When I first ‘got’ The Beatles – who let’s be honest, especially if you grew up in Liverpool in that weird hinterland between their actual existence as a performing outfit and their return with the Anthology series, were once widely regarded by a younger generation as the naffest of the naff – it wasn’t because of ‘quality songwriting’ or their being a ‘great live band’ or being credited with inventing thousands of things that they actually didn’t or any of the slightly patronising and boring pretexts on which they are sold back to us now. It was because of the weird noises whizzing around in songs like Only A Northern Song and Tomorrow Never Knows, which caught my imagination in a way I still find exciting even now and hinted at a side to sixties arts and culture that always seemed to be missed out of those TV Times features that said ‘Flower Power’ in big silly lettering next to a photo of Alan Tracy. It was largely because of this that I later became very interested indeed in that side of sixties art and culture, and the reason that I will now happily assert that the best Solo Beatle album is Paul McCartney’s score from the 1966 comedy drama The Family Way, no matter how much derision that may attract from the sort of people who will never cease to play the first couple of bars of Imagine on any unattended piano while pulling a smug ‘…see?’ expression at everyone who is having to listen to them out of politeness. Not for nothing do I only half-jokingly claim that my favourite Beatle is George Martin.
If I’m honest, I’m actually more fascinated by the earlier phase of their career these days, when they rewrote the rulebook for pop music and Light Entertainment not by turning on tuning in and dropping out but by being nice clean cut presentable young men with a way with a decent tune, a keen sense of humour, and a willingness to get their hands dirty and lark about on variety tours and in panto if it got them enough exposure; indeed, no matter how many establishment blowhards might have derided them as long-haired layabouts at the time, there’s possibly not a band in the entire sixties that can rival The Beatles for sheer hard work. There is, however, one aspect of their experimental phase that still fascinates and intrigues me, and that’s Carnival Of Light, their legendary unreleased and almost entirely unheard electronic sound collage from early 1967. I’m not using ‘unreleased’ in a retrospective sense there either; it’s somehow mysteriously bypassed every possible opportunity for release, from the Anthology project, through Paul’s repeated statements of intention to do something with it in his latest multimedia project, through to – staggeringly – the fiftieth anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while every last tedious take of George falling through the bar during Within You Without You blares out from every streaming service available ten thousand times over.
What annoys me about this isn’t the decision of The Beatles themselves (though clearly not Paul) not to allow its release, however hypocritical or nonsensical the purported reasons may be. Nor the presumable mess of legal complications and counter-complications that are no doubt playing their part; The Businessman In His Suit And Tie has committed worse crimes than simply doing his job. It’s more the attitude of those who feel that because they aren’t interested, nobody should be interested, and therefore nobody should get to hear it. The frustrating if understandable – if sometimes disingenuous – reasons why it has been omitted from various releases are considered in the actual piece, but right here I’d like to say a special hello – and presumably goodbye – to the online blowhards scoffing about how it’s all just noise to them lol lol crying laughing emoji etc. Even now, any mention of Carnival Of Light guarantees at least one response along the lines of ‘well I don’t think it will be that interesting so maybe best left in the vaults eh?’, which they may think makes them look edgy and intellectual and ‘sophisticated’, but in actuality renders them little better than the door-headbutters who tried to demand three and a half pence of their licence fee back when BBC Four broadcast a performance of John Cage’s 4’33. It smacks of a woeful misunderstanding of and lack of interest in one of the primary motives behind The Beatles and their remarkable career – even in the Hamburg days they were going to see avant-garde art installations, Ringo and all – and above all else indicates that those doing the scoffing never actually sat through 12-Bar Original. Either that, or they didn’t have a problem with it escaping from ‘the vaults’ without actually being that interesting, but let’s not go crazy overboard with the outrageous accusations here.
Anyway, given that it involved The Beatles, Pop Art, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and London’s early psychedelic/avant-garde arts circuit, I’d managed almost by accident to gather together a good deal of thoughts and detail about Carnival Of Light without actually having heard it. I’d never really thought of doing anything with any of this, mainly because there are bigger and better Beatles experts than me out there who have actually heard it (though I was recently thrilled to be able to help Mark Lewisohn with tracking down the origins of the ‘Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles’ gag), but I was finally pushed into action by its omission from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reissue, and essentially throw down a gauntlet by proving that it’s a lot more interesting even just on an artistic level than snorting forum types might thing. Essentially asking ‘Can we hear it back now?’. So can we?
