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on 8 September 2014
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 an 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 Cliff Richard or (later) the Bay City Rollers, was a response to something genuinely new and fresh in British social history. Anyone who fails to notice this qualitative difference, from listening to 'Please Please Me', 'With the Beatles' or 'A Hard Day's Night', will inevitably fail to understand both the group and the reasons why they proved so influential. 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 transcendent nature of their creative genius. Where on earth did that flood of creativity come from? People always mention the influence of Elvis, Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers, but in truth the Beatles' arrival on the scene in 1962 marked an abrupt discontinuity with the music that preceded it. 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 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 (he doesn't equate 'pop' with 'rock' in the way some writers do). 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 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 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 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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on 19 October 2015
As a lifelong Beatles fan i wasn't sure if i would get anything from reading this book, but i have enjoyed reading this book and have a new outlook and appreciation for some Beatles songs that i had not had before. Ian MacDonald, has given me a new perspective on songs like," Penny Lane", and " Eleanor Rigby ", both Paul McCartney, songs. John Lennon, was good at creating his own mythology and songs like " How Do You Sleep ", from Imagine, give the impression that he was always ahead of, McCartney, in his experimentation and progress of song technique.
It is time to give the Beatles work of Paul McCartney, another listen and to " Listen without Prejudice "
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on 6 September 2014
Ian Macdonald's style of writing reminds me of Dylan's mid sixties lyrical style - crammed to the brim with phrases that seem to linger in the mind and re-emerge sporadically. For example he describes the 60s as the 'last gasp of the Western soul.' Personally I think bands such as Radiohead and Nirvana communicated the same existential longing, so if society pops up for another gasp of air every 30 years I look forward to the 2020s.

He is not afraid to criticise some of the Beatles' best loved work, such as the film soundtracks to Help and A Hard Days Night for example, and some of his put downs are quite frankly hilarious: "the immature egoist who frittered away the group's patience on sniggering nonsense like this" (Maxwell's silver hammer).

In spite of the above phrase, there is a sense that Paul hasn't yet had the appraisal his songwriting deserves, no doubt this will come posthumously.

Some of the heavier tracks on The White Album in particular come in for a drubbing. Personally these are some of my favourite tracks - The Beatles with no constraints going for an all-out rock sound which just displays their versatility. Surprisingly Revolution 9 is viewed as something of a triumph in getting an avant garde collage of dreamlike madness into millions of homes. I think one has to view many of the song reviews as a matter of opinion and just enjoy the writing, which never falters.

Macdonald's searing analysis of our times compared with the sixties and how they are a direct result of the change in values that occurred in that decade is worth a purchase alone. "The First World is currently sinking as if into a babbling, twinkling, microelectronically pulsing quicksand."

If you are over 35 you will probably agree with much of what he writes. It helps to be a Beatles fan too. I only wish that he could have written a similar track by track analysis of other artists like Dylan or Pink Floyd too.
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on 6 April 2018
Very detailed in the way the songs were composed outside and inside the recording studios. The retakes and the gradual tensions that developed within the Beatles as the years went on. The author in his prefaces seemed to have swallowed a dictionary and verges on the pretentious but pass that and the rest of the book is a goldmine of musical info.
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on 18 August 2016
Very detailed. Regarded as THE reference book on this subject, and I can see why. Just about any Beatles song you can think off is listed here (within reason), and quite a few that you've never heard of. A tad heavy on the setting the context of some of the songs within the politics and moods of the times, but that's just me being thick/not fully interested in such detail.
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on 17 October 2015
Fantastic book - you probably won't always agree with his value judgements, but he has good reasons for what he says, and has clearly done his research. Not afraid to say what he doesn't like, but he really understands why the Beatles were as significant as they were, and articulates this very well. Best book on the subject that I know.
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on 23 May 2013
If you are a Beatles fan this is a must. Also anyone interested in the sixties you won’t regret reading it. However it is a good idea to be familiar with their work because you get and album by album, song by song description of how it all came about. The important songs (I know all Beatles songs are important) are given a longer review. Excellent book
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on 26 February 2018
Excellent in every way
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on 23 February 2018
Everything you need to know about every Beatles song they recorded and lots of general stuff about the sixties music.
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on 16 January 2016
Every Beatles fan needs this book, great facts that we will all want to remember, but will need to keep referring back to it!
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