As someone who has been obsessed with the Beatles for basically my entire life, I've stuffed every scrap of information about them that I possibly can into my head. The number of books, magazines, websites, movies, television shows, and interviews I've consumed has led to a vast knowledge of Beatles facts, ranging from the valuable to the obscure. As such, there's always the danger when I read a new book about them that it's going to fall short. There have been so many books written about them over the past fifty-plus years that it has become a full-time exercise in sorting the wheat from the chaff in order to find the worthwhile books. When I first heard of the new book, The Beatles Through Headphones, it seemed like an interesting take on the music that has been dissected and written about innumerable times. Whether or not this ends up being a worthwhile entry to the library of Beatles books will be the focus of this review.
The concept is simple: the Beatles' music sounds better through headphones and has loads of sonic delights and nuances that are missed when listened to through conventional speakers. This is something every Beatles fans know, but there are still new things to discover with each listen (I say this as someone who still finds new things 30 years later). Author Ted Montgomery went through each and every Beatles song and documented any aural nuances. The book is laid out in a straightforward manner, running chronologically through the albums from the beginning of their career in 1962 through to the end in 1970. Both stereo and mono versions of the albums are looked at. However, what seemed like it would be a fun and perhaps enlightening read turned into something a lot more frustrating for me.
The entries for each song include a short review by the author followed by a rundown of any nuances, including at which point during the running time each one occurs. I'll go through my criticisms sequentially, but I'll warn you right now that there are several. First, and this is unfair to the author, but since I'm someone who has listened to, analyzed, dissected, and studied the Beatles and their music for years, the simple fact of the matter is that I didn't really find much, if anything, in this book that I didn't already know. In fact, to the contrary, I found a LOT of mistakes and flat out wrong information contained within. Again, this is partly a result of knowing so much of the minutiae when it comes to the Beatles' music, but it still made for a very frustrating read. I had no problem with the author's opinions on the songs...whether I agreed or disagreed with him, I respect his opinions and understand no two people will like and dislike the same songs. It's the errors and inaccuracies contained in much of what he wrote, both as background to the songs as well as the specific bits he's pointing out as the selling point of the book, that were so maddening for me. At the risk of inundating you with a huge list of the inaccuracies I've found, I've included only a partial list, which included the following errors:
-Numerous errors in personnel and attributions (for example, saying that George says "bye!" prior to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)" when it's John).
-No mention of George's cough in "Norwegian Wood" which seems like an obvious one to include
-Wrong about the percussion on "Blackbird" (it's Paul's footsteps)-Wrong about personnel on "I Will" (John does play on it, contrary to the author's claim)
-Wrong about sound at the end of "Long Long Long" (it's a wine glass atop the amp that vibrates...the author claims it's a siren)
-Wrong about Abbey Road being the only Beatles album without band's name on the cover (Rubber Soul and Revolver also had no band name on their covers)
-Wrong about personnel for harmony vocals on "The Inner Light" (it's John and Paul joining George)
-Wrong about introduction of "Let It Be" on the album of the same name (claims it's Paul, it's really John)
-Wrong about "Leave My Kitten Alone" being originally intended for the Help! album (it was intended for Beatles For Sale)
-Wrong about "A Beginning" being intended as an introduction for the White Album or for "Good Night" (it was intended as the introduction to "Don't Pass Me By")
-Wrong about "What's the New Mary Jane?" not being every considered for a Beatles album (it made the final track list for the White Album before the band cut it at the last moment before mixing)
-Wrong about ukulele at end of free as a bird being played by John (it was George)
As you can see, many of my criticisms are very nitpicky, which I readily admit. However, if one is going to claim to be an expert on the Beatles and write a book that wants to be included in the discussion along with more essential books like those by Mark Lewisohn, Ian MacDonald, and others, then these mistakes are inexcusable, not least because this is all readily available information that can be found on countless websites and books (many of which are cited by the author himself in his bibliography!). My final criticism has to do with the author's writing style, which grated after a while. Some of this was because of the use of descriptive words that didn't make sense or were too strong or weak for the message they were trying to convey. For example, calling a very simple part in a song "superlative" when describing something as minor as background percussion. This leads to a deeper irritation, which is that it seemed the author didn't quite know as much about music as he was trying to convey, and it showed. Maybe this is me being snobby (I did admit to this, remember?) but it got so irritating by the end of the book that I was thankful once I'd finished reading it. That's not to say that there was nothing enjoyable about the book. Many of the entries contained descriptions of some nuggets that I had forgotten about over the years and a few were new to me. Reading the book also did get me so excited to listen to the Beatles on headphones again that I couldn't help but do that in between reading sessions, which is perhaps its biggest contribution during the entire experience.
The Beatles Through Headphones isn't a bad book, and in spots it's quite enjoyable. I can see this being a really good book for the newer or more casual Beatles fan to use as a springboard to dive a little deeper beneath the surface of their recordings on the road to musical discovery. For more seasoned and/or obsessive Beatles fans, however, this is a quick read that probably won't offer anything new in the way of information and may frustrate you as much as it did me. All in all, this isn't an essential Beatles book for the serious fan but might be good for someone new to the band's music.
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