'Revolution in the Head; The Beatles' Records and the Sixties' by Ian MacDonald

by John Carvill

23 November 2009


MacDonald has very little sympathy for the Right's reductive and revisionist view of the '60s

It’s obvious that MacDonald has very little sympathy for the Right’s reductive and revisionist view of the ‘60s, but readers looking for a robust defence of the idealistic impulses of the hippies and radicals whose sensibilities came to be seen as broadly representative of the generational spirit of the times, may also be disappointed. He certainly has plenty of positive things to say about them, especially when considered next to later social groups who looked on them with aggressive yet uncomprehending disdain:

The hippie outlook, if so heterogeneous a group can be said to have cleaved to one position, was by no means flippant. Theirs was a kaleidoscopically inventive culture, actively devoted to the acquisition of self-knowledge and the promotion of fundamental social change. In rejecting the hippies, the punks of 1976-7 discarded only a caricature, coming nowhere near an adequate grasp of what they imagined they were rebelling against.

But, as with his assessments of the Beatles’ records, MacDonald doesn’t hesitate to decry the more negative aspects of the young radicals of the era, noting that “the late ‘60s’ youth rebellion declined into an ugly farce of right-on rhetoric and aimless violence”. However, he also reminds us that “it would be a gross distortion to pretend that this was not substantially provoked by the stone-faced repressive arrogance of the establishment in those days.”

MacDonald’s thesis is a complex one, and can’t be easily summarised. At its heart is his assertion that the “real movers and shakers” of the ‘60s were not the student demonstrators, flower children, or ‘beautiful people’, but the greater mass of “ordinary people”. The “true revolution” of the 1960s was “an inner one of feeling and assumption: a revolution in the head.” The ‘60s were, MacDonald points out, a transitional phase, rife with paradoxes and contradictions, not least that the social trends that seemed to sustain the more radical elements, were the very same forces which led to a fragmentation of consensus and rise of materialistic individualism, paving the way for “Margaret Thatcher’s deregulated anti-society” in the 1980s:

The truth is that the ‘60s inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.

A more bitter irony is that the Punks of the late 70s, and indeed the Thatcherites and Reaganites who dominated the zeitgeist of the 1980s, had a lot more in common with the real spirit of the decade they so despised than they could ever bring themselves to realise:

The irony of modern right-wing antipathy to the ‘60s is that this much-misunderstood decade was, in all but the most superficial senses, the creation of the very people who voted for Thatcher and Reagan in the Eighties. It is, to put it mildly, curious to hear Thatcherites condemn a decade in which ordinary folk for the first time aspired to individual self-determination and a life of material security within an economy of high employment and low inflation. The social fragmentation of the Nineties which rightly alarms conservatives was created neither by the hippies (who wanted us to ‘be together’) nor by the New Left radicals (all of whom were socialists of some description).

So far as anything in the ‘60s can be blamed for the demise of the compound entity of society it was the natural desire of the ‘masses’ to lead easier, pleasanter lives, own their own homes, follow their own fancies and, as far as possible, move out of the communal collective completely. The truth is that, once the obsolete Christian compact of the Fifties had broken down, there was nothing - apart from, in the last resort, money - holding Western civilisation together. Indeed, the very labour-saving domestic appliances launched onto the market by the ‘60s’ consumer boom speeded the melt-down of communality by allowing people to function in a private world, segregated from each other by TVs, telephones, hi-fi systems, washing-machines and home cookers. (The popularity in the Eighties of the answering machine - the phone-call you don’t have to reply to - is another sign of ongoing desocialisation by gadgetry.)

It’s a persuasive view, though perhaps not one to win MacDonald any new friends on either side of the ideological divide. One of the subtlest strands of his argument concerns the relationship between the way social and cultural changes were accelerated (and even brought about) by modern technologies of convenience, and the impact of technology on the art of popular music, all of which are depicted as part of a steady cultural decline:

“The destabilising social and psychological evolution witnessed since the ‘60s stems chiefly from the success of affluence and technology in realising the desires of ordinary people. The countercultural elements usually blamed for this were in fact resisting an endemic process of disintegration with its roots in scientific materialism. Far from adding to this fragmentation, they aimed to replace it with a new social order based on either love-and-peace or a vague anarchistic European version of revolutionary Maoism. When contemporary right-wing pundits attack the ‘60s, they identify a momentous overall development but ascribe it to the very forces which most strongly reacted against it. The counterculture was less an agent of chaos than a marginal commentary, a passing attempt to propose alternatives to a waning civilisation.

