Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: 'Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year'

There’s a bit of a Catch 22 to Mark Lewisohn’s ambition to tell The Beatles’ story more thoroughly and definitively than that oft-told story has ever been told before: the more time he devotes to writing that story thoroughly, the more time he is leaving other writers to swoop in and finish the job before him. So while Lewisohn toils away on his follow up to his first volume of The Beatles: All These Years, which will presumably cover 1966, writer Steve Turner has done the proverbial swooping with his new book Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year. Poor Mark Lewisohn. I simply cannot see how he can do a more thorough or definitive job of covering the most pivotal year in Beatles history than Turner has.

1966 was the year The Beatles’s outlook regarding music, drugs, religion, politics, art, facial hair, and their careers changed radically. It is the year they retired from live performing and made what is now generally regarded as their finest album. It is the year The Beatles were at the center of heated cultural clashes in Japan and the Philippines; Lennon enflamed controversy with his widely misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misquoted thoughts on Jesus; and met Yoko Ono. It’s also the year that John and Ringo ate pigeon pea soup before taking a four-hour tour of building developments in Tobago on January 20. That’s the level of detail that drives Beatles ’66, and while it may initially come off as a hint of some sort of “my research is the thoroughest!” ego trip, those tiny details regarding what The Beatles ate, wore, and even watched on TV on given days really gives these events a sense of time, place, and reality. The fact that The Beatles were so intellectually and artistically active in 1966—even though the band recorded their fewest songs that year and John spent a fair share of it sitting around his house—make the relatively mundane passages interesting.

Turner fattens out the most well-traveled tales with the most complete context he can provide. We learn the precise exchange around Ringo’s coining of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the left-leaning inspiration behind the seemingly rightwing “Taxman”, and the drug that actually inspired “Got to Get You Into My Life”. Turner subjects “Tomorrow Never Knows” to an utterly fascinating comparison with The Psychedelic Experience, exposing exactly how Lennon adapted Timothy Leary’s book. He also does the seemingly impossible by exposing the vulnerability behind Paul McCartney’s unflappable façade. All of this amounts to one of the most human portraits of The Beatles I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best. Better get cracking before Steve laps you with Beatles ’67, Mark.
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