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Magic Circles

The Beatles in Dream and History

Harvard University Press / 2003 / 420 pages / illustrated

No one expressed the heart and soul of the Sixties as powerfully as the Beatles did through the words, images, and rhythms of their music. In Magic Circles Devin McKinney uncovers the secret history of a generation and a pivotal moment in twentieth-century culture. He reveals how the Beatles enacted the dream life of their time and shows how they embodied a kaleidoscope of desire and anguish for all who listened – hippies or reactionaries, teenage fans or harried parents, Bob Dylan or Charles Manson. The reader who dares to re-enter the vortex that was the Sixties will appreciate, perhaps for the first time, much of what lay beneath the social trauma of the day.


Delving into concerts and interviews, films and music, outtakes and bootlegs, McKinney brings to bear the insights of history, aesthetics, sociology, psychology, and mythology to account for the depth and resonance of the Beatles’ impact. The book is also a uniquely multifaceted appreciation of the group’s artistic achievement, exploring their music as both timeless expression and visceral response to their historical moment. Starting in the cellars of Liverpool and Hamburg, and continuing through the triumph of Beatlemania, the groundbreaking studio albums, and the last brutal, sorrowful thrust of the White Album, Magic Circles captures both the dream and the reality of four extraordinary musicians and their substance as artists. At once an entrancing narrative and an analytical montage, the book follows the drama, comedy, mystery, irony, and curious off-ramps of investigation and inquiry that contributed to one of the most amazing odysseys in pop culture.


“The best book on the Beatles.” — Greil Marcus, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs


“Clear-eyed, funny, daring, continually surprising, extraordinary in its reach and breadth.” — Lucy Sante, author of I Heard Her Call My Name, Low Life, and The Other Paris

“[McKinney is] smart, and just as importantly, he’s a fan: a Generation X-er who believes that rock and roll miracles can occur . . .  [He] stops at all the familiar shrines, holy and blasphemous, on the standard Beatles pilgrimage.  But he offers lots of fresh, sometimes startling ideas as to why they’re still worth revisiting.” — Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, National Public Radio

“Indispensable . . . inspirational, insanely ambitious.” — Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

“A beautifully written examination of the Beatles’ story – which becomes stranger and stranger as the years pass – and their enduring mythology. . . . Makes the familiar unfamiliar and allows the necessary element of puzzlement and wonder.” — Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, in "Musicians and Writers Choose Their Favourite Book about Music," The Guardian

“McKinney, born in 1966, never experienced the phenomenon firsthand. His perspective grants him freedom to see new combinations, to consider and even dismantle the existing critical apparatus; in doing so, he jolts his subject back to bristling life.” — Ed Park, author of Same Bed Different Dreams and Personal Days, in The Village Voice

Magic Circles quickly will be recognized as one of a handful of classic rock texts. This is simply a wonderful book, and I mean that quite literally – a book full of wonder . . . a joyous book.” — Kevin J.H. Dettmar, W.M. Keck Professor of English, Claremont College, and author of How to Chair a Department

"Fascinating, important, and beautifully written.” — William Graebner, author of The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s and Patty’s Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America, in Choice Magazine

“[An] intelligent study . . .  McKinney crunches the facts and pulps the possibilities before tossing everything into a great metaphysical soup, and his book carries sentences not unlike those Norman Mailer used to write forty years ago in The Village Voice.” — Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review of Books

“[McKinney] is very good indeed on tracking the Beatles’ footprints through the sands of the collective unconscious. . . .  This is the work of a critic bold enough to cite ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ as ‘the defining song of the Beatles’ greatest album.’” — Charles Shaar Murray, Mojo

“Freewheeling . . .  It's hugely contrary and just dares you to try to argue back. Definitely one of the best of recent Beatles books.” — Laurence Phelan, The Independent

“You’ll find it hard to resist the urge to leap up and play whatever song he’s dissecting . . .  New generations continue to wrap their heads around the White Album, and Magic Circles is a welcome reminder of why that record remains continually fresh.” — Brett Sokol, The New York Observer

“With a white-hot prose style and a poet’s instinct for metaphor, independent scholar McKinney exhumes, interrogates, and otherwise energizes the Fab Four in all their musical glory and mythic resonance.”
The Voice Literary Supplement


“Using literary techniques of montage and free association not unlike those found in the Beatles’ more psychedelic songs, McKinney spins a fabulous, fabulist psychic and social history of the band . . .  A detailed, exhaustive and creative look at the Beatles that challenges readers to hear them with new ears.” — Seth Rogovoy, Newsday

“The standard-setting meditation on the Beatles by a devoted, visionary fan too young to have known Beatlemania first-hand . . .  Nobody has chronicled missing out on the ‘60s – and yearning for them – more vividly, or demonstrated how international superstars can become part of your personal history even if they were already history when you discovered them.” — Milo Miles, Boston Public Radio

"The best book in a generation about the Beatles." — Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville, Shadowbahn, and American Stutter: 2019-2021Steve Erick

Finalist, 2003 Outstanding Book in the Area of Film or Broadcasting, Theatre Library Association

A Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title of 2003

A Voice Literary Supplement “25 Favorite Books of 2003” Selection

See the Archives for more Beatles material.
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