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lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland)

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A Hard Day's Night
A Hard Day's Night
Price: 10.40

5.0 out of 5 stars The peak of Beatlemania, 5 May 2010
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This review is from: A Hard Day's Night (Audio CD)
This is, for my money, the first truly great Beatles album.

It's important to remember that in 1964, the Beatles as a phenomenon weren't much more than a year old. They had been functioning as a band for much longer, and Ringo had been firmly in place since 1962, but at this stage of the game they were more famous for being famous than for being the greatest band in the history of popular music. It was clear that Beatlemania was something new and unprecedented, but for all that it was still, as the name suggests, a '-mania' - a kind of madness. Nobody, not even the band themselves, could have known at this point that they were going to go on to produce stuff as classic as 'Yesterday', as inspired as 'Strawberry Fields Forever', as drop-dead awesome as the 'Revolver' and 'Sgt Pepper' albums and as wiggily brilliant and infuriating as the White Album, not to mention the generous nuggets of genius scattered throughout their extraordinarily diverse late output. Right now, they were just a pop group.

No, in 1964 The Beatles were not rock gods, because rock gods hadn't been invented yet. The fans loved them and the more hip observers recognised that they were something different, but many journalists preferred to attribute their success to the business wizardry of Brian Epstein (who actually wasn't the canniest businessman under the sun), or the musical direction of George Martin (who would have been the first person to admit that he didn't actually write the songs). By this point, the Beatles, Lennon & McCartney in particular, wanted to assert themselves. They did so in a coup that literally intimidated their peers: this is the only Beatles album on which Lennon and McCartney wrote all the songs. It was unheard-of for a British band of the period to generate so much of its own output.

And the output was pretty impressive. The opening chord of the title track of A Hard Day's Night has been analysed many times, and it still clangs hugely across the decades; no other band of the time could convey this sense of size and power. A Hard Day's Night is, generally speaking, a pretty raucous album. One reason for this is that Lennon was at the peak of his early power as a songwriter and he bestrides this album like a, well, a colossal Walrus. The Beatles' love of girl groups and Motown comes through in wall-of-sound wailers like 'Tell Me Why' and funky, cowbell-driven stomps like 'You Can't Do That' and 'When I Get Home'. Elsewhere, even the potboilers are classic: listen to other British beat groups of the Sixties, and you will soon realise how most of them would have killed to write a melody as catchy as 'I Should Have Known Better'. Lennon rightly observed years later that it's a song about almost nothing, but who cares when the sheer sound of it makes you feel happy? This is the sound of a band surfing the tsunami of its own fame and exulting in its own unfolding genius. It's also, arguably, the last and greatest document of classic Beatlemania. By the next album the band sounded tired, and after that they were starting to get bored of being fab. Their greatest work was still ahead of them, but by the time of Revolver they had become a quite different band. And after that...

As for the remastering, I have no complaints about being able to hear this album in stereo at last. I had a vinyl LP of it years ago which, looking back, was probably in stereo, and while I am a bit of a mono purist when it comes to the Beatles' music (because it's the way that they themselves preferred to listen to it), I have to admit that the widescreen stereo opens up this album in a very refreshing way for the first time in 23 years. I will still go back to the mono version whenever I want sheer impact, but it's good to have this version too. Points off EMI for not including the mono remaster as bonus tracks, but then Beatle fans have learned to expect to be ripped off by EMI.

And it's still the first great Beatles album, and if you haven't listened to it yet, this is the new definitive version. So I envy you the pleasure of hearing it for the first time.

Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?: Burke to Nozik to Blair?
Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?: Burke to Nozik to Blair?
by Ted Honderich
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.99

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant, book-length argument about what conservatism really is, 3 May 2010
Ted Honderich is a philosopher, and this book is not a history of conservatism but a philosopher's attempt to engage with what conservatism really is. Honderich makes one basic assumption that conservative reviewers have not been very happy with. First of all, he assumes that that there really is something to conservatism; that it has a fundamental rationale, and that there is something about conservatism that all conservatives, no matter what flavour, can agree on, or at least not disagree about. This, as he points out, goes against a fundamental strain in conservatism, which is a reluctance to spell out the exact nature of conservatism, something which is linked to the well-documented conservative dislike of 'theory'. Nevertheless, as Honderich says, if there is simply nothing to conservatism then it's not worth taking seriously, but since conservatives urge us to take it seriously but consistently refuse to spell it out, then it's up to somebody else to do so. Hence Honderich's book.