I’d also like to add that a while back, I was extensively quoted by the national press for snapping when Boris Johnson dribbled that London was the ‘making’ of The Beatles and replying “No Boris, London wasn’t the ‘making’ of The Beatles, George Martin was – there’s a massive difference”. He’d probably scoff at Carnival Of Light too, so if you want a yardstick, there you go.
Incidentally, there’s an expanded version of this – featuring more of my theories on where parts of Carnival Of Light might have ended up, and further background on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Carnival Of Light is probably the most obscure track The Beatles ever recorded. Specifically created for a live art installation, it was heard twice in public and has never resurfaced. Not even on the newly-released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ‘Sessions’ box set, despite that being precisely where and when it was put down on tape. You could be forgiven for assuming that it’s just an unimportant studio offcut and that if it was of any point or value whatsoever we’d have heard it by now. You’d be wrong, though, as it’s also the subject of one of the most interesting stories in the Beatles’ entire history. If you’re interested in the mid-sixties counterculture and its associated artistic innovations rather than sex, drugs and indeed literally rock’n’roll, that is.
Carnival Of Light was The Beatles’ contribution to an event called The Million Volt Light And Sound Rave, held at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm on 28th January and 4th February 1967, and it’s the chain of events behind that hazardously-named ‘happening’ that explain just why it is a little-explored corner of their work that deserves more exploration. It’s depressingly common for articles about The Beatles to discuss them as if they were acting in complete isolation from anything else that was going on in ‘the sixties’, rather than the fulcrum around which hundreds of musical and artistic endeavours pivoted and vice versa, and that their mid-sixties experimentalism had absolutely no connection to their earlier cleaner-cut incarnation. How many reviews of the new box set, for example, will talk of the album as though it appeared as if by magic and not even touch on such fascinating details as the fact that “it’s getting better all the time” was the catchphrase of short-stay Beatle Jimmie Nicol, who replaced an incapacitated Ringo on one of the Australian tours and who also later performed similar deputising duties for The Dave Clark 5 – it’s a wonder they didn’t keep him frankly; or that George Martin very deliberately lifted the audience sounds for the album from his hit recording of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore/Alan Bennett/Jonathan Miller satirical stage revue Beyond The Fringe as he wanted to have a specific ‘kind’ of audience reacting; or the stray chortle that appears partway through the title track, which McCartney asked for because he remembered always being fascinated by radio comedy audiences laughing at things that listeners at home couldn’t see; or the band specifically getting their old Hamburg mates Sounds Incorporated – a now largely forgotten instrumental outfit with a full brass section who had minor success throughout the sixties with alarming takes on the likes of the William Tell Overture and Hall Of The Mountain King – in to do suitably vulgar and blaring brass on Good Morning Good Morning rather than reaching for the nearest in-house session musicians? Probably about as many as will comment on the absence of Carnival Of Light, if we’re being honest about it. It came about as the direct result of their association with a wider artistic scene, though, and there’s a strong case for arguing that it had an important and immediate effect on the album that they were about to make.
Throughout 1966, London’s experimental art community – the word ‘psychedelic’ would not come to be commonly used until late in the year – had started to converge on a number of venues; firstly the Spontaneous Underground events held at The Marquee on Sunday afternoons, closely followed by the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road, and The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. A number of bands quickly found favour on this circuit, including the likes of Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Move, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, alongside the less well known likes of The Smoke, The Purple Gang, The Flies, The Riot Squad, Tomorrow and any given combination of Liverpool Poets Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, Roger McGough and their guitar-playing associate Andy Roberts. Many of these bands were given to indulging in extended free-form instrumentals, often with electronic effects, while the lab-coated free-jazz outfit AMM went even further and dispensed with any notions of actual song structure, concentrating on creating soundscapes with a combination of amplified instruments and transistor radios. However, these were never simply musical events, and usually involved elements of multimedia, stage theatrics and performance art, the latter often provided by a certain Yoko Ono. With his then-significant other Jane Asher, Paul McCartney was a regular at such venues and events, particularly Spontaneous Underground, and was no doubt left feeling sufficiently inspired to want to join in. That opportunity would come about through the unlikely route of buying a piano.
