[23 November 2009]
This book hit the mid-1990s pop-cultural scene like a bolt from the blue. A quarter of a century since they was Fab, it might have seemed that everything worth saying about the Beatles had already been said, several times.
Browsing the shelves of your local chain bookstore’s music section, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no shortage of Beatles books; in fact, you might easily get the impression that there are far too many. But where most of these repeat the same tried old stories without kindling any new spark of interest, Ian MacDonald’s words leap off the page with a freshness and sense of excitement reminiscent of, say, the opening seconds of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
Amid a slew of biographies, memoirs, chronologies, and cut-and-paste hack jobs, this book stands out as a lamentably rare study of the Beatles’ music, or—as MacDonald invariably puts it—the records the group made, their “buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs”.
A chronological song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ output, Revolution in the Head manages to achieve that rarest of feats: to transcend merely being an excellent study of its subject, and instead emerge as a worthwhile cultural artifact in its own right. Scholarly yet irreverent, highly serious but always richly entertaining, the book not only sends the reader back to the music it describes, but also repays repeated readings.
Every official Beatles recording is covered, some songs’ entries rolling on for a number of pages, some dismissed with just one desultory paragraph. MacDonald pulls off a number of simultaneous balancing acts, each of which, on their own, would be deserving of acclaim. He achieves a remarkable blend of concision and comprehensiveness, many entries managing to cram an immensity of insight and information into a very short space; yet this density of content is delivered with a lightness of touch which makes for a seductively easy read. He focuses foremost on the Beatles’ music, but also offers up a range of thematic perspectives: from musical theory to socio-cultural analysis, from the groups and records which influenced the Beatles to fleeting biographical vignettes which, by combining penetrating insight with elegantly vivacious language, add up to far more than the sum of their parts.
MacDonald’s style is difficult to satisfactorily describe. If you insisted on trying to unpick it, you could say it encompasses elements of academic, musicological, and—pace Frank Zappa—what might best be described as ‘classic rock critical’ modes. It’s simultaneously refined and gritty, frequently poetic, occasionally flamboyant, more often elegantly understated.
A classic example, of MacDonald’s literary style and his critical pugnacity, is the entry on “A Day in the Life”. MacDonald’s assessment of the song’s importance within the Beatles’ canon, and his intriguingly incisive dissection of (some of) its layers of meaning, is preceded by a warning that “more nonsense has been written about this recording than anything else The Beatles produced.” MacDonald refutes a number of myths surrounding the song, including the idea that it represents “a sober return to the real world after the drunken fantasy of ‘Pepperland’”, or “an evocation of a bad trip”, or even “a morbid celebration of death”.
Rather, this sometimes sombre but always ethereally beautiful track—which Macdonald hails as the group’s “finest single achievement”—is, essentially, a “song about perception”:
A song not of disillusionment with life itself but of disenchantment with the limits of mundane perception, A DAY IN THE LIFE depicts the ‘real’ world as an unenlightened construct that reduces, depresses, and ultimately destroys. In the first verse - based, like the last, on a report in the Daily Mail for 17th January 1967 - Lennon refers to the death of Tara Browne, a young millionaire friend of The Beatles and other leading English groups. On 18th December 1966, Browne, an enthusiast of the London counterculture and, like all its members, a user of mind-expanding drugs, drove his light blue Lotus Elan at high speed through red lights in South Kensington, smashing into a parked mini-van and killing himself. Whether or not he was tripping at the time is unknown, though Lennon clearly thought so. Reading the report of the coroner’s verdict, he recorded it in the opening verses of A DAY IN THE LIFE, taking the detached view of the onlookers whose only interest was in the dead man’s celebrity. Thus travestied as a spectacle, Browne’s tragedy became meaningless - and the weary sadness of the music which Lennon found for his lyric displays a distance that veers from the dispassionate to the unfeeling.
At one level, A DAY IN THE LIFE concerns the alienating effects of ‘the media’. On another, it looks beyond what the Situationists called ‘the society of the Spectacle’ to the poetic consciousness invoked by the anarchic wall-slogans of May 1968 in Paris (e.g., ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’). Hence the sighing tragedy of the verses is redeemed by the line ‘I’d love to turn you on’, which becomes the focus of the song. The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful. In this perspective, the two rising orchestral glissandi may be seen as symbolising simultaneously the moment of awakening from sleep and a spiritual ascent from fragmentation to wholeness, achieved in the resolving E major chord. How the group themselves pictured these passages is unclear, though Lennon seems to have had something cosmic in mind, requesting from Martin ‘a sound like the end of the world’ and later describing it as ‘a bit of a 2001’. All that is certain is that the final chord was not, as many have since claimed, meant as an ironic gesture of banality or defeat. (It was originally conceived and recorded—Beach Boys style—as a hummed vocal chord.) In early 1967, deflation was the last thing on The Beatles’ minds—or anyone else’s, with the exception of Frank Zappa or Lou Reed. Though clouded with sorrow and sarcasm, A DAY IN THE LIFE is as much an expression of mystic-psychedelic optimism as the rest of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The fact that it achieves its transcendent goal via a potentially disillusioning confrontation with the ‘real’ world is precisely what makes it so moving.
It should be made clear, also, that the paragraphs quoted above have been excerpted from the several pages MacDonald devotes to “A Day in the Life”. The entry for that song alone is so rich and varied, so liberally studded with telling details, strident opinions, and points for potential discussion, that it probably contains as much wisdom and contention as the average critic could pack into an entire book. It’s not so much food for thought as an intellectual banquet, to be returned to and picked over for weeks, if not years, to come.
