Reimagining The Beatles

magic_circles_beatlesMagic 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. - Ian Alterman

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Ian Alterman is a founding moderator of, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)

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I Loved it, yeah yeah yeah...

Wow Ian,

Thanks for resurrecting this one. So brilliantly. I picked it up and read it when it came out, and was taken by the audacity of the writer, and the honesty of the execution. The light side/dark side -- so brilliantly drawn out. As usual, the Beatles pipped the Stones -- poor Mick, can never get one over on John. Their dark moment (Altamont) was eclipsed by the Beatles, (Manson). What I loved most about the book was that the author just took the Beatles and fast-forwarded their legacy five hundred years. Like we do now with Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton -- that's what he's doing with 'the boys.' Brilliant.

Ken Krimstein

Yer Beatle Book Review

Okay, so it is the book I heard about several years ago. Notwithstanding a slight (?) penchant for hyperbole, your review is very well written and informative. I must admit, though, that my impression after reading it is that the author has basically constructed a narrative of himself through the prism of the Beatles. Maybe it's the best philosophical meditation on the songs and lives of the Bealtes, or the most literary expression of the cultural meaning of the Beatles, etc. The best Book on the Beatles as history may be the recent one by Bob Spitz, though I am far from having finished it.

One thing I have to argue with is your claim about "how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" being about "assholes in the audience". I think that is a bit gratuitous. Is "fixing a hole where the rain gets in" also about fixing assholes? But to explain why I disagree I have to say a more about Sgt. Pepper. I take the album to be literally about just what it says it's about - "lonely hearts". Most of the songs are strongly themed with emptiness, loneliness, separation, or the attempt to shore up one's defenses against it. The apparent exceptions I take to be more philosophical variations on this theme. (1) LSD is a journey into one's own mind. This song may also contain references to other songs about emptiness on the album: "look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone", possibly a reference to the girl in "She's Leaving Home" - the young girl growing up, going away; and the people who "hide themselves behind a wall of illusion"; not to mention the "newspaper taxis... waiting to take you away", very reminiscent of scenes in "A Day in the Life". (2) "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is about a collection of odd circus characters, social outcasts who will "challenge the world". (3) "Lovely Rita" describes an imagined romance with a woman in a uniform who looks "much older... a little like a military man". You can't really cross that barrier, though, so, "took her home, I nearly made it, sitting on the sofa with a sister or two" (much like John who "crawled off to sleep in the bath" in "Norwegian Wood"). In other words, these three are songs about less obvious kinds of distance between people. The rest are all overtly about loneliness or separation or what we try to do to avoid them. "Sgt. Pepper" itself not only introduces the loneliness theme but speaks of the Beatles' own distance from their audience and their decision to stop performing - "we're sorry but it's time to go", "it's getting very near the end" - for they are indeed the "one and only lonely hearts club band".

Now, I don't see why all this is not an adequate context for the "4000 holes in Blackburne-Lancashire", which are supposed to fill the Albert Hall. That is just a hall full of lonely people, like a church where "nobody came", a place where "the space between us all" is all there is. (The story, you know, is that the image refers to counting potholes, but anyone who believes that there's no metaphor there should be banned from writing about rock and roll for 64 years.) "A Day in the Life" is certainly about the Beatles, and their audience; it comes, after all, after the pretend-band ends its concert, as the Beatles deliver their own metanarrative of the theme of the album. But that metanarrative is much deeper than calling their audience "assholes". It turns the fear of isolation into something on the order of a nuclear holocaust, and adds the thought that we try to distance ourselves from our own fear of distance by projecting it into news items and film scenes - the pain of others we can consume, but please, not our own. The theme of separation is actually pretty constant in their later work; you mention a lot about death on Revolver, and there is an equally strong and interrelated theme of isolation and emptiness - "Nowhere Man", "Eleanor Rigby", "Blue Jay Way", "Fool on the Hill", etc. The Albert Hall is just the church where "no one was saved" (double entendre, perhaps), the wedding hall to which nobody came, the temple of nowhere men.

Anyway, maybe your glowing review will actually prompt me to add this book to my Beatles collection, and hope it will actually get read some day, unlike some of the others.

Response to Tony


Actually, the reference to the "holes" in Albert Hall being "assholes" is not mine; I have seen it in more than one book about The Beatles. And it actually makes sense, for a couple of reasons. First, Albert Hall was where The Beatles gave their "royal command" performance - and thus it could be that the "assholes" they were referring to were NOT their general fans, but the "upper crust" who attended ("Those in the cheap seats clap your hands; the rest of you just rattle your jewelry," as JL famously said that evening). Or it could be both. Second, to the degree that The Beatles "blamed" their fans for the NEED to isolate themselves and become a strictly studio band (and some Beatle scholars have in fact suggested this), then it is understandable that they might think of their fans as "assholes" (in a moment of pique). As an aside, there is at least one Beatle book that notes that the concert hall The Beatles played in Lancashire held...4,000 people. If so, this makes the connection between "holes" and audience even stronger.

As for your mini-exegesis on Sgt. Pepper, I think you may be overstating your case just a tad re the measure of "loneliness" therein. After all, "With A Little Help From My Friends" is a positive, upbeat song, as is "Getting Better," "Fixing a Hole" (he IS "fixing" it...), Lovely Rita, even "Good Morning" ("I've got nothing to say but it's okay"). Still, there ARE images of loneliness, and this would be in keeping with the fact that their first studio album (Rubber Soul) straddled the line between the old "inclusive" Beatles (The Word, Michelle, Girl, Wait, If I Needed Someone) and the new, more "distant" Beatles (Norwegian Wood, You Won't See Me, Nowhere Man, Think for Yourself, Run For Your Life), and that their second studio album (Revolver) had all those references to death (i.e., a "complete break"). Thus, the images of loneliness on Sgt. Pepper would make sense as the "next step" in their "emotional progression."

Re "A Day in the Life," you should read McKinney's comments on it, as they comport with yours in some ways, but also diverge from it in some important ways.

I have not read Spitz yet, though I plan to. One of the best "insider" books I've read is The Love You Make, by Peter Brown (confidant to Brian Epstein, personal assistant to the group, and one of their inner circle).

As for "a slight penchant for hyperbole," I resemble that remark.


Joan: Whatever gave you THAT


Whatever gave you THAT idea? LOL. And welcome to Culture Catch!


So let me get this straight,

So let me get this straight, Maani, you like this Book!!!


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