He then systematically explores the various claims conservatism has made for itself over the years and holds them up for examination. For example, conservatives often claim to be against radical change and in favour of continuity, but it's not very difficult to show that conservatives are quite often in favour of changing things that don't suit them; for example, Edmund Burke wanted to change the French post-revolutionary system of government, which would have been a radical change indeed. Conservatives sometimes counter this by distinguishing between change, which is usually inspired by 'theory', and which is therefore bad, and reform, which is guided by 'wisdom' and which is therefore benevolent. But they don't develop a clear distinction between change and reform. They usually define change as being whatever is inspired by theory, and reform as whatever is inspired by wisdom, but that just leads us to the distinction between theory and wisdom - and it comes as little surprise to learn that conservatives like to define theory as that which causes change, and wisdom as that which causes reform. We are left with a circular argument.

Conservatives claim to be in favour of tradition over innovation, but the trouble with this is that such a position is incoherent; what's new today will be traditional in a few years, so conservatives following this trend will need to change their mind constantly about what they're in favour of. They tend not to do this, so it follows that conservatives are not really in favour of tradition over innovation.

Honderich goes on to discuss conservative positions on freedom, equality and the role of government, among other things, and with admirable patience and energy he subjects these positions to critique. In this revised edition, he provocatively but I think rightly includes New Labour as a new but not fundamentally different kind of conservative party. The conclusion he comes to is not one that most conservatives would like to admit. Conservatism, he says, is at bottom nothing other than selfishness raised to a political ideology. It is hard to argue with this. Conservatives like weak government not because they are dedicated to freedom for all; when it suits them, conservatives will sponsor draconian levels of law and order in order to protect private property. Conservatives are in favour of weak government because they do not want the state to have the power to stop the rich from exploiting the poor. The interests conservatives support are always vested, never pursued; they want things to stay the same because they want to maintain the existing inequalities and injustices in society, and they are prepared to do more or less anything to maintain the current level of injustice, because it suits them personally. Today's conservatives may be more fluffy-looking and less snarlingly mean-minded than they were in the Thatcher era, but the rhetoric is basically the same. (Blair and Brown's Labour party has made at least some moves in favour of more political representation and protecting some of the underprivileged, but their supine attitude to business lumps them in with capital-C conservatives.)

Honderich is intelligent, passionate about justice and has a frequently wicked sense of dry humour. I have never read a more devastating demolition job on the pretensions of a given political tradition.
Comment Comments (14) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 3, 2012 2:16 AM BST

The Beatles: The White Album
The Beatles: The White Album
Price: 13.24

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shoddy, sprawling, partly unlistenable, self-indulgent, and that's why it's a masterpiece, 17 April 2010
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By the time of Revolver, the Beatles were making the most forward-looking pop/rock music in the world. Nobody else was so effortlessly bold, creative and memorable. What other band could hope to make an album containing a cheerful ditty for kids (Yellow Submarine), a bleak and laconic epitaph for a dead spinster (Eleanor Rigby) and a terrifying invitation to 'turn off your mind' (Tomorrow Never Knows)? Not to mention guitar-driven R&B and a melancholy love song with a french horn solo.

The Beatles topped it with their next album. Sgt Pepper was designed as their Big Statement, and unusually for Big Statements, it works. The songs (with the exception of A Day in The Life) may not have better than the ones on Revolver, but Revolver, for all its genius, is just a collection of great songs brilliantly produced, whereas Sgt Pepper has a coherence of message and a genuinely warm and affectionate spirit which the dark, tense, introspective and sometimes irritable Revolver didn't have.

Surely it couldn't get any better than that? No, it couldn't. The follow-up, Magical Mystery Tour, is by Beatles standards a tired rehash of Sgt Pepper. The follow-up to MMT is the album universally referred to as the White Album, but I think we should start calling it by its name. The Beatles is the most self-referential album the Beatles ever made, and its name and cover design are entirely of a piece with its themes.

This is an album about a band tearing itself to bits. I don't mean, of course, that it's self-consciously a concept album, because only a band not tearing itself to bits would have been able to pull off something like that. I mean that everything about the album The Beatles illustrates something about the irreversible fragmentation of the unit that had once been the Beatles. The photos of them are all individual shots - there are no more group shots of the band, as indeed wouldn't be any more on a Beatles album cover until Abbey Road. It's been well-documented that the songs are, when not actually solo performances, usually the rest of the band backing up the lead singer and songwriter. There is some fine ensemble playing on here, but it always comes as a surprise. From here on, the Beatles' story is a story of four individuals, whose sense of belonging to something bigger than any one of them was something that three out of four of them wanted to be rid of.

