Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald

I would dip into that book and think, “See now, what’s he got to say about this song?” And he’d go, “This is McCartney’s answer to — ” and I’d go, “No, it wasn’t!” It was just, I just wrote a song.

— Paul McCartney, 2007

Conservatively, hundreds of books have been written about the Beatles. In addition to the plethora of autobiographies and biographies, these include children’s books, at least two separate volumes on the late ’60s “Paul is Dead” hoax, and titles like Earn Extra Money In Your Spare Time Selling Beatles Memorabilia Online. Yet, if necessary, the truly universally essential titles could be grouped into a Nick Hornby-type Top Five, and the late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, originally published in 1994, would be among them.

Why? In short, it’s MacDonald’s ingenious tact of cataloging each of the 188 songs the Fab Four ever released, along with a handful they didn’t, in order of the original date of recording, and writing an individual analysis of each. This setup plays on what Beatles observers love or loathe most about the band — the music, stupid! — and uses it as a springboard for analyzing everything else about the band, including influences on and of, personalities, cultural contexts, relationships, and philosophical musings, rather than vice versa.

More anecdotal than preeminent Beatles nerd Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles Recording Sessions, MacDonald’s chronicle can still get pretty eggheaded when it comes to music theory. If you want to, you can ponder the irony of a band that prided itself on its off-the-cuff working method and relative lack of musical training being analyzed in terms of unresolved dominants, semitones, and the like. But thanks to MacDonald’s acute analysis, it becomes clear that the Beatles’ compositions and arrangements were complex from very early on. In fact, maybe it was this unique combination of rock’n’roll ethos and almost subliminal understanding of rhythm, melody, and harmony that made their best songs sound almost literally magical.

MacDonald invites readers to explore both the minutiae and the broad scope of the Beatles and their music. If it’s your thing, you can follow the twisting and turning time signature of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, measure by measure. Or you can learn how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” inadvertently “perpetrated a culturally revolutionary act” in America. In his preface to the 1997 Second Edition, MacDonald states that one of his goals is “to replace gushing hero-worship with a detached, posterity-anticipating tally of what the Beatles did”, admitting that “…this entails some deflation and occasionally a little harsh criticism.” Inevitably, he sometimes gets it wrong. While he has a point about “Day Tripper” being “[not] very interesting” beyond its nifty guitar riff, he’s way off in dismissing the gorgeous “Across the Universe” as a “plaintively babyish incantation … boring”. His dismissal of the apocalyptic “Helter Skelter” as “embarrassing” proto-metal is telling. MacDonald wants to place the Beatles back into the context of their own time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But along the way, he shows himself to be extremely reactionary toward anything and everything that came after the ’60s.

Once more, there’s irony to the fact that, in chronicling the most progressive band in pop history, MacDonald reveals himself to be an old fogy, a “square” in the parlance of his time. He really makes this clear in the essays that appear at either end of the song-by-song section of the book. “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade” is a sprawling, 37-page trek through the ’60s. Since MacDonald believes that without the Beatles’ music, the “irreverently radiant Sixties atmosphere … might hardly have sparked at all”, he feels the need to recount all of the ’60s milieu and how the Beatles’ music not only mirrored it but also helped spur it along. Thus, everything from the Cold War to the Beats to “Swinging England” to the hippies and acid culture to the “American New Left” gets a run through.

According to MacDonald, the “revolution in the head”, in the thought process, was more genuine than any of the political or cultural movements of the time. Here, though, as in much of the essay, MacDonald gets caught up in the very clichés that led to the Summer of Love mentality’s premature demise. For example, he describes the hippie scene as “both an attempt to transcend the self in the absence of God and an echo of the 19th-century Romantics’ use of opium to release the imagination”. Couched in such muck is some genuinely insightful commentary on the Beatles. MacDonald re-emphasizes that Black music was just as influential on the young Fabs as was Elvis, and he provides an eloquent take on the whole Lennon-McCartney songwriting dynamic. He also unwittingly describes how the Beatles’ studio techniques were direct forebears of modern “found sound” sampling.

MacDonald’s astute observation that “the only significant aspect of pop the Beatles failed to change was the business itself” is in striking contrast to his own reactionary perspective on pop music since the ’60s. MacDonald was 18 during 1967’s Summer of Love, and in many ways he seems never to have moved on. His capitalization of “Sixties” is no coincidence, as the decade to him represents the last great movement of modern pop culture. He dismisses ’70s power pop, which descended directly from the Beatles, as “an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise”. Most troubling, though, is MacDonald’s introduction to his exhaustive ’60s chronology, which comes toward the end of the book. It is nothing short of a long-winded diatribe on the inferiority of everything that came after the ’60s to the music of his beloved decade. In his rants against ’80s and ’90s pop, MIDI, drum machines, and modern dance music, he sounds an awful lot like teenagers’ parents must have sounded when reacting to Elvis 50 years ago. He does have some valid points about the sometimes vapid nature of modern recording techniques, but his assertion of the “deadly parallel between the post-Star Wars genre of the ‘special effects movie’ … and the onset … of the ‘big drum sound’ during the Eighties” is nothing short of embarrassing, if not laughable.

This Third Edition, completed prior to MacDonald’s death in 2003 and first published in England in 2005, includes some subtle revisions based on recent McCartney interviews. It also contains a new preface in which MacDonald takes the Beatles to task for being shallow lyricists, which is kind of like berating Shakespeare for poor handwriting. The most amazing aspect of Revolution in the Head is that it manages to transcend MacDonald’s disturbing cultural short-sightedness and nonetheless accomplish another of his primary goals, “to make [the Beatles’] music as fresh and exciting as it was when it first appeared”. If nothing else, the book will leave you scrambling to your Beatles collection for a new listen rather than a familiar or nostalgic one, and that is quite an accomplishment.

RATING 7 / 10