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Revolution in the Head [Paperback]

Ian MacDonald
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 11 1995
As dazzling as the decade they dominated, The Beatles almost single-handedly created pop music as we know it. Today, their songs are cited as seminal influences by stars like Oasis, Blur and Kula Shaker. Eloquently giving voice to their time, the Beatles quite simply changed the world.

Updated with material from The Beatles Live at the BBC and the Anthology series, this acclaimed book gets to the heart of The Beatles — their records. It draws on the author’s unique knowledge and experience to “read” their 241 tracks chronologically — from their first amateur efforts in 1957 to Real Love, their final “reunion” recording in 1995. With this engrossing classic of popular criticism, Ian MacDonald shows exactly why the extraordinary songs of the Beatles remain a central and continually surprising presence.

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From Booklist

There's certainly no shortage of books on the Beatles. In this latest one, MacDonald--musician, composer, and former New Musical Express editor--purports to do something different by putting the group in the cultural context of its decade. His observations on the 1960s, fortunately confined largely to an introductory section, are, however, too often distressingly obvious. He's far more successful when he focuses on the music with a song-by-song chronicle of the group's career. Other Beatles books have taken the same approach, but MacDonald's incorporates session information from Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Recording Sessions (1988), and it details the group's musical development and growing reliance on the recording studio and then makes some cogent observations on both the culture and the music. He makes the tie-in to 1960s culture most effectively through a month-by-month time line that follows the song-by-song main text and places the Beatles' history next to developments in world affairs and pop culture. Even if your Beatles shelf is groaning, MacDonald's work will be a useful addition. Gordon Flagg --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

An ideal pathfinder on the Beatles' long and winding road from moptops to magi--insightful, informative, contentious, and as ambitious and surprising as its heroes. Popular music criticism is often a thankless task, falling uneasily between mindless hype and lugubrious academicism. MacDonald, former deputy editor of New Musical Express, adroitly bridges that gap, taking the factual chassis--recording session data, itineraries, etc.--laboriously assembled by Beatlemaniacs like Mark Lewisohn and bringing to bear a fan's enthusiasm, a musicologist's trained ear, and a critic's discernment to produce the most rigorous and reliable assessment of the Beatles' artistic achievement to date. Advancing chronologically through the songs, MacDonald provides an encyclopedic wealth of biographical, musical, and historical detail, yet always keeps his eyes on the prize--the uniquely rich elixir the group distilled from these disparate elements. He considers the Beatles on their own musical and cultural terms, taking his cue from contemporary influences (rhythm-and-blues, soul, and the supercharged social crucible of the '60s), rather than straining for highbrow parallels in Schoenberg or Schubert--you'll find no reference to the infamous ``Aeolian cadences'' of ``This Boy'' here. MacDonald makes no bones about his own critical convictions: He prefers the artful structures of pop, its ``energetic topicality'' that ``captures a mood or style in a condensed instant,'' to rock's ``dull grandiosity,'' a shift he attributes to a general retreat since the '60s away from depth and craftsmanship into spectacle and sensation. Accordingly, he champions the pop classicism of the Beatles' early-middle period, culminating in Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and in his most memorably acerbic passages deplores the rockist leanings of their later work: ``Helter Skelter,'' for instance, is dismissed as ``ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily against a backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing.'' The ultimate Beatles Bible? Certainly a labor of love, and all the more valuable for holding the Fabs to the highest critical standards. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You Say You Want a Revolution... June 17 2007
By BeatleBangs1964 TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This extraordinary book critiques most of the Beatles' songs. It dissects, analyzes and explains the lyrics of the Beatles' songs; it compliments the intelligence of all readers. Music professionals and novices alike will come away with added information; this is a book that will appeal to all readers regardless of place/proficiency on the musical scale.

This book serves as a time line; the Beatles' achievements and the times they were living in are chronicled neatly alongside Macdonald's analyses of the music. It's general tone is light and upbeat, yet a tone of bittersweet nostalgia underscores much of the passages. "There are places I remember..." John Lennon, 1965 could be the sound track of this book. So could John Lennon's 1968 Anthem of the Sixties, "you say you want a revolution, well you know we all want to change the world..."

Beatle fans and those who love and/or lived through the Dodge Dart Era of the 1960s will love this book. It is so worth reading.

