Essay | Unmitigated Disaster: The Beatles’ Abbey Road by Kenneth Womack

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The following essay is an extract from Kenneth Womack’s forthcoming book Solid State: The Story of “Abbey Road” and the End of the Beatles, which will be published by Cornell University Press in October.

Kenneth Womack


Unmitigated Disaster


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
                                                        — T. S. Eliot

When it was released in the autumn of 1969, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album enjoyed generally favorable reviews, with the likes of NME, Rolling Stone, and Time rewarding the Fab Four’s latest album with strong notices. For the most famous band on the planet—having exerted commercial and critical dominion across the world of pop music for nearly six years—it was par for a very enviable course. But still other reviews were mixed, even disparaging at times.

None other than the venerable New York Times took surprising issue with the Beatles’ most recent offering, deriding the long-player’s contents as a clear departure from their earlier, ostensibly more sophisticated and fully realized works. In his New York Times review of October 5, 1969, Nik Cohn gave the Fab Four their props, lauding Abbey Road’s concluding medley as “the most impressive music they’ve made since Rubber Soul.” But his admiration ended right then and there. For the balance of his review, Cohn didn’t pull any punches, disparaging the majority of the LP’s songs as “pretty average stuff” and, in what he denigrated as its most ineffectual moments, “unmitigated disaster.” For Cohn, something didn’t sound quite right on Abbey Road, where “the words are limp-wristed, pompous, and fake,” the latest compositions from George Harrison were “mediocrity incarnate,” and “the badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.” What, exactly, was Cohn hearing in those tracks that gave him such dis-ease?

In spite of his relatively tender age, the 23-year-old British Cohn had already earned considerable stature among the music critics of his day. During the previous winter, the Who’s Pete Townshend had discussed an early draft of his rock opera Tommy with Cohn, who helpfully suggested that the songwriter round out his deaf, dumb, and blind protagonist by reimagining him as a pinball wizard, a shrewd recommendation that resulted in the eventual album’s most recognizable flourish and one of the Who’s signature concert staples. When Cohn’s review of Abbey Road made the pages of The New York Times, the rock world took notice, just as it had done more than two years earlier when Richard Goldstein lambasted the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the same newspaper.

As with Cohn, Goldstein heralded a new breed of cultural critic—a wunderkind of sorts who, at just 22 years of age, had already published a book on campus drug abuse and, even more impressively, had joined the staff of the counterculture’s most esteemed crew of writers at The Village Voice. While the whole of the Western world seemed to embrace Sgt. Pepper as the purest distillation yet of the group’s aesthetic vision—including Robert Christgau, Goldstein’s colleague at The Village Voice, who praised the album in Esquire as “the epitome of studio rock”—Goldstein pooh-poohed the LP as “a pastiche of dissonance and lushness. The mood is mellow, even nostalgic. But, like the cover, the overall effect is busy, hip, and cluttered. Like an over-attended child Sgt. Pepper is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises, and a 91-piece orchestra.”

For the Beatles, critical jests from the likes of Cohn and Goldstein hardly resulted in a wound, much less a scar. As artists, they were far more unhinged in December 1967 in the aftermath of Magical Mystery Tour’s television debut. After the film’s BBC premiere on Boxing Day, the reviews were swift and merciless. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And what a fall it was,” James Thomas wrote in the Daily Express. “The whole boring saga confirmed a long held suspicion of mine that the Beatles are four pleasant young men who have made so much money that they can apparently afford to be contemptuous of the public.” Meanwhile, the Daily Sketch couldn’t help poking fun at the Beatles’ recent forays into Eastern mysticism: “Whoever authorized the showing of the film on BBC1 should be condemned to a year squatting at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” For its part, the Daily Mirror condemned Magical Mystery Tour as “Rubbish . . . Piffle . . . Nonsense!”

For the Beatles, it was a critical drubbing that had proved difficult to stomach— especially after enjoying the artistic heights of Sgt. Pepper. As Hunter Davies, the band’s authorized biographer, commented, Magical Mystery Tour marked “the first time in memory that an artist felt obliged to make a public apology for his work.” Indeed, McCartney later remarked that “we don’t say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn’t come off. We’ll know better next time.” Paul added, perhaps inadvisably, “I mean, you couldn’t call the Queen’s speech a gas, either, could you?” As perhaps the Beatles’ single greatest artistic failure, Magical Mystery Tour marked an anomaly in the band’s unprecedented career—not merely because of the television movie’s aesthetic shortcomings, but also because of the sheer fact that it was decidedly different, that it stood out, however poorly, from their extant musical and filmic corpus.

In its own way, Abbey Road acted as an outlier, somehow separate and distinct from a clutch of landmark LPs that included Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper (1967), and The Beatles (1968), popularized as The White Album. When it came to Abbey Road, Cohn wasn’t the only critic who winced in dismay at the Beatles’ latest offering. In his November 1969 review in Rolling Stone, Ed Ward lambasted Abbey Road for treading “a rather tenuous line between boredom, Beatledom, and bubblegum.” In contrast with Cohn, who lauded the medley as the long-player’s solitary saving grace, Ward dismissed the song cycle’s component parts as “so heavily overproduced that they are hard to listen to.” Writing in The Guardian, Geoffrey Cannon followed suit, observing that the Beatles’ “old rock and roll had energy and purpose. And this is what Abbey Road has not.” Ultimately, the Beatles’ new LP is “a slight matter,” Cannon added. “Perhaps to their own relief, the Beatles have lost the desire to touch us. You will enjoy Abbey Road. But it won’t move you.” Writing in Life magazine, Albert Goldman echoed Cannon’s complaints, remarking that the medley “seems symbolic of the Beatles’ latest phase, which might be described as the round-the-clock production of disposable music effects.”

