Ian MacDonald: Revolution In The Heart

    We all wanna change the world

    Reading Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head is like reading a history of Beatles musical criticism. It has been the most up-to-date synthesis of many Beatles critical sources, particularly Lewisohn's exhaustive recording history and has a unique comparative cultural timeline of their impact, but it is beginning to date. This aspect of the book is probably most useful to a non-fan. The great problem of making any appraisal of the Beatles, either as musicians or as cultural participants, is how to be properly objective. McDonald is bluntly honest, beginning with the premise that objectivity is impossible until possibly a century into the future. He undoes his premise by attempting to obscure his own biases. As any Beatles fan will tell you, there are good Beatles songs and (because fans are loathe to say the word bad) not-so-good Beatles songs. Which songs fall into the not-so-good category says as much about the fan as the band; this is, after all, a conversation. McDonald-as-critic tries to objectify the taste of McDonald-as-fan by putting forward a curious argument: that random is the cause of bad music today and the Beatles music became randomly bad. He may well be right that the Beatles mirrored a change in the Western zeitgeist, but if he disagrees with that zeitgeist in important respects he is also at odds with his chosen metaphor. This tension undoes his plan and derails his work.

    Another requirement of criticism, is to frame the subject in a new way: MacDonald's most important contribution to this is restoring the Beatles to the context of their contemporaries. But again, he undermines this achievement by falling back on some hackneyed journalistic devices common to Beatles criticism: by measuring their creativity in terms of their maturity (the "they grew up" excuse, used for everything from their later music to their break-up and post-Beatles careers). Perhaps more unfortunately, he also falls into that habit of describing their career as an arc, an inevitable up and down. He forgets, as we often do, that while we maybe looking back, they were looking forward, and it requires an appreciation of their perspective as much as our own. His disappointment with the present taints his analysis of the past.

    As time passes, more memoirs are written. Probably the most important is Geoff Emerick's Here, There and Everywhere (2006). Of course he adds his own interpretations, but it's no less valuable in light of some of MacDonald's pronouncements.

    You tell me it's the institution

    According to his obituaries, MacDonald was a pivotal figure in the musical criticism of the 1970's. Several reviews accused him of having measured everything by the bar of the 1960's; not everyone agrees with his cultural conclusions. The criticism is not entirely fair: he makes many positive comparisons, primarily using David Bowie as a model, to which I'll come back later. One of his gripes with the 1970's is the rise of the stadium rock group, the corporate response to the power of the rock dollar. There is also his distaste for modern dance music and the way computers have changed the way music is made.

    In summary, the contemporary critics complaints against the book are: too much technical analysis, obscure criticism of minor details, and over-strenuous attempts to appear objective in order to find fault. As one review puts it:

    What he fails to understand is that the best criticism of pop music succeeds because it recognizes it's own inherent prejudice and presents itself with the irreverence and humour that such a recognition involves.'

    which is a nice way of saying that McDonald is not only biased, but humourless about it. MacDonald makes his remarks applicable within the strictly chronological sequence of recordings, allowing him to cover, for instance, the direction of an albums sessions, or (as we'll see) continue a series of pronouncements on a Beatles character. The problems begin with his musical analysis; meant to help objectify his criticism, it descends into mere opinion as the book progresses. For instance, beginning with the early songs, the music is often measured on the depth of its progressive or harmonic "surprise". As the song list continues you sense its only the surprise he values, but this then transforms into the increasingly strident tone about random. This has its basis in the change of composing and recording methods post-touring but is also a theme in later chapters where some songs are literally dismissed based on their degree of random. He begins by using musicological terms to describe early Beatles songs, but as the book progresses, this analysis often gives way to an emphasis on the production and composition of the songs rather than their musical content. At times he uses musicological analysis to attack the composer, particularly in George Harrison's case (cf. [136], While My Guitar Gently Weeps, pp300-301 and [U138], Not Guilty, pp304-305)

