"A Day In The Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles," by Mark Hertsgaard. Illustrated. 434 pages. New York: Delacorte Press. $23.95
More than a few writers have suggested that history is bunk, but nowhere is that more the case than in rock history. Page through almost any rock and roll reference, and eventually you'll come across some form of falsehood in the text.
Although the distortion can be deliberate, as in score-settling bios like Albert Goldman's "Elvis" or Stephen Davis' "Hammer of the Gods," most misinformation is more innocent in origin. Rock journalism doesn't exactly pride itself on fact-checking; if guitar player X tells writer Y that such-and-such a song was recorded in Paris, that's usually good enough to print. Unfortunately, it's also why so many rock "facts" are wrong.
On that level, Mark Hertsgaard's "A Day in the Life" is a welcome addition to the burgeoning number of Beatle books. Unlike such close-focus works as Mark Lewisohn's "The Beatles Recording Sessions" or Tim Riley's song-by-song explication "Tell Me Why," "A Day in the Life" is a general reference, presenting an overview of the Beatles' career that focuses on the music - how the songs were written, what went on in the recording sessions, and what forces were at play in the band's personal life. It's a book that's basic enough for beginners, but detailed enough for hardcore Beatlephiles.
Mostly, though, it goes out of its way to be accurate. With a background that lies more in investigative reporting than rock criticism, Hertsgaard places his emphasis squarely on the verifiable, downplaying press clippings and friend-of-a-friend interviews in favor of session tapes, studio logs and quotes from the Fab Four themselves. All, needless to say, are assiduously documented.
Hertsgaard's most valuable resource, though, are the hundreds of hours of unreleased Beatle outtakes stored at the Abbey Road studios in London. In one of the book's strongest chapters, he quotes studio chatter from the "Think for Yourself" session to evoke a sense of what the workaday Beatles were like, then parlays that into a remarkably concise and astute passage on what made that whole greater than the sum of its parts. It's the sort of writing that makes it easy to believe this really was a rock group beyond all others.
As good as such passages are, it's hard to come away from "A Day in the Life" without wishing Hertsgaard had spent some of his research time learning a bit more about music. His tendency to critical hyperbole - "Suddenly, a song that begins as a pleasant stroll down the block is catapulted into hyperspace" - is annoying, but his ignorance of music theory is downright appalling.
Describing "It Won't Be Long," he writes, "Until then, the song is basically in the key of E, which theoretically should resolve into the keys of A and B." Well, no. In the key of E, one resolves to E; what Hertsgaard means is that most pop songs in E would go from an E chord (tonic) to either an A chord (sub-dominant) or a B chord (dominant). Any basic music theory text would have explained that, and kept Hertsgaard from making the sort of errors that needlessly mar an otherwise solid reference.
J.D. Considine is Pop Music Critic at The Sun. He also writes for Rolling Stone, Playboy, the Village Voice, New Musical Express, Utne Reader, Spin and Request, among others. He is a panelist on VH1's "4 on the Floor," and a contributing editor at Musician. He is the author of "Van Halen!"