TELL ME WHY: A Beatles Commentary by Tim Riley
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TELL ME WHY: A Beatles Commentary

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At last: a critical survey of the Beatles' songwriting/recording oeuvre that's serious but not pedantic, enthusiastic but not gushy. Riley, perhaps in part because he's too young (28) to be a Beatlemania/Counterculture survivor, gives us an album-by-album, song-by-song study that's shewdly balanced--with musicology as important as sociology--while backstage life-history is only occasionally, astutely brought in. (""Their work, both words and music, deserves more attention than their marriages."") There's no startling or revisionist thesis here: like most commentators, Riley regards Rubber Soul and Revolver as the Beatles' peak, though the ""self-conscious"" Sgt. Pepper was undeniably more famous and influential. (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine are ""embarrassments,"" Let It Be an ""overhauled modesty,"" Abbey Road and The White Album uneven.) Lennon and McCartney receive unusually evenhanded treatment: Riley appreciates Lennon's rebellious rhythm and bite, but he doesn't sneer--as do many rock critics--at McCartney's lush melodic and harmonic gifts or his upbeat charms. (""'All You Need Is Love' is Lennon utopianism more kitschy than even McCartney's optimism."") In the individual song analyses, fine distinctions are made, with perspectives and insights drawn from a broad musical background: ""Here, There and Everywhere"" has the harmonic ""conciseness of a Rodgers and Hart classic""; the tune of ""And I Love Her"" imbues ""the clichÉ lyrics with a plaintive undertow."" There's also consistent emphasis, with finn technical details, on the other elements--vocal arrangements, instrumentation, performance style, recording devices--that made the Beatles record writers rather than songwriters: the ""spirit of the playing plows under any lyrical prissiness"" on ""I Want to Hold Your Hand""; in the final refrain of ""Eleanor Rigby,"" McCartney ""doubles his own voice in the left channel, counterpointing his lead with distant resignation to the despairing story he has just told."" And, when appropriate, Riley fills in the biographical or political context for a song--so that, at his best (as in a richly built appreciation of ""Hey Jude""), he offers Beatles criticism of unprecedented fullness. An essential addition to the Beatles shelf, then, complete with solid wrap-ups on each Beatle's solo career and a tartly annotated Beatles bibliography. (Two complaints only: the lack of score-sheet examples. . .and that moist, portentous title.)

Pub Date: April 19th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf