A major factor in the appeal of Revolution in the Head is the way that Ian MacDonald structured it. As I mentioned in a previous post, MacDonald tells the story of The Beatles through their songs - every one of them. Not only does he analyze them in detail, but because he goes in the order they were recorded, he's also able to piece together a narrative of the band's history. Thus, in the section on "My Bonnie," you learn about both the song itself and The Beatles' formative years in Hamburg, including their time spent as the backing band for British rock 'n' roller Tony Sheridan. MacDonald rightly judged that the historical context for these songs was too important to ignore.
So far, I've only made my way through Please Please Me, which entails recordings from the summer of 1961 to early 1963. My thoughts on this part are below.
- People like to snicker at Decca's rejection of The Beatles in early 1962, perhaps thinking that what's obvious to us now should have been obvious to record labels then. Not so. MacDonald provides some context:
From pgs. 49-50: Forced by the Decca engineers to use the studio equipment rather than their own battered Vox amps, The Beatles were unable to reproduce the energy and dirty, overdriven sound which made their stage-act so exciting. Nor were they helped by a recording regime which budgeted for one take per song and no overdubs.
And from pg. 53: The first prerequisite for an early Sixties recording contract was presentability: potential 'artistes' had to be 'professional', i.e., musically competent, groomable, and acquiescent to the demands of their producers who, it was assumed, would select their songs for them from batches circulated by writing teams through the normal channels. Loud, long-haired, and seemingly incapable of desisting from laughter, The Beatles did not meet these requirements. Nor, at this stage, did they have much going for them as songwriters.
- MacDonald's description of an early Beatles backbencher, "How Do You Do It?," is dead on. I can't imagine a band sounding more pleasantly bored than The Beatles do on this song by Mitch Murray. MacDonald writes that it "revolves around a shamelessly bright, breezy, and childish G major tune" and that the Fabs' rendition "ingeniously combines obliging efficiency with affable indifference." Best of all, he notes its "faceless catchiness" (all from pg. 57). There's something both infectious and soporific about the song. It's that rare ear-worm that could put you to sleep.
- It's bizarre to think that, in 1962, "Love Me Do" was "extraordinarily raw by the standards of its time" (pg. 59). It now seems so sedate, so earthbound. MacDonald closes the recap of the song with this: "The first faint chime of a revolutionary bell, LOVE ME DO represented far more than the sum of its simple parts. A new spirit was abroad: artless yet unabashed - and awed by nothing" (pgs. 60-61).
- I was pleased to find that MacDonald had such high praise for "There's a Place," the song I consider the best original on Please Please Me. As usual, MacDonald was forceful with his opinions, venturing that "There's a Place" was "an assertion of self-sufficient defiance which, matched by music of pride and poignancy, marks a minor milestone in the emergence of the new youth culture" (pg. 65).
- I must part ways with MacDonald when he implies that Arthur Alexander's version of "Anna (Go to Him)" is superior to The Beatles'. Between the two, I'd say it's a wash when it comes to the verses and chorus (which are basically merged into one). But John's impassioned, yearning, and needy delivery on the "middle sixteen" (pg. 73) - "All of my life...."- decisively swings the contest in The Beatles' favor. He kills that part.
- Finally, MacDonald on the sublime creation that is The Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout": Yet the result is remarkable for its time: raw to a degree unmatched by other white artists - and far too wild to be acceptable to the older generation. As such, it became the symbolic fixture of the group's act during Beatlemania: the song where parents, however liberal, feared to tread (pg. 77).