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!

In the mythic scheme of Revolution in the Head, Paul is Eros and John is Thanatos. And, MacDonald being MacDonald, it’s the death-pull of John that exerts the greater force. The John who decamped to the mansion in Weybridge from 1964 to 1968, in particular, is MacDonald’s white whale: acid-gobbling, pre-Yoko John, dilating/dissolving in the too-big house “in the stockbroker belt of London’s western fringe.” “Help!” finds him “mentally exhausted … isolated and alienated in his multi-roomed mansion.” Weybridge John—with his honeycomb of useless rooms and his genius prostrated before the Void—is inside the “moral vacuum” that is “at the heart of the counterculture,” or perhaps it is inside him. By 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he is “psychologically addicted to LSD, taking it daily and living in one long, listless chemically altered state.” The entry on the song begins with a polemic against LSD (“this dangerous drug”), even though MacDonald goes on to produce a total technical-psychedelic blowout of a description for Ringo’s drum pattern: “Performed mainly on a pair of slack-tuned tom-toms—damped, compressed, and recorded with massive echo—it created the image of a cosmic tabla played by a Vedic deity riding in a storm-cloud.” By the time we get to “Glass Onion,” John has become complicit in his own future assassination:

The Beatles attracted more crackpot fixations than anyone apart from Dylan. While, at the time, they may have seemed enough like harmless fun for Lennon to make them the subject of the present sneeringly sarcastic song, in the end they returned to kill him.

Ian MacDonald committed suicide in 2003. His inner life was his own, but the fact that he killed himself is relevant to Revolution in the Head insofar as the book describes, and to some degree undergoes, not just a spiritual crisis but the spiritual crisis. “A malignant rot has spread through the Western mind since the mid-Seventies: the virus of meaninglessness,” MacDonald writes. The ’60s were the “last gasp of the Western soul.” The Beatles were not to blame, but, being “perfect McLuhanites,” they allowed it all, gleefully, to rush through them. And now? “Radically disunited, we live dominated by and addicted to gadgets, our raison d’être and sense of community unfixably broken.” Late in his life, MacDonald published a long, mystical piece on the songwriter Nick Drake (also a suicide), and it makes for sorrowful reading, Drake’s gauzy, renunciatory phrasings seeming to draw MacDonald away from reality. “Can it be that the materialist world, in which there is no intrinsic meaning, is killing our souls?” The truth is that MacDonald wrote least successfully when writing in this general, cosmically disillusioned way. His genius, his joy, was for the particular—the chord, the chemical, the warped time in a Ringo drum fill. Exemplary while being utterly idiosyncratic (this is the crowning paradox of Revolution in the Head), MacDonald turned critical prose into a sensorium, and his reactions linger and extend like the “jangling arpeggiated fade” at the end of “A Hard Day’s Night”: “a ticktocking swing between a fifthless Am7 and F major, each contained within the song’s opening chord.” Ticktocking outward, forever.

Ian MacDonald on the Beatles

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963): “Going above all for impact, it makes no attempt at sustained melody, moving instead in half-bar phrases governed by its fourth-dominated harmony, the result of two writers competing with each other side by side at the same piano.”“I’m Only Sleeping” (1966): “While not as showy as that of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ the texture of ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ with its dreamy multitracking, dim halo of slowed cymbal sound, and softly tiptoeing bass, is equally deep in artifice.”

“Good Morning Good Morning” (1967): “Rhythmically unruly, the track proceeds in a clumsy sideways gallop lashed on by mighty pugilistic smashes on the crash cymbal.”

“Across the Universe” (1969): “A trancelike succession of trochees … Sadly, its vague pretensions and listless melody are rather too obviously the products of acid grandiosity rendered gentle by sheer exhaustion.”