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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peerless
This book details every known song the Beatles ever recorded from Love Me Do to Real Love, giving details of composition, recording, release and any other relevant info. It also includes a long introductory essay and a few shorter ones interspersed analysing 60's society and culture, and the Beatles place therein. At various points in the individual song entries,...
Published on 10 Dec 2008 by Guardian of the Scales

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars McCartney doesn't like it
It's become a self-enforcing myth that Ian McDonald offers deep insight into the world of The Beatles. This is what Paul McCartney commented on this book in a Pitchfork interview:

"McCartney: ....But I've seen some of the books, particularly about the Beatles, where they'll say, "This was McCartney's answer to Lennon's barb"-- and so on and so on. Like hell it...
Published 10 months ago by Batuta


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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peerless, 10 Dec 2008
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
This book details every known song the Beatles ever recorded from Love Me Do to Real Love, giving details of composition, recording, release and any other relevant info. It also includes a long introductory essay and a few shorter ones interspersed analysing 60's society and culture, and the Beatles place therein. At various points in the individual song entries, MacDonald also gives psychological analyses of the Beatles and their relationships with each other and all the factors that affected them.

MacDonald was a teenager during the sixties and clearly has a lifetime interest in the Beatles, though he is highly critical of their actions and their music, at times. It is this lack of sentimentality and nostalgia, as well as his considerable erudition and musical knowledge, that makes this book such a standout. His opinions, sometimes deviating from the critical consensus, are always objectively reasoned, and his negative judgements of such sacred cows as "All you need is Love" and "Across the Universe", are completely justified, in my opinion, and his contention that the Beatles' quality control and capacity for self-criticism went out the window post-Sgt. Pepper (expanded upon in the entry for "Magical Mystery Tour")is also a key point in considering their later work.

Some have suggested a pro-McCartney bias in this book, but this is a valid recognition of McCartney's greater work ethic and musical technique. He does not fail to recognise McCartneys "patronising" attitude to Harrison and Starr and pours scorn on Macca's "granny songs" like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". If he seems more in sympathy with McCartney, overall, this is a helpful corrective to the current consensus positing Lennon as the creative genius and McCartney as the talented but shallow craftsman, which fails to reflect the reality.
No Beatles fan will be able to read one page of this book without encountering an interesting new viewpoint on Beatles music. The writing is precise and to-the-point and this is one of the most readable books of its kind and a great book to dip into again and again. MacDonald's independence of mind is also refreshing and his deep appreciation for the music is clear, as is his understanding of the sonic and production techniques used,an important factor in much of the Beatle's best music. This book is as good as it gets.

This edition was updated in the late 90's to include, though not in huge detail, the anthology series and accompanying "new" songs Free as a Bird and Real Love, about which MacDonald is not complimentary.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest books about the one of the greatest bands, 6 Jan 2009
By 
R. Brewer "kev brewer" (Notts, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars flawed masterpiece, 6 Jan 2014
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
I'd like to give this book five stars as I'd like as many music enthusiasts as possible to read it. It is so full of fascinating, insightful and entertaining content. Even many of the contentious bits surely have value if they provoke constructive disagreement. But why does it fall short? The main problem lies not in the body of the book - a detailed catalogue of the Beatles' recorded out put, song by song - but the introductory material.

The introduction, "Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade", was written during the 1990s. It is very perceptive about many of the cultural and political shifts that took place during the 1960s, and of which the Beatles were a part. One key point it raises is the importance of art schools in providing a broad cultural education for so many young British musicians. However, this introduction is also ridiculously judgement-laden in many respects - most of all when it talks about the inexorable decline (in the author's view ...) of pop music since the late 1960s. In fact, MacDonald's withering criticisms do not confine themselves to pop and rock music (and, for him, "rock" seems often to be a derogatory term). For example, he describes the minimalism of Philip Glass and others as "organised underachievement" and seems dismissive of compositional methods that introduce chance or random elements into the creative process.

