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The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (review)

Allan F. Moore

Music and Letters, Volume 92, Number 4, November 2011, pp. 691-693 (Article) Published by Oxford University Press

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stadt Ferienkurse in 1972 and 1974, while Fox relies on his experiences of performing Wolff s Instrumental Exercises with Peace March 4 (1985) and Apartment House Exercises (2002) as the stimulus for a wide-ranging discussion of the composers later music. Similarly thoughtful (and thought-provoking) is Clemens Gressers dissection in chapter 8 of the various relationships between creator, performer, and listener that collide in such works as the Prose Collection (196871). More difficult to pull off in collections such as these are those chapters that attempt to evaluate groups of pieces only really united by their instrumentation. Thus both Philip Thomas (who tackles the solo piano music) and James Saunders (the pieces for orchestra) to some extent struggle to make sense of repertories that are inevitably diffuse, whether in their notational practices or their social meanings. That said, such is the generosity of provision of music examples in these two chapters that one gains a far greater sense than elsewhere of the degree to which Wolff avoids notational norms, often relying in his scores on a deliberately tense mix of prose instruction and musical symbol. So too is one able to observe the larger aesthetic changes of direction that have taken place during Wolff s long career. Overall, then, there is much here to elucidate and evenat timesto entertain: an engaging, if not exhaustive, portrait of Wolff emerges by the end of the volume, one that is complemented by detailed and thorough documentation (including a list of works and bibliography that put Grove to shame, and a shorter but very useful discography). It is rather unfortunate, then, that many potentially interested readers may be deterred from purchasing Changing the System because of its relatively high cost. DAVID NICHOLLS University of Southampton

The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles. Ed. by Kenneth Womack. pp. xxiii 316. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, 15.99. ISBN 978-0-521-68976-2.) I know one shouldnt always take back-cover blurb too seriously, but since this is often the first thing a potential reader encounters in a book, it does act as an initial encouragement to buy. The back cover of this Companion to the Beatles describes it as ideal for course usage

and a must-read for all Beatles fans. I dont agree with either of these claims, and my reasons will become apparent as this review proceeds. The Companion is ordered in three parts: two chapters lay out a background, eight organize the works, and a final three consider their history and influence. Bearing in mind the mass of literature, even academic literature, that already exists covering the second of these three areas (unfortunately little of which is used fully), and the relative paucity of coverage of the other two, the Companions balance might seem a little strange. Except, maybe, for the possibility that it is intended for readers who dont already know of the existence of that prior literature, who are coming to a study of the Beatles for the first time. In that case, it stands or falls by its ability to act as a serious introduction to the Beatles. Some of the Companions chapters certainly take this charge seriously. Thus, after a brief introduction by the editor, it begins with Dave Laings careful reconstruction of the musical careers of six young musicians up to their first recording with George Martin at the helm, in 1962. Laings approach is properly painstaking. He is entirely reliant on secondary sources, which makes for a slightly distanced tone (and thereby strange for the books opening chapter), but this does allow space for some critique, such as when addressing their choice of name. This is only half of what the chapter does, however, since it begins with some exemplary social contextualization: early post-war UK social conditions, family life, working culture, and the particular roles of Liverpool and skiffle. This is a crucial perspective (and not only for readers new to the Beatles). The chapter closes with a comprehensive list of the bands early performing repertory. The other chapter in this section is by Jerry Zolten, who addresses the Beatles as recording artists, again basing his argument on secondary literature. Anecdotes make for a lively read as the chapter fulfils the role of a historical guide through their studio work for the remainder of the decade. The chapter is not without its errors and odd locutions (e.g. half-pitch, p. 50; minutia used as a plural, p. 58) and although it is firmly based in the studio, provides rather less information on recording practices and techniques than the title perhaps implies. The second section forms the bulk of the Companion, but the balance within it seems very strange and, even more odd, receives no commentary of the sort you might expect in the introduction. Thus, we have a very brief chapter on the first three albums (but not