    You'd better free your mind instead

    Typical of the problems with the book is the way MacDonald reviews John Lennon. Like many before him, he falls into the trap of writing as if he knows the Beatles personally. He begins to pronounce judgement on Lennon's drug-taking; it seems partly an explanation of his approach to Lennon's songs and as a negative contrast to what was undoubtedly a purple patch for McCartney. It also appears that his disappointment with Lennon the solo artist gets 'worked back' into Beatle compositions. The review for [123] Across The Universe has been noted by many as a failure to grasp the nature of the song (he praises the drone of [77] Tomorrow Never Knows yet Across The Universe has the same pedigree) and ends with a curt dismissal of this 'boring' song, in a manner that implies that Lennon was frequently boring post-Beatles. In my opinion the nadir of the book is [165] The Long and Winding Road. In full swing against Lennon, MacDonald actually accuses him of sabotaging the basic track, based on the original demo from Anthology 3 and claims that Spector has covered up Lennon's mistakes on bass by drowning them out. MacDonald justifies this amazing charge by the claim that Lennon and Spector mastered the album without McCartney's consent, thus McCartney was "unable to fix it". When you compare the Anthology 3 track with the Let It Be version and the Let It Be Naked version, several things become apparent. According to an article on Mixonline the Naked version is in fact a later take: significantly, Lennon also plays bass on it. MacDonald in his fulminations never directly refers to this 31st January take (the day after the famous rooftop concert), so it is unclear whether his argument is really about preferring a worse version, as the comparison between the Anthology version and the Naked version (which can now be done by anyone) reveals not much difference at all. So it's odd, then, that he never applies it to Let It Be itself, on which Lennon also played bass on the same Jan 31 session to which MacDonald refers, nor does MacDonald acknowledge how relatively rare it was for Lennon to play bass at all (Harrison is much more in evidence on Beatles records as a stand-in bass player), and that these demos were made within the context of the long Get Back sessions. And beyond that, MacDonald's charge ignores the wide selection of mistakes, dodgy edits and adlibs throughout the Beatles recorded history, to which he refers more than once. A brief trawl through the excellent resource offered by The Beatles Anomalies List is evidence enough, but Emerick's memoir confirms that playing with "duff" notes on a session was a Beatles game, not a crime.

    So, a take never meant to be released and possibly preferred to a superior take was instead released with extra production and that is sabotage according to MacDonald. And all of this beside the simple fact that all Beatles approved the mix. To quote Peter Doggett, author of You Never Give Me Your Money from his blog:

    And it was Klein who suggested that Phil Spector, who had just produced John Lennon's 'Instant Karma' single in magnificent style, should be asked to go back through the January 1969 tapes, and assemble a suitable soundtrack album for the movie. Despite what you've read elsewhere, all four Beatles authorised that decision.

    Spector set to work, mixing here, snipping tape there, and ultimately recruiting both Ringo Starr and an orchestra to work on several tracks - including McCartney's song, 'The Long And Winding Road'. Why wasn't Paul there at the session? Because both he and John were so sick of the project that they had agreed to let George and Ringo supervise what Spector was doing. So it's true that Paul McCartney didn't know what Phil Spector was planning to do to 'The Long And Winding Road' (i.e. add an orchestra and choir); but only because he had chosen not to get involved.

    When Spector's work was done, he rapidly assembled his mix of the Let It Be album, cut four acetate copies of the LP, and sent one apiece to each of the Beatles for their approval. The four musicians liaised with each other, and approved Spector's work. Only two weeks later, when the presses were already rolling, did Paul suddenly wake up and think, "Hang on a minute, I want to make some changes". But by then it was too late.

    During the research for my book, I came across the original letter that Spector sent to the four Beatles. Rather than the authoritarian rant I was expecting, his note turned out to be extremely friendly. If there is anything you'd like done to the album, let me know and I'll be glad to help, he wrote. Naturally little things are easy to change, big things might be a problem. If you wish, please call me about anything regarding the album tonight. That's definitely the voice of compromise, rather than a control freak.

    Again, Emerick's memoir bears out this version of Spector's approach. But as a review of Naked plaintively asked, if the intention was to "fix" the record, why didn't they? Astonishingly, it is yet unfinished, as now we have McCartney's version, arguably no less biased than Spector's. The original album as prepared by Glyn Johns has never been released, its rejection (again, by all four Beatles) the catalyst for Spector's work. Remember too, it was originally a soundtrack album, (the point of having the rooftop concert at all) and ironically many of the preferred takes for Naked are rooftop performances.

