Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Seven

Two books on The Beatles:

Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley
Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald

Both books approach the band in the same fashion: song by song through the entirety of its career, sticking almost entirely to legitimately released tracks. And both books have their merits, though I ultimately prefered MacDonald's. Riley can't seem to find anything negative to say about a song (with the exception of unsalvageable dreck like "Only a Northern Song"), whereas MacDonald is willing to take shots at just about every sacred cow the Beatles have if he feels like an individual song is not up to the standards set by others.

MacDonald is also a bit more technical in his analysis of the songs, emphasizing, especially, the critical role of harmony in Lennon's numbers and melody in those of McCartney. When Riley does get technical, though, he tends to do so to push a particular interpretation, something that MacDonald avoids. When Riley does this well, or when his analysis (the intersection of style and theme, right?) seems justified, he's enjoyable (claiming, for example, that in "She Said, She Said," "phrases are extended from eighth notes into triplets to intensify the rhythmic stress, the thin line between confidence and anxiety"). But when the point is less apt, it can feel like he's flailing for something to say, as in this claim about the out-of-tune piano that wanders through the end of "Tomorrow Never Knows" as the song fades: "This is less a self-parody of the message than it is one more random sound tagged on to emphasize the lack of rational hierarchies in the altered state."

Reading the books meant that I got to listen a lot to the Beatles for a week or two, and that's a good thing to do once or twice a year. And there's pleasure, too -- as there tends to be reading criticism -- in finding the points of disagreement, the points where your opinion veers, perhaps sharply, from that presented. MacDonald, for example, has little positive to say about "And Your Bird Can Sing," whereas I love every damn thing about that song, from the little inhalation in the opening, to the rhythm of the guitar riff during the bridge, and from the glorious multi-part harmony during the final verse to the fact that there isn't a wasted second in it.

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