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Ian MacDonald (1) (1948–2003)

Teoksen Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties tekijä

Katso täsmennyssivulta muut tekijät, joiden nimi on Ian MacDonald.

6 teosta 914 jäsentä 20 arvostelua

Tekijän teokset

The New Shostakovich (1990) 44 kappaletta
The People's Music (2003) 40 kappaletta
The Beatles at Number 1 (2003) 7 kappaletta
The ‰Beatles (2000) 7 kappaletta

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Virallinen nimi
MacCormick, Ian



Great book that goes into details on each of the Beatles songs, providing context but concentrating on the intricacies of each recording.
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squealermusic | 13 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 16, 2023 |
A biography that is a challenging and thought-provoking polemic of the musical kind. The author argues that Shostakovich's music cannot be extricated from the Soviet program of propaganda and political control. However you view MacDonald's take on the influence of the Soviet political machine, Shostakovich's music remains, for me, as often expressing divergent opinions and both subtle and not so subtle evidence of his views that were thoroughly anti-Soviet.
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jwhenderson | 2 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 21, 2022 |
I worked through this book slowly, taking it as an occasion to listen carefully to the recorded output of The Beatles in sequence. The entries on the earlier songs tend to center on descriptions of how the records were made, based on careful listening. MacDonald is knowledgeable about both music theory and recording techniques; with his guidance, I discovered some touches that had escaped my notice before.
MacDonald mentions the fact that the grueling touring and recording pace of the group in those early years was fueled by alcohol and amphetamines but only begins to explore the interplay of drugs and creativity once Bob Dylan introduces them to marijuana. MacDonald detects both the sense of liberation and unlimited creativity combined with muddled passivity in the resulting LP, Rubber Soul.
With varying degrees of alacrity, the group began to experiment with LSD, whose influence begins to make itself felt — particularly on John Lennon — on the next Beatles’ LP, Revolver. For the book, this acts as a turning point. From here on out, MacDonald’s remarks on some of the songs become extended essays on their cultural impact. Among the songs provided such treatment are “She Said She Said,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “I Am the Walrus,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Somewhat surprisingly, this list also includes “Revolution 9.” MacDonald concedes that few listen to this track more than once, yet calls it “one of the most significant acts The Beatles every perpetrated.”
Anyone familiar with the authorship of these songs quickly detects that most of the songs receiving lengthy explorations of significance are by John Lennon. You might suspect from this that MacDonald is one of those writers who conclude that Lennon was the core of the group, but this isn’t so. He is forthright in his praise of Paul McCartney’s skills in melody, production, and as a multi-instrumentalist. He also makes it clear that it was McCartney’s energy and commitment that, more than anything else, kept the group together after the disastrous summer 1966 tour. But these qualities don’t automatically translate into cultural significance.
The flip side of MacDonald’s sense of Lennon’s role in making The Beatles the dominant cultural phenomenon of the Sixties comes in his unsparing depiction of the nearly disastrous effect of Lennon’s immersion in acid. Going beyond self-transcendence, it led to the near-extinction of not only Lennon’s sense of self but also that of many fans who modeled their behavior on his.
As this book sees it, The Beatles rose to ever greater eminence with each succeeding recording session, producing in Revolver a near-masterpiece, then their pinnacle, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Less than four weeks after putting the finishing touches on that achievement, they returned to the studio to begin the aural chronicle of their decline, starting with “Magical Mystery Tour.” Many fine songs followed in the next three years before the group called it quits, as well as the perfecting of their studio technique in their final LP, Abbey Road, but overall, the denouement betrays the triumph of form over inspiration.
MacDonald includes, in addition to an index, a helpful glossary of musical terms and a chronology, correlating the history of The Beatles with what was happening in world events, on the music charts, and in culture in general. I just skimmed this. His note introducing the section is insightful but marred by a general tone that music these days just isn’t as good as it was in the Sixties.
Anyone interested in popular culture in general, and The Beatles, in particular, will find much to think about in these pages, and here and there some things to argue with.
… (lisätietoja)
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HenrySt123 | 13 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jul 19, 2021 |
The Sixties have left a cultural hangover that we haven't slept off in 50 years, and The Beatles were one of the strongest drinks of that decade. Even if you're not a superfan, it's worth pondering why so many people keep coming back to the bar for another round, and MacDonald produced an incredibly well-researched look into their music and its place in that decade and beyond that actually discusses the music itself, as well as its social context, without devolving into Baby Boomer navel-gazing or unthinking fandom, though he tacks on some endearingly reactionary rants about how much better music was back in the day. I had never read a book on The Beatles before, but now I don't feel like I need another one. MacDonald is "critical" in the best sense of the word, enthusiastically poring over just about every aspect of the songs, from the historical background to the composition to the lyrics to the music, with a perceptive, nuanced, intelligent ear for what made their songs so surprising and distinctive. He's able to show where they fit into the context of their times, and also why they still matter to so many people, while not failing to point out when they wrote a lazy tune or flubbed a take. Best of all, even if you were understandably a bit tired of the most endlessly discussed rock group in history, he makes you want to relisten to the music all over again.

I'm not sure how often this happens to others, but often when I think about artists or works that have been declared the Best Ever - Shakespeare, Beethoven, Ulysses, Citizen Kane, the Mona Lisa - it's rare to find a single, well-written, comprehensive argument for why that is, exactly. Anyone can write that something is pretty good, especially when it's something well-known (saying "I like the Beatles" is not exactly a controversial or necessarily well-considered opinion in 2016, or even 1994 when the first edition of this book came out), but declaring that something is Number One seems like it requires a little more justification other than that classic circular argument of popularity justifying acclamation and vice versa - it should take some pretty elevated discourse! I don't think the The Beatles were the greatest band ever, but I still like them a lot, and it's obvious that they were the most liked by the most people, including artists that I would rank higher than them (and, after all, I like them enough to read a whole book about them). However, discussing why their songs were popular in the 1960s is a different question than why they "should" still be popular in the 2010s, and while everyone will have their own reasons for appreciating their own favorite music, it's nice to have some historical context of how it got to be popular in the first place, which the opening pre-musical part of MacDonald's book does very well.

As MacDonald shows in a long opening essay, one thing that stands out about The Beatles is that they were connected at least tangentially to seemingly every major movement of the time, be it the drug culture, civil rights, religious mysticism, antiwar protests, the sexual revolution, and so on. This command of the zeitgeist was well-received by contemporary fans wanting topical material, but though they wrote songs about elements of those movements ("Tomorrow Never Knows" and drugs, "Within You Without You" and mysticism, "Revolution" and revolution, etc), they never truly committed to any of them to the extent that many of the more genre-specialized bands of the era did. It reminded me of George Orwell's essay "Charles Dickens", where he explores how even though Dickens wrote plenty about unhappy orphans, downtrodden misfits, miserable bosses, and so on, he never really made radical structural critiques of the Victorian socio-cultural-political system the way many of his now-neglected contemporaries did. The Beatles simply changed their minds too quickly to be permanently tied down to any one thing, and while they were interested in exploration and experimentation, it was always for the purposes of entertainment. This shows up in their somewhat casual attitude towards their lyrics, and MacDonald describes the surprising endurance of their phrasing well:

"This is the more remarkable in that, so far from great lyricists, they were reliant on a method of lyric-writing which, rather than aspire to through-composed verse forms in the traditional style, worked more as chains of phrases, some inspired, some hackneyed, others randomly surreal. If we were to ask average listeners what The Beatles' lyrics mean, they would likely say very little. If, on the other hand, we asked the same listeners what The Beatles mean TO THEM, we would get a very different response."

Precisely: people remember the colorful characters, whimsical atmosphere, and fun-loving spirit of their lyrics more than any kind of socially conscious message underneath. Many other contemporary bands were as topical, yet very few were as fun, diverse, experimental, or as good; and of the bands who were as fun, diverse, experimental, or as good, very few were as topical. They're like an optimized corner solution in a system of linear equations for musical groups, and even if The Beatles' ideological inconsistency (or incoherence, if you're feeling less charitable) might have been a problem for a 1960s listener expecting their artists to choose sides, it's no trouble whatsoever for a 2010s listener who just wants a great tune. You can get into a Great Man vs social determinants theory of history debate over whether The Beatles merely reflected their times or actually influenced them, and MacDonald discusses many of the structural forces of the postwar era that might have made some Beatles-like band practically inevitable (although watch out for verbiage like "The truth is that the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity"). As far as their recordings are concerned though, they summed up a lot of the positive qualities of the era in a uniquely listenable package. Just lots of good songs.