Beatles for Sale or Help!) by Howard Kramer, a single, long chapter on Rubber Soul ( James M. Decker), and a second on the White Album (Ian Inglis), a single chapter conflating Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour (Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc), and another covering the last two albums (Steve Hamelman), a brief chapter on Apple Records (Bruce Spizer), extended discussion of their solo work (Michael Frontani), and a chapter on their approach to phrase rhythm (Walter Everett). There is implied aesthetic judgement here, of course, raising particularly the status of Rubber Soul and the White Album. It is all the more important that these chapters should make their cases well. I think the latter does, but not the former. In his conclusion to the chapter on Rubber Soul, Decker declares the album smuggles in a variety of techniques hitherto unexplored in popular music (p. 89). One might assume he is talking about music here, but this is not the case. The techniques relate entirely to the songs lyrics and to the types of narratives, plots, and scenes that these embody. With the exception of his first analysis, of the lyrics to Drive my car, which I find persuasive, the remainder comes across as rather naive. He takes the songs in turn, which is not a convincing structure to employ. He is satisfied with the most superficial comments on musical detail, failing for instance to argue just why it is reasonable to call the melody of Norwegian Wood nostalgic (p. 79)mere assertion has to suffice. He is happy to declare what listeners will necessarily do in the presence of these lyrics: for instance, regarding If I needed someone, we are told that listeners cannot as readily visualize the scene as they can with Norwegian Wood or Girl2 (p. 87). Of course, the methodology by means of which he has ascertained the capability of these listeners is left undeclared. He is also mistaken in the most basic details. Another important testament to the Beatles commitment to a new sound on Rubber Soul is that, for the first time, no covers appeared (p. 76 ). So which are the covers on A Hard Days Night, released eighteen months earlier? There is very little here to encourage trust in this authors exegesis. Although I deeply disagree with Steve Hamelmans view of the inevitability of finding authorial intention inscribed within the tracks of Abbey Road and Let It Be, he at least mounts a careful, historically located argument in favour of his perspective, and follows it through logically. If one is willing to suspend judgement on that perspective, then the chapter develops some very careful attention to detail and some

insightful judgement. Until, that is, he tries to address music. Heres one (not entirely random) piece of analysis: George fills the holes between the singers grunts and shouts with needle-like licks, and his sixteen-bar lead rips holes in the physics of sound (p. 139). If a musically sophisticated reader has got this far, then it will have become clear that this Companion has really nothing to tell us about the Beatles music. Perhaps the assumption that they were musicians (and that this was why their artistic output was worth the attention in the first place) is wrong, after all. So, a far from ideal course text. But then, at the end of the section, there comes Walter Everetts chapter. Perhaps this is meant to stand, within the volume, for a discussion of why the Beatles music sounds like it does. If thats the case, the chapter fails. What we have is a highly original piece of writing that discusses the Beatles use of irregularities in phrase rhythm. Everett provides a catalogue of approaches and marks their significance both in musical, stylistic terms and in their frequent relation to poetic meaning. Why, though, is this the only serious treatment of the music in the entire book? Unlike many of the chapters (which rehearse fairly basic ideas), this one seems to take on trust that we understand how the music works already (that we have perhaps read Everetts own magisterial two-volume survey (The Beatles as Musicians (New York, 1999 and 2001)) or at least Dominic Pedlers (The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles (London, 2003)). I think thats a false assumption, which is not to criticize this particular essay (a worthy addition to that body of detailed treatment of their techniques) but the books rather odd agenda. As for the other essays in this section, the chapter on psychedelia is largely convincing and welcome in its tempering of meaning with attention to details of lyric articulation and accompaniment. Again, there are annoying errors (for instance, whereas Sgt. Pepper is indeed based on I^bIII^IV^I, Magical mystery tour uses I^bIII^IVa crucial difference; Shes leaving home uses a harp plus string nonet, not quartet), but the authors characterization of the Lennon/McCartney vision at this point as one in which love permeates all is effective. The remaining chapters work, although the discussion both of Apple Records and of the musicians individual careers are desperately pedestrian. But they are here, and that is necessary ground for a book such as this. For the final section, three essays offer rather unusual perspectives on the Beatles work.


