Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History by Devin McKinney

The attempt is perhaps a vain one, an ambition impossibly grand, one that cannot be reached. The crafting of an intellectual history, a dream history as the title says, an exploration of mass cultural change triggered by the unexpected appearance on the world stage more than 40 years ago of four lads from Liverpool, England. This is what Devin McKinney sets out to do in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, to re-place the greatest band in rock and roll history — perhaps (again that word) in the history of recorded music — within the context of the volatile time in which the band exploded into the public consciousness, changing the band, its four members and everyone forever.

This is a hopelessly lofty goal, so McKinney can be forgiven if he fails to reach its apex. But in aiming so high, in reaching for peaks that ultimately are impossible to reach, he still manages to conjure something important, to get inside the phenomenon of The Beatles in a way the explains their connection to their fans and their growth as artists and the time in which they worked.

Magic Circles is not a biography of the band; it is, rather, a meditation on its music, the epoch and the role these four lads from Liverpool played in the changing times, in the turbulence that the band helped create and that was swirling about it. For McKinney, the band is both he trigger of change and a mirror that reflects the changes, exploding from a still-broken Europe playing American rock ‘n’ roll at breakneck speed and ear-splitting volume. From its earliest moments in Liverpool and then in Hamburg, and then later as fame chased them around the world, across Asia and through the heartland of America, The Beatles were both the artist and the canvas on which the world created its own new mythologies. Later, as he writes, the band helped foster the delusion of peace and love, the simplistic cliché of apathetic hippiedom, drawing the wrath of leftist critics (in this formulation, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the great fake) before catching a whiff of — and casting it in song — the failure that would bring the decade to its painful, unfulfilled end.

Early metaphor — The Beatles grow from “the bog” or “the toilet”, a place of reality and degradation, filth and danger, a milieu that forces a unity on the band that would eventually dissipate. The loud and brutal nightclub scenes of Liverpool with its violent reaction to Britain’s enforced normality, and Hamburg with its darkness, its echoes of failure and death, of the Nazis and defeat compel the five young Beatles (Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best were still with the group; Ringo was yet to sign on) toward something new, something vibrant, something that would eventually drag a generation of Europeans out of its desperation and into a sense of possibility.

“The audience un the Star-Club,” he writes, “by now perhaps halfway through the Beatles’ set, listening harder with every song, holds its breath to see what will happen. “For this is the Beatles’ promise: that something will happen. That there will be that point of breakout, when the noise coming from under the ground thunders through the crust to shake everything free of itself.” It is this promise, this sense of creation, that carries the band through its earliest years. It is almost the converse of punk rock, the sound that will lay waste to the late 1970s. The critic Greil Marcus has described punk rock as a massive negation, a generation hollering “no” at the top of its lungs, a brutal, harsh middle-finger that obliterated what came before. By doing so, Marcus implies, bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash cleared the way for something new, for some kind of new promise.

Swing back 15 years, maybe 20, and you can see The Beatles engaged in the same project, only rather than shouting “no” or trilling out “no future”, as the Sex Pistols would do, The Beatles created the possible, pointed a way toward the new, synthesized the anger and repression, rage and sheer joy of action into something no one had ever heard before. The Beatles were the first punks, the most important punks and nothing that would follow could have the same impact. “They were amalgamated of secret madnesses, hidden toments, the bogs of the Western world in the years of war and after-war; they became dwellers in toilets, hinterlands, undergrounds,” McKinney writes. “They had the monumental audacity to attempt to bring that buried force to the surface, Why? Because such a thing was to be done, and they could do it. And if their action wasn’t total, if they were not committed to realizing the absolute, there would be no point in acting at all.”

Then came the fame and an attempt by the marketplace to co-opt their power, the massive success of their early records, the two films that rise above the motivations of the record company, two films that become more than the simple cash cows. McKinney views the films through the prism of reaction, reading them as Beatle statements on the horrors of fame. A Hard Day’s Night is a fictionalized day in a life of the band at the moment when Beatlemania and image of the screaming preteen girl calcifies into cliché. It reeks of satiric wit, spoofing the fans, the record company and everyone on the outside. Help!, he says, captures something different, taking that reaction a bit farther. While not as consequential as a film, Help! caught the paranoia of The Beatles’ world, telling the story of a band trying to escape the clutches of a fictionalized Asian monarchy bent on the band’s destruction. (McKinney does not delve into the not-so subtle racism at the fim’s core, a racism born of mid-’60s attitudes toward the East.)

The films were just one of many ways in which the band react to the darkness — his account of the band’s tours of Asia and the United States, tours that were met by nasty reactions from the more conservative elements of society, help the reader understand the mental landscape the band must have been slogging through, a landscape that helped create their two finest albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver.

There is a tendency toward overwriting. At one point he describes George Harrison’s contribution to Rubber Soul this way:

“He details in swaggering style the absurd lengths to which people will go to not leave him alone: like a closeted homosexual on a banging binge, he over compensates.”

There is a lot of overcompensating in that paragraph, though not by Harrison. For the most part, however, McKinney catches the sense of underlying desperation and paranoia that was beginning to enter the band’s songs as they entered their more experimental phase, helping to push the decade’s musical soundtrack into newer, more exciting and explosive areas.

And this is what makes McKinney’s book so important. He understands the darkness at the core of The Beatles’ project and is unwilling to settle for the cliché of four happy lads singing in harmony. And as the book moves through changing sounds and changing times, he relates this darkness back, reminds us that the image of a flower-power ’60s that has been ingrained in cliché is a false one.

The book’s most significant chapters are less about The Beatles than about how the band’s image replaced older religious iconography for some, leading to the weird “Paul is dead” cult and the murderous Manson family. It might seem odd to link these two phenomena together, but McKinney makes it clear that the essence of both come from the same basic place, the need to explicate the myth, the “waking dream” of a world devolving, where everything that had been known was no longer knowable.

“1969 was the moment for such myths,” he writes. “Few would say it, but nearly everyone felt it: the end was near. The end of that world which a generation had worked to build for itself, in the process compelling the generations on either side to respond to what that world contained and implied. And many people, eager to cluster into tight, fanatical groups of like minds — cults, in the soon-to-be-common designation — made myths to prepare for and even welcome the end, but mostly to master it by writing their own scenario upon it.”

So we get the Paul-is-dead cult and the Manson cult, one harmless the other murderous, one building its narrative atop the least consequential of hoaxes the other crafting as its story a quest for power, a violent, almost religious world. And both turned to The Beatles for their Ur text, their Holy Bible of sorts.

What the chapter “O.P.D./Deus Est Vivius” shows — though McKinney does not make it explicit — is that the ’60s were really a decade of failure and destruction. Old forms were being torn down, but nothing was being offered in their place. Or nothing real or useful.

The mythology of the ’60s — the flower-power nonsense that characterizes so much of popular memory — was just mythology. The reality was far darker, as The Beatles’ own story shows. The ’60s were a decade of commitment and social change, to be sure, but it also was a decade of violence (church bombings down south), assassination (the Kennedy’s, Dr. King) and excess (the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin). The Beatles, as McKinney shows, were very much a part of these cross-currents, contributing to them with their music (Revolver is as dark and prickly an album as the ’60s produced) and living them via their brushes with the world (the swiping of a lock of Ringo’s hair, the protests against the band in the South and in Asia).

By going beyond biography, by re-placing the band within the context of its time, McKinney helps the reader better understand both the music and the times, making his book one of the more valuable critical histories of the decade yet written.