on 23 May 2012
A serious musicological work from this American scholar. Casual readers (including me) might want to note that some degree of musical knowledge is a requirement for understanding most of this book, and a caveat to that effect is given in the opening pages. Already, I feel like I'm signing up for a higher education course rather than reading a book about popular music.
As the world knows, The Beatles did not rely heavily on musical notation, reading sheet music, or conventional arrangements. They were largely self-taught through a combination of sheer instinct, enthusiasm, and a driven desire to become rock and roll musicians; at an early stage they picked up their information from listening to vinyl records, reading guitar tutors, watching musicians form chord shapes on guitars on stage or even on TV. (Of course the complete picture is that The Beatles didn't stay untutored forever; I've read elsewhere about McCartney's dedication to self-improvement, including professional piano lessons).
Everett's strategy is to take this intangible musical instinct, innate talent and energy, and reverse-engineer it into musical notation, a song form that can be written down, rather than simply replayed as a record. A fair proportion of his book consists of doing just this, in a determined effort to reveal the perfection of The Beatles' compositions. I took heart when he said in the introduction that what we respond to in The Beatles is not hi-fi recording or original mono pressings, but the beauty of the songs' structures. The drawback for me is that he explains much of this beauty in a language which, by my own admission, I'm not trained to comprehend. He even attempts to notate the un-notatable, such as the tape loops on 'Tomorrow Never Knows', and he provides the "libretto" to 'Revolution 9' as if it were a verse from a Toscanini opera. For understanding works of art which are studio-based (using the recording studio as a compositional instrument) such an academic approach seems questionable, at least.
His other strategies include (a) detailed accounts of the recording process for each song (his concept of The Beatles as Musicians is confined to the studio recordings, in this volume at any rate), where he continues the project begin by Lewisohn and MacDonald, finding yet more nuances of production through his careful listening and replays. While some of this may be familiar to readers of the two standards texts mentioned here, Everett is strong on matters such as the subtleties of vari-speeding and how they enhance the meanings of certain songs. (b) inventories of The Beatles' guitars (and other instruments, to a lesser degree), which are name-checked with precise information about make, model, year and colour. I have to admit this exhaustive guitar research is quite possibly the first time anyone has examined this aspect of The Beatles. Decide for yourself if Everett's observations about the various tone colours of these amplified instruments add any value to our understanding of the songs. (c) analysis of lyrical content, the area where I feel Everett is weakest, and he often tends to reiterate received wisdom or the research and interpretations of others. The most original observations are found in his reading of 'She's Leaving Home', a section of the book which first appeared as a scholarly monograph. This is a masterly appraisal of a McCartney character study that truly reveals Paul's gift for compression. Apart from one curious detail; Everett thinks the girl leaving home is "sneezing". Apparently this is based on his reading of the musical information he hears in the Mike Leander score, when common sense ought to suggest the reason she's clutching a handkerchief is because, well, she's crying.
Reading the actual book becomes something of a chore, because the ultra-thorough Everett doggedly applies the same analytical techniques outlined above to every single song in the corpus. This tends to introduce a degree of monotony and sameness to the book, things which you certainly won't find in the actual Beatles records. The Abbey Road LP contains some of their strongest songs; Everett makes the whole process of its production sound rather tedious, and a picture emerges of The Beatles as tired workmen at the end of their tether. In places, Everett almost achieves the impossible; he makes a Beatles song seem boring. However, it would be churlish to dismiss such a serious and devoted piece of work, and it might be better used as a reference book rather than read from start to finish.