Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head may perhaps be the most poignant and significant book published regarding The Beatles. Writing a biographical book in itself is a labor of love, but with Revolution in the Head, MacDonald – a true musicologist – goes above and beyond, combining fascinating research and his remarkably keen ear to create this chronological song-by-song analysis of The Beatles creative (and sometimes not so creative) recorded output over the span of their career as a band.
MacDonald’s introduction, an essay titled Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade, was a meal in itself, was, in summary, a thought provoking look at The Beatles, the Sixties and the combined impact of the two on the Twentieth Century and beyond. One interesting point of note was his observation of the differences between the English and American cultures, and how they affected each ones perception of The Beatles differently.
Once I got past the introduction, the body of the book, entitled ‘The Beatles Records’ is divided into four parts and chronologically listing each individual song The Beatles recorded. Each song entry consists of a list of the musicians present on the recording of that song, the instruments they played, recording dates, the producers and engineers, as well as the dates of the UK and US releases. What follows for each entry is an essay (of varying length) based around the song being listed.
The remarkable achievement of this book is the extraordinary job MacDonald did putting together all of the available knowledge about how The Beatles recorded their music and presenting it as part of his account of their rise and fall, hence weaving a story out of what might initially seem like a reference book. Additionally, his assessments as to which of The Beatles songs are more inspired than others were – for the most part – on point. MacDonald’s light and breezy writing style (at least in the body) also made this comprehensive tome enjoyable and entertaining to read, as it was difficult to put down.
Admittedly it took me the better part of three months to finish Revolution in the Head, because as I read, I listened to each song (yes, every one, in some cases several times) and, like the author, dissected each track (which made it a long read). I was astounded by MacDonald’s acute ear, and – as a huge Beatles fan – fascinated by the details of the what, where, when, how and why behind each recording.
For sure, MacDonald was extremely objective. This reads less like it was written by a fan, although I have no question that he was, but more like it was written by a critic. MacDonald pointed at least a dozen recording flaws in tunes I’d listened to hundreds of times, but reading along it was as if I were listening for the first time – or at least ‘really’ listening.
Even though I did not agree with the author on every song (I happen to love Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Across The Universe, where MacDonald clearly did not think them worthy of The Beatles), I wholeheartedly agreed with his assessments of both Lennon and McCartney, particularly McCartney’s admirable yet futile continual efforts to hold the band together. I also found his perspective on The Beatles divergence from pop to rock, a theory not too dissimilar to that of author Elijah Wald in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Beatles truly changed everything, as MacDonald’s book does a masterful job of illustrating. I also found it fascinating how MacDonald attributed much of The Beatles evolution to the drugs they were taking at each stage of their career, an observation which is likely right on point.
Revolution in the Head is truly epic, astoundingly comprehensive and more complete than I could have ever imagined. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cannon, but it’s the closest to it I’ve read so far. Although the few dozen books I have read hardly amounts to everything that’s out there, I can already tell that MacDonald’s book will be the one I come back to time and time again.
For the hardcore Beatle fan, this is the book not to skip.
DJ and Musicologist
For other thoughts and suggested reading on The Beatles, click here