The Beatles, aka the White Album, wouldn't be as convincing and as heartbreaking as it is if it weren't as overlong and self-indulgent as it is. How many of us haven't seen George Harrison's rather weak justification for it in the Anthology - "What are you supposed to do if you've got all them songs..." - and not wanted to shout "Save the crap ones for your solo stuff, George, like everybody else does!" And yet, I wouldn't wish that even something as clunky and mean-spirited as "Piggies" weren't on the album. (After all, it also has George's gorgeous "Long Long Long".) Seen in this light, even "Revolution 9" looks absolutely essential. Of course this album has to have an eight-minute avant-garde sound collage on it! Otherwise it would be just an overstuffed collection of mostly second-rate Beatle songs. "Revolution 9" is the crucial eight minutes that pushes it beyond being a rag-bag and turns it into a statement about how the Beatles will never again be able to be what they used to be.

I realise that this is a bit of a high-modernist argument - 'The Beatles' works artistically because a portrait of a breakdown should itself be a bit broken - but I think it holds up, and it explains a lot of why this album is great. It may not be the Beatles album I most often want to listen to, but it's the elephant in the otherwise mostly tidy living room of the Beatles' achievement, the monster album that most people feel a bit embarrassed about.

Even if you don't buy my argument, most people would agree that there's at least one album's worth of brilliant songs on here: "Back in the USSR", "Dear Prudence", "Happiness is a Warm Gun", "Long Long Long", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Julia", "Mother Nature's Son", "Blackbird", "Revolution 1", "I'm So Tired", "Yer Blues"...and the other ones, even the pastiche-y ones like "Honey Pie" and the just plain mysterious ones like "Cry Baby Cry", are still mostly very good.

In the end, I support that rare show of defiance from Sir Paul McCartney during the Anthology video, when he briefly accepted, then considered, and finally rejected the notion that 'The Beatles' should have been a single album: "It's the bloody Beatles' White Album, shuddup!" Right on, Paul. It's the bloody Beatles' white album, an album so haunting and perplexing and infuriating that most people prefer to not call it by its true name. There's magic in that.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2014 3:53 PM BST

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles
You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles
by Peter Doggett
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good (if incredibly depressing), 7 April 2010
There seems to be no end to the world's appetite for books about the Beatles. Especially biographies, which is odd when you consider that the Beatles have been mostly badly treated by their biographers. Philip Norman's 'Shout!' is sour, impatient and spoiled by Norman's evident contempt for McCartney; Ray Coleman's 'Lennon', although full of original research, is wrecked by Coleman's hero-worship of his subject; Chris Salewicz's McCartney biog is perceptive and well-written, but spends most of its length on the first 20 years of McCartney's life and practically skips over the Beatle period; Chris Sandford's McCartney book is gossipy and rather light; Albert Goldman's attempted demolition of Lennon has sunk back into obscurity; Bob Spitz's group biography is, by all accounts, wearyingly long and boring; and Geoffrey Giuliano's 'Revolver' is, so far as anyone can tell, pure fiction. I haven't read Philip Norman's 'John Lennon', although based on Norman's earlier performance I'm not sure I want to, and while Beatle fans everywhere are looking forward to Mark Lewisohn's giant three-volume biography, I don't think that the more literate of us expect that it's going to have the same level of critical insight as Richard Ellmann's 'James Joyce' or the rich wit of George Painter's 'Marcel Proust'. So far, Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' is the only biography of the Beatles in which the quality of the writing is worthy of the subject. But Peter Doggett's book about the Beatles' collapse and afterlife (or afterlives) is a fascinating read, if not a book that exactly inspires you about the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit.