This book's publication concludes on a sad footnote. Ian Macdonald ended his life on August 20, 2003. He had been clinically depressed.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good...not essential June 15 2004
Format:Paperback
I've read this book twice. It's an interesting book but I still find it somewhat irritating as well. MacDonald seems to almost have a personal vendetta against George Harrison...even for 'Something' and 'Here Comes the Sun' the best he can muster is a sort of backhanded praise. Most of the remaining Harrisongs, including 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps,' he dismisses as dour, unimaginative, and musically inferior. MacDonald seems to be trying too hard, in my mind, to find something negative to say about nearly every single song, including those by Lennon and McCartney. However, the 35 page introduction is worth the price of the book. It is one of the better analyses of the 60s and the Beatles' influence on that decade that I've ever read. Ultimately, this is an intelligent, highly opinionated, look at every Beatles song. I don't agree with much of what MacDonald has to say but at least he makes me think about the music and more importantly makes me want to go back to the albums and listen to them yet again. Walter Everett's two volume 'The Beatles As Musicians' is a much superior, if occasionally nearly impenetrable, analysis, though, and I'd urge you to seek them out instead of this out of print book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  37 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting take on the Beatles Sept. 6 2002
By R.J. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Revolution In the Head is a song by song survey and analysis of all the Beatles songs, and the fan will find himself fascinated by all the tidbits and details. The author shows how the songs were developed, and one leaves this book very appreciative of the "hooks" in their songs, and the undervalued importance of the "middle eight" and the "bridge" in pop music. One thinks of songs of the last decade of so, and how they contrast with the two and a half minute gems that Lennon and McCartney composed. Today's songs tend to drone on and on for 5 minutes, with no change of pace, and songs tend to have the whole bag of tricks thrown in right away. Reading this book was a refreshing antidote, especially playing the Beatles while reading this.
The author shows the good and bad, the brilliant mixes, the bad editing and cutting on some songs, especially the earlier ones, and gives credit where credit is due. He can get a bit too overbearing at times, I happen to love the keyboard solo in "In My Life", I hardly notice the little flourish at the end of it which the author dislikes. On certain songs such as "Revolution", the author dispenses with song analysis altogether and starts writing an essay about the politics and culture of the time. This I found a bit annoying. The Beatles were a phenomenon, but as John Lennon once said, "we were just a little band who made it big". The music is meant to be enjoyed, from "Little Child" to "Glass Onion" to "For No One", there's no great social meaning to all this, it's just a rich pop tapestry.
Overall, a fascinating book, well worth it for Beatles fans and for those just discovering them.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Updated Edition IS Available April 14 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Though Amazon.com has this book backordered, Amazon.co.uk has the UPATED version (paperback and hardcover) in stock!
Yep--you guessed it: all the tracks from the BBC and the Anthology 1 - 3 CDs are now included in MacDonald's critical analyses, rendering the 1994 edition obsolete.
If you're a Beatles devotee, you must own this book.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the best pop book in the world Oct. 11 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Revolution in the Head" is a vast, intelligent, subtle, lucid, and thoroughly engaging masterpiece. Ian MacDonald captures the essence of each track precisely, with a natural insight into the workings of pop music and lyrics. His writing displays taste and concision throughout, putting most similar books in the shade.
In place of cold dissection of the score, or tedious misinterpretation of the "meaning" of the songs, MacDonald proposes an explanation of how and why each Beatles song affects us. His critical stance is refreshingly honest: for example, few others have dared to give the White Album the treatment it deserves. Nevertheless, I have yet to discover a book that crystallises the magic of The Beatles with such grace and compassion.
The book is imbued with a sense of loss for the passing of the decade that produced all the music. I suspect that this must put off certain readers; to them I suggest that a careful reading of the Introduction is essential. But it's hard to imagine anyone with respect for the Beatles' legacy failing to enjoy this book.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-have for songwriters, musicians and music lovers! Jan. 28 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
What MacDonald does better than other writers that attempt to examine the music of The Beatles is make the reader sit with the book open and the stereo on. Each entry examines not just the songs, but the actual recordings of the songs, and analyzes of each one's sound, arrangement, production, recording techniques, instrumentation, and many other elements that less-well-structured books normally omit. MacDonald even lists specific points of time on each track so that the reader will know exactly what part of the track is being pointed out and discussed: whereas other books might refer to "the third measure of the bridge," or "the second inverted submediant," MacDonald refers to the point of time on the CD so that all readers, not just those who read sheet music, can find the part in question. Ever since the Beatles' became household names, music scholars have applied traditionally trained musicians' and musicologists' vocabulary and concepts to their music; MacDonald uses absolutely no musical notation in his analyses, yet he examines the music more effectively than music critics and writers whose analyses have meaning only to those who read music (thousands of Beatle fans can't, yet they may want to appreciate the music without first taking a course in music composition).
Though the book was published before the BBC and Anthology CDs were released, MacDonald examines every Beatles single and album track, not just the popular ones; he does not include photographs, nor does he discuss in great detail the lyrics of the songs, as other Beatles "music critics" have done. His speculation about the songwriting power struggle between Lennon and McCartney is intriguing, particularly when he analyzes the progression of each one's distinct composition process, from "Love Me Do" to the final recordings.
Most critics attempt to analyze the Beatles' music by avoiding it entirely, and instead examine lyrics, biographical information, photos, concerts, history, interview quotes, and so forth, but MacDonald's primary focus is on The Beatles' music, which is and will always be its legacy.
So put away your music theory dictionaries, open "Revolution in the Head," and pop in your favorite Beatles CD. You will never fully appreciate the music until you explore it with this book. Happy reading (and listening)!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting opinions Oct. 19 2010
By John D. Muir - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Ian MacDonald wrote this book to try and give a more musicianly insight into the songs, while placing them in their cultural context. This is how every book on the Beatles should be written, in my opinion; the songs are what matters and the lives and times of the band members are interesting insofar as they affect why and how the music was made. Trivia for its own sake, or worse still, scandal for the sake of pandering to the lascivious reader is a dead waste of time.

Where the book goes a little off the rails for me is that the author has a tendency to state his opinions as fact. As opinions, they're interesting, but to imply that because a song makes a particular impression on him then that's the only way to hear it is taking it a bit too far. Where he sticks to facts, it's a most informative book. Once he starts introducing adjectives, he often loses me as I simply don't hear the song in the same way as he does.

I suppose to some extent we all see what we want to see. I notice some reviewers believe MacDonald was biased towards McCartney, but my impression is that he felt that the more significant work came from Lennon (personally I feel that without the others none of the Beatles work would be as good as it is). Be that as it may, he does have interesting opinions and his technical analysis is first-rate. A book well worth reading.
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