Friday, January 28, 2011

Ian McDonald - Revolution in the Head

This is ideally how all music books should be written: a thoughtful, song-by-song analysis that puts the focus back where it once belonged, on the music.  Covering all 186 Beatles originals as well as their covers, McDonald deftly mixes biography, musical analysis, and social observation via the Beatles' recorded output.  The book begins with a lengthy sociological analysis of the 1960s that is intellectually heady and highly politically opinionated, with references spanning from Derrida to McLuhan.  While it's certainly interesting and worth the time if you're interested in that sort of thing, it can easily be skipped if you want to simply dive into the music.  McDonald's sociological criticisms pop up here and there throughout other passages in the book, but with a few exceptions (it would be disengenous to review "Revolution" #1 and #9 without touching on the political and cultural goings around of the time, wouldn't it?), the emphasis shifts over squarely to purely musical analysis, with biographical snippets of the Beatles' lives at the time to give the songs' meanings context.  McDonald's observations obviously sprout from that of a scholar trained in musical theory, but he doesn't get too bogged down in technical detail, carefully explaining in layman's terms how the chord progressions and performances shape and color the tunes.  Some of the historical data of recording dates and who played what when may be in dispute, but such matters nearly always seem to be, don't they?  Likewise his conjectures on the Beatles' influences on particular tracks (i.e., where did Paul knick the guitar solo for "Taxman", was it Jeff Beck?) may be ultimately educated guesses, but they are educated and they are pretty good guesses given the data known.  The deconstructions of the individual songs in purely musical terms may be rough going for those fans who've never picked up an instrument themselves, but anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of basic chords and harmonics shouldn't find McDonald's prose difficult to follow.  The individual song entries range from a brief paragraph for those songs that McDonalds considers minor ("You Won't See Me," "Don't Pass Me By," etc.), with more substantial songs given a full page review ("Nowhere Man," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," etc.), and with a handful of songs that he considers especially important to the Beatles' musical development, three to five full page reviews ("Tomorrow Never Knows," "Strawberry Fields," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "I Am The Walrus," "A Day In The Life", etc.).

McDonald was obviously a fan and the book is obviously a labor of love, but a valid criticism of his approach is that he's aware of his fanboyism and thus bends over too far in the other direction to prove that he can be coldly analytical of the Beatles' music.  McDonald makes no pretense of objectivity, with his opinions flatly stated upfront - if he thinks a track is rubbish, he makes no bones of saying so.  Well, it would be a pretty boring book if it didn't offer spirited opinionating as well as dry analysis, wouldn't it?  The problem is that, knee-deep in his analyzing, McDonald hardly finds any Beatles track that he can't turn his microscope on and find some flaw in either composition or performance.  Even songs that he unabashedly loves and states are Beatles masterpieces, such as noting that the middle eight of "Yesterday," is noticably less inspired than the main melody.  His biases are plain.  While he balances his judgements of John and Paul to the point where it's hard to tell which one he prefers, he's overly dismissive of George Harrison, regarding nearly all of his songs as overly flawed, with the exceptions of "Long Long Long," "Taxman," and "Something," (and even then, he backhandedly credits much of the success of "Taxman," to Paul).  He also clearly prefers the 'pop' of their glorious Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's mid-period to the 'rock' of their late-period.  The 'White Album' is my personally favorite Beatles album, yet he dismisses half the record as padded with second-rate compositions.  Which, on reflection, is partially true - many of that double LP's tracks are lightweight throwaways by Beatles standards.  That's another good selling point of the book - McDonald makes the reader reevaluate the Beatles' individual songs, to go back to the records and listen more carefully after reading his analysis.  That's what the best musical criticism should do: reengage your interest and excitement in listening to music that you enjoy, to listen again with more nuanced if not fresher ears.

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