The trouble with books about the Beatles is that as long as the book focuses on the music it's liable to be inspiring, but the Beatles' actual lives are - like most people's - pretty sad. Doggett's book is especially so, because of the way it focuses on the splits and disagreements within and around the band. Nobody comes out of it very well: Lennon, especially in the last two years of the band, behaved with culpable fecklessness, jetting off around the world with Yoko and releasing albums of bad free improvisation when he should have been taking back his own responsibility as self-styled bandleader; McCartney, forced into the unwelcome position of boss, handled his own power clumsily, lashing out at Apple staff and alienating his bandmates; when Harrison wasn't being self-righteously pious he was having hissy fits about how Lennon and McCartney didn't take his songs seriously enough, even though he seldom bothered to present them properly to the band; and Starkey just waited glumly for the whole sorry drama to play itself out. The Allen Klein debacle saw the band rip itself apart, and then it was all lawsuits and sniping at each other in interviews until Lennon and McCartney managed to patch up their friendship in the mid-70s.

Even after Lennon's death, which helped bring the remaining bandmates closer together for a while, the legal problems persisted. A suitably symbolic end to the story is the fight for the Apple brand: decades ago, the mighty Apple Corps sued a tiny computer company and made them promise never to dabble in music, but thirty years later Apple Computer have bought the name and the trademark off the much-humbled Apple Corps, and lease it back to them. Apple Ltd. now pays Apple Computer for the right to use its own name.

The last ten years of the Beatles' afterlife have not, on the whole, been tremendously happy. Harrison's too-early death is yet another premature Beatle fatality. Not even the most nihilistic goth bands have been so death-haunted as the supposedly sunny Beatles: Lennon & McCartney each lost their mothers while still in their teens; Stuart Sutcliffe, brain haemorrhage; Brian Epstein, overdose; Mal Evans, shot by LA police; Lennon himself, shot by a nutcase; Harrison, dying of cancer only a couple of years after being stabbed multiple times by another nutcase; Linda McCartney, dead at 56; Maureen Tigrett, Ringo's first wife, the cheering 'Mo' from Let It Be, dead at 48. (One might add Neil Aspinall, dead from cancer at the relatively young age of 66.) Violence and premature death swirl around the Beatles in a way that makes G.G. Allin look like a wannabe.

For all that, it's a wonder that the Beatles aren't more miserable. McCartney finally got rid of that pesky, moany second wife in a way that gave him a mild flaying in the tabloids; the increasingly grumpy Ringo seems to be bored of being fab. Doggett's book is valuable for its honest look at the short-sighted squabbling that has accompanied the last forty years of Beatledom, but you'll want to go back to the music after you've finished, because if this book is anything to go by, there is nothing very enviable about being a Beatle.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 15, 2011 5:58 PM BST

Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)
Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)
by Olivier Julien
Edition: Paperback
Price: 17.56

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and insightful collection of academic writing about the most famous album ever, 3 April 2010
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Sgt. Pepper is probably the most famous album ever, and it's interesting that (as its title song predicts) it comes into and goes out of fashion as the Beatles' best work. Right now it would appear that either Revolver or the White Album have the edge in popularity, at least with most fans; Sgt. Pepper's combination of careful artifice and holistic optimism is not what people seem to want. I doubt that this collection of essays will be read by a wide audience, if only because it's pretty expensive and it's written by professional academics, but it does go some way towards providing a reading (or, rather, a 'listening') of Sgt. Pepper as the pinnacle of the Beatles' artistic achievement.

This is not the first time somebody has claimed that this album is the greatest thing the band ever did. Ian Macdonald made a similar case in his very influential book Revolution in the Head, although many serious critics seem to be unwilling to agree. Tim Riley, in his pre-Macdonald book-length commentary Tell Me Why, dismisses the album as dated fluff, whereas Devin McKinney in his book Magic Circles provocatively claims that the White Album is the best Beatles album. However, the essays presented here bely the idea that academic writing has to be irrelevant or jargon-laden. They are for the most part strongly argued, powerfully written and well-researched. (Tim Riley had the misfortune to write his book before much important work was done in the late 80s and 90s on analysing the Beatles' session tapes, and so he made many basic errors on the level of knowing who played what on what song.) Terence O'Grady wrote an entire book on the Beatles' music using the US albums as evidence of how they developed artistically, and while his essay in this book pays proper attention to the UK albums, he still gives an inordinate amount of time to the US ones when it is common knowledge that the Beatles were not involved at all in the sequencing of their US albums up until the release of Pepper itself.

John Kimsey's essay on authenticity and interference with special reference to Pepper is one of the best counter-arguments to one of the founding myths of US rock criticism that I've ever read. Harrison's 'Within You Without You' is often dismissed as a tedious blot on an otherwise good album, but Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc's essay places it in its proper location, at the very heart of the whole project. I especially enjoyed Naphtali Wagner's essay, which applies traditional Schenkerian analysis to two Pepper songs and points out in passing that there is no critical consensus whatever about what key 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is actually in. Sheila Whiteley's piece on what the album as a whole might be said to be about strikes me as very important.

