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53 of 57 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 11 months ago by Batuta


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53 of 57 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Controversial assessment of the Fab Four, 8 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (Paperback)
This book is meticulously well researched and almost unique in offering a separate analysis of every single song written and recorded by the Beatles between 1962 and 1970, including a small number that remain unreleased even to this day. For the most part, the book is very readable and stimulating. However, a close study of the text soon reveals that the late Ian MacDonald's real passion was the music the Beatles made in the second half of the 1960s (essentially from 'Revolver' onward). The author is opinionated and seems to regard the group's earlier work as a sort of apprenticeship for the creative surge they experienced once the influence of drugs and psychedelia started to take hold in the 1966-67 period. Unfortunately - and even allowing for the subjectivity of individual tastes - this bias towards the later material has a distorting effect and undermines the book's credibility. MacDonald depicts all the early albums as 'hit-and-miss' affairs, as if half the tracks were little more than fillers or frivolous dance music for impressionable teenagers. Some of the early Lennon & McCartney songs come in for particularly harsh and unwarranted criticism (e.g. 'Do you want to know a secret?', which the author believes 'over-stays its welcome' at just under 2 minutes long. Does anyone else agree with that?). I would wager that there will be very few Beatles fans out there who will find this approach to analysing the band's career less than totally infuriating. The point here is not that the band is beyond criticism; far from it - they occasionally displayed poor taste and their post-1967 output was certainly erratic. However, it is a historical fact that the quality, originality and consistency of the Beatles' early music is precisely what differentiated them from the other bands that rode the Merseybeat bandwagon in the early 1960s. Beatlemania, in contrast to the hysteria that accompanied performances by Sinatra or (later) the Bay City Rollers, was a reaction to something truly unprecedented in British social history. Anyone who does not grasp this basic fact immediately, from listening to 'Please Please Me', 'With the Beatles' or 'A Hard Day's Night', will fail to understand both the group and its wider cultural influence on the 1960s. If the Beatles really did proceed by trial and error in their early LPs, as MacDonald implies, their lasting reputation, cross-generational appeal, and cultural dominance in the 1960s become completely inexplicable.

This is why, for all its merits, the book never really gets to the heart of what made the Beatles so very special, which for me at least is the almost transcendental nature of their creative genius. Where on earth did that flood of creativity come from? It certainly wasn't derived from Elvis, Buddy Holly or the Shirelles, however much the Beatles may have admired these artists. The originality and genius of the Beatles seem to have come from somewhere else, possibly not from this world at all. Their music was truly 'beyond category', the phrase often used to describe Duke Ellington. One of my very earliest memories is hearing "She Loves You" on a car radio for the first time in 1963, as a three year old child, from the backseat of a Vauxhall Victor. Even now, I can still recall the thrill of hearing such fresh and exciting music for the first time. This is surely the true measure of how very extraordinary this band was. To be fair, MacDonald does freely acknowledge in his Introduction that the Beatles were 'far and away' the best pop group of all time, a statement of the obvious. But you would hardly think so reading his hyper-critical reviews of much of their 1962-1965 output.

The author also fails to place the Beatles in a proper historical context. He exaggerates the extent to which they borrowed the musical styles of the late 1950s, de-emphasising what made them absolutely unique i.e. their incredible energy and completely original approach to songwriting and vocal harmony. He is also very negative about the popular music of the 1970s (except for David Bowie), ignoring the great British bands that built on the Beatles' artistic legacy during that decade - bands like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, to name just two. The shadow of the Beatles inevitably loomed large over these groups, but this does not detract in the slightest from the quality of their music. For most people, the 1970-75 period was a golden era in popular music, and the idea that British pop music simply 'fell off the cliff' in quality terms once the Beatles had departed the scene is simply wrong. The real cultural watershed came later, in 1976, when punk started to make a virtue of musical illiteracy and received critical acclaim for doing so. This was an unmitigated disaster which reversed the artistic gains of the previous 15 years and from which British pop culture has never truly recovered.

It's fair to say that most Beatles fans will want to own this book because of the way it catalogues the details of every song individually. But there are other books that also do this, and many of MacDonald's judgements are questionable. As a result, whilst indispensable, the book is likely to fascinate and irritate in equal measure.
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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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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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