I’m a bigger Beatlemaniac than most people I know, and that’s said with equal parts swagger and self-deprecation. I’ve put a lot of joyful effort into my appreciation, and I’m proud of it, but I also know that most people I know live more or less in the present and, on the whole, would reasonably prefer to listen to bands alive and touring, at least those whose most recent new album was put out less than forty years ago.
It’s no small feat that Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald, is the best Beatles’ book I’ve ever read. I’ve enjoyed many others, those from which I learned so much of the Beatles’ history and discography, but none to the degree with which I embraced this one. As a capstone to the reading I’d enjoyed before it, the book was fascinating and a pleasure to read – but it was so much more than a capstone.
MacDonald was most effective in providing an instructive but not pedantic balance of text and context. The bulk of the book is a song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ catalogue, addressing anything from the song structure, to the lyrics, to the source of inspiration. That large middle section is bookended: We’re introduced to the study by a description of some of the many factors that went into the Beatles’ rise, really how the conditions were ideal for a skilled, enthusiastic group of musicians to detonate the restrictive attitudes of the 1950s and early 1960s and through this new music to “turn on” a generation of young people a couple of years before they’d turn more to drugs for that. The epilogue then suggests that the reliance on mechanization (for rhythm and tuning) has robbed modern pop music of its soul (if it ever had a soul to begin with), praising the performing ability and ingenuity of 60s music stars for creating so many lively, expressive songs.
The analysis and commentary on every Beatles track extended to many unreleased ones. The examinations were altogether insightful and, refreshingly, not uniformly positive. Other books I’ve read have tended almost to refrain from judgment, rather putting forth, say, just the stories behind the songs rather than addressing any areas of weakness. MacDonald, before his death a music journalist, here writes about these songs objectively, even though it’s also clear he cares very much about this catalogue and this group. He openly calls out the weaker tracks (including to my horror many I rather like) but is also able to explain why he feels that way, and in doing so, also focuses and heightens his praise on the songs where the Beatles did their superlative work.
I also want to point out that beyond being informative, MacDonald writes beautifully. As it is, the book can veer towards dryness at times (and would careen right into it for people who aren’t as crazy into this kind of Beatles stuff as I am) but that’s in the nature of the undertaking. It’s encyclopedic, relentless. But throughout, MacDonald demonstrates wonderful diction in elucidating his take on this material. He makes even some of the more complicated musical points relatable, which is integral to a study of this sort, to demonstrate some of the nuts and bolts of why the Beatles music was so inventive, yet also pleasing and familiar. His style reminds me very much of Alain de Botton’s writing, not least because it’s occasionally hysterical.
The song analyses are presented in the order in which the Beatles recorded them. It’s an interesting, if obvious, way to attack the material, and I find it preferable to a study organized by album listings. Now, by knowing that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the first track recorded for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that it and “Penny Lane” were removed only for need of a single, I’m able to put them in their proper context. I can see how those recordings influenced the rest of Sgt. Pepper, rather than just the Magical Mystery Tour album on which I’m used to seeing them listed. (And you’re free now to point out that for such a Beatlemaniac, maybe I should have known that recording sequence already. Whatever. It’s just a question of enthusiasm, man.)
In the end, this book has lead me to a deeper appreciation of the Beatles’ music – the music itself, which is really at the heart of this project, and not to be swept away just for the sake of historical context. Frankly, it also lead to a new reverence for the Beatles themselves. I was able to see a little more into how they worked, how quickly they worked – it’s almost sickening how productive they could be. The Beatles had their own heroes, as they themselves are to many, and they played along to records just as latter-day bedroom guitarists do. By seeing the dates and some of the times when they recorded these songs humanizes them to an extent I’d never known (Mark Lewisohn’s book Beatles Recording Sessions might easily do the same). But then, just as they’re being humanized, I consider all they accomplished and how much they’ve meant to the world and I think, maybe they weren’t so much like the rest of us after all.