Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Revolution in the Head" - Introduction

As I mentioned in the introductory post for my Revolution in the Head reading-project, Ian MacDonald opens his book with an essay on the 1960s, examining the decade (the "Disappearing Decade") as a period of momentous change, a battleground for future ideological clashes, and The Beatles' moment. I just finished the piece, and I'm still trying to process all of the material that MacDonald covered.

In truth, it should be book-length. Condensing a cultural history of the '60s (and one, no less, that burrows into the past - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, early rock 'n' roll, and more - and touches on aspects of later decades - punk rock, Reagan and Thatcher, etc.) into just under 40 pages is going to have some drawbacks. For one, MacDonald often speaks in very sweeping terms. Two, he doesn't leave much room for statistical analysis that would support the many bold claims he makes. Admittedly, citing tedious facts wouldn't fit his method, and it would interrupt the narrative momentum he builds by stringing together one provocative and confidently asserted opinion after another. Indeed, anyone reading this book should try to avoid being lulled into submission by the elan and certainty of MacDonald's literary voice. His writing style is charmingly verbose and extravagant - he's so convincing - but you have to stay aware of how generalized many of his statements are and how they frequently lack scientific corroboration. Had he spread the essay out over an entire book, some of this might be different. As it is, it needs to be read with an especially alert and critical eye.

That said, I did find many of MacDonald's points to be persuasive. His central argument is this: the true revolution of the 1960s "was an inner one of feeling and assumption - a revolution in the head" (pg. 27), not centering on hippies or New Leftists or any other ephemeral movement but rather mainstream society as a whole. Brought on by an historic rise in affluence and the aggressive advance of science, this revolution empowered "ordinary people" to achieve their "desires" (both pg. 36) but also spearheaded the breakdown of Western society by promoting self-determination, materialism, secularism and instant gratification. MacDonald further argues that no product of the '60s better captured and reflected the era's changes and vitality than The Beatles, who were so unorthodox, so new. Thus, the subtitle of the book: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties.

I'll stop there with the summary. If you're intrigued and want to know more, just read the book.

But before I dig into MacDonald's take on all of The Beatles' songs (which constitutes the rest of the book), here are some quick hits and random observations:

- I wonder if MacDonald too often conflates American and British politics when discussing the 1980s, the age of Reagan and Thatcher. Because of the pair's overlapping ideological visions, MacDonald seems to make few distinctions between the partisan battles that were taking place in the US and the UK at the time, possibly in error.

- As brashly opinionated as MacDonald is, it seems he harbors competing views on the '60s as a whole, one side of him being a non-establishment type and the other something of a moralist. This can lead to surprising, though not incoherent, shifts in tone.

- MacDonald's contrast of John ("sedentary, ironic") and Paul ("a natural melodist") is riveting (both 12).

- Lastly, a few thoughts on his prose. Where some writers might give you two or even three sentences, MacDonald often finds a way to piece together just one. He also has a weakness for superfluous but colorful adjectives and a knack for lively word combinations, "Euro-Maoism" being among my favorites. He applies it in earnest, while I think it could be used for strong comedic effect.

Next: The Beatles' "buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs" (pg. 37).

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