Stating your opinions is all very well but in my view MacDonald's pessimistic assessments of the music and culture of recent decades sometimes cross the border into disrespect, and that's not a good thing at all. For heaven's sake, if popular music has been on a downward path since 1969 (or whenever), how does one explain the originality and brilliance of such works as the Who's Quadrophenia, the songs of The Smiths, and the sustained output of Radiohead? As much as anything, the author's approach disregards the bravery - as well as the talent and originality - that these latter-day artists have displayed.

The main body of the book itself, by contrast, is fascinating and hard to put down. There's so much insight into the interplay between Lennon and McCartney. Even though he might occasionally have looked too hard for evidence of rivalry and point-making between them, he offers a thoughtful exploration of how (and to what extent ...) they really worked together as writers. One of MacDonald's interesting suggestions is that the early Beatles were far more concerned with creating exciting sound worlds than with "proper" lyrics and poetry, in contrast with the songwriting traditions exemplified by Dylan, Mitchell and Young on the other side of the pond. He is also full of insights into Harrison's personality and predicament as a songwriter within the Beatles. This book has strengthened my admiration for Ringo - a vastly underrated musician.

The book is consistently fascinating on recording technology and gives full credit not only to George Martin but also to the engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott who achieved so much with the Beatles. It also mentions rather sarcastically the frustration of American engineers who found it so hard - even in the most sophisticated studios in the world - to replicate many sounds (for example, drum timbres) that the Beatles and the EMI recording team captured so well in the "primitive" Abbey Road.

As for the assessments of individual songs - well, there is potential for happy argument far into the night. MacDonald is not shy of an opinion and if you love the Beatles I guarantee he will get a reaction from you.

One reason why the book's so hard to put down is that you can never tell what he's going to say next, in a critical sense. It is nice when favourite songs (in my case, She Said She Said, from Revolver - also, I Am The Walrus) get the seal of approval. Sometimes he upsets the natural order, though (for example, preferring Long Long Long to other Harrison songs on the White Album). Fans of Rubber Soul may feel offended by many of his comments. One of my own favourite songs, Glass Onion, gets short shrift. In my humble opinion it is all pretty harmless. If it gets us all talking and arguing, and perhaps listening to familiar songs anew, then that's a good thing. Many of his judgements (especially of later songs) do seem to be coloured by his pessimistic views about pop's decline and his seeming distrust of "rock".

This book is seriously flawed in some respects, but if you like the Beatles do please read it. I have learned so much from it and also often found it very funny as well as informative.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars About the "Third Revised Edition" of this book..., 11 Nov 2010
By 
Gerald Kraft - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
Some great reviews have already been written on this book, which has its firm place among my favourite Beatles literature. I agree with most of them, and don't have to add anything new - except for the following:

I was more than thrilled to see a "Third Revised Edition" had been published in 2008, this time not by Pimlico but Vintage Books. Ian MacDonald, the author, died after having prepared the "Second Revised Edition" (Pimlico) that came out in 2005. So I wondered if/how another revision could have possibly improved the book. The answer is, not at all.

The only time "THIRD" is mentioned is on the cover. Once you open the book, you get the 100% same content as before. It is here (inside) where they inform you that this is really the "Second Revised Edition", now published by them instead of Pimlico. Not a word was changed from the original second edition.

I would call this bad business practice or, more directly, a rip-off. They lie to you, and to me it doesn't look like an "accident". They've gotten away with this for two years now.

So, if you already own the second edition (same cover design), there is no reason to spend your money on this "third" one. Unfortunately I did, so I found out the hard way (and returned it to Amazon).
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the very best Beatles books, 13 Jan 2009
By 
vectisfabber "vectisfabber" (Isle of Wight, Great Britain) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
The late Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head is, if not the best book on the music of The Beatles, certainly the best written, and arguably the most interesting. Comprising a mixture of fact and opinion, always set in the context of The Beatles total output, their lives in general, and the Sixties overall, it always holds the interests even when the author holds opinions one may not agree with. And the quality of the prose is a delight come what may.