There are other fine essays in this collection but I can't mention them all. This is a fine summation of the challenges posed and rewards offered by a recording that we sometimes we know all too well. The contributors to this book do what the best academic writing always tries to do - they show complexities and nuances where perhaps we had no longer believed they could be found.

Get Back: The Beatles Let It Be Disaster
Get Back: The Beatles Let It Be Disaster
by Doug Sulpy
Edition: Paperback

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A crucial book for serious Beatle scholars, 30 Mar 2010
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This is the reissue of a book originally published as 'Drugs, Divorce and a Slipping Image'; whoever advised the authors to retitle it was clearly a smart person, because the original title is less than helpful.

Throughout January 1969, the Beatles attempted to go back to basics and record an album's worth of new songs without overdubs. Or maybe they were thinking of having a concert full of new material. The evidence of this book is that they never really decided what they wanted to do. What this book shows is that the Beatles' collective failure of will almost tore them apart. Sulpy & Schweighardt have gone to the available audio tapes of these sessions - which have been heavily bootlegged, and which anyone can find if they're willing to look hard enough, although I should point out that it's illegal to distribute them - and they have basically paraphrased the content, so that we don't have to listen to the many, many hours of bad performances and inconsequential chat ourselves.

Anyone who has heard outtakes from the 'Get Back' sessions (and indeed anyone who's listened to 'Let It Be', which preserves in most cases the finest takes of all the songs therefrom) is aware that at this point in their career, the Beatles were playing really badly. Lennon and Harrison were no longer interested in being Beatles, McCartney was increasingly angry with the others for putting him in the awkward and unwelcome position of bandleader to a bunch of listless and impatient rock stars who felt like they had little left to prove, and Starkey was just bored of having nothing to do. Sulpy and Schweighardt's book is an essential roadmap to the 'Get Back' sessions. They give a precis of each take and summarise the content of the spoken dialogue, Apple's lawyers having forbidden them from quoting anything directly. This is a very useful book for anyone who wants to take a close look at the Beatles' decline, although the hardcore scholars will still want to go back to the tapes.

In the meantime, this book provides a most valuable service in illuminating the drift, apathy and passive-aggression that, for the most part, were the dominant features of this part of the Beatles' career. It's to all their credit that they realised just how badly they had screwed up on the 'Get Back' project, and that they pulled it together so remarkably well to deliver 'Abbey Road'. What's even more impressive is that 'Get Back' yielded a scant handful of tracks that are among the Beatles' finest moments: the title song, Don't Let Me Down, Let It Be and McCartney's heartbreakingly sad The Long and Winding Road are undeniable high points in the Beatles' discography, and few fans would want to be without the quirky Dig A Pony, the soulful I've Got A Feeling, the fugitively lovely Across the Universe and and the touching Two of Us. (I personally can do without For You Blue, Maggie Mae, The One After 909, I Me Mine and Dig It.)

So it's an essential Beatles book for the serious Beatle scholar, and emphatically not a book I would recommend to any Beatles newbie who wants a guide to the music; for that purpose, Ian Macdonald's 'Revolution in the Head' and Tim Riley's 'Tell Me Why', for all their faults, are still the best books.

Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation
Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation
by Philip Norman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.90

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How could a biography of the Beatles be so dull?, 29 Mar 2010
Philip Norman is an intelligent journalist with a crisp, workmanlike prose style. He first published this biography of the Beatles in the early 1980s, and has been revising it and reissuing it ever since. It has acquired a status in some quarters as the 'definitive' biography of the band, which I for one don't think it has earned.

Let me make myself clear: I do not think that every book about the Beatles has to be a hymn of praise. The best critical books about the Beatles are the ones that are willing to take the band to task about something or other; Ian Macdonald's classic 'Revolution in the Head' is impatient with the band's drug-induced willingness to fool about; Devin McKinney's brilliant 'Magic Circles' has little time for 'Sgt Pepper' and argues that the White Album is the best Beatles album, precisely because it's such a mess; Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' has a robust independence of judgement that seems to fit no particular pattern. But these are part of what make those books great. Macdonald, McKinney and Gould are all writing about what they regard as the best and most important band ever, which makes it all the more important that they register when the Beatles have screwed up.

