Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Revolution in the Head

Ian MacDonald's sweeping history of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties is acerbic and encyclopedic.  MacDonald writes with a detached  irony laced with flashes of humor, and a sneaking sentimentality as the book progresses.  Few writers will surpass Revolution in the Head when it comes to Beatles criticism.

After an introductory essay, a tour de force in itself, MacDonald writes short entries for every Beatles song.  At times he goes on at length on the technical details of their like music such as their unorthodox chord changes or their refusal to read music.  Instead the Beatles relied on the spontaneity of the recording process.  Their uncanny knack for inspiration consisted of inspiration from TV jingles, newspaper clippings, their fellow pop groups, drug experimentation, mysticism, and childhood.  McCartney and Lennon are portrayed as equals with John leading them through their early period.  Eventually Paul, who was far more grounded and devoted to the band, carried them through tough times.  According to MacDonald the main difference between them came down to John's mistrust of "objective" art; pure art is always subjective in John's world. Nevertheless, each influenced the other and Paul showed just as much interest in the avant garde as John.  For example, in "Carnival of Light," one of the few Beatles tracks locked in the vaults is an experimental sound collage of McCartney's predating Lennon's abstract recording, Revolution #9.  George Harrison also evolved as a songwriter, adding a spiritual dimension to their music.

MacDonald argues post-Beatles pop music lacks one crucial ingredient - the unexpected.  That's why their music continues to inspire.  Their creative process relied on spontaneity and whim - a spirit apparent on their later albums.  By the time the Beatles recorded their first hit single "Love Me Do" in 1962 they were a well honed live act with sets dominated by American rock and roll standards.  The addition of Ringo Starr as their drummer and producer George Martin set the foundation for the Beatles to revolutionize the studio.  Their songwriting grew by leaps and bounds with hit after hit topping the charts.  The year 1964 took a serious toll on them as they reached a pinnacle of stardom few attained in the 20th century.  Under constant pressure to perform and write new material, their place in the culture changed from teen idols to New Age prophets.

The best part of the book is MacDonald's writings on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White album.  When the four assembled to record Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" they took studio technology to the limit with the use of tape loops, overdubs, double tracking.  The Eastern mysticism in the song, inspired by Lennon's reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, challenged the very ethos of 1960s Western civilization with its motifs of "anti-materialism, rapt passivity, and world skeptical focus on visionary consciousness."  After Revolver they embarked on a disastrous tour in the midst of Lennon's "Jesus" statement and hordes of screaming fans indifferent to their music.  For a time they considered going their separate ways, but they found new inspiration in the studio under McCartney's idea of performing albums like a live show - the result being Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "a work which surpasses Revolver not in form, but spirit" and created a cultural "contact high."  The high point of Lennon-McCartney partnership is on the concluding track, "A Day in the Life."  By blending images based on reality and fantasy, the song is a triumphal statement about humanity's potential to make to refashion reality.

Personally my favorite Beatles LP is The Beatles (White album).  MacDonald compares listening to the album like watching the long afternoon of the Beatles career pass by.  After a trip to India Lennon and McCartney had written lots of songs, but they were also going in different directions in their art and personal lives (which is all too apparent when listening to the album).  Recorded from May-October 1968, in the midst of personal tensions over the direction of the band, the album remains controversial for many reasons.  Many find it excessive - arguing the it would've  worked better as a single album.  Granted, there a tracks with distinct White Album feel (Happiness is a Warm Gun, Back in the USSR, etc. . ) and others feel like they belong somewhere else, but tome that's part of the magic. Throughout the album is a creative angst leading the listener on a hectic journey with no destination in sight.  The anything goes vibe of the album gives it a dangerous, anarchic quality. The optimism of Sgt. Pepper gave way to a "disturbing, dreamlike darkness" on the White album.  So much legend surrounds the album over the years ranging from debates over hidden messages to its role in Charles Manson's rampage.  Few rock albums manage to achieve such a claustrophobic relationship with the listener.  A strange effect; but endlessly compelling.

The book argues pop music and the arts in general have failed to match the creativity of the Beatles and the 1960s.  I partly agree with MacDonald's argument as clearly no one has duplicated the power of the Beatles.  Now in the doldrums of the early 21st century with economic despair everywhere and an even harder edged capitalist society perhaps we all must look inward for salvation.  But their records are still there and not just for nostalgic reasons, but to listen, learn, feel, and think.

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