The key word is ‘opinion’. MacDonald’s opinions are frequently contentious, and always delivered with conviction. This is a book written by someone who is a Beatles fan, but one who is also, above all, writing as a critic. MacDonald’s passion for the music of the Beatles resonates throughout, but he brings plentiful amounts of objective appraisal to bear upon what he considers to be their lesser achievements. If, when assessing the recorded output of the Beatles, ‘lesser achievement’ must always be considered a highly qualified term, MacDonald doesn’t waste any time dwelling on such relativistic niceties: he routinely states his opinions as though they were incontrovertible facts. Which is just as it should be; who wants to read a book full of caveats and imho’s?
MacDonald has a lot to say about this music, most sensible readers will probably agree with a good deal of it, and in any case half the fun is in having your own opinions contested. The better the critic, the more the reader is likely to find himself equally enjoying agreeing or disagreeing with him. This is one of the keys to the book’s success. As UK newspaper The Guardian wrote, “What could have been a dry task instead produced a volume so engagingly readable, so fresh in its perceptions and so enjoyable to argue with that, in an already overcrowded field, it became an immediate hit.”
This can lead to long-term fans potentially having some of their preconceptions challenged. Rare isthe Beatles fan who wouldn’t rank “A Day in the Life” very highly; even so, lodging the straight-faced claim that it’s “their finest single achievement”, is still a bold statement. And using unqualified terms such as “the message is…” runs the risk of seeming arrogant, didactic, or just plain wrong. It’s a testament to the quality of MacDonald’s work that such robust opinions never stick in the reader’s throat.
On the other hand, consider MacDonald’s critique of “Across the Universe”:
After the aggressive sarcasm of I AM THE WALRUS, it is sad to find Lennon, some months and several hundred acid trips later, chanting this plaintively babyish incantation. [...] Lennon was impressed with this lyric, trying on several later occasions to write in the same metre. Sadly, its amorphous pretensions and listless melody are rather too obviously the products of acid grandiosity rendered gentle by sheer exhaustion. [...] While a Beatle, Lennon was rarely boring. He made an unwanted exception with this track.
It’s a characteristically trenchant dismissal of a song many readers might wish to defend. But, crucially, even the most indulgent tolerator of the Let It Be album’s many over-eggings, will at least grant MacDonald a fair hearing. It’s a sign of how persuasive a critic he is that the impulse is not to scoff at his harsh assessment, but to feel impelled to at least think twice before moving on. A critic who simply sets out to be controversial for controversy’s sake, quickly becomes wearisome; conversely, a really effective critic – and few can compete with MacDonald in this regard – can make you think more when you are disagreeing with him than when he is merely reinforcing your existing opinions.
An updated edition of Revolution in the Head was published in 1997, covering the Beatles material released since the book’s original publication in 1994, notably the Anthology series, “Free as a Bird”, “Real Love”, and The Beatles at the BBC. A second revised edition, published in 2003, included numerous minor amendments, taking account of newly available information, such as the detailed discussions of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting practices contained in Barry Miles’s McCartney biography, Many Years From Now, which had itself been published in 1997.
Fans of the 1990s Beatles records won’t find much comfort here. The opening sentence of the short section devoted to assessing them sets the tone: “The Beatles’ post-Beatles story is, on the whole, unedifying.” MacDonald acknowledges that “most Beatles fans will be restless until they own these discs”, but warns that “they are unlikely to take them off their shelves very often.”
Overall, MacDonald says, the “money-spinning additions to the Parlaphone/Apple discography during 1994-96 are hard to justify artistically”, with the Anthology series having been particularly ill-conceived:
Once the decision had been taken to attempt a ghost outline of the Beatles’ career—putting in tracks at regular intervals to give the impression of a continuous documentary, rather than selecting the twenty or so unreleased songs and takes which would have sufficed to complete the group’s story—padding became inevitable, and ever more blatantly resorted to as the Anthology series progressed.
Noting that there were a number of outtakes which should have been included but were omitted—“Carnival of Light”, for example, or “the original extended version” of “Revolution”—MacDonald writes that much of what was included was filler, and “little of it is worth a second listen”. Some of the Anthology tracks do get their own entries in the main section of the book, though these are rarely enthusiastic. “If You Got Trouble”, included on Anthology 2, for instance, is referred to as “the only unmitigated disaster in the Lennon-McCartney catalogue”.
MacDonald’s song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ records takes up the bulk of the book. But it is preceded by an introductory essay, “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade”, which sets the Beatles in historical and cultural context, and represents an attempt at resolving a central paradox arising from the group’s relationship with the decade they did so much to define: with the passing of time, The Beatles’ reputation has only become more and more enshrined and unimpeachable, yet the decade they were so much a part of has become reviled, despised and so misunderstood that it has effectively become ‘lost’.
At the time, MacDonald says, “the spirit of that era disseminated itself across generations, suffusing the Western world with a sense of rejuvenating freedom comparable to the joy of being let out of school early on a sunny afternoon.” But the decade has since become a key battleground for what are sometimes known as the ‘Culture Wars’, right-wing politicians and commentators seeking to blame all of modern society’s ills on the ‘permissive’ 1960s.
Conversely, many on the Left have long sought explanations for how (and why) the various ‘revolutions’ and ‘movements’ of the ‘60s failed, and these questions have fuelled some of the most interesting political fiction written about the era, notably Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 book Vineland, which shares many of MacDonald’s themes, as does Pynchon’s recent, semi-autobiographical ‘psychedelic noir’ novel, Inherent Vice.
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.