However, Philip Norman's 'Shout!' has two major flaws. One, which is a fairly common one and which has been pointed out before, is Norman's lazy acceptance of the myth of McCartney-as-conservative/commercial-charmer as against Lennon-as-radical/avant-garde-innovator. This narrative about the Beatles, which was brewing when they were still an active band and which was subsequently fostered by Lennon in interviews he gave during the immediate post-breakup period and given support by the evidence of McCartney's rather glib and garrulous solo work, is given its most detailed and complete form in this book. It's pretty obvious that Norman basically despises McCartney and regards Lennon as the point of the band. This is not a very helpful or fruitful way to approach the Beatles, because it blinds the reader to the real conditions of the way the band operated and it hinders an understanding of the much more complex tensions within the band. It ignores the fact that McCartney was experimenting with tape loops, improvisation and randomness long before Lennon ever was and it also denies the extent to which they still collaborated as musicians long after they had stopped writing songs as full-time co-writers.

The second, and much more serious flaw of 'Shout!', is the fact that Norman doesn't seem to think that the Beatles were anything other than a rather successful pop group. This is a critical mistake when writing about the Beatles, and it's common to much of the earlier commentary about them. The truth, like it or not, is that after a certain point in their career, the Beatles were much more than just a big pop group. Beatlemania was not like previous kinds of fan enthusiasm, as many people (the Beatles included) realised fairly early on; Lennon himself commented to US journalist Michael Braun (in Braun's exceptionally canny book 'Love Me Do!') that what surrounded the Beatles as early as 1964 was 'beyond showbiz'. If you don't think that this is true, if you think that the Beatles were - again, in Lennon's own (albeit much later and rather disingenuous) words - 'just a band that made it very, very big', consider how many other bands of that era have inspired such a level of mania, and such a quantity of dreams, fantasies, literature, academic commentary and nostalgia. The Beatles are, among many other things, the only major rock band in which one of the band has been assassinated and another one has been the victim of a murderous assault which arguably hastened his own death; Mick Jagger may be a big star but nobody has ever tried to off him, and while Pantera's Dimebag Darrell was also murdered by a deranged fan, Pantera were just unlucky; they have never inspired the same kind of mass craziness as the Beatles. That alone is evidence of the Beatles' strangeness.

Norman's pedestrian unwillingness to be impressed by the lunacy that the Beatles attracted to a greater degree than any other band in history is a major flaw in his book. It makes the whole story curiously depressing, because since Norman has no very deep appreciation of the Beatles' highs, he can't make you feel the tragedy of their all-too-visible lows. His book is an attempt to deal with the Beatles phenomenon as just another thing worth writing a book about, but the truth is that the times have changed and Norman's book has been lost in a flood of more interesting Beatles books. I don't think that most serious commentators on the Beatles expect Mark Lewisohn's forthcoming three-volume biography to be the Fabs' equivalent of Richard Ellmann's 'James Joyce', but it will at least contain more reliable information than Norman's book.

Hunter Davies' book is more fun to read, and Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' is more sensitive, better-written and much more intelligent.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 7, 2011 4:20 PM GMT

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2.0 out of 5 stars Not much point to a novelisation of a partly improvised musical comedy..., 23 Mar 2010
I can see the financial sense in United Artists commissioning this novelisation of Alun Owen's script for The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"(The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night [1964] [DVD]). By 1964, The Beatles were threatening to become biggest money-spinner in entertainment history and it was only reasonable that UA would want to squeeze every possible penny out of their deal. Nevertheless, this is by no means a great or even a good novel - worse, it's not even a great novelisation (not that there are many great novelisations out there). An intriguing read, to be sure; it fills you in on the backstories of the band's (fictional) manager Norm and his (equally fictional) assistant Shake, and among Burke's few imaginative touches are his variations on the name of the character of Paul's irascible and mischievous grandfather.

However, the main thing this book communicates is the extent to which novelisations are not adaptations of movies but adaptations of screenplays: they have to be, in order to hit the shelves at the same moment the movie hits the screens. The press conference sequence, for example, is present here but the quips the band give as answers to dumb journalistic questions are exceptionally lame and over-earnest, unlike the snappily enigmatic and deadpan responses they give in the movie. There is also an interesting sequence featuring Paul chatting up a girl, which isn't in the movie. Some bits from the film are here verbatim, but this suffers from the abiding and rather endearing flaw of the novelisation as a form; it over-explains and points out the very obvious. Recommended to Beatles completists and scholars only, this is an interesting document of the reach and scope of Beatlemania circa 1964 but it's nothing like as entertaining as the movie that it was created to promote.