This is a book I return to again and again.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all about the music, 24 Jan 2007
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I too bought the 1st paperback edition in the mid 90s, and it has been well thumbed over the years. I was glad to see this updated edition covering the anthology series and I wonder what the author would have made of the "Love"album? I have to agree that this is the best book on the Beatles music, and I am sure that many have read this book while playing Beatles albums. I am not so sure about the extensive sociological analysis of the 60s. I tend to skip over these passages in the book. But there is no dispute about the brilliant analysis of the Beatles music, and how the individual members contributed to the final sound. I enjoyed the many descriptions of Ringo Starr's drumming style, particularly as one of my favourite John Lennon quotes is "He isn't even the best drummer in the Beatles".
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on Fab Four ever, 17 Jun 2009
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
This brilliant effort by late Ian MacDonald is my favourite book on The Beatles there is - hands down. The core of the book consists of musical analysis of every single song (approx. 200) The Beatles released, with also some stories behind the songs and, of course, the author's opinions of them.

After reading the book, you should pretty much know, for example, which Beatles tunes were written or mainly written by Lennon and which by McCartney and the ones that were 50-50 collaborations. Sure, most of this information can be found somewhere else too (usually you need only to recognize who is doing the lead vocal), but MacDonald digs a little deeper than others. For instance, it emerges that the music for "In My Life" was very probably written by McCartney even though it is generally considered a Lennon song (lyrically, it obviously is). This is not just based on what Sir Paul has claimed but also on the fact that the song shows more of Macca's touch than Lennon's, and I, for one, believe what MacDonald is saying. And if you don't know which songs were written by Harrison and Starr, well, that will be revealed as well.

And while the book is not underrating John Lennon in any way, it also proves that Paul McCartney is the one who's mostly responsible for those great mid/late 60s albums. I've always liked a bit of mythbusting, and I believe this book is a true eye-opener for many.

If I had to say something negative, it would be the fact that I don't sometimes agree with the author's opinions at all. For example, MacDonald pretty much dismisses songs like Nowhere Man, Across The Universe, I Want You (She's So Heavy), and While My Guitar Gently Weeps which I all like. Also, some other of his opinions raised my eyebrows; I do agree that Helter Skelter isn't very good piece of music, but the way he basically puts down the whole genre of heavy metal is a bit ridiculous to me.

