The Beatles and their music have probably commanded more acres of print than any other pop-culture phenomenon in human history. However, if you are just looking for one book to condense the relevance, spirit and impact of their music, then Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head is the one to go for.
As well as exploring how the Beatles shaped, and were shaped by, the Sixties, this work analyses, song-by-song, the group's discography. As a consequence, an enhanced and broadened understanding of the decade and The Beatles is imparted, even if this does not claim to be a "biography" as such.
The "Introduction" sets the scene, and it is forcefully but subtly argued, offering some observations and theories about the Sixties, the special qualities of The Beatles and, for example, how the differing styles of Lennon and McCartney came about. There is a detailed and perceptive look at 1967 and the counterculture, and how these phenomena were regarded by subsequent generations. Some might find these passages heavy going, but they are essential to the overall message of the book. For me, the most noteworthy thing to emerge was the notion that The Beatles and their peers were among the first to vigorously harness social and cultural shifts which were probably already in progress even before the Sixties dawned.
The "commentary" on the Beatles is hugely entertaining, engrossing and authoritative, packed with anecdotes and astute insight. The author's knowledge and understanding give the articles a real fluency, and in citing influences for songs, he doesn't always give the "obvious" reference points, so the reader's grasp of Sixties pop will be widened. Lesser-known figures and records are brought in from the historical cold.
It is worth pointing out that the author does not pretend that everything the Beatles recorded was beyond reproach. He speaks out when he feels that something is weak and mediocre, or when a lapse in taste has occurred. Some of his opinions on certain tracks may even be uncomfortable reading for long-term fans (for example, "All You Need Is Love", "Nowhere Man", "Across The Universe"). He also highlights examples where The Beatles were following musical fashions instigated by others, and stages where others had stolen a march on them.
Having read quite a bit about The Beatles over the past couple of decades, it seems to me that it is "fashionable" to deride certain songs, or to excessively laud others. MacDonald advances cogent and carefully argued reasons for his views, aided by his trained and perceptive ears, and this challenges us to be intellectually honest, even with hitherto cherished songs, and this has to be a healthy development.
One of the real delights of Revolution In The Head is the resourcefulness with which MacDonald brings out the nuances in the music, coupled with his keen sense of when The Beatles exhibited that intangible magic which often placed them in the vanguard of things. He goes well beyond the superficial and the elementary in explaining the and interpreting the meanings and motivations behind the music.
Also, the book is admirably compact and concise, and even though the subject matter is very ambitious in places, the words are usually proportionate. It doesn't pretend that everything was wondrous and epoch-making. It gives a summation, and moves on. In short, this book is immensely readable and vibrant....
Through the studies of the Beatles' records, we are also able to trace the development of the members, in terms of artistic influences and social outlook. This is most clearly discernible to me in the cases of John Lennon and George Harrison. In addition, the evolution of the "pecking order" within the band is a sub-plot, often related to the waxing and waning in the relative creative vigour of Lennon and McCartney.
As the songs are tackled in the chronological order of the commencement of their recording, we are also able to see the maturing in the songwriting, and the increasing willingness to experiment in the studio. One is also struck by how The Beatles maintained their musical standards, despite being faced with what seems to modern sensibilities to have been an absurdly hectic and gruelling schedule, often recording multiple tracks in a single day. The spur of competition in the creative process is also illustrated, both within the group itself and with their peers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most compelling sections of this book are those which deal with the period when Swinging London was at its height. The feverish energy and excitement of those times is palpable, and one can gain a real feel for the bubbling inventiveness, the exchange of ideas and the sunny optimism.
You possibly won't agree with everything which the author says, but the quality of the writing and the scholarship here wins the day, blending erudition with enthusiasm. This book will enrich your understanding of the Beatles and that era, and it will also enrich your life.