'Magic Circles' by Devin McKinney (2003)

Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History - Devin McKinney

Devin McKinney, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 420pp


This is an unusual (perhaps unique) book about the Beatles, in that it does not go for your typical biographical approach but weaves a narrative of the group as a pseudo-sociological meta-phenomenon in the 1960s. If that sounds complicated, then you are beginning to get the measure of this book.

It is an approach that does few favours for the book's readability and McKinney's pseudo-academic musings can appear pretentious at times, forcing even the most devout of Beatlemaniacs (such as myself) to exclaim "it was just a pop group!" Certainly, the Sixties are too complex to fit into a narrative of a single rock band, no matter how seminal, and McKinney is wrong to attempt to do so. However, when his arguments do begin to take shape (usually after pages of indulgent exposition) they are illuminating. Due to the unique approach of the book, these arguments cannot be found in any other work on the Beatles and are therefore genuinely rewarding for a Beatles fan. For example, his deconstruction of the White Album, and 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' in particular, is expertly tied to the shattering of the Sixties 'peace and love' dreams in the violence of 1968. He also provides perhaps the best reason for why the Beatles' music sounded unlike any other band before or since, quoted thus:

"What happened isn't the same as an American artist performing for Americans in America, where rock and roll is taken for granted because this is where it comes from, and therefore it is already mine - I don't have to make it mine. A vital clue to the Beatles' essentially indefinable specialness is that they simply had to work harder. Foreigners playing a foreign music, they couldn't assume it as a national birthright, or absorb it in all its Americentric detail; and so, driven to somehow own it, they were forced to absorb it as pure feeling, then to relay it to their audience in the same form. For the Beatles a song had to be reduced to a vehicle for expression with all emotional meaning - the song’s power to connect in some deep way with whoever heard it - implied by the performance. Either it would rock, or it would do nothing at all." (pg. 38) [my emphasis]

However, McKinney's good work is partially undermined by his final chapter, 'Fantasy Into Flesh', in which he eschews the relatively detached, observational critique of earlier chapters in order to express what the Beatles meant to him personally growing up. Most insultingly to the reader, and with a selfish narrow-mindedness, he relates how news of John Lennon's cold-blooded murder, "for all it robbed me of, enabled me to feel for the first time that I could approach the '60s on something like my own terms" (pg. 353). Almost every sentence in this chapter seems to contain the words 'I' or 'me' which, when allied to the continued hints of pretentiousness, create a nauseating end to a rewarding book.