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Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History
Devin McKinney
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
$27.95, 420 pages, ISBN 0-674-01202-X.

Claude Chastagner
Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier III

I don't believe John believes what is he is saying. He believes only in the scream. [p. 222]

In the movie Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore tries to define what is behind America's passion for weapons. He thinks he has found it in the fear factor. Fear, of otherness, of the future, of oneself, is what may well have produced the ugly and destructive taste for arms that smears American society. Devin Mc Kinney, in Magic Circles, The Beatles in Dream and History, also identifies fear as a major inspirational impulse, but this time behind one of the most celebrated and exciting body of works of the twentieth century, Beatles music. A thesis which may at first seem rather shallow, farfetched, or hard to sustain, but McKinney, self-penned "independent scholar," is a master at weaving together subtle arguments and forceful evidence. Even though it is impossible to reduce the book to this single line of thought, it is this perspective which is responsible for turning the book into, more than a "mere" study of Beatles songs, a far-reaching analysis of the interconnection between a form of music and its time (the "history" of the title). Which eventually gives Magic Circles a choice place within the exclusive club of important books on the 1960s.

"The toilet is the essence of rock" [p. 4]. McKinney opens his book with this provocative statement, very adroitly returning to the zoomorphic origin of the name Beatles, and alluding to the functioning of the band in its early days as collectors and recyclers of detritus. This vision of the artist as a cultural parasite, "prepared to eat shit alive" [p. 4]—I can but refer the reader to Michel Serres's work on the parasite—establishes an interesting link with Michael Jarret's theory expounded in his article "Concerning the Progress of Rock & Roll," published in DeCurtis's Present Tense, Rock & Roll and Culture. Jarret describes the evolution of rock music through the rhetoric of decomposition/regeneration, likening it to the work of fungi: "The saprophyte—which is to say, rock & roll—feeds off the decay of tradition. It treats culture as a compost pile." Magic Circles develops a similar argument: the Beatles have digested musics from other eras, from other areas, the outcome of this digestion being then expulsed on the local, and increasingly international scene. "The Beatles' music from this early period," writes McKinney, "is the very sound of the toilet." [p. 4]

It is precisely with the toilet metaphor that the fear argument starts to shape the rhetoric of the book. Stressing the necessity to take into account the specific cultural and historical contexts in which a music develops, McKinney alludes to the tensions that crippled the 1950s beneath their benign surface, both in the United States and in Britain. The apprehensions and misapprehensions engendered by rock 'n' roll, the growing independence of adolescents—"mad dogs on leashes" [p. 8]—the whites’ reluctance to acknowledge the African-American community, the increasingly louder cries for independence in British colonies, all this fuelled a growing fear to which rock music, and Beatles music especially, was a response. From then on, with subtlety and insight, McKinney traces the potency and permanence of Beatles songs to their capacity, not exactly to "answer" any specific item on the cultural or political agenda (he makes an allowance for the various versions of Revolution which, like the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man, was a conscious response to a burning political issue), but to magnify and condense the various events of the 1960s. "One reason," explains McKinney, "the Beatles' music seems inexhaustible in its variety is that each song gains when taken as a reflection of what surrounds it." [p. 139]

Two long, essential chapters entitled "Ascension/Sacrifice" and "Meat" are devoted to the years of touring and to Beatlemania. McKinney perceives quite accurately to what extent, behind the trappings of success and the glossy image conveyed by the media, these years where ruled by fear. Adulation did lead to rejection, ascension did culminate into sacrifice. But failing to integrate his analysis within a more substantial theoretical framework, he is left with a wiser-than-average but still insufficient understanding of Beatlemania, and beyond, of the status of the artist. Stardom does indeed convey a religious dimension, and sacrifice is one of the motors of fame, but sticking to Schonfield's The Passover Plot or Campbell's The Masks of Gods is not of much help to grasp their underlying meanings. A bolder, more dangerous and thoroughly unpopular move would have been to seek help from the contemporary anthropological exegeses of the Old and New Testaments (by Gil Bailie, Sandor Goodhart or René Girard) which to my knowledge are the best contributions to a true understanding of the notion of sacrifice.

Now, even if it can be proved that the Beatles' lives were less rosy than we imagined, how can McKinney establish a link between the numerous disquieting, frightening scenes which they were involved in or connected to (the Manila concerts, the last American tour, the hysterical reactions of the fans, the death threats, Charles Manson's slaughters, the "Paul is dead" hoax...) and the songs they wrote? To what extent can such sweet ditties as "Norwegian Wood" or "Michelle" owe their existence to the climate of fear that surrounded the Beatles' daily lives? For the purpose, McKinney resorts to what is perhaps his forte, namely, detailed, and extremely well documented and sensitive case-studies of seminal songs. He establishes two highly operative distinctions; the first one between lyrics and musical forms, the second one, even more important, between the song itself and its performance, which, according to McKinney "determines meaning." Thus, even when the Beatles' songs epitomize a quest for freedom, they also betray the fact that "freedom is a sense of danger" [p. 187], and when they betray a degree of fragility, they prove that "fragility is necessary to paint chaos" [p. 237]. McKinney can very convincingly appraise the darker, or fearful undertones in many songs I thought I knew inside out! To name but a few, his masterful pages on "Tomorrow Never Knows" [39 et seq.] or "Happiness is a Warm Gun" [226 et seq.] leave far behind anything written by Sheila Whiteley in her grossly overrated "The Space Between the Notes" for instance.

Like most books on music, Magic Circles follows a chronological pattern, moving from skiffle music, of Quarry Men fame, to the roof-top sessions of Let It Be, through the obscure pre-Hamburg years, Beatlemania, and the misfired attempt of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, though more from sociological than from musicological or purely historical perspective. The book abounds with long developments on what rarely surfaces in books about the Beatles, particularly at such a level of scholarship, for instance the role played by screams in their songs, the "Paul is Dead" hoax (which leads to a fairly interesting exploration of urban myths), or the connection with Manson's murders. Another rare and welcome specificity of Magic Circles is the emphasis it lays on a wealth of material rarely analyzed: bootleg recordings (from the Hamburg era to Let it Be), record covers (the famous "Butcher Cover" for instance), films, album reviews, comparative analyses with Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. All the more reasons to regret that the photographs used are not subject to the same thorough analysis. If I could wish that the last chapter, a rather insipid telling of how the author discovered Beatles music, had been made shorter, the Harvard publishing ensures rigorous standards of edition: absolutely jargon-free, the book comes with beautiful, rarely seen black and white photographs, detailed notes, a full index and an extensive, annotated discography. Altogether, a welcome addition on my Beatles shelf, however cluttered it already was.

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