Reimagining The Beatles


Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History

by Devin McKinney (Harvard University Press, 2004)

What do toilets, holes, mutation, meat and Yellow Submarines have in common? In the mind of Devin McKinney, these are the overarching themes of The Beatles' journey, both performed and recorded, from Liverpool to Hamburg to Liverpool to America to Japan to the Philippines to America and back to England. And what's truly extraordinary is... he makes an excellent case.

There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of books written about The Beatles; some good, some mediocre, some bad. The group has been analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed musically, culturally, historically, even personally. Given this, one would think that there is nothing new to say about them, or their place in and contributions to music, culture, and history in general.

One would be wrong.

As a combined result of obsessively detailed research, brilliant craftsmanship, force of will, and sheer chutzpah, McKinney teases out (and sometimes violently rips) new meanings, unexpected observations, and revelatory nuances that run from the merely spine-tingling to the downright breathtaking. McKinney's focus is the intersection of mythos and pathos, and he writes in a prose style that is erudite without being condescending, and intellectual without that "I love the sound of my own voice" factor. Indeed, while I hated to put down the book because it was incredibly interesting, I also could not wait to get back to McKinney's "voice." In these regards, I was originally going to say (with only minor hesitation) that this is the best book ever written about The Beatles. But I changed my mind. This may just be the best book ever written on any rock 'n' roll topic.

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter One (c. 1959 to 1964) deals with The Beatles' time in Hamburg (the first "toilet" -- not counting Liverpool) and their return to Liverpool as a full-fledged, tried-and-tested, been-to-the-bottom-and-back rock 'n' roll band. And McKinney's historical, cultural, and musical assessment here sets the tone for the rest of the book: deep, "dirty," and insightful in a way I have rarely read about the lads. Among the observations he makes about The Beatles' first trip to America (which closes the chapter) is the difference in the words associated with The Beatles vis-a-vis the two sexes: for men, the harsh, military "conquer," "invade," "rule," and "dominate"; for women, the softer, more emotional, "giggle," "swoon," "love," and "obsess." As McKinney points out throughout the book, the language -- the choice of words -- used re: The Beatles by fans, critics, and the media (and even themselves) is never unimportant.

Chapter Two (1964/1965) is largely an extraordinary exegesis of A Hard Day's Night and Help!, one which not only puts the two films in context in every regard (historically, culturally, cinematically), but digs so deeply into the symbolism in each film that you will wonder if you saw the same films he did. And while one can certainly debate some of his "connections" and interpretations, it is a certainty that after reading the book you will never be able to watch the films the same way again. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

The chapter ends with a brilliant, in-depth discussion of the notorious "butcher" cover for Yesterday and Today, which McKinney not only puts in its artistic context (which is far more interesting and unexpected than you may realize), but also in its cultural context as the first time "controversy" entered The Beatles lives (whether deliberately or not), and, most critically, how that changed the nature of their relationship with their fans.

Chapter Three is devoted to 1966, which McKinney identifies as the most significant single year in their lives because (among many other things) it was the year they stopped playing live. There are in-depth analyses of Rubber Soul and Revolver, including the observation that the latter was the first album on which the concept of death was introduced -- in spades: "Taxman" ("my advice for those who die"), "Eleanor Rigby" ("died in the church"), "Love You To" ("before I'm a dead old man"), "She Said She Said" ("I know what it's like to be dead"), "Tomorrow Never Knows" ("ignorance and hate may mourn the dead"). [N.B. It is true that John sings "I'd rather see you dead little girl" in "Run for Your Life," but the context is still a "love" song, and thus different from the uses on Revolver.] Thus, a band that had dedicated itself to writing about love and life was, for the first time, thinking -- and writing and singing -- about death.

Also discussed is George's growing influence, The Beatles vis-a-vis Bob Dylan (a deeper, more interesting look than usual), the truth behind The Beatles' concerts in Japan and the Philippines (again, more context and detail here than is found elsewhere), John's "Jesus" comment, and the band's final concert (San Francisco). The chapter ends with an interesting dissection of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (the last song they recorded and released that year), and how it was not only a wildly unexpected -- and complex -- coda to 1966, but a surreal, even "dangerous," harbinger of things to come.

Chapter Four brings us to 1967/1968. Among an ongoing series of quotes from Milan Kundera, McKinney takes on Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Dylan's John Wesley Harding, Vietnam, race issues, "Revolution" (a "rebuke" to their fans), The Stones' "Street Fighting Man" (which came out the same week as "Revolution"), "Happiness is a Warm Gun," "Revolution 9" (including an odd but fascinating exegesis), and the White Album in general (including a culturo-metaphysical comparison to "Guernica").

