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Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald (1994)


Review 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 MacDonald 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 musicians 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. MacDonald 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 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 privileged 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; MacDonald 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 MacDonald 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 song witers. 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 criticism, the rest of the book is so precise, perfectly observed and compelling that it can only be given five stars.

Review 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.

May 5, 2013 Posted by | Book Revolution In The Head The Beatles Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald | , | Leave a comment