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The only Flag album that absolutely everyone should hear, 26 Feb 2010
This review is from: Damaged (Audio CD)
One of the previous reviewers suggested that if you like Black Flag then you must be in some way unable to appreciate music.

Let me see, what was the last music I paid for? Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martins in the Fields doing Bach's 'Art of Fugue' and 'Musical Offering'. The original 1943 recording of Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings'. Mendlessohn's Hebrides Overture. The waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, because my two-year-old girl likes it. Strauss's Blue Danube, because it's such a great old chestnut. Kim Kashkashian playing Hindemith's viola sonatas. Some Israeli surf-punk from Boom Pam and vintage Greek surf guitar from Aris San. Kenny Rogers singing 'Just Dropped In'. Oh yeah, and also Mike Watt's 'Ball-Hog or Tugboat', some free improv guitar by Davey Williams and Maurizio Pollini playing the Diabelli Variations. I think it's fair to say that I have no problem liking various kinds of music. I also like Black Flag. A lot. I like them so much that my only tattoo is of their logo.

I first listened to the Flag in the mid-80s when I was a fairly dumb teenager. In those days I was listening to SST bands, Cream, Hendrix and bebop. Oddly enough, Cream, Hendrix and jazz are all part of the mix when it comes to later Flag (it's well-documented how Greg Ginn - or was it Chuck Dukowski? - turned Henry Rollins onto Charles Mingus while on tour). But this, the first proper Black Flag album, is not only one of the best Black Flag albums, it's also one of the best punk albums ever, and arguably transcends punk by virtue of being relatively complex musically: for every hilarious clapalong rant like 'TV Party' there's something as rhythmically sophisticated as 'What I See' or 'Damaged II'. Black Flag were always a band capable of great musical eloquence, and if they mostly wanted to express anger, alienation, paranoia and contempt, so what? Those are perfectly legitimate emotions to want to get across musically, and these lads really got them across. It's not hard to see why they were so unpopular on their first visit to the UK. British punk bands were always more about fashion and posturing than about playing convincing music, but Black Flag were always single-mindedly about playing whatever they wanted. Maybe that's why they appeal to the muso in me. I can't listen to the Sex Pistols anymore because their stuff doesn't stand up to repeated plays in the way that the Flag's recordings do (and so does the music of their peers - bands like the Minutemen and Husker Du, to name just two).

Black Flag morphed into various different shapes over the years and were frequently stymied and ultimately strangled by Greg Ginn's personality problems, but at his peak he was a fiendishly expressive guitarist. Their records usually sound pretty bad, because nobody in SST really knew how to produce a record so that the band sounded like a band, but the genius still shines through. This is probably the best album, although there are pockets of sheer brilliance scattered over the rest of their output - Loose Nut is perhaps the most metallic, In My Head the weirdest, and The First Four Years is a vital document of the early Flag when they were more of a regular (if very good) hardcore punk band.

Listen to Damaged. It has, as we say in academia, considerable extra-musical interest, being a crucial document of the LA punk subculture. But it's also a great rock album, one of the best ever.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 11, 2013 8:45 AM GMT

The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (Cambridge Companions to Music)
The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (Cambridge Companions to Music)
by Kenneth Womack
Edition: Paperback
Price: 17.76

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Diverse and useful, 25 Feb 2010
This was my first encounter with the long-established academic field of Beatle Studies. I'm a mature student with the Open University, going after a degree in Humanities with Music, but this is a book I would probably have ended up buying anyway because I'm also a lifelong Beatle fan and a musician who likes reading academic books.

This book is both a contribution to Beatle Studies and an overview of some aspects of them, and some of the people herein are, I know now, major players in the field of popular music studies: Dave Laing, Bruce Spizer, Sheila Whiteley. The editor, Kenneth Womack, is a Professor of English at Penn State University and there does seem to me to be a bias in the book towards literary and cultural studies, and away from music. The only significant purely musical contribution is Walter Everett's heavily music-theoretical essay about irregular rhythmic phrasing in Beatle songs, but since Everett is also the author of the mighty 'The Beatles as Musicians', in which he subjects the Fabs' entire output to musical analysis over the course of two chunky (and endlessly fascinating) volumes, we can hardly expect him to repeat the job here in a couple of dozen pages.