    Despite this, Revolution In The Head goes some way to redressing the critical balance between Lennonism and McCartneyism. Yet MacDonald still fails to be objective because he robs John to pay Paul. We still need a critical view that goes beyond this tired dualism. I have not read the earlier editions so I cannot judge properly, but MacDonald does acknowledge that this edition was updated to reflect McCartney's book with Barry Miles. It seems a slender support for such arguments, given McCartney's own biases. Of course, that dualism ignores Harrison's contributions about which McDonald is often scathing, as mentioned already. In most cases, if it's not Indian-influenced, McDonald hates it. [66] If I Needed Someone sums up his attitude:

    Like so many Harrison songs, If I Needed Someone has an obstinate quality which, combined with his preferences for aloof sentiments and dour progressions, renders it gauche beside McCartney's urbanity and anaemic next to the boldness of Lennon.

    MacDonald characterizes Harrison as obstinate to an absurd degree; he is written off as a kind of grumpy third wheel to the Partnership. This is unfortunately in line with most Beatles criticism. Reticent is probably a more apt description of Harrison; while he freely discussed other aspects of the Beatles, his real thoughts on the Partnership were never drawn out to my knowledge outside of an understandable competitive envy, but also (often forgotten) a self-deprecating humour.

    Harrison's recollections (as naturally subjective as they are) are a vital foil to the Partnership party line, and I find it significant that MacDonald ignores important contributions in this respect. Of course, McCartney's explorations into experimental music shouldn't be discounted. But Harrison rightly pointed out that the combination of McCartney's experiments and his own disinterest as much as Lennon's withdrawal was what started the rot. Put simply, the Beatles were tired after years of frenetic touring.

    We'd all love to change our head

    In several parts of the book it seems as if different Ian MacDonalds are at work: alternately praising and blaming the Beatles for his inspiration or frustration. His critical process seems to have broken down at the analysis of later Beatles material, and it is here that he begins to use biographical criticism instead of the more straightforward entries for the earlier albums. Most importantly, he begins to take issue with their very compositional methods, which seems rather high-handed.

    The turning point for MacDonald, as with so many critics, seems to be Sgt Peppers. MacDonald literally begins Part 3 Coming Down after this album, in his eyes the Beatles last great work. After that he begins to struggle with his material. [107] With A Little Help From My Friends describes the songwriting process at its most benign. Yet like many song reviews, the sting is in the tail, where he dismisses later work as self-indulgent. He may have more of a point that the production process got less concise but once again this is an easy judgement to make from this distance. What characterized the Beatles was the attempt to avoid repeating themselves, as much in production as in songwriting, a fact he acknowledges in [107] but seems reluctant to take into account later. The experimental aspect has MacDonald particularly worried: the released material he dislikes tend to fit his preconception that they were merely "tossed off" as part of a misguided pursuit of random. This conveniently forgets the throwaway nature of most pop/rock to begin with, but also the simple fact that many Beatles songs were written in 5 minutes, however laboriously produced later. His reviews of [113] It's All Too Much and [114] All You Need Is Love oscillate between condemnation of the Beatles musical methods and the need to explain the cultural moment. They are either too comfortable and sloppy or transcendental and experimental.

    It's interesting to compare Geoff Emericks memoir at this point; for he has a similar story of disappointment with the Beatles' direction after Pepper. As he acknowledges, Abbey Road was a terrible place to be creative in, both for its culture and its environment, and Emerick has similar issues with it and his personal involvement with the Beatles.

    It is almost impossible to avoid making biographical judgements here: perhaps a better approach would involve an acknowledgement that the Beatles felt trapped by their fame and the necessity of artistic development, keeping in mind that few at this stage of rock history were ever faced with such an issue. Together with their belief in their abilities, this might have had an effect on their style of songwriting (whatever you think of their quality). MacDonald decides instead to largely blame Lennon and to some degree Harrison for this. But in fact, as we know, it is McCartney who begins to unravel the bands recording relationship by using Abbey Road as his personal studio from the time of Sgt Pepper onwards. The band were so huge that live performance was practically impossible and they wanted to explore the use of multitracking itself as a compositional method. Much later in the book, MacDonald introduces the chronology proper with a rant on modern recording techniques and computer-aided composition. It is easy to miss its import until you notice how he preferences particular issues of the Beatles recording career in the main chapters. The not-so-subtle inference is that by being relatively backward in technology compared to American studios, Beatle records gained by other forms of innovation (drum miking, ADT, etc). This may well have some truth in it; on the other hand, the Beatles happily changed studios when an 8-track was available, and used new technology like the Moog synthesizer. Although they were envious of American studio facilities they never seriously considered recording in America, but nevertheless made noises about it. So this argument is merely self-serving, using the Beatles to confirm his bias.

