Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, the new work by Kenneth Womack, dean of humanities and social sciences at Monmouth University, and veteran Beatles historian, is essentially two books. The first half is a fascinating look at the Fab Four’s song, whether you’re a general Beatles fan, a musician, someone fascinated by the record production process, or all of the above. The second half is a much darker look at the world’s most influential musical act of the 1960s imploding. While Beatles obsessives like myself know the tale of how Abbey Road was written and produced fairly well, Womack manages to uncover several surprising details.
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For example, Abbey Road is now accepted by most Beatles fans as the bookend to 1967’s epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in terms of rich production and sound, complex songs, and a somewhat unified concept. But it received some surprising pans from critics when initially released. One person who initially trashed Abbey Road was Nik Cohn, who that same year inspired “Pinball Wizard” by The Who, and would go on to write the article that inspired Saturday Night Fever. As Womack notes, for Cohn, writing in the New York Times, something didn’t sound quite right on Abbey Road:
“The words are limp-wristed, pompous, and fake,” he wrote. The latest compositions from George Harrison were “mediocrity incarnate,” and he asserted that “the badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.” What exactly was Cohn hearing in those tracks that made him feel that way?
Womack leans on heavily to explore Abbey Road’s production process, with the book Here, There, and Everywhere, by engineer Geoff Emerick (1945-2018) an autobiography.
“The new sonic texture actually suited the music on the album—softer and rounder. It’s subtle, but I’m convinced that the sound of that new console and tape machine overtly influenced the performance and the music.” For Emerick, recent songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Come Together” were cases in point.
“With the luxury of eight tracks, each song was built up with layered overdubs, so the tonal quality of the backing track directly affected the sound we would craft for each overdub. Because the rhythm tracks were coming back off tape a little less forcefully, the overdubs—vocals, solos, and the like—were performed with less attitude. The end result was a kinder, gentler-sounding record—one that is sonically different from every other Beatles album.”
But as Abbey Road itself went into production, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were involved in a serious car accident in Scotland, resulting in significant injuries to himself, Ono, and their passengers, Lennon’s son Julian, then six, and Ono’s daughter Kyoko, age five. “Yoko, who was two months pregnant at the time, crushed several vertebrae and received a concussion in the accident, while all four of the car’s occupants suffered cuts and bruises. Lennon’s injuries required seventeen stitches in his face, Ono needed fourteen to close up the gash in her forehead, and the couple resigned themselves to spending the next several days in Lawson Memorial Hospital in [the Scottish village of] Golspie.”
Upon on his return to EMI Studios, Lennon had a hospital bed wheeled into Studio Two, the Beatles’ primary studio throughout the 1960s, where Ono would observe the recording process while wearing a negligee — and a tiara to hide the scar on her forehead.
By the time of Abbey Road, Harrison was feeling increasingly stifled as a songwriter by Lennon and McCartney. He astounded them — and producer George Martin — by bringing in demo recordings of arguably Abbey Road’s two strongest songs, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” Regarding the latter song, Womack quotes George Martin as saying, “It took my breath away, mainly because I never thought that George could do it—it was a tremendous work and so simple.” Finally, after years of writing songs in shadow of Lennon and McCartney, Harrison had reached parity – and he knew it.
However, late into the recording sessions, the album still lacked a name and a concept for the cover art. One title that was suggested was “Everest,” Emerick’s brand of cigarette. McCartney later reminisced, “we thought, ‘That’s good. It’s big and it’s expansive.’”
The bandmates ultimately balked at the idea when they realized that they didn’t want to go to the enormous trouble of journeying to Tibet to shoot the album’s cover art. Besides, McCartney added, “You can’t name an album after a ciggie packet!” Suddenly out of options, they turned to the studio from whence they had made their name. “F*ck it,” Starr reportedly said. “Let’s just step outside and name it Abbey Road.” And that’s exactly what they did. Working with designer John Kosh, an artist friend of the Lennons, McCartney sketched out the LP’s cover art. On the morning of August 8, the Beatles gathered outside the stately gates of 3 Abbey Road for the photo shoot. While the London Metropolitan Police helpfully cleared the area of traffic, photographer Iain Macmillan stood atop a ladder and took the famous cover shot of the bandmates walking single file across the zebra crossing only a few yards from the main entrance to EMI Studios.
As Geoff Emerick observed in his autobiography, in a passage not used by Womack in Solid State, the direction in which the Beatles chose to walk foreshadowed the end:
During the Abbey Road sessions, it never occurred to me that we were working on the last Beatles album…But if I didn’t have a clue, one was soon to be provided to me. During the last day or two of working on Abbey Road, all four Beatles were preoccupied with looking through the contact sheets of the cover photo shoot. Paul, ever the organizer, carefully marked the ones they liked the best and there were long discussions about which one to pick. Each band member had a different favorite, but they all seemed to want a shot of them walking away from the studio, not toward it. That’s how much they had come to dislike being there.
Harrison’s songs, Lennon’s “Come Together,” Abbey Road’s medley, and Martin’s glossy production ensured that the Beatles’ last album as a four-piece would end their recording career on a powerful note, even if the Beatles themselves didn’t know it would soon be time to turn out the lights. However, as Womack goes on to write, following Abbey Road’s completion, the Beatles spent their last year painfully disintegrating. First, John and Yoko would kick heroin, about which Lennon would write the song “Cold Turkey,” and not surprisingly, rejected by his fellow band-mates as a potential Beatles single: “I offered ‘Cold Turkey’ to the Beatles, but they weren’t ready to record a single,” he remarked during an October interview. “When I wrote it, I went to the other three Beatles and said, ‘Hey, lads, I think I’ve written a new single.’ But they all said, ‘Ummmm… arrrr… well,’ because it was going to be my project, and so I thought, ‘Bugger you, I’ll put it out myself.’ So I did it as the Plastic Ono Band. I don’t care what it goes out as, as long as it goes out.” But the more Lennon considered the situation, the more he seethed about the state of affairs in which his desire to record “Cold Turkey”—a highly personal and confessional composition—was so easily dismissed by the other Beatles as the basis for a group project.
Lennon began to tell musicians such as Eric Clapton that he planned to quit the Beatles. However, their manager, Allen Klein, begged him to keep such talk down while he renegotiated their contracts with EMI and Capitol Records. Concurrently, to complete the Beatles’ film contract with United Artists, Klein began to re-edit the documentary footage shot during the previous year of their sessions for a project originally called “Get Back,” and eventually re-titled Let It Be, once it was obvious that its soundtrack would be the last new Beatles album. Klein, with Lennon’s approval, brought in American producer Phil Spector to produce the tracks, and Spector added his trademark “wall of sound” overdubs to “The Long and Winding Road,” infuriating McCartney.
By November of 1969, Womack writes that McCartney, seeing the Beatles winding down, went into a state of deep depression while residing at his farm in Scotland. For McCartney, no longer being in the Beatles meant that his creative outlet had seemingly been taken away. He would later recall, “It was good while I was in the Beatles, I was useful, and I could play bass for their songs, I could write songs for them to sing and for me to sing, and we could make records of them. But the minute I wasn’t with the Beatles anymore, it became really very difficult.”
Needless to say, the last year of the Beatles’ existence as a group is a painful one to revisit, and it’s a reminder that the Beatles were far from a “solid state” after manager Brian Epstein died in 1967. But as Womack writes in vivid detail, they somehow managed to put their massive difference aside and go out on the best note possible.