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29th August 1997 at 01:00
REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD: THE BEATLES' RECORDS AND THE SIXTIES. By Ian MacDonald. Fourth Estate Pounds 20

Sinan Savaskan celebrates the Beatles and their musical legacy

When the first edition of this book was published in 1994 it was generally hailed as the best book ever written about the Beatles. This update includes sections on the material that has come to light since then - chiefly the recently discovered recordings issued in 1994-96 as The Beatles Live at the BBC and the Anthology series.

There are further refinements to the author's 33-page introductory essay, and with the addition of many new paragraphs, facts and figures (all together a 100 page increase to 473) this obsessively researched study reaches its ultimate form. Ian MacDonald declares that there will be no third edition.

The book has two purposes and fulfils them admirably. First, it provides an exhaustive reference source for the recorded works of the Beatles. Each and every one of the 241 tracks recorded is examined, in chronological order, in terms of the technical details of the recording sessions, musical content and who-was-who in the creation of the final product. One does not have to be a trainspotter of pop music facts or even a great fan not to find the, literally, thousands of gems irresistible. It also manages to place the work in its sociological context - mainly in the Sixties, but with many appropriate references to the historical background and the aftermath in the following decades.

Ultimately, the book's main achievement is that it manages to direct the reader to the music itself rather than simply fascinate with the mythology it is surrounded by. After all, as Aaron Copland once remarked, "If you want to know about the Sixties, play the music of the Beatles."

In MacDonald's earlier The New Shosta-kovich (Fourth Estate), he frequently wrote in a pseudo-musicological style that was distracting. Here he avoids that almost completely. Indeed, he indicates a distaste for the literal-minded analyses of Beatles' lyrics and the efforts of "academics bent on transplanting Lennon and McCartney into the alien environment of the 19th-century art-song".

There are still remnants of it in passages such as (of George): "His suppressed bitterness is coded in a mild dissonance . . . prior to shifting key from obstinate A Major to nasally sarcastic B minor". But in general MacDonald's style is more relaxed and, at times, verges on the humorous.

Yet what is so wrong with seeing the Beatles in the context of the history of Western music? There are many similarities between the Beatles and the attitudes to song and lute or guitar accompaniment adopted by the late Renaissance and early Baroque John Dowland and Thomas Campion. Dowland's dramatic use of rhythmic changes and dissonance had a revolutionising influence all over Europe and his popularity was such that his printed music was published in nine capitals and his First Booke of Songes and Ayres with Tableture for the Lute (1597) was the only music book by any composer that went through four editions in the composer's lifetime. A detailed comparative analysis as well as a study of genres from early chanson to canzona, to monody leading gradually to 19th-century art-song and ending with the Fab Four would reveal many fascinating facts - hinted at by formidable musicologists and composers such as Ned Rorem, Professor Wilfred Mellers (his 1973 book Twilight of the Gods was the first serious book on the Beatles) and Deryck Cooke, but never fully realised.

In the closing paragraph of the preface to the new edition, MacDonald notes that there are a number of volumes yet to be written on subjects related to the Sixties: a comprehensive history of Sixties culture in general; accounts of the British "beat group" era; the UK's Sixties counterculture; English Beat or Mod movements; and a study of the contrast between American naturalism and English artifice in pop music. "New tomes to be scribbled (but not by me!)".

This is a pity, since the author's discussion of the last of these in its wider socio-political context, which takes up most of the 10-page preface, is the most eloquent and clearly perceived I have come across. On the evidence of this book, MacDonald would be the ideal person to write a study of the fascinating differences between the shaping forces of American and British popular culture. He ought to be persuaded to do it.

Sinan C Savaskan is composer and deputy director of music at Westminster School

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