And in terms of the songs themselves, since the musical creativity is what we're most interested in, MacDonald covers 186 distinct songs from "Love Me Do" to "I Me Mine", essentially everything the band ever recorded, even Anthology material. He's indexed by recording order and not tracklist order, which makes it a bit annoying to read and listen at the same time, but you can always flip around, plus that neatly solves those vexing UK vs US edition arguments. In general he talks about the writing process (like how Lennon and McCartney would collaborate on a middle-eight or not), with some musicological commentary ("unison guitars play an ascending chromatic scale from C sharp minor to A major before reaching a verse which disrupts a standard doo-wop sequence (I-vi-IV-V) by adding jazzy sixths in the bass"), as well as possible influences, such as when The Beatles were ripping off some obscure Motown act. He gives a seemingly subjective amount of space and attention to each song, which is guaranteed to annoy people; e.g. "Octopus' Garden" gets summed up in a single paragraph as a "poor man's 'Yellow Submarine'", while "Revolution 9" is deemed an "evocation" of "the violent discontinuity of modern life rooted in the revolutionary disruptions of the Sixties" in a 5 page-long disquisition on avant-garde art. He's most interested in Lennon as a self-absorbed yet visionary artist, considers McCartney to be more of a craftsman and melodies guy, doesn't think much of most Harrison songs, and is respectful but not worshipful of Starr's drumming. I recommend the longer reviews, ones like "She Loves You", "I Want to Hold Your Hand", "Can't Buy Me Love", "Norwegian Wood", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "A Day In the Life", "All You Need Is Love", and "The Long and Winding Road" in particular. Here's an insightful sample from "If I Fell":

"In view of McCartney's credentials as a melodist, it's worth noting that three of The Beatles' most romantic early songs ([22] THIS BOY, [28] IF I FELL, [50] YES IT IS) were substantially, though by no means entirely, by Lennon. It's significant that all are close-harmony numbers, confirming that his melodism was more linked to his choice of chords than was McCartney's. While one can imagine McCartney arriving at many of his tunes independently, only afterwards going to a guitar or piano to work out the chords, Lennon's melodies feel their way through their harmonies in the style of a sleepwalker, evolving the unconventional sequences and metrically broken phrasing typical of him. (George Martin recalls that he conceived of writing songs as 'doing little bits which you then join up'.) A Hard Day's Night, an LP written largely by Lennon, offers the richest harvest of implied harmonies of any single Beatles collection, while IF I FELL is the most chord-intensive song The Beatles had so far recorded, its changes moving with nearly every note of the tune."

Overall he's pretty fair, or at the least up front about his preferences. The fundamental mirage of music reviewing is the fantasy of "objectivity", and only the most partisan Beatles obsessive would object to most of his opinions (like I said, literally anyone can write "I think The Beatles were pretty good", and it's often forgotten that even back in their own era many people didn't like them). Any discussion of music is as much about your own reactions as about the notes themselves, and so it's only to be expected that since MacDonald put an enormous amount of effort into reviewing the music, as the book goes on the reader gets a really deep look (perhaps too deep) into his own sense of taste. He comes off as very musically conservative, which is understandable given how good 60s music was but a bit ironic when discussing a band that was among the most progressive of its day. He thinks the stretch from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's was not only their peak but the peak of all pop music. That's fair enough, yet I can see Beatles superfans getting annoyed by how pedestrian he makes their later works sound, even if I happen to agree. This tendency to place the mid-Sixties on a pedestal is at its most extreme in the essay that prefaces an unreadably complex Chronology chart section at the end. I love classic rock almost as much as I love cranky rants about the Nature of Art, and MacDonald does not disappoint in his Olympian condemnation of essentially all post-Sixties music and indeed modern civilization as we know it:

"Pop music, too, has played a role in reinforcing the manifest relaxation of goals and standards since the Sixties. Aside from the inescapable fact that this relaxation was to various degrees willed by the majority, pop and its shatteringly sensationalistic cousins rock, disco, and 'rave' music have been as much colonised by technology as any other area of modern life. Its once flexible human rhythms replaced by the mass-production regularity of the drum-machine, its structures corporatised by the factory ethic of the sequencer, its vitality digitised to death and buried in multi-layered syntheticism, pop is now little more than a soundtrack for physical jerks....

"There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) - but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than todays - music which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms - most obviously classical and jazz - confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear."

The soul of Western culture! Wow!

If you only want to read one book about The Beatles, it's hard to see why you would choose another one, unless you're one of those weirdos who obsess over what the band had for lunch after recording take 5 of "Mr. Moonlight". Not only is the music given a thorough appreciation and exploration, MacDonald himself is really fun to read, giving you plenty to agree or disagree with but always focused on the music and what it reflected about the times it was recorded in. I even changed my opinion on a few of their songs, which is hard to do at this point. Evidently Paul McCartney has read the book and disputes some minor factual points, but not only must those be trivial, given the copious documentation, I'm not sure I'd trust his memories given his drug consumption back then. MacDonald's personal connection to the music is overwhelming, and as every fan of music knows, it's the personal association you have that matters the most. The Beatles might be the Sixties band par excellence, but this book helps give the modern fan some useful insight into why people still talk about them now.
… (lisätietoja)
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aaronarnold | 13 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 11, 2021 |

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