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Controversial assessment of the Fab Four
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.