There is no doubt, however, that the book is a tremendous effort from MacDonald, and it should be owned by everyone who is interested in the music of the most important rock group the world has ever known. I myself am not an expert on music theory, but you don't need to be; MacDonald never gets too 'scientific' in my opinion, and you should be able to enjoy the book whether you tend to analyse music or not.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb but..., 16 Jun 2010
By 
This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
I dont expect there will a better book about the Beatles because when all is said and done, and as much as their albums are landmarks, it's the induvidual songs that have worked themselves into our DNA! and which we want to read about and obsess about! To that end, this book will get taken off the shelf more often to dip into at pleasure.
But my brief review is only state the difference of opinion fans will have regarding induvidual songs, as distinct to the opinion of Mr.Macdonald's. In my case its with Lennon's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE which the author is utterly dismissive of, calling it insipid and lethargic. For me its one of my favourite Lennon songs! Sadly MR.Macdonald is not around anymore to have a gentle argument with! His opinion wont change mine, or my pleasure every time I hear that song, nor does it detract from the merits of this marvellous book!- but if you dont like hearing contrary opinions about songs you love, be warned!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb tome, 17 July 2007
By 
Mr. Thomas Birch "talaandthomas" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This book is a wonderful book. The buyer who dismissed this book as "pretentious" must be one of those inverted snobs who is terrified by the prospect of approaching anything in a halfway intelligent manner. Indeed, perhaps the best thing about this book is its lack of pretentiousness - it rightly lambasts some of Lennon's later work (with The Beatles) for the self-absorbed nonsense it is. Author Ian Macdonald correctly sees Lennon and Ono's bag-wearing, acorn-planting antics in the name of peace, however well-intentioned, as inherently arrogant - promoting peace "as if they had personally invented it", as he puts it. On the other hand, he can see through the all-form-and-no-feeling tosh that McCartney was capable of churning out ("Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da", "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "All Together Now" and so on) too. Sure, a lot of his opinions might grate with a reader - he can come across awfully fuddy-duddy with his intense dislike of what he calls "rock" music as opposed to "pop" music. Sometimes his dismissals of well-loved songs such as "While my Guitar Gently Weeps" get one angry. At other times, his opinions seem downright bizarre - such as when he suggests Prince is the only artist whose output can be compared to The Beatles in terms of artistic worth - I mean, Prince? The little purple guy who plays nine-year guitar solos while preferring to be known by a symbol rather than a name? Surely some mistake... Then again, isn't a good work supposed to provoke reactions, rather than just massage a reader's ego by retelling them their own opinions? And for sheer well-researched, fact-based telling of The Beatles' story through what is surely the best medium - their songs and how they came together (NPI) - this book has not and, I believe, will not be bettered. Sad to learn that Macdonald took his own life. He leaves behind possibly the finest work of analysis written on rock music - sorry, Ian, "pop" music.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and tragic, 13 Aug 2006
By 
lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
I bought 'Revolution In The Head' when it first came out in the mid 1990s, and was blown away. When 'Live At The BBC' and the 'Anthology' albums were released a couple of years later, MacDonald revised it to cover all the Beatle material that had suddenly become canonical. The great virtue of this book, IMO, is the extraordinary job MacDonald did in synthesising all the available knowledge about how the Beatles recorded their music and presenting it as part of his account of their rise and fall. He goes on a song-by-song basis, and his judgments about which Beatle songs are more inspired than others are hard to argue with. (Personally I like 'If You've Got Trouble', though.) This book's only rival in the how-they-did-it stakes is Walter Everett's monumental two-volume technical study, 'The Beatles as Musicians'.

MacDonald sees the Beatles' career as rising to a peak with 'Sgt. Pepper', from which it then gradually slopes downwards, reaching a nadir with 'Free As A Bird'. This is the best presentation of what might be called the English Version of the Beatles' creative arc. He is bracingly caustic about what he sees as the generally negative effect of the Beatles' heavy drug use and embrace of randomness, feeling that little was gained by them consciously abandoning their judgment of what worked and what didn't, and he's usefully respectful of what other writers criticise as Paul McCartney's bossiness. MacDonald rightly perceives that if McCartney hadn't been so nannyish and overbearing in the final years, they might not have lasted even as short a time as they did. He is not afraid to dismiss a song as 'sniggering nonsense' (Maxwell's Silver Hammer, in case you were wondering - fair comment, I'd have said.) Elsewhere, he can be oddly blinkered; he ridicules pianist Glenn Gould's dislike of the Fabs, saying that Gould, one of the greatest musicians of the century, was here displaying 'an embarrassingly tin ear'. But this fails to engage properly with Gould's case, which in fact was quite a coherent argument and which raised the question of how much one's 'ear' is a matter of cultural expectation rather than natural musicality.

However, I think he over-emphasises the long-term damage done by some of the more avant-garde elements in Sixties culture. His criticisms of postmodernism seem a bit dated now; does anyone still talk about 'postmodernism' anymore? The closer he stays to his subject, the better and more insightful he is, but when he turns to the present, he just gets cranky and nostalgic (e.g. his foolish dismissal, in another book, of the late Bill Hicks as an unfunny Lenny Bruce wannabe. Bruce at his worst was far less funny than Hicks at his.)

It's clear by the end that, for MacDonald, Western culture had been declining in quality since the Beatles' breakup. For someone like me who was born after the band split, an attitude like that is far from helpful, or even meaningful. However, those who find MacDonald's pessimism convincing might want to reflect that he was prone to depression, and indeed took his own life only a couple of years after the final edition of this book was published. A tragic footnote to one of the great rock books ever.
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Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties by Ian MacDonald (Paperback - 4 Dec 2008)
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