Sunday, February 03, 2019

Revolution in the Head (1994)

It's no exaggeration to call Ian MacDonald's work here monumental, cataloging practically every Beatles recording that matters while arguing persuasively for the profound consequence of both the '60s and the Beatles. The argument is first sounded in the overture and frame of the opening essay, "Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade," claiming a distinct Before & After in terms of the Beatles, the '60s, and—well, MacDonald wants to make it big—so let's say world history ... make that human evolution. MacDonald is not sure how big it is, he still can't see all the edges, but he knows it's big. Yet he keeps it grounded in the concrete at the same time—the Beatles were revolutionary for the chords and chord changes they used in their music, for their innovations in verse-chorus-bridge song structures, for finding ways (usually with George Martin) to bend a sound studio (usually Abbey Road) to their will. MacDonald skillfully shapes his many judgments and arguments, and it's fun to walk down memory lane with him too, song by song. He reminded me how earthshakingly good "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was in 1964. I have always been partial to 1965 in the Beatles trajectory, especially the US version of Rubber Soul, but I see better now how Revolver—UK version, please—is the real pinnacle. MacDonald redeemed "Penny Lane" for me. He incidentally affirmed my sense that "She's Leaving Home" ranks with the best of a certain type of '60s sad pop song, with Glen Campbell's "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" and Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days." He even redeemed Sgt. Pepper a little for me, though I still think it's a weak album. But in terms of what might have been! MacDonald casually mentions the industry convention in 1967 that singles already released were considered a cheat to include on new albums. Thus, in my speculations, if Sgt. Pepper could have been conceived to include "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" it might have been as great an album as Revolver. MacDonald is also very busy, in the original 1994 edition of this book and the two that followed, one of them posthumous, about the work of restoring Paul McCartney's standing in the project, especially vis a vis John Lennon. Sometimes MacDonald comes down a little too overcompensatingly partisan for me—I don't like "Honey Pie" or "Martha My Dear" or "The Long and Winding Road" nearly as much as he does. But it's still a useful corrective to the long-term Lennon overvaluations, which I suspect mainly came of cementing in views with the grief at the time of his death. MacDonald may have made me like one of my favorites, Abbey Road, a little less, because the circumstances of its recording are so sad and disturbing. Small price to pay. Bravo to this book, excellent in every way.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, loved this. It was such a arch contrast of witheringly uncharitable musical judgment and rhapsodizing gloss ab the Beatles as a pop cultural marvel that changed everything. One of my favorites.