I have to admit that I didn't have very high hopes for this book, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fairly high on interesting insights and relatively low on obeisance to the gods of critical theory. For example, Dave Laing's interpretation of Lennon and McCartney's initial interest in each other during their celebrated meeting at the Woolton Fete is that McCartney was attracted by Lennon's 'transgression' (when Lennon didn't know the words of songs he made up new ones, which McCartney found inspiring) and Lennon was attracted by McCartney's musical skill (Lennon recognised that McCartney was a more naturally gifted musician than he himself was, which in turn inspired him to want to be better). This is so simply put and yet so obvious that it blows the tired old Lennon-as-rocker, McCartney-as-hack story out of the water. (It's noted elsewhere in the book that twenty years after Lennon's death, Jann Wenner was still peddling the absurd and self-aggrandising myth that Lennon was the heart and soul of the Beatles and McCartney just the sugar-coating.)

Elsewhere, what could have been fairly arid pieces of media studies boilerplate are lifted out of the mire by the authors' evident enthusiasm for whatever they happen to be writing about, plus a welcome sense of humour about the glory and absurdity of it all. Even Gary Burns' relatively dry essay on the Beatles as a brand is lifted by Burns's observation that while the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits shifted roughly as many units as the Beatles did back in the day, we are not now witnessing academic conferences and volumes of scholarly musical analysis about the recorded oeuvre of the Dave Clark Five. We don't even see them about Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones - not as many as we see about the Beatles, anyway, and not as good, as Burns points out. The Beatles continue to fascinate, in a way that no other band manages to do.

Being a fact-checking nerd with some very recent training in good scholarly practice, it pains me a little to point out some errors of fact in this book. Dave Laing says that the Beatles were encouraged by their Hamburg booker to 'Mach schon', meaning (he says), 'make show', but Laing's German phrase actually means 'make already': the real phrase was in fact 'Mach schau!'. Jerry Zolten, in an otherwise fine essay on 'The Beatles as recording artists', describes the Mellotron as a 'keyboard programmed to imitate other instruments, a conceptual forerunner of the Moog synthesizer', but strangely enough he then immediately quotes Geoff Emerick's description of how a Mellotron actually works, with each key triggering a tape loop of real instruments - from which it is clear that a Mellotron isn't 'programmed to imitate' instruments at all. Mellotrons simply play back pre-recorded samples of real instruments at a given pitch, and so not only are they not programmed to do anything, they are also not conceptual forerunners of the Moog, which allows the player to produce artificially generated electronic tones by altering the amplitude and frequency of the waveform by means of a series of controls and filters. (If the Mellotron was a conceptual forerunner of anything, it was the digital sampler.) I would also take issue with James M. Decker's characterisation of 'Drive My Car' as a 'hard-charging rocker', when to these ears it's more influenced by Motown than by rock and roll.

There are other essays in the book which I simply disagree with, but that's part of the fun of it all. The back of the book says, somewhat deadeningly, 'the Companion is ideal for course usage' (yikes!) but goes on to add that it's 'also a must-read for all Beatles fans'. Well, maybe not all. Many if not most Beatles fans do not really want to think about the band much, they just want to wallow in Beatleiana, and this book does prod you into thinking about them. I am no exception to the general rule in that I sometimes like nothing better than to sit down and read a book about the Beatles that I've read many many times before, but I find that this book also compels me to think about them a bit, and to try to peel a few veils away from the tantalising secret of why so many of us find the Beatles so endlessly appealing, fascinating and rewarding. (And why the Beatles are sometimes just not enough.)

As time goes by, each book about the Beatles, even the best, settle into a certain status in our minds. For years I believed that Ian Macdonald's 'Revolution in the Head' was the best book ever written or ever likely to be written about them, but the more I think about Macdonald and his heavily pessimistic assessment of the state of the world since the Beatles' breakup, the more I place his book in context and am unable to accept his every judgment. And indeed, since that book came out, there have been other books as good about them if not better, including Everett's highly technical study (worth it if you have the analytical chops, probably impenetrable if you don't) and Jonathan Gould's superb 'Can't Buy Me Love'. The world now awaits Mark Lewisohn's supposedly definitive multi-volume biography. In the meantime, check out the academic literature from time to time; it's more fun than you might think.

A very fine book. If they clear up the minor errors in a second printing, I'd give it the fifth star.

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