Chapter Five (1969) is arguably the most fascinating chapter of the book, as it juxtaposes the two major events of that year: the "Paul is Dead" hoax and the goings-on of the Manson family. It also touches on the alleged "bootlegs" that came out that year, including the infamous Masked Marauders, a "supergroup" that supposedly included Lennon, Jagger, McCartney, Dylan, and Harrison. [N.B. McKinney calls the "Paul is Dead" hoax "the first (and thus far last) pop-death myth." However, 10CC, in an obvious parody of/homage to that hoax, created a pop-death myth that included the entire band, with clues scattered throughout songs and album cover artwork.]

In Chapter Six, McKinney provides some interesting and instructive background on himself. Born in 1966, the first album he ever "bonded" with was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In 1976, he got a copy of The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, as well as getting his first Beatles record, "Strawberry Fields Forever": his "first deep experience" with The Beatles, and one that would change his life forever. He talks of Lennon's death (McKinney was 14), '80s/'90s music ("'90s pop reached the point where it was sucking more out of the world than it was pumping into it"), his move to NYC ("The Beatles' American Hometown") in the early '90s, and The Beatles' Anthology (1995), particularly the release of the two "new" Lennon/Beatles songs, "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love."

McKinney comes up with some truly fun observations about albums and songs. Of "Tomorrow Never Knows":

"Experimental surgery performed on a conscious patient."

Of Sgt. Pepper:  "The most brilliant fake in rock and roll history" (which is not a criticism).

Of the White Album:

"As an allergic patient will be injected with a measure of precisely the offending virus, the White Album is infused with what it knows it must expel."

Of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun":

"If the song is about fucking, which it seems to be, it is with a succubus."

McKinney is not without his "misses." For example (and this is not trivial), he misses the connections between Help! and Dr. No (which came out the year before) -- island/beach locations, occidental villains, underwater lairs, explosions, high-tech gadgetry. As well, having discussed at length both the literal and figurative distance the band had been placing between themselves and their live audience, it is odd that there is no discussion of the scene in which the military is protecting the lads as they play outdoors (for no one), while a recording of "She's a Woman" plays on a tape recorder underground. And having discussed that distance, he also completely misses the connection (in "A Day in the Life") of the "holes" in Albert Hall being the "(ass)holes" in the audience -- perhaps the meanest allusion the band ever made. He is also a mite too dismissive of the reality behind the "Paul is Dead" phenom; while it is true that some of the "connections" that fans were making were tenuous at best and hopelessly overreaching at worst, there is little question that many clues were deliberately placed, and that The Beatles would have had to have been aware of the hoax, if not perpetrated it themselves. (Oddly, discussing songs that held clues, he mentions "A Day in the Life," "I Am the Walrus," and "Revolution 9" -- but overlooks "Blue Jay Way"!) Finally, McKinney makes one of the most common (and nearly unforgivable) mistakes when he laments Let It Be -- with all its tension and bad blood -- as The Beatles' final product. In fact, Let It Be was recorded before Abbey Road, which makes the latter the last music The Beatles worked on as a group -- all the more remarkable for being everything Let It Be was not: cohesive, playful, and almost completely lacking tension, much less animosity.

But these are mere quibbles. McKinney's mastery of his research, and the meanings he pulls -- or drags kicking and screaming, if necessary -- from it are a wonder to behold.

Finally, at the risk of making this review almost as long as the book itself, it is worth providing two of McKinney's observations in their entirety.

First, on The Beatles: "There is no way of quantifying the changes The Beatles catalyzed in private lives. The affairs begun or ended to one of their songs; the career paths and passionate avocations inspired by their creative example; the spiritual inquiries spurred by one Beatle's famous blasphemy; the filial bonds deepened by a common love of their music. Because they don't move mountains, such things fall into the vast wastebasket of unrecorded history. Are we to consider them unimportant for that reason? I think we may consider them as important as any history ever recorded. They are the changes that determine how people live within history -- day to day -- as opposed to how people live because of history, era by era."

Second, one of the most remarkably honest self-assessments -- nay, self-revelations -- I have ever seen in print, and the defining explanation and theme of his writing of the book: "I had always coveted the direct experiences, earned wisdoms and epochal blessings bestowed on the '60s veterans. At any point in my growing up, I felt I would have given all I had to trade places with the merest and most marginal of them. What I had never realized or appreciated until now -- alone in a cramped Manhattan room, suddenly pushing 30 -- was that trading places in the historical line would have meant giving up the precise set of psychological biases, intellectual limitations, aesthetic prejudices, and personal experiences that had shaped me into the possessor of a relationship with The Beatles and the '60s unique from that of anyone who had ever given thought to either. What had been my sweetest and bitterest fantasy was now almost horrifying. Without this identity, after all, I would never have been able to twist The Beatles into the many private shapes I had asked them to assume; never have been able to construct, through an interpretation of dream and study of history, my own version of the story they had once imagined and enacted. Change an instant of my experience, and The Beatles -- my Beatles, my customized version of their meanings and metaphysics -- would be stolen from me."

McKinney's "customized version" of The Beatles' "meanings and metaphysics" is well worth reading -- no matter what your own "customized version" might be. 

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