On January 5th, 1967, The Beatles assembled in Abbey Road studios while working on lyrics to a song that would eventually be called “Penny Lane”. Paul McCartney asked the other members if he could borrow 10 minutes of their time to experiment with an avant-garde idea he had. He told the men, “All I want you to do is just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it. It doesn’t need to make any sense. Hit a drum, wander to the piano, hit a few notes … and then we put a bit of echo on it. It’s very free.’
What emerged from the session was a 14 minute journey through psychedelia called “Carnival of Light”. The track was originally meant to be released on the Beatles’ Anthology, but was scrapped from the set when other band members thought it wasn’t good enough. However, the legendary underground track may soon see the light of day.
For Beatles fans across the world it has gained near mythical status. The 14-minute improvised track called ‘Carnival of Light’ was recorded in 1967 and played just once in public. It was never released because three of the Fab Four thought it too adventurous.
The track, a jumble of shrieks and psychedelic effects, is said to be as far from the melodic ballads that made Sir Paul McCartney famous as it is possible to imagine. But now McCartney has said that the public will have the chance to judge for themselves.
‘It does exist,’ McCartney says on a BBC Radio 4 arts programme to be broadcast this week. Talking to John Wilson, the presenter of Front Row, the former Beatle confirms that he still has a master tape of the work and says he suspects that ‘the time has come for it to get its moment’.
‘I like it because it’s the Beatles free, going off piste,’ he adds.
In the 40 years since ‘Carnival of Light’ was recorded by McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon in the Abbey Road studios in London, its collection of disparate rhythms has become a kind of holy grail for Beatles obsessives.
The piece was inspired, McCartney says, by the works of composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In his book Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, author Mark Lewisohn – who was played the track in 1987 – describes ‘distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds, a distorted lead guitar, the sound of a church organ, various effects (water gargling was one) and, perhaps most intimidating of all, Lennon and McCartney screaming and bawling random phrases including “Are you all right?” and ‘”Barcelona!”.’
Beatles fans came close to hearing ‘Carnival Of Light’ in 1996 when it was considered for inclusion in the exhaustive Anthology compilation. ‘We were listening to everything we’d every recorded,’ McCartney says. ‘I said it would be great to put this on because it would show we were working with really avant-garde stuff … But it was vetoed. The guys didn’t like the idea, like “this is rubbish”.’
McCartney revealed that George Harrison disparaged sonic experimentation as ‘avant-garde a clue’.
Sir George Martin, the Beatles producer who oversaw the track, has described it as ‘one of those weird things’. ‘It was a kind of uncomposed, free-for-all melange of sound that went on. It was not considered worthy of issuing as a normal piece of Beatles music at the time and was put away.’
I don’t see the harm in publishing the piece. Their experimental period produced some of their greatest music. Even if it is the jumbled mess some people seem to think it is, I think it will at the very least provide a window into the minds of these legendary musicians at a time when they felt free to express themselves outside the confines of typical musical structure.