The main driving force behind The Million Volt Light And Sound Rave was David Vaughan, who with Doug Binder and Dudley Edwards made up BEV, a Swinging London-based design group who specialised in psychedelic murals with a pronounced and distinctive pop-art influence. Amongst those who employed BEV’s services were The Kinks, Carnaby Street boutique Lord John, and infamous socialite Tara Browne, who would later provide the unfortunate inspiration for the opening verse of A Day In The Life. Late in 1966, Paul McCartney engaged BEV to decorate a piano for him, and when they delivered the alarmingly-hued finished article, Vaughan took the chance to ask if he or The Beatles would be interested in contributing something towards an electronic light and sound showcase they were planning. To his surprise, McCartney agreed enthusiastically, and on 5th January 1967, at the end of a session dedicated to overdubbing vocals onto the forthcoming single Penny Lane, The Beatles set to work in Abbey Road Studio 2.
Cobbled together from descriptions given by various individuals who have actually heard it – notably Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn and McCartney’s friend and biographer (and, at the time, owner of focal point of the ‘Underground’ scene The Indica Gallery and Bookshop, and organiser of several similar events himself) Barry Miles – it appears that Carnival Of Light runs more or less along the following lines. Over a backing of organ and drums, recorded at a high speed to give an unnatural lower pitch and time distortion effect when played back, and overdubbed with church organ, frenetic tambourine and distorted electric guitar, McCartney and Lennon engage in seemingly random outbursts of echo-drenched proclamations, while various taped sound effects are cued in with equal spontaneity. The latter reportedly included gurgling water, pub piano, cinema organ and feedback, while the former include such meaningful interjections as “are you alright?” and “Barcelona!”, in amongst a cacophony of whistling, chanting and random fragments of studio chatter, including at least one quite understandable coughing fit, and ending with an echo-saturated McCartney asking “can we hear it back now?”. According to Miles, who was very much in tune with this style of making music, there is no conventional structure, and it simply moves between different tempos and hints of melody on a whim; it’s clear that he actually considers this to be a good thing, incidentally. Some sources including Dudley Edwards have also claimed that it included a brief performance of Fixing A Hole; while it seems odd that Lewisohn would not have noted this detail, it is also entirely possible that McCartney may have appended a home demo of the song to the tape that was actually used at the event (recording of Fixing A Hole itself did not actually begin until 9th February). Incidentally, it’s worth pondering on whether Berserk, a truly alarming early Blur b-side, might have been at least partially based on the description of Carnival Of Light given in Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.
Recorded in one take and running to thirteen minutes and forty eight seconds, the resultant mono mixdown (though Miles maintains there was also a stereo mix) reportedly failed to impress George Martin. It also, more surprisingly, proved underwhelming to David Vaughan, who had apparently been hoping for something more in line with Tomorrow Never Knows and which would have inspired a more spectacular light effect sequence. Nonetheless, Carnival Of Light was duly played in full as part of The Million Volt Light And Sound Rave, alongside a performance by Unit Delta Plus.
Formed in very late 1965, Unit Delta Plus was a collective composed primarily of Peter Zinovieff, developer of the prog rock-favoured VCS3 synthesiser, and Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, with the stated aim of introducing a live performance element into electronic and taped music. Given how the Workshop are often depicted – not least in Doctor Who folklore – as eccentric tech-minded squares, many may be surprised to see Derbyshire and Hodgson’s names mentioned in this context, but the fact of the matter is that they were young cutting-edge musicians very much involved in London’s arts scene, and took part in a number of similar ‘happenings’ around this time. Indeed, there were numerous multimedia events staged by Unit Delta Plus themselves, after one of which they were introduced to musician David Vorhaus, with whom they would later form the influential electronic rock band White Noise.
Sadly, there is no available indication of what Unit Delta Plus may have performed at the event, nor even who was actually involved; the only clue is that Derbyshire retained a clipping from the Daily Mail about the event in her files, hinting that she may have participated in it. Incidentally, the paper was running their comic strip serialisation of the recently-released Thunderbirds Are Go! on the same page, which has nothing to do with Unit Delta Plus or The Beatles but does at least show what a remarkable time the mid-sixties was for boundary-pushing creative artists. However, other Unit Delta Plus events around the same time are known to have involved Derbyshire’s religiously-themed 1964 sound collage for the BBC Third Programme Amor Dei, Zinovieff’s montage of rhythmic loops Tarantella, an untitled Hodgson piece based around recordings of street sounds and passing conversations, Derbyshire’s celebrated (and at that point unreleased) collaboration with Anthony Newley Moogies Bloogies, which uncannily anticipated the sleazy synth-pop duos of almost twenty years later, and Random Together, in which all three took part in a live unrehearsed mixing of sounds, so it presumably involved some or all of the above in some terrifyingly manipulated capacity.
