Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary

In ”Tell Me Why,” a labor of loving obsession, Tim Riley minutely examines the music of the Beatles. A better title might be ”Tell Me How,” because Mr. Riley, a pianist and composer born in 1960, generally steers clear of biography and social history; he concentrates on the artifacts – the recordings – rather than the artists. Song by song, he notes the subtleties of craft and inspiration that keep the Beatles’ recordings contemporary, illuminating music so familiar it’s often taken for granted. Mr. Riley is remarkably attentive. He follows not just lyrics, melodies and chord progressions but the textural elements – essential to understanding rock – that don’t show up in sheet music: bass and drum parts, shifts in instrumentation, vocal inflections. In fact, ”Tell Me Why” works best as program notes for serious listening to the Beatles’ albums; the author shines a spotlight on the songs’ most important details. His larger-scale observations, though, aren’t always so convincing. While Mr. Riley has no patience with George Harrison, for him John Lennon and Paul McCartney can do little wrong. He is remarkably perceptive about the ironic nuances of the early love songs but labors mightily to make sense of psychedelic non sequiturs. He also has a Beatles-centered perspective; about ”The Word” Mr. Riley writes, ”That the Beatles had publicly denounced Vietnam made this song relevant in ways pop had never been before,” implicitly dismissing the likes of ”Blowin’ in the Wind” or ”Eve of Destruction,” if not Woody Guthrie. ”Tell Me Why” isn’t the last word on the Beatles. But it brings new insight to the act we’ve known for all these years.
Jon Pareles, New York Times (June 19, 1988)

Song by song, record by record, an American music critic discusses the Beatles albums from Please Please Me (1963) to Abbey Road (1969), recounts the circumstances that led to the composition of each song and analyzes the means by which it achieves its individual character. A final chapter, “The Dream Is Over,” surveys and sums up the subsequent solo albums. Riley shows that Paul McCartney rarely personalized his songs the way John Lennon did; he had a keener commercial instinct and satisfied pop expectations, while Lennon challenged his audience with lofty ideas like the illusory nature of reality and acute anxiety. Once they became solo artists, their best albums epitomized their strengths as they delineated what a remarkable match of sensibilities the two of them had been. An essential work for all interested parties.
— Publisher’s Weekly

Shrewdly balanced — with musicology as important as sociology — [Riley] offers Beatles criticism of unprecedented fullness.
— Kirkus Reviews


Fever: How Rock’n’Roll Transformed Gender in America

Tim Riley’s Fever combines brainy and audacious cultural analysis with genuine musical understanding–a combination rare enough to inspire exhilaration.
— Tim Page, author of Tim Page on Music

In his new book, Fever, Tim Riley goes beyond his unique fusion of technical music knowledge and stunningly perceptive emotional exegesis of lyrics to a wider-angle social vision.
— Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Fever is a fascinating look at the ways rock has shaped how we think about sexual identity….Riley presents serious academic points within a rock-critic analysis of icons that even a layperson would appreciate….Witty, acerbic, and smart.
— Charles R. Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven


Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary

In Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary, Riley covered fewer than 10 years of diverse but demarcated music. His comprehensive examination here of rock legend Bob Dylan’s three decades of inconsistent work, bootleg recordings and continuous concerts is somewhat less successful. Delving into Dylan’s first albums, Riley explores such traditional influences as Woody Guthrie and notes Dylan’s disregard for his fans’ musical preferences, as established in his use of both acoustic and electric music on Bringing It All Back Home. Describing Dylan’s distinctive voice as a “barbed yawp” or a “yelping yodel,” he explains the enigmatic troubador’s early transformation “from aspiring blues acolyte to creative iconoclast to facile cynic” and beyond, and considers the frequent lyrical ambiguity of his songs. He also describes Dylan’s post-1966 leanings toward country music and born-again Christianity, looking briefly at Blood on the Tracks. Glossing over numerous songs of the ’70s and ’80s, Riley concludes by mentioning Dylan’s influence on such stars as David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. Although written with eloquence, fervor and thoroughness, this treatise won’t entirely satisfy Dylan fans, a notably ardent group.
— Publisher’s Weekly

Unlike most Dylan books–which are either biographies like Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades (LJ 6/1/91) or lists of some sort–Riley (Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary, Knopf, 1988) here provides a critical examination of this thorniest of modern musicians. Riley goes beyond the obvious; for example, Woody Guthrie’s influence on Dylan is well documented, but Riley examines not only how Guthrie inspired Dylan but what Dylan does differently from Guthrie and who else falls into his inspirational canon (Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Hank Williams). Riley knows music, and his descriptions are marvelous, especially of the 1966-75 era (Blonde on Blonde , The Basement TapesPlanet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, and the 1966 and 1974 tours). He also is thankfully unafraid to be disparaging; unlike Heylin, he has very little that is nice to say about Dylan’s post-1975 work. Riley’s flaws are mainly stylistic; he tends to repeat himself and has an unfortunate fondness for the word bromide. Still, this is an incisive work. Essential for most music collections.
— Library Journal

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