Revolution In The Head (Ian MacDonald)

beatles“Unfortunately [MacDonald] is no longer with us. He died, and so I don’t want to put him down. But while he was around I must say, I would dip into that book and think, “See now, what’s he got to say about this song?” And he’d go, “This is McCartney’s answer to– ” and I’d go, “No, it wasn’t!” It was just, I just wrote a song.” So said Paul McCartney about this author’s often strange viewpoints. I agree. Most of it is contrived and imposes meanings and contexts on to the Beatles’ music even in the cases when there clearly wasn’t any.

As the former editor of Britain’s New Musical Express, Ian MacDonald saw an open goal for writing a book about each track The Beatles had recorded using the highly technical language of music. Language completely at home within an orchestra or amongst the participants of an opera is transmuted into the original dynamism of a guitar band. Without the input of any of those involved in those tracks it simply does not work and serves no purpose other than to provide some prose for each track presented in chronological order. There are only two positives for this miserable excuse for making money. One is his appreciation of just how great the drummer was in The Beatles. There are so many tracks you can listen to and know that there is a lot going on with the drums as played by Ringo Starr.

MacDonald’s only other positive is maybe four or five pages that could have made a fairly interesting essay on the nature of pop music and how it relates to rock music especially in the mid sixties. But really it’s written for mass market consumption. For those who stick to clean, sanitized popular music. I liked the bits about ‘vertical melodic Paul’ as opposed to ‘horizontal harmonic John.’ That rang true, particularly McCartney’s assertion that he wrote the melody to “In My Life” as it is so vertical and the vocal has to hit notes higher than Lennon was usually comfortable with. But MacDonald shows his pro-Lennon bias by devoting page after page to John efforts like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus.” By contrast, Paul’s “Hey Jude” or “Hello Goodbye” get a paragraph each. “Penny Lane” gets far less attention than “Strawberry Fields” etc. He picks “She’s Leaving Home” as possibly the most emotionally moving Beatle song of them all. That was brave. It is the most girlishly pretty I agree. It conjures up gentle pink and blue swirling colours in my mind.

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You get the impression he considered Paul quite the lightweight in the partnership. He takes Lennon’s songs more seriously and almost all of his extended analyses – in which he shows how a particular Beatles composition embodied the spirit of its moment – are from Lennon’s catalogue. The author felt song lyrics must mean something to be socially significant, so Paul’s whimsy gets short shrift here. He even goes so far as to suggest “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was a major reason the group split up. As for George Harrison, MacDonald dismisses most tracks that guy ever wrote, although he was astute enough to throw in the comment (regarding the popular impact of “Something” ) “if McCartney wasn’t jealous, he should have been.” MacDonald slags off “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as ponderous and pretentious. I gave it a re-listen and agree that the song is a bit of a slog to sit through, so MacDonald does alert us to some weaknesses that might get overlooked because of the sheer familiarity of the Beatles discography and the near-unanimous praise it receives. 

But I was surprised he rubbished “Across The Universe” as childish and boring though. John would have been pissed off if he had lived to read that. As for “All You Need Is Love” being ‘unworthy’, I felt like asking what would have been worthy to sum up the summer of 1967? He harps on the recording deficiencies of “Got To Get You Into My Life” to the point of almost trying to persuade the reader its a bad track. “Lady Madonna” was just meant to be a bit of fun but MacDonald expected more: “a moderately entertaining let-down” is his terse judgment while harping negatively on about the dreamy lyrics. I’ve always liked “Glass Onion” & “Piggies” because of their eccentric instrumentation but MacDonald slams these for their disdainful lyrics. Whatever. He does give justifiable praise to my fave Beatle rocker – “Old Brown Shoe” which pleased me. ( I think it should have been the A side of a single)

This is a very dry read though. There is a lack of spirit about MacDonald’s analyses, which is typical of the non-creative mind pondering the creative mind. I guffawed over his assertion that John Lennon plagiarized Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” when he wrote “Sun King.” The latter was a tune he’d conjured up in India the year before “Albatross” became a number one hit in the UK. Although it is possible the guitar riff could have been ‘borrowed’ to enhance the melody by recording time. Back to this book; the author does not seem to have any enthusiasm or anything warm to say about many of the songs so, while its worth a read, you will likely feel quite cold about the subject and wonder why he bothered. If you want to appreciate what the Beatles were all about, there is one song that sums up their legendary joyful, breezy unorthodoxy: “Hey Bulldog”. For that one alone, we should be grateful.

Chicago 20 August 1965

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Comments

  1. Thank you for the appreciation of “Hey Bulldog”, I TOTALLY agree! It’s an underrated masterstroke! It’s unfortunate to hear, yet again, media appreciation being heaped on John and not enough praise being put onto Paul (yes, I hear he’s a bit of a douche in real life but I like to separate the man from the music). Might give this book a miss, but I appreciate the insightful review. Thanks for sharing! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Marina. Yeah, this guy was an older critic. They tended to favour John, but the younger ones are appreciating Paul more. Maybe there are other books analyzing each song from authors with a bit more enthusiasm for the band.

    Like

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