Sunday, December 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles: A Day in the Life


Being a teenager in the early- to mid-1990s was probably the next best thing for a diehard Beatles fan who was too young to have experienced it the first go-around in the 1960s. With the announcement of the Beatles Anthology TV series, two "new" Beatles tracks, and three 2-CD sets of outtakes and rarities, it was a second wave of Beatlemania that was absolutely thrilling. As an obsessed 14 year old in 1994, I collected every newspaper and magazine clipping on the band that I could find (all of which I still have!) and eagerly awaited the new releases. Of course, during this time there was an increase in books released about the band, some great and some awful. One such book released during this period is the subject of this review, A Day In the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles.



I had read an article in a newspaper around this time discussing an upcoming book written by Mark Hertsgaard. The drawing power of the book was that he was the rare second writer (the other being noted Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn) who was allowed into the tape vault of Abbey Road Studios to listen to the Beatles master tapes. That, and the fact that he was an American writer in contrast to the British Lewisohn, gave the promise of a slightly different take on the musical evolution of the band.  I eagerly awaited the book and bought it as soon as it was released in 1995. I read it once and then it sat on my bookshelf ever since, so I decided to give it a fresh re-reading for the present review. The purported draw of the book was to be that Hertsgaard would focus on the music of the Beatles and not dwell too much on their personal lives; this was to be an in-depth and analytical look not only at their released records, but at the process that went into their creation.  Coupled with his access to the session tapes, it was set up to be a substantial tome to supplement all of the great works Lewisohn had written about the band. However, as you'll see as this review progresses, the book never quite ascends to the lofty perch which Lewisohn's books occupy.



A Day in the Life is laid out in chronological order, beginning with the Beatles' first recordings for EMI and George Martin in the summer of 1962 and continuing through to their final recording session in 1970. Along the way, the author devotes chapters to each album the band recorded and released, as well as topical chapters interspersed throughout that are dedicated to other important aspects of their career, such as Brian Epstein's management, George Martin's production, the Beatlemania phenomenon, the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, and so on. While the book checks in at around 430 pages, the individual chapters are rather short so that the book seems almost like a series of vignettes about the band's music, making it quite enjoyable to read. The downside is that there is really not much of substance throughout the book, making it an enjoyable read that manages to be strangely unsatisfying at the same time, saying a lot while not really meaning anything in the end. This is especially noteworthy with what I consider to be the biggest missed opportunity of the entire project: the author's access to the session tapes. Whereas one would expect a fairly in-depth analysis of the creative process through the alternate versions and earlier takes of the songs, which after all was the selling point of the book in the first place, instead we only get the occasional reference to some studio banter or a brief description of a broken-down or early take. Oftentimes, he has nothing better to share about a take than something as meaningless as Paul singing "scoobee-doobee-doobee!" to himself off-mic while waiting for the next run through of "A Hard Day's Night" and other similarly meaningless nonsense that we're all guilty of during the creative process. Worse, almost all of these will be instantly recognizable to any serious Beatles fan, or even someone who has only listened to a few of the more common bootleg recordings or the Anthology albums themselves, which were released within months of this book. (As an aside, I've been listening to the 7CD Unsurpassed Masters series of Beatles outtakes, one of the most commonly available and best collection of outtakes, and the bulk of what is described in this book can be found on these discs!). It seems such a shame to squander the opportunity when a literal treasure trove of material was available to the author.  I realize that I'm speaking from the perspective of a fan who has studied these tapes for years and that casual fans will probably learn something new from this book; however, the book was aimed as being a serious look at the music for dedicated fans, so given the intended audience it seems more could have been done with this source material literally at the author's fingertips.

