One a day? Pah! Two a day is how I play it. Occasionally, anyway… my first proper post today is about something I’m really into at the moment and might have mentioned before – the late Ian MacDonald’s brilliant book Revolution in the Head. One of the key bits of Beatles scholarship, it looks at every single song the band ever recorded in chronological order. I got it as a Christmas present (people have really cottoned on to my love of the Beatles – for Christmas I got a Beatles calender, mug, badges and poster in addition to the book) and I’m loving it.
Obssessive as I am, I’ve taken to reading each of the entries whilst listening to the track talked about in them. Due to the often capsule nature of MacDonald’s thoughts, and the conciseness of Beatles songs (Fact for you – “Ticket to Ride”, recorded in February ’65, was the first song by them to break three minutes), means that I’ve been motoring through the book at quite a pace. MacDonald’s examinations of the songs are consistently fascinating, and I totally agree with all the positive reviews you see on the likes of Amazon. The best thing about his writing is that whilst a fan, he was not a raving fanboy, unwilling to criticise. If he feels a musical element in a song wasn’t as original as it’s cracked up to be, he explains how the Kinks, Animals or Stones had done it first; if he feels something is corny or misplaced he says so, even sacred cows like the otherwise wonderful electric piano solo in “In My Life”. In fact, the critical parts are often the best, and certainly the funniest, parts of the book. Take this example, about unreleased track “If You’ve Got Trouble”:
“…apparently designed to exploit Starr’s image as the amiable beringed twit of the group. If the lyric is preposterous, the tune does Ringo no favours either, requiring him to sing in triple time whilst driving a 4/4 rock-and-roll thrash. So dire that no further attempts were made on it after the first take, this track has no claim on posterity’s attention, other than its hint that the “comedy song” concept mooted a few months later had been in the air for some time.”
He’s razor sharp. Besides being as cutting as that, MacDonald also points out little things which you might have noticed before, but hadn’t thought about in any depth. One such example is George Martin’s hilariously dodgy sounding piano flourishes on Please Please Me track “Misery” which on further examination, just sound completely daft. On top of that, he also points out intriguing mistakes (such as instruments abruptly cutting out in some cases), helps you understand which songs were laboured over and which were rushed, and explains that sometimes, official song credits just can’t be believed, such as “I’m Looking Through You”, which may well not feature Harrison at all, even though the credits say he played lead guitar. Fascinating stuff for a Beatles fanatic like me, but probably also for anyone interested in rock or 60s music in general – MacDonald frequently refers to the many artists of the late 50s (“proto-rock heroes” as George Starostin memorably called them) that inspired The Beatles and were often covered by them, both live and on the early records.
At the same time as reading and listening through all this, I’ve been writing my third discography retrospective for this blog, which itself is about The Beatles, and whilst it hasn’t been my Bible, MacDonald’s book has certainly offered an interesting perspective, helping me see these songs for what they are, which was certainly his intention. I’ve just finished my section on Help! so it’s a way off finished, but in the meantime my retrospectives of Foo Fighters and The Clash are still around to whet your appetite and show you how it all works.