I’ve been dipping in and out of the late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head, on face value a simple recording history of the Beatles’ songs, but in fact much more. MacDonald is a perceptive and bold critic, and particularly good at making conceptual links (his book is subtitled The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties). Certainly, his is a far better work than Clinton Heylin’s riff on it in the key of Bob Dylan, Revolution In The Air. On which note:
Yet the real reason or the group’s lyric blandness at this stage [around the release of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’] was that they didn’t much care what words they sang as long as they fitted the overall sound. It was the record, rather than the song, that interested them. […] To them, the sound and feel of a record matter more than what it actually said; hence, the first requirement of a lyric was not to get in the way of the general effect. [pp. 102-103]
It’s unclear at times how this grand thesis of MacDonald’s separates the band – and separated they undoubtedly are, in popular imagination and in actual product – from the Rolling Stones. The Stones, too, eschewed depth for flash – even where their lyrics courted controversy, such as in ‘Play With Fire’, everything was on the surface. There’s a propriety about the Beatles’ music which MacDonald explores – and certainly it’s difficult, given the impregnable defense of his copious research, to disagree with him; but in this implicit juxtaposition with Dylan Revolution In The Head winds up not sure about The Beatles. Take this, from later in MacDonald’s survey, whilst discussing the scatological, self-referential ‘Glass Onion’:
As prominent advocates of the free-associating state of mind, The Beatles attracted more crackpot fixations than anyone apart from Dylan. While, at the time, they may have seemed enough like harmless fun for Lennon to make them the subject of the present sneeringly sarcastic song, in the end they returned to kill him. [pp. 313-314]
Two things about this passage: one, it’s uncomfortable getting even this close to the idea that Lennon’s assassination was, essentially, his own fault; two, MacDonald forgets his own argument earlier in the book – the lyrics don’t matter. Lennon’s adoption of Dylan’s own technique of free association (helped along by narcotics, of course) was simply a new way, by MacDonald’s earlier standards, of conjuring the syllables he needed to get through the current melody. It’s not that I disagree with MacDonald on the quality of the White Album (though I do); it’s that I think the book’s project of demystifying the Beatles, whilst broadly brilliantly done, sometimes winds up trying to skewer them on both ends of the same stick.
It’s still got me listening to the records again, though. Result.