FIVE YEARS AGO I started learning the piano. I’ve dreamed about tickling the ivories for almost as long as I can remember, but the fantasy began to take on corporeal aspect whde I was readlng Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head (Pimlico). A song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ career, Revolution was the first book on pop couldn’t breeze through at a sitting. What were these diminished sevenths and aeolian modes MacDonald would harp on about? What was a harp? Baffled, I looked the words up in a musical dictionary. Only befuddled further, I fled back to MacDonald’s book with rather more than my sevenths dlminished. The panic increased. can’t remember whether it was the ‘sernitonal seesaw’ in ‘I Am The Walrus’ or the ‘ominously recurring blues B flat whlch belongs in neither the chorus’s G major nor its related minor’ in ‘Cry Baby Cry’ that finally prompted the call to the Blackheath Conservatoire. Thankfblly, they took me in and pointed me in the direction of Middle C.
Half a decade on, here is MacDonald’s new book – a collection of rock-‘n’-roll essays and reviews which, whde less demanding than Revolution, will still occasionally upbraid the musically illiterate. ‘McCartney expresses hls breezy, optimistic character in wide-stridlng melodic steps which range fieely over the stave to create tunes that need no harmonic support.’ ‘The key of E flat recurs in Hendrix’s music courtesy of his customary half-tone detuning.’ I can’t tell you how big I felt, cottoning on to this stuff at a first reading.
But before the small detail the big picture. The People’s Music is more than just a ragbag of journalistic jottings. The book has a theme and the theme is decline. Rock is pretty much a wreck, says MacDonald. Pop is pooped. MacDonald won’t like me for suggesting it, but some of what he has to say wouldn’t look out of place in a Daily Mail editorial. In the long, learned and hitherto unpublished piece that gives the book its title, for instance, MacDonald argues that things have all been downhdl since the Beatles. Not just because the Beatles made unbeatable records, but because they changed the relationshit, between musicians and their audlence. Prior to the Beatles, pop music – like all other lunds of music – had been the province of a select few. Songs were written by talented individuals who knew their way round a theory book. Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern.. . the sundry names of Tin Pan Alley had all benefited from a classical training. Paul McCartney knew a few old music-hall songs courtesy of his dad, but his knowledge of the historv of music was otherwise confined to the hit parade he had begun to hear on the radlo in his teens. When Lennon and McCartney burst on to the pop writing scene, they did so not as professionals but as fans.
Why were the rock-‘n’-roll barricades so easilv stormed? Because, as MacDonald points out, pop was the simplest of musical idioms. Richard Rodgers’s blue notes, Cole Porter’s minor keys, Irving Berlin’s roguishly Russian cadences – such subtleties weren’t required for pop. Given a guitar and three chords, anyone with the vaguest sense of rhythm could come up with a post-Tin Pan AUey ditty.
These days you don’t even need the chords. With a sequencer and an hour or two to waste, anyone can whip ‘ up a rap number. It takes far longer to read one chapter of Patrick Neate’s Where You’re At (Bloomsbury 212pp A9.99), an exhaustive study of the culture of hp-hop, than it did to write any of the tunes discussed in the book. The use of this vou-Lress-the-button-we’ll-do-the-rest 4 A technology is why so much contemporary music (by whch I do not just mean pop) feels so alien to us. It is alien to us. Music is all about timing – the regulated but never entirelv vredictable beat of the human heart. It is this unpredidtaLility, these momentary flaws and flutters, we feel the lack of when we hear a piece of hip-hop or garage. Computer-controlled, the stuff is lifeless, inhuman.
Thankfully, MacDonald does not bring just bad news. Despite his gloomy protestations about the future, he finds plenty in the past that is still worthy of attention. Anyone who owns-a copy of Revolution-in the Head is hardly wanting for Beatles reading, but The People’s Music serves up another two essays on the Fab Four. First up is a piece on Lennon and McCartney’s early years writing together, a daunting work of scholarship that is all the more daunting for seeming not at all scholarly. The second article looks at the psychedelic era that the Beatles both inaugurated and refined and is another example of MacDonald’s ability to compress history. He gets whole eras into a phrase. These short essays cannot pretend to the magisterial scope of Revolution, but they might be a better place to start than that magnum opus simply because in them MacDonald assumes far less theoretical knowledge on the reader’s part. Add in a finely wrought piece- on post-Beatles ~ennonan d Fab Four fans have nothing to grumble about.
Nor do Bowie worshippers. In an extended review of the CD remasterings of Station To Station and Low, MacDonald gets to grips with early Bowie’s fascist undertow. He argues that 1976-77 was a hinge period for Bowie because during it he finally conquered his technomisanthropic dread and set off on the road to becoming the family entertainer his first manager had always thought he ought to be. Ths is as wise and cunning a piece on Bowie as I’ve ever read – and it leaves vou wondering”: whv, (Macca excepted) unhappy artists tend to make art that makes us happier than that of happy artists.
And there is more. MacDonald writes about Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Simon and Gdnkel, Bob Marley, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Bob Dvlan and loads of others in what is likelv to be the onlv inhispensable pop book of the year. He ;sn9t always rib (dwelling almost exclusively on the established masterpieces, the Dylan essay is a going-through-themotions piece that nowhere challenges received opinion), but even when he is wrong he nudges your own musings up a gear. No book on rock ‘n’ roll out this year will be more argued over, more thumbed through. Why wasn’t it bound in hard covers?