Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Beatles, analysed



A BOOK by Ian MacDonald, written in 1994 (Fourth Estate) called Revolution In The Head has kept me captive during my lazy, tired late at night moods. It’s primarily a book that dissects the music of The Beatles. It is a thorough exploration of the way they recorded the songs on their albums, from who played lead guitar, and who was responsible for the handclaps and special effects that are a feature of some of their songs. The writer uses a lot of technical musical jargon that is beyond my comprehension, but I find it fascinating all the same. Apparently McCartney wrote ‘Birthday’ ‘on the spot before the others arrived ‘, on their way to his house to watch the first British TV transmission of ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, in honour of Little Richard. MacDonald explains that the song bolts from ‘an A major blues to a C major boogie by means of a drums passage , a screaming crescendo on E major , and a brief Cream-style guitar/ bass unison.’ I will take his word for it.



MacDonald critiques the songs at the same time, and it is this aspect that is one of the most enjoyable. For example, in reference to ‘What Goes On’ from Rubber Soul he is at his most dismissive, writing ‘Starr sings dolefully, Harrison trots out his Chet Atkins clich├ęs, and another two minutes and forty-five seconds are filled.’ If you have heard this song, you’ll know exactly what he means. And yet, there are a number of very controversial dismissals as well.
The book is also about the sixties in general and the way The Beatles were influenced a lot by what was going on around them and their own musical tastes. It is clear that people like Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan were two of the biggest influences. Drugs played an enormous part too, particularly on Lennon and his obsession with acid from 1966 (Revolver) and heroin during the latter years. Drugs seemed to have had both positive and negative effects on the band. Lennon had an unproductive period somewhere between Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour in which McCartney threatened to become the main drive behind the band, and yet at this time there were a couple of brilliant Lennon exceptions, very drug-influenced: I Am The Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever (along with A Day In The Life, arguably his best songs). Evidence of acid impacting on McCartney’s song writing too, can be found, even in a song as sweet and seemingly innocent as Penny Lane: ‘although she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway..’
It is the observations about the following songs that I found the most interesting:



- MacDonald carps ‘Across The Universe’ as a product of someone who was ‘permanently tripping’ and written in ‘a mentally drained state in the early hours of the morning.’ He refers to the ‘plaintively babyish incantation’ that appears in the song, its ‘vague pretensions and listless melody’, its ‘inspired lethargy’ and whilst ‘rarely boring... (Lennon) made an unwanted exception with this track.’ Interestingly, the high female backing voices belong to two teenage girl fans who were standing outside on Abbey Road and were invited in on the spur of the moment. What a day for them.



- Of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ we are informed that the song took about 37 hours to record, including two sessions getting a version right that was eventually scrapped. The author calls the ‘quadruple internal rhymes of the middle sixteens pedantically contrived’ and refers to a ‘browbeating self-importance which quickly becomes tiresome’- in other words, not a fan.



- MacDonald is at his most scathing of another Harrison song- ‘Piggies’. He calls it ‘an embarrassing blot on his discography’ and seems to object to its ‘uncharitable’ and ‘industrial strength vitriol’ as much as anything- no objections with the music per se, just the message. Of The White Album, the author considers ‘Long, Long, Long’ to be Harrison’s greatest work- ‘the real George’, as he puts it.



- Going back to 1966, MacDonald completes an analysis of the 12th British single, McCartney’s ‘Paperback Writer’ and Lennon’s ‘Rain’, their ‘finest B-side.’ Apparently there is laughter from Harrison and Lennon heard in the background, and the chanting of Frere Jacques during the second verse is proof that the two weren’t ‘entirely serious’ in their participation of this song. ‘Rain’, on the other hand, mostly recorded on the same day, can be celebrated for Starr’s ‘superb soloistic drumming’ and McCartney’s ‘inventive high-register bass.’ MacDonald doesn’t see it as simply a joyous song with banal lyrics about the changes in weather. He offers a long discussion about the song’s complex imagery in a paragraph beginning: ‘the song’s rain and sun are physical phenomena experienced in a condition of heightened consciousness...’



- Earlier The Beatles recorded ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ ten days apart on Rubber Soul. MacDonald notes that the band ‘were too tired by late nights ‘ during the recording of the former song so that they simply repeated the ‘irritating “oo-la-la-la’ backing vocals from Nowhere Man and stupidly placed the two songs side by side on the record- ‘the most inept piece of sequencing on any Beatles LP.’There are countless other criticisms that MacDonald makes of The Beatles music, some of it surprisingly to me and at other times deservedly so ( the clutter of half-songs on the too expansive White Album an example.) As Nick Hornby and others have reportedly done, it’s great to concentrate intently on the music and listen out for the ‘luckiest accident in any Beatles recording’ which is the vibration of a wine bottle sitting on a cabinet as McCartney plays a note on a Hammond organ; or the irreverence of Lennon in the latter choruses of ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ becoming ‘Baby you’re a rich fag Jew’ (a la Brian Epstein.



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