    You say you've got a real solution

    MacDonald is perhaps at his most revealing when he makes comparisons. David Bowie, still a controversial figure today, is used by MacDonald to contrast with the Beatles in several ways. MacDonald thinks he mastered self-reinvention where they did not; but you could argue a similar case with Elvis, which underlies how unfair that comparison is. He directly compares Bowie to Lennon as an innovator, which jibes with his pronouncements on Lennon for well nigh half the book. His use of cultural criticism to get around what can only be described as honest subjectivity (which MacDonald is unable to acknowledge) reaches the stage where he flatly states that the Beatles became musically vulnerable when they began addressing their culture instead of reflecting it, giving [125/132] Revolution as the prime example. It was certainly a controversial song in its time, but whether this gives MacDonald license to treat the surrounding oeuvre with the same attitude is moot. He certainly uses Revolution to again characterize Lennon, but this time blaming him for an inappropriate social conscience and getting a few digs in at Yoko Ono (he cites her as a disturbing influence with throwaway comments about her political affiliations). There is also a long (and winding) thread of blaming the Beatles and their love of random, on semi-crazed and actually crazed interpretations of their music and lyrics. This idea is more or less identical to evangelical Christianity's devotion to backwards masking and has as much validity. Making the Beatles responsible for Charles Manson, MacDonald's critical integrity is lost, bringing his cultural thesis into grave doubt. He simply does not address the sheer effect of their fame on themselves and others in a reasonable way, and this failing comes back to haunt the review in important aspects. He is very close to stating that the Beatles denouement was a failure of the culture itself; but I suspect this is as much a lament for the succeeding fracture into musical subculture than recognizing that the seeds of such a fracture existed well before the close of the decade. It conveniently sidesteps the recognition that whatever opinions you can hold on the results of the Beatles personal fracture, similar seeds were also always waiting for four young men too young to address such an unimaginable response to their cultural input.

    You ask me for a contribution

    MacDonald's complaint against current musical culture is irrelevant to most contemporary readers, who are just as likely to be devoted to a musical subculture, or more properly, polyculture which exists outside his narrow parameters of stadium band and dance genre. That's what puzzles me most about MacDonald's attitudes to the variety of music the Beatles produced. To the best of their ability, they tried everything. Some experiments worked, some didn't. Many of those experiments were based on contemporary musical movements, some pushed far forward. But no one band, even the polyglot Beatles, was going to hold all those movements in check. Sooner or later, they would become cultural genres in their own right. And top 40 music is as irrelevant as it ever was - that non-irrelevant music appears in the charts does not change the irrelevancy of charts themselves. What of MacDonald's prediction in the preface to the second revised edition that Beatles lyrics will be the Achilles heel of Beatle criticism? To the extent that they used contemporary language, this is as unavoidable as understanding pop standards or folk music, which makes his argument moot. In any case, so many popular musicians have used similar methods to write lyrical content that it isn't just Beatles lyrics that will become opaque in a century, it's the cultural context itself. And to me this is like blaming the Beatles for not being Shakespeare. Already, much jazz argot and the standards jazz was based on is culturally redundant, yet MacDonald deliberately contrasts their lyric style to Tin Pan Alley composers, and actually posits that they could have chosen to write like them. He seems oblivious to the ironic treatment the Beatles gave the pop standards they chose to cover as opposed to the sincerity with which they covered rock 'n roll. That they chose to use their own voice, however casual and simple it appears, is the mark of their originality as much as Dylan or Bowie or other contemporaries that MacDonald approves.

    Last updated: 2019-11-11

    Back to Music