Ian MacDonald: Revolution in the Head

Revolution in the Head is one of the most highly regarded critical books about the Beatles, and the Beatles have been in my mind a lot recently, having just written a game about them. My main interest regarding the Beatles is in their music itself, and in that respect the finest books that I have found are Walter Everett’s two volumes of The Beatles As Musicians, which do an amazing job of chronicling the Beatles’ musical journey from a technical perspective. Revolution in the Head occupies a middle ground between musical analysis and biography, chronologically treating each song in turn but looking at them more for their context in the Beatles’ history (and the cultural history of the 60s) than as straight musical analysis.

And it’s very interesting; despite a few caveats, I learned a lot, and MacDonald has many perceptive things to say. For one thing, partially because my knowledge of the Beatles’ history has largely been through relatively sanitized tellings such as The Beatles Anthology, it was not clear to me just how huge a role drugs played in the Beatles’ creative output. From speed to marijuana to LSD to heroin, the story of the Beatles’ music is largely (and somewhat depressingly) the story of the drugs they were taking. MacDonald also has a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the individual person-to-person relationships within the Beatles and the effect they had on their music.

Minuses: Well, MacDonald is a man of strong opinions, so you have to take care to mentally prepend “In my opinion” to many sentences, since he didn’t bother; if you don’t, you’re going to spend a lot of time rolling your eyes that could be put to better use. When this takes the form of dismissing certain Beatles songs that he doesn’t like, this isn’t so hard to do; when he dismisses all music written after 1970, it’s a little harder to take. But as long as you don’t take him overly seriously, his opinions are quite interesting.

There are probably more interesting biographies of the Beatles, since this book accomplishes its biographical functions mostly in passing; and for straight-up musical analysis, the Everett books have a lot more to say. But there’s a lot of good stuff here, and even if you don’t agree with all of it, it will at least make you reconsider a lot of your opinions, and whether you end up keeping them or changing them, thinking about them again can’t be a bad thing.

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