"Carnival of Light" is an unreleased experimental piece by The Beatles. It was recorded on 5 January 1967, after the vocal overdubbing sessions for the song "Penny Lane". The track was created for The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an event held at the Roundhouse Theatre on 28 January and 4 February 1967.
The genesis of the track came in December 1966 from designer David Vaughan (part of the designer trio Binder, Edwards & Vaughan), who had recently painted a psychedelic design on a piano owned by Paul McCartney. About the same time as he delivered the piano to McCartney's Cavendish Avenue address, he asked if McCartney would contribute a musical piece for the upcoming The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave. To Vaughan’s surprise McCartney agreed to make a contribution.
The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave (sometimes referred to as The Carnival of Light Rave) was an art festival organised by Binder, Edwards & Vaughan as a showcase for electronic music and light shows. It was held at the Chalk Farm Road Roundhouse Theatre and featured on the bill not only a public playing of 'Carnival of Light' but performances by Unit Delta Plus, whose members included early electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and fellow electronic artist Peter Zinovieff. "Carnival of Light" was created for this event.
Recording and mix
Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, who listened to the song in 1987 while compiling his book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, says the song included "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 strange of all, John Lennon and McCartney screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like 'Are you alright?' and 'Barcelona!'"
Barry Miles, the official McCartney biographer, wrote in Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now that the song had "no rhythm, although a beat is sometimes established for a few bars by the percussion or a rhythmic pounding piano. There is no melody, although snatches of a tune sometimes threaten to break through."
"I said all I want you to do is just wander around all the stuff, bang it, shout, play it, it doesn't need to make any sense. Hit a drum, then wander onto the piano, hit a few notes and just wander around," said McCartney in November 2008.
The basic bed track of an organ playing bass notes and drums was recorded at a slow speed, giving them a deeper sound. There is also a huge amount of reverb used on the instruments and on Lennon's and McCartney's vocals (the only two voices on the track); Lennon and McCartney also recorded Native American war cries, whistling, close-miked gasping, genuine coughing and fragments of studio conversation. Other overdubs to the song include bursts of guitar feedback, schmaltzy cinema organ, snatches of jangling pub piano and electronic feedback with Lennon shouting 'Electricity!'. The track concludes with McCartney asking the studio engineer in an echo-soaked voice, "Can we hear it back now?"
Also, according to Barry Miles, musically it "resembles "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" from Frank Zappa 's Freak Out! album, except there is no rhythm and the music ... is more fragmented, abstract and serious."
Dudley Edwards (one of the organizers of The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave and friend of McCartney's) said that an early take of "Fixing a Hole" (from Sgt. Pepper's) with a piano appeared during the song. It is unlikely that a sample of an early take was heard since the recording of "Fixing a Hole" did not commence until five days after the last The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, but it is not impossible that McCartney played a few bars of the song on the track.
Some reports indicate that it is around fourteen minutes long and Paul McCartney has said it was around fifteen minutes. In The Complete Beatles Chronicle it is listed as lasting 13 minutes and 48 seconds.
Although Lewisohn's book says that a rough mono mix was given to Vaughan, Miles claims that the mix down “was made with full stereo separation, and is an exercise in musical layers and textures”. Whether a second mix was made after the event or Vaughan was in fact given a stereo mix which was not logged in Abbey Road’s records is unspecified. Edwards has said the tape was taken to America by one Ray Anderson (who was brought over from the U.S. to assist with the light show). The master session tapes of Carnival of Light are still at Abbey Road Studios.
"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' ("I 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.
A minute-long mp3 file of backwards, sped up electric guitar noises showed up on file-sharing networks under the title of "Carnival of Light." However, this track was a misnamed partial track (originally 1 minute 9 seconds long) by the Lord of Boothferry, a very keen Beatles-related music collector. It was recorded mid-2000, using a damaged Hondo guitar, on a digital eight-track machine, and was released under a pseudonym on Napster. The track was a response to misnamed files on file-sharing networks that made outrageous claims. Although not released as "Carnival of Light," once circulating the name of the file was changed by various fans to fit descriptions of this unreleased composition. A follow-up track named "Joker's Relief" did not gain such a "following" or misnaming.
Since then, particularly in the wake of McCartney's announcement that he would release the track, multiple other faked constructions of the song have surfaced on YouTube and other such sites; some use samples from The Beatles recordings to create a more realistic interpretation of the track.
Recorded: 5 January 1967
Genre: Psychedelic rock
Length: 13:48 (approximately)
Producer: George Martin