An unapologetically revisionist, meticulously researched appraisal of The Beatles’ recorded canon and its place in the cultural milieu of the 1960’s.
If one had a mind to, the path from Liverpool to London could likely be paved with the seemingly endless array of tomes that discuss, deconstruct and dissect the formidable output of The Beatles, arguably the most revered and imitated group in the history of popular music. The Fab Four have inspired a seemingly endless array of titles that examine every aspect of the band and its legacy, that not surprisingly run the gamut: amazingly detailed discographies like Bob Spitz’s The Beatles on Apple Records and The Beatles Solo on Apple Records—not to mention his exhaustive and perceptive titular biography; Mark Lewisjohn’s seminal look at the band’s studio process, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions; memoirs by their gifted support personnel (such as Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording The Music Of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick); hatchet jobs such as Albert Goldman’s muckraking The Lives Of John Lennon; and of course The Beatles’ own auto-hagiography, Anthology.
However, if one had to choose a single book that provides the clearest assessment of The Beatles’ achievement (along with sober-minded deflating of some of the band’s most popular numbers) Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records And The Sixties by the late Ian MacDonald would be a strong candidate. A former New Musical Express editor, as well as a musician, composer and producer, MacDonald applies the rigor inherent in each of these disciplines, and holds The Beatles to very high critical standards, indeed. Examining every known recording by the band (including the infamous thirteen-plus minute long “Carnival of Light”) he analyzes each track in terms of the contributions by each writer, melodic approaches taken in its composition, lyrical development, instrumentation and recording technique. He also peers inside the state of mind of each track’s composer(s), offering sometimes surprising but always well-thought out and supportable evaluations of how these states of mind helped bring each song into being.
This is no dry musicological treatise. MacDonald was a gifted and colorful writer, deploying his analysis with a rapier wit and an admirable lack of hero-worship or rose colored nostalgia. Typical is his wry, yet dispassionate take on an early Beatles album track, “All My Loving”:
The innocence of early Sixties British pop is perfectly distilled in the eloquent simplicity of this number. Though never considered for a single, it drew so much radio-play and audience response that, in February 1964 EMI issued it as the title track of a best selling EP…at this stage McCartney regarded Lennon as the leader of the group, a feeling more or less echoed by the record-buying public. With “All My Loving,” he began t be seen as more of an equal with his partner. Meanwhile, The Beatles’ rivals looked on amazed as songs of this commercial appeal were casually thrown away on LPs.
What makes this book a truly engrossing read is that MacDonald has no pretention of neutrality regarding the relative merits of individual Beatles tracks. To MacDonald, much of their work takes its place amongst the greatest achievements in popular music (masterpieces like “A Day In The Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are treated by the author as such); at the same time, many Beatles tracks—including some of their most popular—in MacDonald’s view fail to live up to the high standards set by the artists themselves.
Witness his withering appraisal of what many consider to be one of their great anthems, “All You Need Is Love”:
One of The Beatles’ least deserving hits, Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” owes more of its standing to its local historical associations than to its inspiration, which, as with their other immediate post-Pepper recordings…is desultory. Thrown together…the song is an inelegant structure in alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4, capped by a chorus which…consists largely of a single note…The Beatles were now doing willfully substandard work: paying little attention to musical values and settling for lyric first-thoughts…
Of course, taking issue with such judgments is part of what makes Revolution In The Head such a compelling read. Even as one defers to the logic of his sometimes harsh, yet consistently supported estimations, many readers will find themselves quietly fuming over MacDonald’s evisceration of a cherished track. One of this writer’s favorites from 1969’s Abbey Road, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” is not spared MacDonald’s colorfully conflated dismembering of the song’s conception and execution:
Sexually addicted to [Yoko Ono], he was helplessly dependent, a predicament grindingly explicit in his chord sequence: the sickening plunge from E7 to B flat 7; the augmented A that drags his head up to make him go through it all again; the hammering flat ninth that collapses, spent on the song’s insatiable D minor arpeggio…
Out and out rock Beatles, this is the antithesis of their light pop touch and another of their attempts in the new heavy style…earnest in concept, it is, in the end, bathetic in effect…all told [it] is a bold lunge at something seriously adult which, perhaps doomed by its own desperation, doesn’t quite come off.
Yet, for every sacrifice of a Beatles sacred cow, there are surprisingly idiosyncratic favorable assessments of some of their less appreciated work. Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” frequently derided by many devotees as a boring indulgence in Indian instrumentation and philosophical blather, a “blot on a classic LP,” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) is given a refreshingly revisionist assessment by MacDonald:
…this ambitious essay in cross-cultural fusion and meditative philosophy has been dismissed with a yawn by almost every commentator since it first appeared…[yet] “Within You Without You” is central to the outlook that shaped Sgt. Pepper…
Stylistically, it is the most distant departure from the staple Beatles sound in their discography—and an altogether remarkable achievement for someone who had been acquainted with Hindustani classical music for barely eighteen months.
While such song-by-song analysis take up the lion’s share of Revolution In The Head (and are in fact the most absorbing aspect of the book), the Introduction provides a necessary cultural overview that that provides the sociological component alluded to in the books title. MacDonald means to use the Beatles musical canon to illuminate the importance and impact of the decade in which their work was created. Political upheaval, the rise of the drug culture, changing sexual mores and cultural shifts are seen by MacDonald as being mirrored in the Beatles work, forming a sort of self-propagating loop. Not only did the Beatles reflect the world around them, but they also influenced it like no other pop band before or since. In MacDonald’s words:
The Sixties seem like a golden age to us because, relative to now, they were…now radically disunited, we live dominated by and addicted to gadgets, our raison d’être and sense of community unfixably broken…far away from us on the other side of the sun-flooded chasm of the Sixties—where, courtesy of scientific technology, The Beatles can still be heard singing their buoyant, poignant, hopeful love-advocating songs.
Making this volume even more useful to scholars of popular music, and a boon to younger fans and students, is the books final section, “Chronology: The Sixties” which provides a very helpful timeline of signal moments in the Beatles career and how they coincided with key events in UK Pop, Current Affairs, and Trends in Culture. It is instructive and fascinating, for example, to be reminded the recording of what many consider The Beatles’ finest moment, the 1966 album Revolver, was concurrent with Bob Dylan’s controversial Royal Albert Hall Concert with The Hawks (later The Band), that in the same time frame Chairman Mao declared the beginning of the brutal Cultural Revolution, and the same year also saw the release of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and William Burroughs’s Junkie.
Finally, a handy glossary of the technical and musical terms used in the body of the book brings Revolution In The Head to its conclusion.
Taken as a whole, MacDonald’s examination of the Beatles’ recorded work and what it represented in its own time remains one of the most cohesive and coherent critiques of their oeuvre in pop music literature. Making clear what he regards as the band’s strengths and weaknesses (to the author, they were peerless pop composers and musicians, somewhat less inspiring when they attempted harder material—“Helter Skelter” for example is skewered mercilessly) as well as the triumphs and foibles of the era in which they were created, MacDonald provides a first rate understanding of what the Beatles did along with why and how they did it. And it makes for a revealing, vibrant, and fascinating (if occasionally vexatious) read as well. Highly recommended.
Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records And The Sixties (Third Revised Edition)
Vintage Press, 2009
(Kindle version available online from Amazon.)