Monday 18 October 2010

Book Review: Revolution In The Head

I can’t recommend Revolution In The Head highly enough. For quite a while I was put off by the subtitle. ‘The Beatles Records and the Sixties’ sounds like a ponderous sociological essay on the culture the music was created in.

But the book is actually a brilliant song by song analysis of the music. Every track is presented chronologically looking at when, where and by whom, it was created followed by a page or more of insightful and benignly opinionated analysis.

The third, and final, edition* (Macdonald died in 2003) covers not only the original EMI releases but the ‘Threetles’ songs and a number of tracks from Anthology and Live at the BBC as well.

This is an outstanding book. That Macdonald manages to seamlessly weave in the story of the Beatles as he goes along is a testament to his skill as a writer. The revealing information he gathers is a witness to his diligence as a researcher. And the fact that he has such real insight into the music itself is a mark of his erudition as a music critic who has really, really listened to the music he’s writing about.

It would be a shame for all this skill to be misused in the cause of academic butt-kissery, but happily this is not the case. MacDonald is refreshingly, sometimes hilariously, his own man, cheerfully slaying a few sacred cows in the Beatles oeuvre while at other times lavishing the highest praise on a relatively overlooked early album track. But it’s a mark of his deep knowledge of the music that no matter how many times you may disagree with his conclusions, you never lose respect for them, or him.

As well as 338 pages on the music, there is a 42 page introduction putting the music into the cultural context. Macdonald again proves his worth by making such a potentially dull subject absolutely fascinating. (That said, if you’re a songwriter like me you’ll want to get straight into the songs and leave the intro for desert).

What else?
  • A 78 page chronological time line - setting the Beatles music alongside, other music, films, political events etc. (annoyingly laid out sideways in the paperback edition).
  • Glossary of musical terms
  • Compact Discography
  • Index of Songs and Keys (very helpful)
  • General index, further reading and a bibliography.
If I had to pick one book as required reading at Beatles Songwriting Academy it would be this one (assuming of course you can already play the songs!)

Author and music buff Nick Hornby is quoted as saying

“After finishing it, I went out and bought a pile of Beatles CDs and listened to them properly for the first time in my life” 

This book may have the same effect on you.

Get this book (UK)
Get this book (US)

*The same edition is confusingly labelled as the Third revised edition & the Second revised edition. Get the one published in 2005 (or later).

See other recommended books.


  1. I should track this down. To fully appreciate The Beatles (and The Bible), context is So Important!

  2. Yes - think of it as a commentary on the 'whole cannon' from a very erudite but liberal theologian!

    But that's OK as we don't believe in inerrancy when it come to the fab four! (though I'm sure some might!)

  3. Based on your advice I bought this book and I really like it, so thanks for the tip! I can recommend Here, There and Everywhere - My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick, a well written first hand account. A small book which fits well to your academy is Help! 50 songwriting, recording and career tips used by The Beatles. It's a bit superficial compared to your research, but still interesting.

  4. Hey Rob - thanks so much for the positive comment - glad you liked the book. I will check out the Emerick book. The 50 tips I've read and have a review on file. It's a great little book - perfect for a christmas stocking!

  5. The author Ian MacDonald died 20/08/2003... Rest in peace and what a great book to leave the world. He took his own life but left a flower of his many writings....

  6. Wow Matty, I wrongly thought he died of cancer, that's really sad. It is a treasure, not only valuable in it's own right but as an example that you can love the Beatles and yet be objective and personal in your critical evaluations.