Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Being there then

Eddie Robson kindly bought me Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, a history of the Beatles song by song. This was after he'd seen what I got the Dr for Christmas. Eddie's also blogging about the Fabs and is much wiser on these things than me. I've always struggled to write about music.

But MacDonald quickly explains sort of why.
“[Some, mostly US critics] expect lyrics to make a certain sense and, if not to carry significance or responsibility, then at least to have the decency to be authentically rooted in their appropriate sub-cultural contexts. The Beatles, though, like so much English pop/rock, are too given to artifice and effect to be sociologically grounded in this way. Lennon and McCartney moved from thinking hardly at all about words to treating them as collages scraps to be pasted onto their music much as Picasso placed newspaper cuttings into his paintings.”

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, p. xxiv.

That's it exactly! I always felt literal interpretation of lyrics missed the point. Music isn't, or isn't necessarily, a poem or thought set to a tune. It can be the other way round – as the Beatles seems to do it, the name of the haunting Yesterday for a long time merely “Scrambled Egg”.

I also don't have the technical knowledge to understand the detailing of chord changes and keys, which MacDonald furnishes in some detail. Instead, my critical faculties shut down to an instinctive level: it's not what a song has to say but whether it pushes my buttons, making me want to dance or snog or even sit along, gazing at the sky. It's tied up in personal memories or experience – a time or place or person is attached to certain songs. It's not what the song means in itself but what it means to me.

So it's a bit of a surprise to find this book so engrossing as it searches for context and meaning in every one of the 188 Beatles recordings. We hear what the Beatles were doing or listening to at the time or thought of the songs afterwards, or what other people said or did. It's also good at explaining what marked the Beatles out as different – a good band who wrote their own very good music, and for years and years. As MacDonald says, only David Bowie has been able to so successfully reinvent himself and keep up with the times.

There's fascinating detail on the emergent drug culture of the Sixties, of the differences between the pop scene in the UK and US, and of the both competitive and supportive creative rivalries between the Beatles themselves and with other bands. It's an impressive and rich bit of modern history, the Beatles embracing so many modish styles and influences that the book covers a great wealth of ground.

MacDonald is good on the naivety and also the honest intentions behind hippy love, but is also good at puncturing the rose-tinted dream with the reality. At the Roundhouse, for example, Jimi Hendrix had his guitar stolen and gangsters on the door demanded protection money. I was also surprised by revelations – to me anyway – about the Beatles retreat at Rishikesh: it wasn't such the paradise of love that has sometimes been made out.

MacDonald tells the story song by song in order of recording – or at least, the first day of recording as some songs took several days to record, sometimes months apart while others are finished in between. There's overlap and re-recording of the same songs, and – famously – Let It Be was released after Abbey Road though (mostly) recorded first. MacDonald sums up each album as all its tracks are recorded, but I felt a little that he was imposing his own brackets on the work.

He is at his best when invisible, detailing facts or conflicting testimony, letting the Beatles and those around them speak for themselves. But I tired of hearing his own opinions, waspishly noting the worthy tracks and also the failures. I don't need him to tell me which songs to like. Indeed, part of the joy of the book is to hear the songs afresh with the added context. Constant reappraisal and finding new things to appreciate is the good bit of being a fan.

(Having listened to a lot of Beatles stuff over the last few months, the “new” tracks Free As A Bird and Real Love compare – I think – pretty well with most of the previous stuff. I know a few chums would consider this heresy.)

That imposition includes the structure of the book – and so of the Beatles' career. There are four chapters: “Going Up” is 140 pages from 1957 to the end of Rubber Soul (1965); “The Top” is 68 pages on Revolver and Sergeant Pepper; “Coming Down” is 118 pages to the recording of I, Me, Mine in early 1970; the coda covers the post-split bitterness, recriminations and Anthology.

As a result, there's a sourness about the last few and post-split years. MacDonald has many explanations for what happened: the Fabs' age, the money, the times, that they'd had a good innings anyway. And he also explains the context of the Beatles' return to favour in the pop scene in the late 80s, and their influence on so many modern bands. But his version sees the Beatles completing Sergeant Pepper and then tumbling from grace. It's far more remarkable, surely, that they sustained such an incredible output for so long, and were still producing amazing music even when they weren't speaking to each other.

The Beatles were, evidently, an exceptionally talented and influential group. This book rightly celebrates and explores that amazing success. But it also feels a little glass half-empty, disappointed and hurt, even so many years later, that all things must pass.

No comments: