2003, £10, pp272
it's true that if it's the world of "rock criticism" that
we are talking about, the concept of "notoriety" is a nebulous
one, the case of Ian MacDonald is quite peculiar. On one hand, though
he's had a long career - Assistant Editor for the New Musical Express
during the years 1972-1975, then as a highly esteemed freelancer for a series
of high-profile magazines - his name is not the first one that comes
to mind if we talk about rock critics from UK, that honour probably
going to historical figures such as Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray
and Simon Frith or to later figures such as David Toop and Simon Reynolds.
On the other, the book titled Revolution In The Head - The Beatles'
Records And The Sixties (originally published in 1994, revised in 1997)
is unanimously considered - and rightly so - as a peak in the study
of the music of the Quartet from Liverpool - and of "popular music"
in general. And Ian MacDonald is the author of that book. Its success
is due to critical co-ordinates that would be considered noteworthy
even when present singularly but which are just short of prodigious
when appearing all together in the same work, i.e.: an accurate musicological
study of the compositions (obviously including the complex and innovative
studio work); the personal lives of the main characters and their relationships
to the songs; the general musical framework (and its relationship to
the music of The Beatles); the socio-political framework in which the
music took place and which this music influenced. The whole book brims
with acute observations, but it's the long Introduction and the Note
to the Chronology that appears at the end that paint a picture of such
richness and originality that has few equals.
A very favourable review that recently appeared in the pages of The
Guardian alerted me about the existence of The People's Music: a collection
of writings - articles, profiles, album reviews - of variable length
that have already appeared in magazines such as Uncut, Mojo and Arena.
"Who is the perfect reader for this book?" is a question that's
usually asked at the end of a book review, but this time it's better
if we ponder the topic right now. All the artists profiled here are
pretty diverse when it comes to language, style, notoriety, relevance
and financial fortunes, but they all have something in common: the best
and most innovative part of their work happened in the past. So I'll
immediately say two things. First, Ian MacDonald's reflections are always
in the "present tense"; this can seem quite banal if we don't
consider the fact that quite a few of those critics "who were there"
when dealing with the past retell the same things (sometimes even using
the same words!) from their long-gone youth, with quite comical effects.
Then, whatever the reasons for this (discussing this point would take
me too far, but in the book some clever hypothesis are formulated),
it's been demonstrated with very slim uncertainty margins that the fascination
for the artists of the "classic" period is by no means limited
to those who are old (and those who doubt this fact should take the
time to check those who buy those albums and the magazines that put
those artists on their covers); so it's crucial that the meaning and
(very important!) the context - which is obviously absent from the records
themselves - are discussed by those who are able to elaborate on those
aspects for us.
Situated at the beginning and at the end of the book, the two long
essays dedicated to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake could be considered - in
theory - not too promising, the former artist having been the object
of too much attention since time immemorial, the latter having been
the focus of too much attention in a relatively short time; but Ian
MacDonald brilliantly succeeds in giving us information, perspective
and a very personal interpretation. All the other writings present points
of interest and can sometimes be quite surprising - see MacDonald's
opinions of Marvin Gaye's personality and of his recorded work. The Beatles
are featured with regards to John and Paul writing partnership and to
their famous psychedelic period - Love and Drugs; and there's also a
portrait of America's John: The Radical Lennon, about the John Lennon
Anthology; while their old rivals, The Rolling Stones, appear in their
Sixties guises. Among the other stuff, MacDonald perceptively re-examines
Chic; Gaucho, the last recorded chapter of classic-period Steely Dan
(it's unusual seeing a rock critic compare the original vinyl with TWO
different CD versions!); the recently "rediscovered" Forever
Changes by Love; the Beach Boys; David Bowie's "coke-mystic"
period; obviously there's Hendrix; less obviously there's Laura Nyro;
also featured are Spirit and The Band's Music From Big Pink. Some bashing
that hurt me: Cream and Jefferson Airplane. There is also an acute analysis
of Miles Davis's Filles De Kilimanjaro, an original perspective on minimalism,
and Pulse Of The Machine, a decidedly against-the-grain piece about
the consequences of automation in music.
brief Introduction to the book offers some caveats, my favourite being
the one that goes: "One aspect of this book which is undeniable
is its view that the best popular music done in the period under consideration
was made during the sixties, when rock was at its peak both as a new,
half invented art form and as a receptacle for rebellious social impulses."
(page viii). This is an assertion which will obviously be reason enough
for some to abandon reading this book. But things are not so simple
(with the exception of those who have to sell the "records of the
day" or risk bankruptcy, or those who still ask what The Rolling
Stones really did, besides rediscovering the blues). The People's Music
- the excellent essay which gives the book its title - gives us a key
to the other pieces and is in a way the background to all that's mentioned
in the book but is also present by way of implication, while some trends
which are situated at a "macro" level give us a satisfactory
explanation of some aesthetical factors - see for instance the ever-increasing
part reserved today to irony and nostalgia - in ways that are a lot
more convincing than simple "matters of taste".
Beppe Colli 2003
| July 22, 2003