unreleased Beatles track, Carnival Of Light was an experimental composition recorded in January 1967.

In 1966 McCartney had a piano painted in psychedelic colors by the design team Binder, Edwards and Vaughan. McCartney met David Vaughan through a mutual friend, Tara Browne, the Guinness heir whose death partly inspired the lyrics of A Day In The Life.

The poster for the 1967 event

The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave Poster from 1967

In December 1966 Vaughan asked McCartney to contribute a recording for two events, to be promoted by the designers in the Roundhouse venue in Camden, London, on 28 January and 4 February 1967. The events were variously known as The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave or the Carnival of Light Rave.

Although McCartney was in the early stages of recording the Sgt Pepper album, he agreed to make a recording for Vaughan. In spite of this, Vaughan wasn’t entirely impressed with the results.

The events also featured taped contributions by Unit Delta Plus, a collective whose members included Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and fellow electronic music pioneer Peter Zinovieff.

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Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions

Mark Lewisohn’s "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions"

Of all The Beatles’ recordings, relatively little is known about ‘Carnival Of Light’. It came to light in 1988, with the publication of Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions:

Thursday 5 January 1967
Studio Two: 7.00pm-12.15am. Recording: ‘Penny Lane’ (SI onto take 7); ‘Carnival of Light’ (take 1). Mono mixing: ‘Carnival of Light’ (from take 1). Producer: George Martin, Engineer: Geoff Emerick, 2nd Engineer: Phil MacDonald.

After overdubbing another McCartney vocal onto ‘Penny Lane’, replacing the one from the previous evening, the Beatles set to work on the session’s main task: preparing a sound effects tape for a ‘Carnival of Light’, being held at the Roundhouse Theatre, London, later in the month. Paul was the chief instigator behind the commission and he took charge of the creation on tape of the bizarre collections of loops and distortions. Or, as it is described in the press at the time, “a tape of electronic noises”.

The Beatles had never made a recording quite like this before, although they were certainly to repeat the exercise again, culminating in ‘Revolution 9’ on the 1968 double-album The Beatles (The White Album). This day’s attempt lasted 13’48”, the longest Beatles recording to date, and it was the combination of a basic track and numerous over dubs. Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling with water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of echo and manic tambourine.

But of all the frightening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like “Are you alright?” and “Barcelona!”

Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up to the control room: “Can we hear it back now?” They did just that, a rough mono remix was made and Paul took away the tape to hand over to the ‘Carnival of Light’ organizers, doubtless pleased that the Beatles had produced such an avant garde recording.

Geoff Emerick recalls this most unusual session. “When they had finished George Martin said to me ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something a little more constructive’.” Twenty years later on, Martin had obviously driven the session entirely from his mind, for when reminded of the sounds on the tape and asked whether he could recall it, he replied “No, and it sounds like I don’t want to either!”

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Abbey Road Studios - January 1967

Abbey Road Studios - January 1967

“Carnival of Light” has not yet appeared on any release, either official or a bootleg recording. In 1996 McCartney tried to release the track on the compilation album The Beatles Anthology 2, but George Harrison voted to reject it. According to McCartney, the reason was that “he didn’t like avant garde music” and referred to avant garde as ‘avant garde a clue’ (“haven’t got a clue”). George Harrison had also created avant-garde music as a solo composer (in 1969 he released an experimental album using the then new Moog synthesizer called Electronic Sound), and dabbled in the avant-garde with a couple of his Beatles compositions.

In August 1996, McCartney claimed (in an interview for Mojo) that he was working on a photo collage film of the Beatles that was similar to a film made about the Grateful Dead in 1995 called Grateful Dead — A Photo Film. He was planning to use “Carnival of Light” in the soundtrack, but this project has yet to be seen and McCartney has not commented on the film’s status since 2002.

In November 2008, Paul McCartney confirmed he still owned the master tapes, adding that he suspected “the time has come for it to get its moment. I like it because it’s the Beatles free, going off piste.” McCartney would need the consent of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, as well as Ringo Starr to release the track.

Patrick Grant

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One thought on “Avant-Garde a Clue

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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