The Omnivore May 2014

Reading the Beatles

Forget the recent spate of books on the Fab Four. The only volume you need was published 20 years ago today …
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At the press conference at JFK airport, on virgin soil, they do their by-now fully developed thing: four mouths in a row, four bobbing heads, four sets of speculative-aggressive eyes. Unnerving polyphonic comedy. The atmosphere in the room is boisterous, the questions fatuous. How much money do you expect to take out of this country? How many are bald, if you have to wear those wigs? Are you for real? “Come and have a feel.” That could only be John: the spark-jump into rhyme, the louche challenge. George, meanwhile, looking darkly French as he sometimes does, is warding off idiot black magic with a totemic cigarette. Two days later they’re on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles in black and white, glimmering weirdly. Paul and George are sexual stick men; John, bandy-legged rock-and-roll portal, is meatier, bouncing on shit-kicker thighs; Ringo, the absurdist Beatle, syncopates his hair and stirs his drum kit with a distant smile, as if resigned and reconciled already to the madness. And spreading away from these four men, continent-wide, a conflagration of screams.

It’s been 50 years since the switch was flipped on American Beatlemania—perhaps the purest Beatlemania there ever was, certainly the most virulent—and torrents of analysis commemorate the occasion. Recently we have seen the publication of All the Songs, by Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin; The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962–1970, by Kevin Howlett; and Tune In, the first volume, 900-plus pages long, of Mark Lewisohn’s projected biographical trilogy. But with no disrespect to these authors or their labors, if it’s a radical reexperiencing of the Beatles that you’re after, a refreshing of your Beatle-chemicals, there’s only one book you need.

Formally, Revolution in the Head, by the music critic Ian MacDonald—the book is celebrating its own 20th anniversary—is a song-by-song guide to the music of the Beatles: a sequence of bite-size critiques and mini essays that begins with their Hamburg-era version of “My Bonnie” (“selected [for recording] because of incessant requests for it from drunken sailors”) and ends with 1970’s “I Me Mine” (which “juxtaposes a self-pitying Gallic waltz … against a clamourous blues shuffle”). One of the book’s several paradoxes is that, while lamenting in the grandest style the fragmentations of modernity and the “contemporary intellectual scorn for narrative,” its author chose to proceed in slivers and splinters—in YouTube clips, essentially, for the sonic imagination. But that’s how he did it, and the effect is kaleidoscopic: MacDonald’s visions and obsessions rotate brilliantly through the song pattern, reflecting and refracting one another in chords, harmonies, and crashes of cymbal. (It’s also a great bathroom book.)

Beatles music, as a subject, confers upon the writer a unique and immediate privilege: he or she is writing—I’m going to say literally—from inside the nervous system of the reader. We the people are wired with these songs, wired by them, their filaments to our fingertips, such that a good phrase or image can set off within us a kind of autonomic chime of recognition. In this area MacDonald is flat-out the best ever, working deep in the nested cables and rerouting our appreciation as he goes. Would you consider “Ticket to Ride” a “bitter, dissonant mid-tempo song with a dragging beat”? I didn’t, or hadn’t, until I read Revolution in the Head. Now I will never hear it as anything else. MacDonald continues: “The word ‘sad’ ”—as in I think I’m gonna be sad—“here carries a weight graphically embodied in the track’s oppressive pedal tonality and deliberately cumbersome drums. There is, too, a narcotic passivity about Lennon’s lyric.”

Which brings us to the Moby-Dick aspect of Revolution in the Head: its pursuit, across some 400 pages and nearly 200 songs, of John Winston Lennon—his mystery, his core. John/Paul dualism is the biggest cliché of Beatleology—chirpy Paul with his tunes; tormented, twanging John—but no one does it like MacDonald:

Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon’s melodies tend to move up and down as little as possible, weaving deviously through their harmonies in chains of repeated notes … McCartney’s lines, by contrast, display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in scalar steps and wide intervals.

To be admired in these lines, simultaneously if possible, are the musicological insight, the character development, and the consummate literary artistry. (Check out the Lennonoid buzz-in-the-sinuses of the ē sound in weaving deviously contrasting with the broader and more cheerfully Pauline ā noise in ranging, stave, and scalar.) Against the Beatles’ third songwriter, George Harrison, Revolution in the Head maintains a remarkably steady animus. “Think for Yourself” is a “typically sour jibe.” “Only a Northern Song” is a “self-indulgent dirge.” Even “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” exhibits a “browbeating self-importance” and a “dull grandiosity.” Poor George!

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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