Sheila Whiteleys essay is pretty effective in exploring the ways that the Beatles output mirrored (and I think that is the correct notion) social change during the 1960s. She argues that the relationship (between social change and their output) should not be seen as one of simple cause and effect and, although this becomes a difficult proscription to maintain at times, her final sentence is a successful rebuttal: They may not have offered solutions to the problems of society which revolved around materialism, repressive affluence, and individual conformity, but they nevertheless provided insights, celebrating what was, for their countless fans worldwide, a cheerful alternative (p. 216 ). Gary Burns looks at the Beatles brand, and particularly how they have been canonized within various academic discourses of popular music, and it is of interest that he finds far more to say about their status within a musical canon than either a literary or a sociological one. I suspect hes right. How odd, then, that this volume, in its choice of content, so turns that finding on its head. Finally, John Kimsey addresses a range of issues surrounding release policy. He is very good on laying out the consequences of Capitols release policy for early Beatles albums in the USA, and with other post-Beatles repackagings. And the essay achieves a real tone of critique in dealing with issues of revisionism, most particularly relating to McCartneys relative importance and to Onos work on constructing Lennon. This was welcome, because a lack of critique is to my mind most prevalent throughout the book. And it is this relative paucity of new perspectives, particularly in the central section of the book, that indicates that it is not a must read for Beatles fans who will, presumably, already know the standard positioning of the Beatles. I think one could only consider it for use in academic courses that focus exclusively on the Beatles (of which there are a few) but, then, it is the strange omissions and the lack of balance in the central section that mean that this Companion will not even be good company for those seeking a balanced introduction to the work of these musicians. In summary, this appears to me a sad failure to present a rounded picture of the Beatles activities that presents both a comprehensive, standard view and offers critiques wherever possible. But perhaps Im wrong in seeing that as the role of such a Companion. ALLAN F. MOORE University of Surrey

Polkabilly. How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music. By James P. Leary. pp. xii 259; CD. American Musicspheres. (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2006, hardcover 30.88. ISBN 9780-19-514106-7; paper, 15.19. ISBN 978-0-19975696-4.) Forged from an eclectic mix of music from Europe and American country music (p. 31) the folk music of the Upper Midwest confounds attempts at definition by its origins and historical authenticity. Repeatedly inflected and reinvigorated by elements from popular music of the day, ranging from minstrelsy to rock and roll, it combines elements of Irish, Polish, Scandinavian, and German stylistic traits with blues, gospel, and Native American musics. James P. Leary calls this music polkabilly, a term designed to capture both its rustic American and European folk roots. Lacking the oppositional political credentials of blues and gospel, or the perceived European historical lineage of Appalachian music, it expresses a comfortable, old time, down-at-home localism that is not easily appropriated by an agenda set in terms of the politics of race and nation:
Like middle-aged, middlebrow, middle of the road, middle class and middle American, the words suggest at best, reliable stolidity, at worst dull mediocrity. . . . Lacking the antiquity of the East, the tragedy of the South, or the destiny of the West, the Midwest is most often conceived of as an enduringly average region in the American imagination: a vast flat land to fly over where, despite rusty factories and troubled farms, small towns and neighbourhoods persist and family values remain intact (p. 3).

Thus, according to James P. Leary, the folk music of the Upper Midwest, like the landscape itself, reveals hidden depth and complexities that contest such homogenized, largely condescending, occasionally romantic visions (loc. cit.). This book sets out to name, recover, and showcase what the author argues is a much undervalued music from neglected region by telling the story through the history of one specific band and its membersThe Goose Island Ramblers, Kenneth Wendell Whitford, George Gilbertsen, and Bruce Bollerud. The Goose Island Ramblers came together in the mid-1960s after years of semi-professional playing. They played three to five nights a week at two taverns in Madison, Wisconsin Glen and Anns, and Johnnys Packer Innall the while holding down full-time jobs. Their repertory ranged from Wisconsin dancehall standards such as In Heaven, There is No Beer to old-time Norwegian waltzes. The bands name