Book Review: The Beatles “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties 3rd edition” (2007)

In terms of popular music literature, I would hazard a guess that The Beatles have probably had more written on them than any other musician, despite the fact that most of that literature is sub-standard, lacking in quality and even in some cases factual information. This is definitely not the case with Ian McDonald’s book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, which to my eyes is the most complete analysis of The Beatles and their music I have ever read.

Ian McDonald was a British music critic and author whom sadly passed away in 2003. But he has left a brilliantly researched and well written sociological and musicological Beatles Bible. “Revolution in the Head” details every song the band recorded together in chronological order from 1961 to the reunion session in 1995, describing in detail the music itself, the context behind it, the lyrics, and for some individual songs a complete backstory contextualising that song with the personal life of the writer and the cultural context of the time. Each entry is also accompanied by a list of the musicians who played on each song and how they contributed musically to that track, which in itself offers a very good insight into the way the band operated in the studio and also how multi-skilled they were at moving between different instruments. McDonald’s analysis and opinion of each song is very forthright and this book is certainly no Beatles love-in by any means, thank god, as often Beatles literature is reduced to nothing but praise for their achievements without considering their lesser moments both musically and personally. His musicological and sociological commentary is highly critical and he is not afraid to come out strongly against the songs themselves, the cultural climate of the 60s and even the band members and their personal misgivings while in the band. This makes “Revolution in the Head a refreshingly interesting, informative and unbiased read.

Aside from the main body of the book which contains the analysis of the music, the book also begins with an interesting essay titled “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade”, an essay where McDonald offers an analysis of the major social and cultural changes of the 60s and the decade’s legacy thereafter in the 1970s and 80s. Here McDonald’s argument is that the Beatles represented a meeting point of three cultural trends which were crucial to the 1960s period, materialistic individualism, the radicalism of the new left, and the psychedelic pacifism of the hippy movement. McDonald then reaches the conclusion that the 60s as a whole had little in the way of a long-lasting influence on mainstream society, something which you can kind of see when you look at what followed during the me-decades of the 70s and 80s.

In conclusion, McDonald does a good job in placing the Beatles and their music within the context of the time, giving the songs some cultural and social meaning, especially their later more experimental work. I am also glad he avoided going down the line of attempting to interpret the hidden meaning behind their lyrics and investigate potential hidden messages as many have made a lifetime obsession out of, as this would only have served to distract from what is a very detailed and thoroughly researched analysis. If ever there was a book which highlighted how this band’s journey was a long and winding road both musically in terms of style and culturally it is this one. McDonald gives the Beatles story an honest and rigorous assessment, with no pre-conceived fandom encroaching on the story and the overall content. A must-read for any music fan and also those interested in musicology and 60s-70s sociology.


– Sam

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