This book is revered by many and often described as the best book on the Beatles’ music. Having read it and enjoyed it, I do think that is rather an exaggeration, for all its comprehensive excellence.
The book opens with short essays on the ‘sixties, most of which are interesting, before heading off into a song-by-song analysis of what the Beatles created in their extraordinary eight year restructuring of pop music. Make no mistake – this is the greatest band of all time. But this is not the greatest book on their music.
While Ian Macdonald is no slouch when it comes to scholarly research – all the great stories are here, along with a slew of less well known insights – he repeats many of the standard Beatles clichés: Lennon was the really brilliant one because he was ‘dark’; McCartney was the ‘lighter,’ sentimental one who couldn’t write lyrics; Harrison was saturnine and judgemental; Starr helped. To be fair, in places he redeems himself: Starr helped create rock drumming; Harrison wrote some good stuff later on; McCartney’s gift for melody is evident; Lennon was a bit of a bastard. But no amount of back-pedalling should allow this author to get away with his claim that everything McCartney wrote after 1970 was trite rubbish. That’s just stupid. As with Mozart, people like McCartney come along every few hundred years.
I think this book is best when considering the formative years and the jagged, disintegrating later years. Its author never got a handle on what a seismic shift the period 1965 – 1967 was, at least not in the way other cultural commentators have. He recognises the essential contributions of George Martin and Geoff Emerick, for instance, but, as many others have, considers that extraordinary period far too much in the light of LSD.
This is definitely a book for Beatles fans, and I’m glad I bought and read it, but I think it is revered too much. In many respects it is a coffee-table book, to be picked up after listening to the music. It’s a book to be enjoyed, not idolised.