No surprise given this the 50th anniversary for what turned out to be The Beatles final album, a number of tomes released in 2019 covering that fateful annum. A period filled with strife, creative energy, and new music technology. The gist of what ultimately fused the group together one last time before the Fab Four’s eventual disbandment. The world-renown authority on The Lads1, Kenneth Womack’s latest being
Not a bombshell statement to say I keep coming back to this pivotal period — 1969 the year I graduated junior high and entered the hallways of that senior cauldron. Perhaps, it’s the mutual upheaval, mine in no way equal to Liverpool’s legendary artists, that still gives it a …just yesterday frame of reference. Always simmering below the surface, the flame and this English rock band a constant in my life since the early ’60s. Still percolating.
By this point, just starting my sophomore year when it landed, like everyone else at the time, scarcely thinking it was likewise an ending. With what was known then as the Get Back sessions in the can by January 1969, most unaware of the internal havoc brewing with the eventual Let It Be album and soon on display in the documentary. Womack concentrated on what the foursome did to get back on track, at least temporarily, in what was left of the decade.
The music from the Abbey Road album reverberating to this day and was initially treated to generally favorable reviews and strong notices upon release. Yet, looking back, it was not gifted universal acclaim. Some were quite disparaging, which the author cast back to right from the start of Solid State:
“Abbey Road was hardly the first work of art to be met with critical scorn in spite of its creators’ contemporary renown. Cultural history is replete with exemplars, great artists of their day who have been maligned by the same critics who hailed their apotheosis. In this way, the Fab Four were no different from say, James Joyce (or Toni Morrison later).”
“In terms of the critical reception of Abbey Road, the reviews of Ulysses and The Great Gatsby are doubly instructive. On the one hand, they remind us about the wider critical lens devoted to creative stallwarts, but, on the other hand, they demonstrate the kinds of critical reception that artists sometimes experience during moments of technical or stylistic shift.” ~ from Solid State, Chapter One
Having read a number of Kenneth Womack’s past works, this one didn’t disappoint. Given his knowledge of the group, and the world they impacted, musically and culturally, it was what you’d expect. Granting the reader insight into what many consider the most important and creative musicians striking at a copiously opportune moment. This the latest peeling back how The Beatles pioneered using the music technology available for their landmark LP.
If the focal Revolver album2 began their musical renaissance in the latter half of the ’60s, Abbey Road the culmination by way of its gestation and distinguishable sound quality.
“Brian Epstein, the manager who had guided them to global stardom, had been dead for eighteen months, a period that found them adrift and seemingly without direction in the wake of their universally acclaimed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. In the intervening months, they had alienated their magisterial producer George Martin, who they had begun shunting aside during the sessions associated with The White Album.” ~ EMI TG12345 Mk1 chapter
Should note, the cover for Solid State offered an interesting manifestation of the now iconic album cover. While the author recounts the details of the photo taken on 8 August 1969 outside EMI Studios on the page, what it meant symbolically right on the book’s sleeve. The silhouette of George Harrison’s last steps on the famed zebra crossing, against the stark cutout letters of the title, visually bespoke more to the group’s exiting not only the frame but their time together.
A number of portrayals of what occurred in 1969 have been written and noted in other publications in the decades since their breakup. But, to Kenneth Womack’s credit with this book, his reminiscing offered a new esoteric bent of their studio work. One juxtaposed against a tender and nuanced reckoning of The Beatles at this closing phase. Their one last stab at greatness before all hell, as Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money chronicled3, broke loose.
Solid State‘s dissection of the practical breakthroughs the band, George Martin, Geoff Emerick4, and others took advantage of — the TG console with its solid-state circuitry, Moog Synthesizer, and the growing number of music tracks that could be laid down — put in compelling context the geekier Beatlemaniacs will pore over. All of it bubbling to the surface in the pop culture of the time, as well as how it hit home literally with John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Every year I try to add to my knowledge regarding my all-time favorite band. Kenneth Womack’s book a fascinating, in-depth look at a distinct creation. Excellently written, and with a wonderful forward by Alan Parsons5, it’s a recommended read for those seeking a fly-on-the-wall experience of the Fab Four recording their last album. Simply, a splendid day-by-day of how the Abbey Road LP came to be and the technology and artistry it took to pull it off.
“The warmth of solid-state recording also afforded their music with brighter tonalities and a deeper low end that distinguished Abbey Road from the rest of their albums, providing listeners with an abiding sense that the Beatles’ final LP was markedly different. Eventually it was seen that they had ended their career on a new and elevated level in terms of their sonic capabilities. Martin and Emerick had been daring and undeterred in their efforts to capture the songwriters’ visions. Their production team, including the talented newcomers like Chris Thomas and John Kurlander, was essential in carrying the band to the astonishing heights they attained with Abbey Road.” ~ ‘Solid State’ chapter 9, page 235
Once again, as opposed to Peter Doggett’s tome, Solid State also released by Audible in audiobook format the same day of publication. Of course, the listener will miss out on the period photos and detailed appendices and bibliography included on the Cornell University hardback. Still, it is (ahem) a “solid” production, and worth listening to. Clocking in at a svelte 8 hours 8 minutes in length, it makes for a relatively brisk but detailed audio experience.
As they’ve become known for, Audible’s production team gave the rock history on the page its due with a fine narration by William Hughes. I’d listened to couple audiobooks narrated by him before, and only learned with Solid State he’s also a professor of political science, jazz guitarist, as well as an actor and narrator. No wonder his vocal delivery of the material was so forthright, aided by his musicianship and practical knowledge.
Some may have wanted a British inflection given those represented, but he made it work. Admittedly, he lacked Simon Vance‘s famed British flair as done with the Beatles ’66 audiobook when uttering quotes by John, Paul, George or Ringo. Yet William still fulfilled Kenneth Womack’s words and did a more than admirable job vocalizing his intent in this study of Abbey Road‘s significance. The entire audio effort measured up to the content quite well.
- The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four among his best along with his other works. ↩
- See Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year for more on this. ↩
- The professional, legal, and personal pressures breaking up The Beatles presented with less trauma than Doggett’s painstaking account. ↩
- The book is dedicated to Geoff Emerick, the famed English sound engineer who worked with the Beatles on a number of their final albums. ↩
- English audio engineer, songwriter, musician, and record producer who was involved with The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be, the eponymous debut album by Ambrosia, as well as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. ↩