Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Revolution in the Head

Last year I gave my dad Ian McDonald's book, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties. He loved it and passed it on to me when he finished. I'm in the middle of it now, and it's terrific. McDonald first gives a pretty healthy introduction into what he means by "Revolution in the Head", and then lays out the social and cultural atmosphere that helped mold the band and the atmosphere that they themselves helped shape. He opens with a quote by Aaron Copland -- "If you want to know about the Sixties, play the music of the Beatles" -- which seems particularly appropriate, and also makes me feel like I have some kind of grasp of what the Sixties were all about.

What the book does really well, though, is make their music come to life. I have never wanted to hear these songs so much. I listened to "She Loves You" maybe a dozen times yesterday, just to catch the little "jazzy sixths" and "offbeat tom-tom quavers" that he's going on about. There are also some great anecdotes of the recording sessions, reminding you what an incredible band (in the technical sense) they were and also just how far out some of these recordings (masterminded by the genius George Martin) were at the time. Here's one of my favorites, from the entry on "Twist and Shout":

"The Beatles had been recording for twelve hours and time was officially up. George Martin, though, was looking for one more number -- something to send the album out with a bang. Accordingly, he and his team retired with the group to the Abbey Road canteen to take a final breather and have a think. Over coffee (or, in Lennon's case, warm milk for his ragged throat), they weighed their options before deciding on the wildest thing in The Beatles' act: 'Twist and Shout', their cover of a record by the black Cincinnati family act The Isley Brothers which had been a summer hit in America the previous year.... Back in Studio 2, the group knew they had at most two chances to get this demanding song on tape before Lennon lost his voice. At around 10:30 pm, with him stripped to the waist and the others 'hyping' themselves by treating the control room as their audience, they went for it. The eruptive performance that ensued stunned the listening technicians and exhilarated the group (as can be heard on McCartney's triumphant 'Hey!' at the end). Trying for a second take, Lennon found that he had nothing left and the session stopped there and then -- but the atmosphere was still crackling. Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio."
Don't know about you all, but the thought of Lennon drinking warm milk just to stay in the game then tearing through one of the greatest covers of all time, the band so riled up and buzzing that even Paul's hollering during the recording -- it kinda gives me goosebumps. This was February of 1963. Just to give you an indication of the other stuff also released in 1963, you have Lesley Gore's two big hits, "Judy's Turn to Cry" and "It's My Party", "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels, "I Will Follow Him" by Little Peggy March, "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula, and freaking "Dominique" by the Singing Nun. It's a great portrait of what came before The Beatles, and just how much things changed when they hit the scene.

And also, one year later, in the first week of April 1964, The Fab Four held the top five singles in America (1. Can't Buy Me Love, 2. Twist and Shout, 3. She Loves You, 4. I Want to Hold Your Hand, and 5. Please Please Me). Just one week later, they would hold FOURTEEN of the Top 100 -- something I can't imagine we'll ever seen again.

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