That’s basically as much as we know about the million volt sounds, but what about the lights? It is known that the event involved four sixty foot-high screens and a bank of sixteen projectors, which changed their output in response to changes in sonic signals, while a further five projectors, hand-operated by Binder, Edwards and Vaughan, provided a series of contrasting and interlocking patterns, but beyond that details are frustratingly elusive. So far it’s proved impossible to locate a decent review of or feature on either performance (and I really have looked), and there appears to be no available photographic evidence, let alone film footage. However, it’s also true to say that there are plenty of photographs – and indeed a small amount of film footage – of similar events held at The Roundhouse, many of them involving giant screens and punters with weird patterns being projected onto them, so it’s possible to make an educated guess at what it might have looked like. Anyway, from the sound of it, you’d have been hard pushed to get a decent sense of what it looked, sounded or felt like without actually having been there.
Nobody seems to know what happened to the fully mixed tape used at the event itself, although McCartney has indicated that he has his own copy, and in any case the multi-track master of Carnival Of Light still exists at Abbey Road. So, why hasn’t it been more widely heard then? Well, nobody really seems to have an answer to that either. Carnival Of Light apparently came very close to appearing on Anthology 2 in 1996, but was vetoed by someone within the Beatles’ inner circle. For once, we can’t just point the finger straight at Yoko Ono – who to be honest probably wouldn’t have had much of an issue with it on musical terms – as by all accounts the main dissenter was George Harrison, who reputedly ‘quipped’ “avant garde a clue” in true Principal Skinner You’ve Been Called The ‘Funny One’ fashion. Given that his two oft-overlooked late sixties solo albums – not to mention his later contributions to The Beatles – were packed to the rafters with avant-garde sounds, this is putting it mildly a little surprising; additionally, you also could argue that the man who inflicted Ding Dong on the world had a bit of a nerve.
Some of those who have heard Carnival Of Light have made comments along the lines of everyone getting excited about something that’s not really that exciting, though you do have to wonder just how familiar or comfortable they may or may not be with that form of off-script music making in the first place. It’s worth noting that the few insiders who had heard Syd Barrett’s long-lost twenty minute free-form instrumental Rhamadan recalled it as somewhat on the tedious side and certainly nothing worth getting worked up about, and fans used to his less inspired studio offcuts didn’t really expect that they were missing out on much either; until it was finally released and everyone realised that it was actually rather good after all. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney continues to enthuse about Carnival Of Light and mention how much he’d love to give it a proper release approximately every three minutes, and on balance he is usually worth listening to about his own music.
What is more mysterious, however, is the fact that Carnival Of Light has consistently failed to appear on bootleg. This could normally be explained away as being due to it only existing as a multitrack tape and that there is nothing to surreptitiously copy, but this is The Beatles we’re talking about, of whom every single other last extant recorded moment from ‘closely guarded’ early rehearsal tapes to head-maddeningly fuzzy microphone-to-TV-speaker recordings of them larking about with now discredited celebrities to outtakes from their Christmas fan club records, has not just escaped but been unofficially copied and ‘released’ millions upon millions of times over. Somebody somewhere at some point must have made a copy of it, so is it possible that Beatle ‘superfans’ are carefully controlling its distribution amongst a small elite to make sure that they remain 100% Officially Best At Liking Beatles? You’re talking to a Doctor Who fan here. Of course that’s bloody happened.
Apparently the reason that Carnival Of Light has been left off the new box set is that producer Giles Martin feels that it “wasn’t part” of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to which we could add a snarky comment about it having been recorded in the same session as a song that wasn’t part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band either but has somehow found its way onto it now. That said, we could also add a more balanced and pertinent comment about how, regardless of its actual musical worth, it quite possibly had some bearing on Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, Lovely Rita, Good Morning Good Morning and A Day In The Life. Whether or not Carnival Of Light really is ‘part’ of the album is a matter of conjecture. What it is part of, though, is a much bigger and more fascinating era of open-mindedness and experimentalism in the popular arts that stretched all the way from jazz and radio drama to comedy and supermarket own-brand food packaging. It deserves much better than to be left gathering dust in a tape archive. So, please… can we hear it back now?
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with more background on the London psychedelic arts scene and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and some more theories on where Carnival Of Light might have ended up being reused, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me chatting to Chris Shaw about the Abbey Road-derived psychedelic splendour of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.