Devin McKinney

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, just published by Harvard University Press.

Recent Articles

Grin and Bear It

OK, let's go through this again: Smile was meant to be The One. Conceived as the follow-up to the Beach Boys' groundbreaking 1966 Pet Sounds album, it was intended as the band's masterpiece, as well as writer-producer-arranger Brian Wilson's boldest challenge to The Beatles as supreme dictators of progressive mid-'60s pop-rock. For three years prior, Wilson had been combining a more refined version of Phil Spector's “wall of sound” with lyrics and vocals that insisted on despair and isolation. The result was not only gorgeous, radio-perfect pop but also a personal style both resounding and delicate, booming and haunting. And Smile would be the perfection, the apotheosis of this. It would be a song cycle, a multi-concept album -- "a teenage symphony to God," in Wilson's summary -- with Van Dyke Parks' surreal lyrics set against the Beach Boys' most sophisticated musical textures yet. More than 70 recording sessions were held, the bulk of them between August 1966 and January 1967...

Real Horror Show

At least since the Holocaust and the bomb, there's been a corner of America's pop marketplace where the ghouls are allowed to come out to play. Not ethereal spirits whispering from beyond, but lurching zombies and cackling demons. In the '50s, there were EC Comics and Screaming Jay Hawkins; in the '60s, Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Herschell Gordon Lewis movies. The imagery in this netherworld is willfully disgusting and extreme, even when comic; the implements of fun are worms, hatchets, and body parts; and the setting is the graveyard, real or symbolic, where it's Halloween all year long. Every popular medium has felt a need to explore this territory, or at least to exploit its commercial potential. But those earlier manifestations of pop horror, though outrageous to some, were actually rather innocent and fun -- like Halloween itself. It was dress-up, and the ghouls kept to their corner. It took the late Vietnam period to locate something sludgier and sicker than that, some psychic...

Deep in Dennis Potter's Forest

"So he emerges," author David Thomson wrote of the late Dennis Potter, "as some kind of sprite or devil, from out of the woods ..." Potter, certainly the greatest writer ever to take television drama as his primary medium, was born in the Royal Forest of Dean, two hours west of London. It is one of England's oldest surviving woodlands; for many years, the region was also a major source of coal and ore. Potter found his great themes there: the bucolic set against the commercial, the gold dust of dreams mingling with the soot of social determinism. His characters lead double lives in the forests of imagination and the factory towns of reality; his is a world where either a pixie or a beast might spring from the dark. "Potter," Thomson believed, "is intent on getting us back into his woods." Luring us back, he might have said, with a song. Pennies from Heaven -- the six-part, eight-hour series Potter wrote for the BBC in 1978, just issued on DVD (Warner Home Video) -- is seductively...

Can't Get Fooled Again

Two harrowing hours of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 drew to a close, and we watched as George W. Bush's brain, on display in Tennessee, got lost in the convolutions of an old axiom: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." That's what Bush meant to say; but the logic of the line escaped him, and as it scampered away, the widening silence threatened to admit laughter from the assembled elite. So, famously quick thinker that he is, Bush cut to the chase: "You can't get fooled again." I wasn't the only one who expected the opening chords of The Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” to kick in just then, to engulf the theater and bathe the film's open wounds in some cleansing fury. Moore has a knack for musical cues that seem obvious at first but that, set against the accumulation of disgust and demise his films drive toward, curdle into new kinds of sadness or savagery (“Wouldn't It Be Nice” in Roger & Me , “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in Bowling for Columbine ). Surely he...

Pop Lives

Music may be a universal language, but many pop fans never study anything beyond a handful of its more common dialects. The mainstream audience remains as segregated by style, slang, and collective sound as a high-school cafeteria, each clique guarding its primacy and its prejudices. Hip-hop history regularly revises itself by referring to any rappers preceding the currently popular crop as "old school," while a significant wing of the self-righteous refuse to believe that pop has produced a single worthy fizz since 1980, or 1977, or 1969. DJ Danger Mouse's Grey Album , like all of pop's great crossover dreams, comes from the planet next door -- a place where such lines seem never to have been drawn. A crazed, controlled hybrid of the Beatles' 1968 White Album and Jay-Z's 2003 Black Album , it's a breakthrough example of the mash-up, an emergent underground form in which fan-remixers use amateur-accessible computer software to combine existing recordings in new forms. Spliced, looped...

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