"Ian MacDonald’s ‘Revolution in the Head’
The Beatles have inspired many things over the years, not the least of which has been a good-sized library of books attempting to analyze and chronicle the Fab Four. The collective story they relate amounts to the creation myth for our times, a period that took off in 1964, when saints John, Paul, George and Ringo crossed the Rubicon — in their case, the Atlantic — and appeared on America’s Ed Sullivan Show. World domination followed shortly thereafter.
One of the best of these books, Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, has just been released in this country in an updated third edition by Chicago Review Press. The main body of the book is an exhaustive, track-by-track critical analysis of the Beatles’ records, from “My Bonnie” to “Real Love.” But what makes this book particularly interesting is MacDonald’s 37-page Introduction, “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade.” By itself, it’s worth the price of admission.
MacDonald begins by observing a paradox: Agreement about the Beatles, he says, is all but universal, “They have passed into the pantheon of permanent regard.” But the ’60s, the period with which they are intimately linked, is “an ideological battleground upon which there is no agreement.”
Not only is there “no agreement” about the ’60s, as MacDonald points out, but that decade continues to serve as an all-purpose target for anyone with a grudge about the state of things today. No respect for authority? Blame the ’60s. No patriotism? Blame the ’60s for that, too. Moral decay? Dysfunctional families? Godlessness? The ’60s: done, done and done.
But, according to MacDonald, the drug-addled hippies and self-righteous Maoists that right-wingers and nostalgia merchants delight in promoting as bankrupt icons of a depraved time when America lost its way are really caricatures obscuring the nature of the real revolution that took place between 1963-1973.
MacDonald writes, “The truth is that the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.”
It wasn’t Flower Power that effected this secular age — if anything, the counterculture was attempting to reconnect with older spiritual traditions on the one hand, and the founding ideals of the Constitution on the other — it was the historical rise of science.
By the early ’60s, the great majority of folks was enjoying a socially liberating cocktail of scientific innovations, including TV, satellite communications, affordable cars, amplified music and chemical contraception. Ordinary people — who MacDonald calls “the true movers and shakers of the Sixties” — felt a restless sense of urgency and began abandoning the postponed pleasures of Christianity and hierarchical social unity where everyone knew their place “for the personal rewards of a modern meritocracy.”
“The irony of modern right-wing antipathy to the Sixties,” MacDonald writes, is that the decade was driven by “the very people who voted for Thatcher and Reagan in the Eighties … What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualization — and total fragmentation — of Western society.”
The ’60s were a period of colliding historical trajectories. A decade, for example, of high literacy, where the printed word was arguably more important to more people in this country than ever before, at exactly the same moment television and other electronic media were in the process of displacing it. Technology was changing everything. The counterculture, MacDonald says, “was less an agent of chaos than a marginal commentary, a passing attempt to propose alternatives to a waning civilization.”
The fundamental unhappiness of American conservatives — their free-floating sense that society has gone terribly wrong — isn’t due to what some college kid inhaled 40 years ago. In the time since the Summer of Love, conservatives have gotten just about everything they wanted, from a tax system that rewards the rich to the only privately run health care system in the industrialized world. You don’t hear anyone talking these days about the redistribution of wealth. Conservatives even got a Democratic president to “end welfare as we know it.”
But, as far as conservatives are concerned, life in America is always going to the dogs.
Maybe this is what you get when certain kinds of dreams come true.