Revolution in the Head is one of those books that is impossible to put down once started. Nor can it be read just once. Every piece of information Ian McDonald provides is riveting and describes not just the writing and recording process, but the cultural and personal back stories behind each song and each band member.
The power of this book is the fresh light it throws on the Beatles as a dynamic unit, their thought processes, their relationships with the other Beatles and the outside world and their general approach to life encapsulated whilst writing and recording songs. Although muscicians will appreciate the detailed analysis of the songs' structure, it is not just a musicians' book, neither is it strictly for Beatles fans. But as it says on the cover, you will want to return to your record collection and hear the songs again in a re-evaluated light.
Although the author includes every song recorded by the band, he quite rightly only concentrates his efforts on those songs worth evaluating. So, for example 'A Day in the Life' covers about 5 pages, whereas 'Baby You're a Rich Man' barely receives a paragraph. McDonald is not afraid to criticise band members as well as the song when required, but his criticisms are always supported with strong arguments and are often even-handed. This is summed-up perfectly in his analysis of the the friction between Lennon and McCartney towards the break-up, by way of his evaluation of 'The Long and Winding Road', which is nothing short of exceptional. Neither Lennon or McCartney come out on top, instead you feel that you have been given a priviledged insight into the minds of two great artists, who had their own agendas for their own reasons. Personally I don't buy in to the McCartney bias either; McDonald is simply setting the record straight and isn't afraid to pull his punches - against any Beatle. In fact, the only member of the band who survives more-or-less intact is Ringo. What McDonald does is remind us that the Beatles were truly unique in that they were - and always will be - the only pop group to have two genius songwiters. Yet despite their brilliance, they were also annoying, unbearable and human, in their own way.
The only criticism I have about the book is the author's synopsis 'Fabled Foursome: Disappearing Decade' (this is in earlier editions of the book, I'm not sure if it is still included); a 30-odd page analysis which basically boils down to the argument that the 60s was the high watermark for popular music and culture and nothing after would ever match it. This is just plain wrong: great music is great music, irrespective of the decade or genre it comes from. Who can say that the music of the Beatles and their contemporaries was any better than David Bowie, Elvis, The Clash or Radiohead in their time? With no disrepect to the dead, his critique comes across as some grumpy old man, regurgitating the same old "music isn't what it used to be" routine. Because this basic premise is flawed, the whole thesis becomes a house of cards.
Notwithstanding this crticism, the rest of the book is so precise, perfectly observed and compelling that it can only be given five stars.