Ironically, the harshest critics of the ‘60s are its most direct beneficiaries: the political voices of materialistic individualism. Their recent contribution to the accelerated social breakdown inaugurated around 1963—economic Darwinism wrapped in self-contradictory socio-cultural prejudices—hasn’t helped matters, yet even the New Right can’t be held responsible for the multifocal and fragmented techno-decadence into which the First World is currently sinking as if into a babbling, twinkling, micro electronically pulsing quicksand. In the Nineties, the fashion is to reprove others for our own faults; yet even if we take the blame for ignoring our limitations and eroding our own norms over the last thirty years, it is hard to imagine much, short of fascism or a Second Coming, that will put Humpty back together again.

It’s not a cheerful outlook, but it would be hard to argue that it is not based on certain irrefutable truths. That the twin phenomena of ‘The Beatles’ and ‘The ‘60s’ were integral to one another is a theme which runs right through MacDonald’s book. With subtle vehemence, he uses the records the group made to illustrate just how harmoniously in tune with their times the Beatles were, and how they had a significant hand in shaping those times, playing a role which was broadly similar to that played in America by Bob Dylan, although the Beatles had a much more globally pervasive effect. The Beatles changed the world; sometimes—maybe even mostly—when they weren’t even trying to:

Indeed, the American folk-protest movement had thrust plain speaking so obtrusively into the pop domain that every transient youth idol was then routinely interrogated concerning his or her ‘message’ to humanity. If it has any message at all, that of I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND is ‘Let go - feel how good it is’. This though (as conservative commentators knew very well) implied a fundamental break with the Christian bourgeois status quo. Harbouring no conscious subversive intent, The Beatles, with this potent record, perpetrated a culturally revolutionary act. As the decade wore on and they began to realise the position they were in, they began to do the same thing more deliberately.

It would be a mistake, though, to portray this as a ‘political’ book, or even one whose central concern was pop-cultural theorising. But neither is it one which falls into the trap of viewing the Beatles’ records in isolation: to the extent that MacDonald does indulge in cultural and political analyses, it’s because of the central importance of the Beatles’ music to their era. Equally, their era fuelled the spirit of their music, as did the (now antiquated-seeming) recording technology which prevailed at the time. Just as advances in technology gave rise to the social forces which led to a decline in the established ideas of ‘society’ and ‘convention’, analogous technological developments resulted in more formulaic, less emotionally expressive music.

As MacDonald notes, the “differences between ‘60s pop and what came after it are epitomised by the loss of one vital element: the unexpected”, technological advances resulting in the “gradual replacement of expressive skills by technical ones—the decline in subtlety of songwriting and instrumental finesse mirrored by a monstrous efflorescence of boffin expertise in sound manufacture and studio-craft.” ‘60s music was usually recorded live (albeit with overdubs optionally added afterwards), meaning the “music’s textures breathed, creating a space around the instruments and voices which, along with the ambience of valve amps and mixing desks, produced a vivid, atmospheric sound rarely captured in the clean digital recordings of today.”

Although MacDonald’s multi-faceted theories on the legacy of the ‘60s are valuable and incisive, the vast majority of the text is made up of concise yet wide-ranging descriptions of the Beatles’ music. The reader is compelled to come back and re-read any number of entries, not just to soak up more of the facts and insights, but to enjoy the elegance of the writing, to nod in heartfelt agreement (and, now and then, to reluctantly dissent), or just to indulge in the reveries this truly great book inspires.

It’s a book that demands to be read, and its many pleasures cannot be adequately summed up. A fairly representative sample might be this, the final paragraph in MacDonald’s description of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”:

In the end, the most purely Lennonian aspect of HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN is its extreme ambiguity. From an initial mood of depression, it ascends through irony, self-destructive despair, and obscurely renewed energy to a finale that wrests exhausted fulfilment from anguish. Grippingly uneasy listening, the track’s tense blend of sarcasm and sincerity stays unresolved until its final detumescent downbeat.

Elsewhere, in the entry for the title track of the Help! album, what MacDonald has to say about the finishing touches made to the song by The Beatles could, without too much adjustment, be taken as a pretty accurate metaphor for what MacDonald himself does with his writing:

To finish, Starr overdubbed tambourine, and Harrison taped his guitar part, descending at the end of each chorus on a cross-rhythm arpeggio run in the style of Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins. (This, and Starr’s straight-quaver fills against the song’s fast shuffle beat, are good examples of the group’s care in painting characterful touches into every corner of their best work.)

Every corner of this book is filled with characterful touches. You can look, but you will not find this level of writing in any other Beatles book.

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