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The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (Cambridge Companions to Music) Paperback – 26 Oct 2011
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'Recently published by Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles is further evidence of their lingering influence on contemporary culture. … if you are interested in the 1960s and The Beatles, you will enjoy this book.' Shane Creevy, Politico
'Before delving into this companion, one should have one's LPs, CDs, or iPod handy, because the music should be playing as one reads the book. Womack … and his fellow contributors explain the social phenomenon of the Beatles (individually and collectively) and their music from the four musicians' pre-Beatles world, through the heyday of Beatlemania, to the decisions to quit touring and ultimately break up the band, to the individual careers of the four musicians and the tragedy that ended all hope for the longed-for reunion. The essays offer explanations of the Beatles' 'transformative impact on world culture' and their continuing success four decades after they last recorded together. Whether readers were there at the beginning or are newcomers to the magical mystery world of Beatlemania, this in-depth compendium is a must read … 'toppermost of the poppermost' … Highly recommended.' T. Emery, Choice
From Please Please Me to Abbey Road, this collection tells the fascinating story of the Beatles – their individual backgrounds, their major works, and their enduring musical legacy. Providing detailed biographical and album analyses, the book is ideal for courses and is also a must-read for all dedicated Beatles fans.See all Product description
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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.
My one beef is with Jerry Zolten's essay, The Beatles as recording artists, marred by factual errors and sloppy writing. Another reviewer has already pointed out the author's slip up regarding the mellotron, but here we have the following when writing about the first album, Please Please Me: "The Beatles had produced four hit singles and an album in the space of six months." Well, no, they'd produced two singles. Then: "Almost half the debut album's tracks ... were covers of American rock and roll B sides". The Shirelles' "Boys" was a B side. Arthur Alexander's "Anna", the Cookies' "Chains", the Shirelles' "Baby It's You" and the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout", were what we called r'n'b at the time, all were A sides and all were hits. "A Taste of Honey" was far from rock and roll and r'n'b, but it too made the charts in four different versions. Two examples of his writing style: "[by 1966] the Beatles were now .. the penultimate rock and roll band". "Penultimate"? We're not told who the ultimate rock and roll band were. Then later: "Strawberry Fields Forever closed with an unusual reprieve." Reprise, surely.
I'm no expert but I'm always bothered when it seems I know more than the author. It casts doubts over everything else he says. Anyway, this aside, which admittedly probably won't bother most readers, the book is highly recommended.
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But we now have at hand an excellent example of why irresponsible history-skewing should be taken out of print before it bleeds into other texts and muddles the relevant knowledge base. Geoff Emerick's -Here, There and Everywhere- is cited often, especially in "The Beatles as Recording Artists" by Jerry Zolten (an essay that's also grammatically disastrous). Emerick's book is well known to be filled with errors, outright fabrications, and Emerick's taking credit for things that George Martin actually did.
Anything that Cambridge allows to be published as an academic "Companion" should, one would immediately assume, be combed over, fact-checked, and basically made to adhere to responsible literary practices. There are mistakes in other sections, as well; for instance, Howard Kramer, in "Rock and Roll Music," claims that the Beatles had to record twelve new songs for their first album, when in fact they only needed ten (the other four were the already-recorded A and B sides of their first two 45s).
Clearly, politics, rather than offers of fresh insight, figured strongly in which writers were chosen to write pieces for this collection.
For some reason, critics' opinions (credentials, please? It's like telling someone to immediately switch tastes in food...there's no right or wrong in music) are cited often, along with chart positions -- especially in Michael Frontani's mere list of facts in narrative form, "The Solo Years." Why? Talk about irrelevant -- especially in a book with more-intellectual-than-the-other-stuff pretensions.
If you've already got all of the other truly great books about the Beatles (Many Years from Now, the group's own Anthology, Recording the Beatles, the Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and, if you're into ultimately irrelevant but fascinating musical discussion, Tell Me Why), then this one won't do you any harm. It's often highly entertaining. But if you're looking for a place to begin reading about the Beatles, how they approached the studio, what they did to revolutionize the recording industry, etc., then I'd strongly recommend starting elsewhere; there are more consistent, more factually responsible volumes available, including those I've just listed.
(Incidentally, it's surprising that even the detail-oriented writings on the Beatles still haven't mentioned the speed discrepancies between first two American albums -- at least as they're heard on the Capitol boxed-set CDs -- and their much faster British equivalents. Many songs on Rubber Soul have this UK/US speed difference as well. Surely I'm not the only person to have noticed that the American transfer speeds were off?)
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