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Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles edited by Kenneth Womack

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Who could have guessed in 1963 that future generations could earn an M.A. in Beatles Studies at Liverpool Hope University? Who could predict that over 40 years later, scholars would publish articles and books analyzing the White Album from a postmodern perspective? Today universities teach courses on the Beatles, and researchers chronicle the group's impact on society, culture, and, of course, music. The newest entry in Beatles literature is The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles, an academic volume edited by Beatles scholar Kenneth Womack. While readers may disagree with some opinions, it does serve as a useful resource for burgeoning Beatles researchers, as well as those wanting to learn more about their music and cultural impact.

The book is divided into three general categories: Background, Works, plus History and Influence. Each chapter seeks to uncover how and why the Beatles emerged as well as their effect on society. The strongest chapters offer alternative readings of their music and lyrics. James M. Decker's "'Try Thinking More': Rubber Soul and the Beatles' Transformation of Pop" thoroughly examines the classic album, offering alternative lyric interpretations. He posits that songs such as "Drive My Car" and "Norwegian Wood" broke new ground in terms of typical lyrical tropes: "more active listeners may marvel at the subversion of the most basic tenet of the pop ethos: the idealization of the love relationship" (p. 78). However, the reader may not agree with such statements as the track "Wait" lacking "specificity" or that the song "simply doesn't go anywhere," quoting Womack (p. 87).

Another standout, Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc's "Magical Mystery Tours, and Other Trips: Yellow Submarines, Newspaper Taxis, and the Beatles' Psychedelic Years" defines psychedelia's traits and how they are manifested in the band's songs. For example, "Rain" contains one element: the "inwardness" of the psychedelic experience. Audio effects such swirling sounds, criticism of materialism, and the theme of dream versus reality also comprise the genre; reading this chapter allows the reader to fully understand the psychedelic form and how the Beatles influenced — and at times pioneered — the sound.

Other chapters succinctly summarize and analyze The Beatles' last years as well as their solo careers. Steve Hamelman's "On Their Way Home: The Beatles in 1969 and 1970" explodes the myth that the group was constantly arguing during the Let It Be sessions, and thoroughly examines the songs on Abbey Road and Let It Be. One controversy Hamelman discusses: did 2003's Let It Be…Naked really improve upon the original? Another contributor, Michael Frontani, tackles the difficult task of synthesizing their solo careers. While the facts may be familiar to longtime fans, the chapter serves as a useful analysis of how the four changed their sound and lyrical themes throughout their careers.

The third part of The Cambridge Companion studies the Beatles' broader impact. The most interesting chapters, however, discuss the Beatles as a brand. In "'An Abstraction, Like Christmas': The Beatles for Sale and for Keeps," John Kimsey writes about related CDs, TV projects, museum exhibits, and Cirque du Soleil's Love, mainly focusing on the late 1980s to 2007. These "branded" items, he suggests, represent "attempts, by Apple Corps and EMI, individual Beatles and their representatives, to invoke, inscribe, or re-frame the band's historical legacy — a legacy that is at once cultural and economic" (p. 233). It would have been interesting to learn Kimsey's position on the recent remastered catalog and the Rock Band video game — how do they attempt to (re)fashion the Beatles' legacy?

At times The Cambridge Companion suffers from an identity crisis — namely, is it meant for academics or a general audience? Highly technical articles such as Walter Everett's "Any Time at All: The Beatles' Free-Phrase Rhythms" suggest a scholarly target audience. But the inclusion of Bruce Spizer's "Apple Records" seems more appropriate for a wider readership. Unlike the other chapters, Spizer's article includes no endnotes, citations, or deep analysis; instead, it is a fairly straightforward historical account of the band's label. The chapter better suits a historical text (such as Spizer's own books), not within a book in the Cambridge Companion canon.

If you are a Beatles fan looking to study their music and impact, The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles provides an excellent starting point. Chapters will make you rethink what you already know, and perhaps change your interpretations of their music. At the very least, the text spurs spirited discussion about various topics. Those interested in a straightforward history of the group may be disappointed in the book, but researchers and scholarly fans will find The Cambridge Companion a valuable addition to their Beatles library.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Thanks for commenting, Nick!

  • Nick

    great book and on the christmas list