Further compounding this creeping feeling of superficiality as the book progresses is the fact that the author relies on outside sources for what little personal background on the band that he does offer. Thus, such apocryphal, oft-told, and flat out incorrect anecdotes such as the Beatles smoking a joint in Buckingham Palace when they received their MBEs (which they never did) get trotted out yet again. The author also doesn't seem to have too deep an understanding of the nuts and bolts of music beyond a rudimentary sense, which is quite obvious when he describes songs that have key-changes when they really don't, or "two-chord sequences" that actually comprise of four chords, as but two examples. As a musician, these really irritated me and I can see them doing the same for any other Beatles fans reading the book who also happen to be musicians. Finally, while some degree of subjectivity is to be expected when discussing music, and acknowledging that it is almost impossible to remain purely objective when discussing music as everyone has their own opinion, the author often lets his personal views on the music get the better of him. He summarily dismisses several generally universally-lauded tracks as little more than throwaway while doing the opposite to several songs that the Beatles themselves have called "work songs." Again, opinions are of course subjective but I think it's safe to say just about everyone acknowledges that "A Day In the Life" is a defining achievement, whereas a lesser song like "It's Only Love," while very catchy and enjoyable, is nowhere near the same level.  Finally, while I commend Hertsgaard's attempts to dig a little deeper into the band's music and the context in which it resides, he has an annoying tendency (as did MacDonald in his excellent but similarly frustrating book Revolution in the Head, which I will review at a later date) to over-analyze the songs and lyrics to almost comical effect. However, where MacDonald tended to take all of the joy out of the music by focusing too much on the songs' construction or lyrical meanings, Hertsgaard's over-analysis border on the ludicrous at times. While several of the early Beatles songs, for example, have the occasional lyric tossed in that elevates them slightly above the "boy-girl" narrative they purposely pursued, one certainly can't infer much more of a meaning behind, say, "From Me to You" than is already clearly communicated out of the mouths of the Beatles themselves on the record.   



A Day In the Life was almost universally hailed by book reviewers and the press when it came out in 1995 and as a giddy 15 year old, I read it and was summarily impressed by the book, rating it one of the best books on the band that I'd written. However, over the years the reappraisal of the book has gradually brought opinion about it back down to earth. Having given it a fresh and critical reading 20 years later as an older, wiser, soon-to-be 35 year old, I can now say that while it's an enjoyable and fairly interesting book, it's by no means the essential or scholarly read on the Beatles that it was initially made out to be. While it's pleasant enough and never becomes annoying as some other, more lightweight Beatles books do, it manages to say a lot on the band and their music without really saying much at all. My 7/10 rating doesn't necessarily mean this book is bad; it simply means that it's not as good as the better Beatles books that are available. While overall my recommendation for this book is positive, anyone more serious about learning about the band and their music will find this to be little more than a broad overview and a good starting point. More in-depth, well-researched, and substantive information can be found elsewhere.

MY RATING: 7/10


4 comments:

  1. Yes, I do like lyrics and songs with meaning, which generally are the type bands I'm drawn to. Occasionally I like an obtuse or ambiguous songwriter or band like say, Neil Young or someone else, but for me personally, their lyrics have meaning to me. In other words, in my mind, I get some meaning out of them, whether or not it's the one the writer wishes to convey. That's is also one reason I pretty much dislike rap or hip hop--I have no idea what they are singing/talking about.

    But I think what I was meaning to say, when someone writes a song sometimes I'd think they have to use a line or so just to make it work artistically, so a castoff lyric is used just to get the song written. I guess not everything can be a creative masterpiece, but you have to make allowance in all art. Everyone has their own working method.

    I wondered if you'd ever seen or read the graphic novel about the Beatles: The Fifth Beatles: The Brian Epstein Story?

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  2. I'm aware of that graphic novel and I've heard nothing but good things about it...I've been meaning to get a copy to review but it slipped through the cracks. Have you read it? Any good?

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  3. Yes, I have a copy. I thought it was excellent, even though I already knew a bit about some of that history. Nice art too.

    Here's a couple of music links you might enjoy linking too: Gnosis is a music site devoted to adventurous music, which is what I tend to listen to more these days: http://gnosis2000.net/

    also an online progressive rock encyclopedia: http://www.gepr.net/

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  4. Cool, thanks for all of that info!

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