‘Solid State:’ New Book Provides In-Depth Look at the Making of the Beatles’ Swan Song, ‘Abbey Road’
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 swan 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. 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?
At first glance, Womack’s title, Solid State, is something of a misnomer. It was inspired by EMI Studios’ mid-1969 switch from vacuum tube-based recording equipment, to transistorized (i.e., "solid-state") recording consoles, which, combined the EMI’s then-recent switch from four to eight tracks on their reel-to-reel tape recorders, gave its engineers a much wider sonic palette to work with. But as longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick (1945-2018) wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Here, There, and Everywhere, a work that Womack leans on heavily to explore Abbey Road’s production process, these upgrades weren’t an entirely unalloyed positive, particularly the lack of vacuum tubes, legendary among musicians and engineers for adding a warmth and fatness to sound ran through them:
“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.”
However, Womack’s title somewhat implies that the Beatles were also in a “solid state” during the recording of Abbey Road, which was most certainly not true. They had just come off the sessions that would eventually result in 1970s Let It Be documentary and album, and its frequent heated moments resulted in George Harrison temporarily quitting the group, as Ringo similarly did during the making of 1968’s the “White Album.” After choosing not to work with their longtime producer George Martin during the “warts and all” phase of recording Let It Be, the Beatles wanted to reunite with Martin and Emerick to go out with one last hurrah.
Yoko’s Abbey Road Bed-In
But as Abbey Road itself went into production, John Lennon and Yoko Ono (the Beatles’ Meghan Markle) 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 (which would later be rechristened “EMI Abbey Road Studios” to cash-in on the album recorded there), in one of the more dubious Beatles recording “firsts,” 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.
Lennon’s insistence, beginning with the sessions for the “White Album” in 1968, that Ono sat in on all of his recording sessions, greatly strained relations with his fellow band members. It was a classic power play by Lennon. In the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death at age 32 in 1967, and Lennon’s ongoing dissipation via first LSD and later heroin, McCartney had usurped him as the leader of the group. However, without Lennon, there was no Beatles, which gave him the power to demand that Yoko sat beside him during every session. And Yoko, despite being a somewhat accomplished avant-garde artist herself, didn’t demur from his request. The tension became so thick that when Ono, ostensibly bed-ridden, got up and stole one of George Harrison’s digestive biscuits resting on Harrison’s guitar amp speaker cabinet during a playback of the Abbey Road recording sessions, Harrison reacted angrily:
“That bi---!” Harrison yelled. “She’s just taken one of my biscuits!” At that point, Emerick later recalled, “Lennon began shouting back at him, but there was little he could say to defend his wife (who, oblivious, was happily munching away in the studio), because he shared the same attitude toward food. Actually, I think the argument was not so much about the biscuits, but about the bed, which they had all come to deeply resent.” Although he tried desperately to stay out of the Beatles’ fray, even the normally staid Martin had become chagrined by the bed’s awkward and continuing presence in the studio.
Here Comes the Long One
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.
Lennon and McCartney had more difficulty delivering the goods for Abbey Road, which Martin ingeniously hid by crafting a suite of otherwise incomplete songs for Abbey Road’s classic side two medley, which the Beatles initially dubbed “the Long One.” In Lennon’s case, drugs played a role. In his fascinating 2005 book, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, British music critic Ian MacDonald described the astonishing amount of LSD that John Lennon took from 1965 through 1967, which made him come “close to erasing his identity.” By 1968, Lennon, then consumed in his romance with Yoko, switched to heroin, apparently supplied to both John and Yoko by actor and mime Dan Richter, who under a fur costume and mask played the bone-throwing hominid “Moonwatcher” in Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Richter later said, “It felt weird to be sitting on the bed talking to Yoko while the Beatles were working across the studio. I couldn’t help thinking that those guys were making rock ‘n’ roll history, while I was sitting on this bed in the middle of the Abbey Road studio, handing Yoko a small white packet.”
Lennon was initially strongly against the Abbey Road medley, thinking it far too pretentious, and as a concession to him, side one of the album was sequenced normally, Martin said. “One side of Abbey Road was very much John—let’s rock a little, let it all hang out. The other side was Paul—perhaps even symphonic. The segues were my idea, to have a continuous piece of music. Whenever possible, we would design a song that way.” But once coaxed, Lennon did provide two songs, “Mean Mister Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” written in 1968 for the “White Album”, but heretofore not recorded. He also took part in the epic guitar battle at the medley’s climax, where first Paul, then George, then Lennon alternate electric guitar shoot-outs.
As Martin, Emerick, and Starr looked on from the booth, the bandmates captured the solos in one take. As Emerick later recalled: “John, Paul, and George looked like they had gone back in time, like they were kids again, playing together for the sheer enjoyment of it. More than anything, they reminded me of gunslingers, with their guitars strapped on, looks of steely-eyed resolve, determined to outdo one another. Yet there was no animosity, no tension at all—you could tell that they were simply having fun.” After they had completed the take, the three Beatles stood on the studio floor, beaming at eac other like old friends, flush with the accomplishment that they had just pulled off in spite of everything. As with [EMI engineer John] Kurlander, Starr had been thunder-struck by the virtuosic performance. “Out of the ashes of all that madness,” said Starr, “that last section is one of the finest pieces we put together.”
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.
And In the End
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, the infamous 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, and quotes him thusly:
I was going through a hard period. I exhibited all the classic symptoms of the unemployed, the redundant man. First, you don’t shave, and it’s not to grow a groovy beard, it’s because you cannot be f*cking bothered. Anger, deep deep anger sets in, with everything, with yourself number one, and with everything in the world number two. And justifiably so because I was being screwed by my mates. So I didn’t shave for quite a while. I didn’t get up. Mornings weren’t for getting up. I might get up and stay on the bed a bit and not know where to go, and get back into bed. Then if I did get up, I’d have a drink. Straight out of bed. I’ve never been like that. There are lots of people who’ve been through worse things than that, but for me this was bad news because I’d always been the kind of guy who could really pull himself together and think, “Oh, f*ck it,” but at that time I felt I’d outlived my usefulness.
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.”
The Dream is Over
McCartney began to emerge from that dark period by having a four-track reel-to-reel recorder in his London home, and beginning work on his first solo album, which contained plenty of filler, along with the Beatles-worthy classic track of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” To promote the recording, McCartney wrote out a sort of “self-interview,” which strongly implied that it was he who broke up the Beatles:
Q: "Is it true that neither Allen Klein nor ABKCO have been nor will be in any way involved with the production, manufacturing, distribution or promotion of this new album?"
PAUL: "Not if I can help it."
Q: "Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought, 'I wish Ringo were here for this break?'"
Q: "Assuming this is a very big hit album, will you do another?"
PAUL: "Even if it isn't, I will continue to do what I want, when I want to."
Q: "Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?"
Q: "Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?"
PAUL: "Time will tell. Being a solo album means it's 'the start of a solo career...' and not being done with the Beatles means it's just a rest. So it's both."
Q: "Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?"
PAUL: "Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don't really know."
Q: "Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?"
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. And as countless people have noted, perhaps it’s fitting that the group that defined the zeitgeist of the 1960s ended as that decade concluded. While they didn’t choose it as the album’s title, the Beatles really did scale a musical Everest at the end.