Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tell me why....

(Another look at Ian MacDonald's REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD, a song-by-song analysis of the Beatles' recorded works....)
The updated version of MacDonald's REVOLUTION (2007) isn't that diffrent from the 1994 original, tho it does add trax & info from the Beatles' ANTHOLOGY packages & LIVE AT THE BBC.
I remain impressed w/ the writing & the fact that MacDonald got SO MUCH out of a chronological journey thru the Beatles' recorded output, almost as if no1 had ever written about this stuff B4 -- tho MacDonald includes a fairly long bibliography showing that LOTS of writers have hadda bash at this material. (He didn't include Bob Spitz's massive, Ndless, unrevealing bio THE BEATLES, tho it may have bn published after MacDonald suicided in 2003 -- my memry may B failing me here.) The only other overview that comes NEwhere close 2 what MacDonald achieved here is Tim Riley's dry-but-still-in4mative TELL ME WHY (1988). If yr a Beatles fan, yr gonna hava good time.
A short Dscription: Basically what MacDonald did here was write mini-essays on nearly 200 Beatles songs in order of their completion, including narratives on how the songs sound, their impact on both the record charts & on popular culture, who played what on which, Bhind-the-scenes Dtails on how the songs came 2 B written & recorded, the album/single & date of their original release, & much more. He even includes Dscriptions of a few tracks we'll probly never hear....
Tho there's no question that MacDonald was a Beatles fan, he was amazingly open-minded about both their strengths & weaknesses, was unafraid 2 point-out "lazy," "slovenly" work (much of the immediately-post-SGT. PEPPER era), & never holds back when they nail something -- "A Day in the Life," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "I Am the Walrus" & others get long, Dtailed write-ups.
It's in the Bhind-the-scenes Dtails & the long discussions of how the Fabs achieved their more complicated effects that MacDonald really scores. These discussions R never boring, & summa this stuff will make U laff out-loud.
Still 1 of my favrite parts of the book is where MacDonald Xplains why producer George Martin assigned Paul 2 sing the vocal leading in2 the harmonica middle-break on "Love Me Do" -- Bcos John, who had previously bn singing the vocal B4 moving 2 the harmonica, "had been singing 'Love me waaah!' -- which was deemed uncommercial." ... On "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Lennon asked Martin 4 "a 'fairground' production, wherein one could smell the sawdust -- which, while not in the narrowest sense a musical specification, was by Lennon's standards a clear and reasonable request. He once asked Martin to make one of his songs sound like an orange."
I even Njoyed the long preface that attempts 2 show the 4's massive impact on pop culture -- we may all know this stuff, but MacDonald was around while it was happening, & while I didn't necessarily need Sixties' philosophy re-Xplained 2 me, I can C where some younger readers might need some additional context. & MacDonald's views R always intresting 2 read.
4 me, the best things in the book R his critical judgements. Ghod knows I don't always agree w/ him, but part of what makes this book great is that MacDonald never holds back on his opinions. He can even B a little harsh, which can B a lotta fun 2 read.
A few (thousand) Xamples: He calls the contents of ABBEY ROAD "erratic and often hollow"; feels that 1/2 the songs on the WHITE ALBUM "are poor by earlier standards"; calls the HELP! album "flimsy" (the original British version now on CD ain't that bad); feels "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is "poorly thought out, succeeding more as a glamourous production"; calls Harrison's "Piggies" "an embarrassing blot on his discography"; McCartney's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a "ghastly miscalculation ... by far his worst lapse of taste"; "Birthday" "quickly wears thin"; calls George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" "plodding" & sez it "quickly becomes tiresome"; calls "Paperback Writer" contrived; "Nowhere Man" is "dirge-like"; calls Paul's "I Will" "close to muzak, were the craftsmanship not so cunning"; finds Lennon's "Across the Universe" "boring"; "Here, There and Everywhere" is "chintzy and rather cloying"; Lennon's "It's Only Love" is "a twee make-weight"; Paul's "The Night Before" & John's "I'll Cry Instead" R "slight"; "Tell Me Why" is "filler"; the masterful "Ticket to Ride" is "bitter, dissonant, with a dragging beat"; "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is the Fabs' "first original to outstay its welcome"; he doesn't think much of "Here Comes the Sun," "Helter Skelter" or "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)"; "Everybody's Trying to be My Baby" is "lame"; "Mr. Moonlight" is "gross"; he even thinks "Revolution 9" is a significant pop-culture event, if not a significant piece of music.
(George took quite a beating in that list, which is odd Bcos MacDonald greatly admires Harrison's "thoughtfulness," dry wit & cynicism. MacDonald also thinks much more of McCartney's composing & instrumental abilities than many other critics. & Lennon's quirks R subjected 2 much in-depth analysis.)
MacDonald also boosts a few songs he feels R unfairly overlooked: Harrison's "Old Brown Shoe" is "an archetypal B-side from an era when B-sides were worth flipping a single over for"; "Mr. Kite!" is "ingenious ... irresistible"; Paul's "For No One" is "formally, one of McCartney's most perfect pieces"; "From Me to You" (which has always bored me) was "a brilliant consolidation of their emerging sound." & there R other raves.
I'll admit my own biases: I'd hoped 4 longer write-ups on a lotta my faves -- "There's a Place," "Tell Me Why," "Anytime at All," "And Your Bird Can Sing," the dreamy "Dear Prudence," the underrated "Wait," "Back in the USSR," "For No One," "It's Only Love," "Got to Get You Into My Life," "Eight Days a Week," "The Night Before," "I Need You," "You Never Give Me Your Money/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End," "Things We Said Today," etc.
But I'll bet if U pick up this book U'll turn 2 1 of yr faves 2 C what MacDonald thinks -- & then U won't want 2 put the book down.... U could get lost in here 4 yrs. There R still parts I haven't finished reading, still songs I've never heard that I'd like 2 know more about. & this is THE place 2 go if U want 2 know more....

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