Here’s Another Clue For You All

Which is the walrus?

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.

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2 thoughts on “Here’s Another Clue For You All

  1. Predictably I’m going to chime in on this. I both love and loathe Revolution in the Head. It’s a wonderful read for any Beatles geek and there’s bits in it that I really can’t get enough of. Ultimately though, it’s very much the writing’s of one very opinionated (though often right, I must admit) critic – something many reviews of it over the years seem to forgot when labelling it ‘definitive’.

    I particularly dislike the section on I am the Walrus, which gets a massively in depth analysis that really doesn’t fit with a song that I always think of as basically an adult nursery rhyme. Like you say, elsewhere he makes arguments about the lack of depth in lyrics that don’t seem THAT much less meaningless than some of their later work. I’m a massive Macca fan, as you know, and his treatment of Paul is very uneven in this regard. He heaps endless scorn on supposedly shallow McCartney lyrics, reinforcing the idea that he’s somehow lightweight in the process, whilst praising Lennon to the high heavens. I’m not bitter, honest 😉

    But yes, a great read despite that. And it does make you go scurrying back to the records with renewed ardour!

    • Yep, at times MacDonald just gets carried away. It’s not just the critics who want to have it both ways – at times he absolutely goes for the tone of a definitive, objective account, but will in the next paragraph go off on an entertaining screed. To yet again bring up Dylan, it reminds me of the work of Michael Gray in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia – except Gray seems to know when what he’s saying is just a matter of taste, MacDonald less so. You’re right that in particular his treatment of McCartney is absurd; though I rather think he casts George in the role of Hero.

      Still a great read, though. I’m on Abbey Road. You? 😛

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