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Home > Music

Ian MacDonald RIP

25 August 2003

Last month, the Hangingday Shop recommended Ian MacDonald's new collection, citing his Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties as "the best music book ever."

Ian MacDonald died on Thursday, aged 54.

His Beatles book was just one of a short lifetime of achievement in music writing, stemming from the year he spent smoking dope and switching courses at Cambridge, listening to Nick Drake play guitar. He went on to write for the NME from 1971 onwards, as well as the lamented Creem. He was quietly responsible for many changes at the NME, taking his visual cues from Mad magazine, and pushing the editor towards picture covers rather than the newspaper look. He ploughed his own, musically-broad furrow, famously championing Neil Young's On the beach when everyone else derided it.

He moved through the crazy times at the magazine, when Pete Erskine would fire a gun at the office record player when he took a dislike to the week's new singles, and once tried to conduct an interview with a Viv Stanshall lying asleep in a biriyani.

When punk was invented, MacDonald participated, giving Chrissie Hynde her break, but understanding the nature of the stunt. In In their own write: adventures in the music press, he remembers the Clash coming in and expecting the Old Men to have a problem with them:

"Nice blokes, actually: rock 'n' roll business-as-usual but with a good grasp of image and how to come on. UK punk was sharp in that visual conceptual way, which was more to the point than the music. Punk was very art-school and designerish, arriving equipped with a fully-specified subculture of its own - McLaren and Westowood's input. The job of people of my vintage was pretty obvious: stand aside and let it come through."

After a spell making music, he wrote The New Shostakovich, which the composer's son Maxim called "one of the best biographies of Dmitri Shostakovich I have read."

And then back to pop music, with Revolution in the head coming out in 1994. Macdonald gave close, wonderfully-written entries on each of the songs, sometimes telling you how they got the sounds, sometimes what was going on between the various Beatles at the time, sometimes what was going on in the times-they-were-a-changin' world. Macdonald had easily the intelligence of a Greil Marcus, but wore it much more lightly. The book simmers with excitement for the Beatles' records, and imparts it wonderfully.

It's impossible not to dig out their albums and listen to them. Sadly, there remains a little of MacDonald's voice there when I hear some Beatles - sadly because his death is such a shock. On a mercenary level, I wonder what was in his unfinished book on Bowie: he's certainly well-handled fascinating topics like Bowie's apparent fascism in the past. And his Birds, Beasts & Fishes: a guide to animal lore and symbolism would have been a treat. I hope that The Beatles at Number 1 comes out, but a more fitting tribute would be a decent reprint of The New Shostakovich.

"Over the past two years, he had fallen into a deep depression over the state of the world and he died by his own hand."


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