The Beatles, song by song, and much more
Revolution in the Head: The "Beatles" Records and the Sixties - Ian McDonald
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Revolution in the Head: The "Beatles" Records and the Sixties - Ian McDonald
Advantages: Brilliant, painstaking analysis of the Beatles' work, their career and the aftermath
Disadvantages: Really one for the diehard Beatles fan
'Revolution in the Head' was first published in 1994, and an updated version appeared three years later. Ian Macdonald, an assistant editor at 'New Musical Express' in the early 1970s and also the author of a book on Shostakovich, prepared this second fully revised edition which was published in 2005, a couple of years after he sadly took his life following a long struggle with depression. From its first appearance, it was recognised as one of the few essential books about the group and their music. I have yet to see a review anywhere (and there have been many) which does not hail it as one of the few essential books about the group.
The major part of the book consists of an examination of all the songs and tracks they recorded together throughout their career, in chronological order of when they were recorded, with full details of dates of the sessions, and full personnel, with session musicians where relevant - and known. Remarkably, this does not just include the material issued on all the albums and singles between 1962 and 1970, but also all the material left in the can which finally saw the light of day on the three 'Anthology' sets between 1995 and 1996. Among them are Harrison's 'You Know What To Do' from 1964, which features him on all instruments and vocals, and Lennon's largely freeform 'What's The New Mary Jane' from 1968, which he had thought of releasing as a Plastic Ono Band single. (Frankly I think it's so tedious that he was wise not to). Cover versions of songs by others which were a regular feature of the first albums are included, as are songs like 'Teddy Boy' and 'All Things Must Pass', which McCartney and Harrison demoed but later kept for their solo albums. Even 'Carnival Of Light', a totally random ambient sound collage from 1967 which was to appear on 'Anthology' but vetoed by Harrison, gets a couple of pages.
The detail which Macdonald goes into is astonishing. He tells us exactly what make of guitars and what the model numbers were of the instruments they played on 'I Should Have Known Better' (OK, not exactly essential info for all of us), and that the opening chord on 'A Hard Day's Night' is a G11th suspended 4th (there'll be a test on this at the end of class, folks). Yet his approach is not strictly dry facts ad infinitum. It would be a dull book if he did not offer any of his own judgements or opinions. He argues that 'Norwegian Wood' was the first song in which the lyric is more important than the music, and that by the time they released the double A-side single 'We Can Work It Out'/'Day Tripper', Lennon had begun to sense that his musical dominance of the group was over, with McCartney eclipsing him as a songwriter and in effect musical director of the group - a role which would become more pronounced after manager Brian Epstein died and McCartney in effect more or less took over that role in all but name until Allen Klein appeared. He also calls George Harrison's sinister 'Piggies' 'an embarrassing blot' on the group's discography, 'Helter Skelter' a literally drunken mess, and 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' by far McCartney's worst lapse of taste during the group's career. At the same time he votes 'Come And Get It', subsequently offered to Badfinger, easily the best unreleased Beatles song - well, until released on 'Anthology 3'. He calls 'I Am The Walrus' Lennon's 'final high tide of inspiration' for the group, and lambasts 'Across The Universe' as a 'plaintively babyish incantation'.
As regards the group's slow death, he admits that McCartney was partly to blame when he failed to block American producer Phil Spector's sickly overdubbing of strings and backing vocals on 'The Long And Winding Road' which was done without consulting him, and that this led to him announcing that he had left The Beatles. However he pulls no punches in criticising Lennon's behaviour over this track and the whole sorry episode that resulted in the release of the 'Let It Be' album. If you ever doubted that the group would have fallen apart after 'Sergeant Pepper' or possibly before it had it not been for McCartney's tireless 'get up and go' principles, this book confirms it. Of course, you can argue that they might have done better to quit while they were at the top of the tree, but that's another argument.
From this, you will have gathered that Macdonald does not merely write about the individual songs. It is prefaced by a 37-page introduction about the advent of the group and the whole social, cultural and political background to the 1960s, and a shorter essay looking back at the Beatles' output in general. In this he makes the point that the group declined sharply into mediocrity, but that it was inevitable as 'age is part of it'. Pop/rock is essentially young people's music, and they had to grow up and settle down. That all four continued to record afterwards indicates that they still had something to offer, and the fact that McCartney is still sustaining a career into his 70s (as is Bob Dylan, and also that we may not have heard the last of The Rolling Stones either) reveals that it is not as clear-cut as that. There is also a detailed examination of 'Anthology', the documentary series and accompanying CDs/DVDs, and analysis of the final two singles, 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' about which he is rather scathing, a chronology of the 1960s in table form, and a full bibliography. Finally, there is a compact discography and also a glossary of musical terms. If the constant references to 'diatonic', 'syncopation' and 'varispeed' in the text baffle you, fear not - they are all explained here.
Macdonald was clearly a fan, and a meticulously informed one who did his research very thoroughly, otherwise he would not have tackled this labour of love. He gives praise where it is due, but he is rightly objective, often critical, pulling no punches as he argues that their material was often flawed and that relations between all four members - and even their attitude to others - could be pretty ugly on occasion. Even the generally mild-mannered George Harrison, when once asked by an engineer in the studio to turn his guitar down slightly, refused with a curt, 'You're talking to a Beatle, you know.' Predictably, perhaps, Lennon emerges as the least pleasant character.
This is not a book for the casual reader, or for somebody who is only slightly interested in the group. Read it and you might begin to feel somewhat all Beatled-out as you reach the last page. But if you regard The Fab Four as more than purveyors of a few good tunes, and - like me - grew up at a time when every new release of theirs was headline news, or alternatively want to know why they still exert such a spell over forty years after they disbanded, this will give you the answers. If you are fascinated by them and their music, this will whet your appetite and surely send you back to listen to the records with fresh ears, as it did with several of the critics who read and reviewed it on its first appearance. It will also be an invaluable book not merely to read cover-t-cover and put back on the shelf, but also to refer back to time and again.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Summary: The Beatles' back catalogue from start to finish, and the cultural climate in which they worked