Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Book Review: "Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year" by Steve Turner

Of the nine calendar years in which the Beatles were a working band contracted to EMI, the year 1966 tends to get overlooked in favor of the numerous analyses of 1964 and the heat of American Beatlemania or of 1967 and the psychedelic musings of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour.   But 1966 was more than just the end of the Beatles' moptop years and the beginning of their more ambitious phase.  It was the year in which their ambitions and their most daring work were in full bloom, and it was the year in which their work set the standard for pop for the next half century.
Steve Turner, best known for writing "A Hard Day's Write" (also known as "The Complete Beatles Songs"), which explained the genesis of every original song the Beatles recorded, thoroughly documents how the Beatles spent 1966.  He demonstrates how they spent their down time listening to various forms of music and exploring literature and art in London at at the height of the city's "swinging" period, which influenced their work, and how chance encounters with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Yoko Ono also expanded their artistic horizons.  We learn more about how John Lennon's statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus was slow to outrage American fundamentalists and how the difficulties of their final world tour were not limited to their time in Manila or the North American leg.  We learn about Paul McCartney's discovery of electronic music and how it portended today's EDM craze, John Lennon's gameness at trying new artistic pursuits (his role in How I Won the War, Dick Lester's sharp black-comedy war movie, is covered in great detail), and George Harrison's first meeting with Ravi Shankar after taking up the sitar . . . and how all of this led them to view rock and roll from a new perspective.  (Ringo Starr, the everyman in the group, remained thoroughly grounded and thoroughly Ringo; his unpretentiousness helped the Beatles keep one foot in the outside world.)  Several myths are also debunked, such as the reason the Beatles posed as butchers in what became an infamous U.S. album cover.              
But it's when Turner discusses Revolver, the groundbreaking album the Beatles released in 1966, that the book is at its most illuminating.  The making of songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows," with its tape loops and distorted Lennon vocal, and the writing of "Eleanor Rigby" and its vivid depictions of loneliness are discussed with the same excitement and freshness that Turner brought to explaining all the Beatles' songs in "A Hard Day's Write," and the contributions of session musicians like Alan Civil (who played the horn on "For No One") and Anil Bhagwat (who played the tabla on George's "Love You To") are better appreciated in exciting prose. 
Throughout "Beatles '66," Turner makes this pivotal year in the Beatles' career come to life; reading it makes you feel as if you are there.  By the end, you understand anew the importance of the Beatles' innovations on Revolver and the new influences they opened themselves up to at a time of rapid change (brought about not just by politics and social movements but by Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Who, and other contemporaries of the Fabs).  One might think that rap and Taylor Swift have no connection to the Beatles' influence, but Turner makes it clear that the group's technical breakthroughs and personal songwriting styles continue to reverberate in pop at at time when, ironically,  rock and roll - the very genre the Beatles brought back from the dead - seems more lifeless than ever.  
One minor flaw is that Turner romanticizes the time he writes about, though this period is as well remembered for the anarchy it spawned (the Vietnam War, racial and social unrest, the rise of the American conservative moment)  as for the music it spawned.  However, at the dawn of 2017, when the world seems to be on the cusp of similar discord, reading "Beatles '66" will remind you that, even when times seem to be at their darkest, anything positive is possible. 

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