on 10 December 2008
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.
on 6 January 2009
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.
on 11 November 2010
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).
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.
on 27 July 2014
This is really the place to start when reading Beatles books. When I first read the book (I read it at Uni - a friend had it, so I flicked through it) you just go through all you favourite songs, but eventually I read it in a linear fashion. The latest version of the book includes more details and titbits, mainly on McCartney via his biographer Myles.
So what did I learn:
1) Lennon and McCartney rarely wrote together after the 1963 but would add bits to each other songs and write the odd genuine collaboration. McCartney often added middle eights and important harmony to Lennon tracks - i.e. the into to Strawberry Fields Forever. As the more talented musician (much of the problem McCartney has with Harrison is that he can write and play much better guitar solos and often does - e.g. the breathtaking solo on Taxman is McCartney) he adds much to Lennon's actual music. Lennon writes in quite horizontal way that lacked harmonic variety. This is what Paul and to be fair George Martin with his arrangements added to Lennon much of the arrangement of I am the Walrus is down to Martin. If you listen to Lennon's solo stuff it's quite plodding without their input. Lennon on the other hand wrote better lyrics and was probably the only check on McCartney's lack of self censorship. McDonald argues that McCartney often struggled with meaning and was in love with harmony for its own sakes. He also loved pre-rock and roll stuff, or granny music as Lennon snobbishly dismissed it as. Unchecked by Lennon's sarcasm you get stuff like Maxwell's Silver Hammer. McCartney's solo stuff is full of sometimes quite bland lyrics. Probably because he was more shy about his private life. The exceptions to this are the Jane Asher inspired songs and some of his songs bemoaning the end of the band.
2. The multi-faceted importance of Lennon. Lennon was the one they all wanted to impress. He had an X factor that McDonald doesn't really get to the bottom of, and I've yet to read anyone who could. As a man he was incredibly complex and for much of his time desperately unhappy with himself and being a Beatle. The drugs, the religion; Yoko Ono; Peace and his later political protest were all part of him desperately searching for his answer. I don't think he ever found it. The Beatles had been that answer for most of his adult life but ultimately Ono replaces them and he divorces the band. Being in the Beatles for Lennon was as much an emotional thing as it was a musical one.
3. Lennon (with Macca support) is the star of the albums up to Rubber Soul and McCartney fingerprints are more over Revolver, Pepper and Abbey Road (with Lennon support). (The White Album and Let it Be are the albums where no one is in charge). Without doubt the drugs softening Lennon's character around 1966-67 form the basis of the psychedelic Lennon and he accepts McCartney's leadership. Once he comes of LSD and meets Ono all that changes. Abbey Road is saved By Harrion's best songs, McCartney's idea of the long medley and the production work of Martin and Emerick. Lennon can barely be bothered to play on songs that he's not written.
4. Some wonderful detail on the production of the albums and the inspiration for musically and lyrically for the songs. Moreover you get a real sense of the 60s and the anti-establishment atmosphere that they all shared. 60s ideas like "random" and seeing drugs as being an artistic way of perceiving reality seem ludicrous now but understandable 50 years on. McDonald does not glamourise these aspects I should add.
5. It's critical of the songs, so the best stuff gets praised and some weak songs are criticised. What gets criticised tends to be filler stuff and George Harrison efforts. You'll find that there'll be odd assessments of songs that you disagree with, he's not keen on For You Blue or Across the Universe, both tunes I love, but mainly I think he's spot on.
6. The Reunion stuff gets short shrift in the revised version. Probably fairly. He does a nice postscript on why the Beatles solo efforts never matched their group efforts. The essay on the Sixties and the Beatles is brilliant though a bit dated (it's conclusions on technology are pre-social media).
McCartney's not a fan of the book mainly because there elements of speculation in the book that he disagrees with. In the main though I'd say that he comes off the best. Lennon's comes across as the more original talent, but he needed the support of McCartney and George Martin to fully articulate it. It becomes clear that technically he was almost clueless about technology and inarticulate about explaining how he wanted the arrangements done, unlike the more literate McCartney. He's also the worst behaved and probably cared the least of the four about the band by about 1968 with Harrison a close second. His accusations against McCartney's leadership are unfair and given the mess he led the Band in by adopting Klein it's pretty clear that he was incapable of the kind of leadership that was needed. Harrison and Starr are both portrayed as very much the second tier Beatles but get their dues.
on 13 January 2009
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.
on 17 June 2009
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.
on 11 March 2015
From the description you might think this is a dry as dust musical analysis of the songwriting output of the Beatles but I found it to be anything but. Yes, the important musical analysis (key exposure, background to composition and arrangement details) is all there but the text is sprinkled with anecdotes and footnotes, all of which make this a thoroughly entertaining read.
The background to each song is given, based on evidence drawn from biographical and autobiographical writings as well as the author's notes on the musical, moral and political scene for the years in question, and ideas given for the inspiration for both the music and the lyrics as well as how they came together. This helps put each song in context, both with the Beatles development and what was happening at the time of both composition and release. The footnotes also draw comparison with other notable songwriters of the period and how they, wittingly or unwittingly, influenced and were themselves influenced by the Beatles output.
I was particularly entranced by the author's analysis of Ringo's drumming and how his unique technique helped evolve the Beatles' sound and texture. If you've ever wondered why Ringo is considered one of the best pop/rock drummers, you'll discover why as you go through the book.
Naturally the author has particular favourites when it comes to both songs and composers - this wouldn't be such an entertaining read if it was totally dispassionate. However much of this is tempered by careful consideration of the popularity of songs which are marked down for their comparative simplicity. For instance the author is quite disparaging about much of the content of 'Magical Mystery Tour' (in comparison to the high note set by the majority of 'Sgt Pepper') but readily accedes that it was well accepted by fans as well as showing that 'I am the Walrus' is much, much more than just a 'nonsense' song and he, quite rightly, places it as one of Lennon's best.
So, while you may not always agree with the author's preferences for certain songs, everything in this book will make you want to listen to all the Beatles collection again and again, armed with an analysis of each inflection of composition, instrumentation, arrangement and engineering. A fabulous companion to the Beatles music and one I wouldn't be without.
on 6 January 2014
I'd like to give this book five stars as I'd like as many music enthusiasts as possible to read it. It is 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'll 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.
on 13 August 2006
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.