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 such exemplars, as the great artists of their day have often been maligned by the same voices who hailed their original apotheosis. In this way, the Fab Four were no different from, say, James Joyce or Toni Morrison. As Christgau opined in Esquire, the Beatles had been writ large not merely as the most revolutionary artists of their time, but of all time. By the advent of Pepper, Christgau observed, the Beatles had been compared, “unpejoratively and in order, to Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edith Sitwell, Charlie Chaplin, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and T. S. Eliot—and not to Elvis Presley or even Bob Dylan.”

As with the other revered artists of the past few centuries, the Beatles’ latest works were treated as bravura cultural events, moments in which the critical main readies itself for a veritable feast of sublimity—or, if they find the long-awaited work somehow lacking in style or substance—the opportunity for a high-profile media massacre. Take none other than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Originally premiered in Vienna in May 1924, Beethoven’s Ninth finally made its London debut in March 1925, when it was presented by the Philharmonic Society of London under the conduction of Sir George Smart. The prominent British music journal The Harmonicon minced few words in delivering its pronouncement, writing in a banner editorial that “we find Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a frightful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.”

And then there was the twentieth century, when a new era of mass communication and cultural event took hold, when popular journalism swiftly accrued a national, even international reach. Long before Cohn commenced his dissection of Abbey Road in The New York Times, influential critical publications took aim at the larger-than-life writers and artists of the day. Take the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses by Paris’ Shakespeare and Company bookshop in 1922. Marking the occasion in its distinctive salmon-colored pages, the weekly Sporting Times pulled no punches in reviewing the Irish writer’s most experimental effort to date. “James Joyce is a writer of talent, but in Ulysses he has ruled out all the elementary decencies of life and dwells appreciatively on things that sniggering louts of schoolboys guffaw about. In addition to this stupid glorification of mere filth, the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith. There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humor.” A few years later, L.P. Hartley famously pummeled F. Scott Fitzgerald—the preeminent short-story author of his time— on the publication of his novel The Great Gatsby (1925). “Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking,” Hartley wrote in The Saturday Review. “Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.”

In terms of the critical reception of Abbey Road, the contemporary 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 stalwarts; but on the other, they demonstrate the kinds of critical reception that artists sometimes experience during moments of technical or stylistic shift. In the cases of Joyce and Fitzgerald, Ulysses and The Great Gatsby marked key transformations in each writer’s career. For his part, Joyce’s novel was a radical departure from such earlier works as Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which must have seemed like downright conventional narratives in comparison to the brashly experimental Ulysses.

In terms of the reception of The Great Gatsby—his latest novel following the publication of This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922)—Fitzgerald wasn’t merely under fire for deigning to present a tawdry portrait of the Gilded Age. With Gatsby, he had dared, for the third time, no less, to present himself yet again to the literary set as a serious novelist in contrast with the renown that he enjoyed for his bestselling short stories. In both cases, the artists had opted to defy the understandable expectations of their audience, who had grown comfortable with the Joyce and Fitzgerald of old. By any measure, the writers’ respective radical experimentation and generic shifts had played a signal role in the critical reception of their latest novels.

With Abbey Road, the Beatles experienced a similar, albeit slightly more nuanced twist of critical fate. The overarching common denominator among the LP’s reviews, both for good and ill, was that it sounded different. For writers like Cohn, Ward, and Cannon, the album reeked of what they each perceived as a sort of overproduction. But they were hardly alone. In his rave review in a December 1969 issue of The Times, William Mann praised the album as “teeming with musical invention,” while lamenting that some listeners would likely deride the LP’s intricate production for being too “gimmicky.” This was a remarkable observation after the soaring technological heights that the Beatles had achieved with Sgt. Pepper only a few years earlier. In addition to emerging as the soundtrack for 1967’s Summer of Love, the ground- breaking LP had dazzled the world of music and art for its high-concept production as much, if not more so, than the Fab Four’s timeless compositions. By any comparison, Abbey Road made for a more demure listening experience in comparison to Sgt. Pepper’s revolutionary technicolor soundscapes. So why, then, did Abbey Road’s critics continue to call out the Beatles’ latest record so explicitly because of its production?

Plainly and simply, Abbey Road sounded vastly different from the Beatles’ previous studio efforts due to a series of technological upgrades that EMI Studios had undertaken during the late autumn months of 1968—namely, the adoption of a new eight-track mixing desk that afforded the bandmates and their production team with solid-state technology after years of working, for the most part, with tube equipment. The sound of the Beatles that had thrilled the world over—the “maximum volume” that their producer George Martin had coaxed out of EMI’s aging studio gear—had been conspicuously altered by the subatomic properties inherent in solid-state electronics. For workaday fans and seasoned audiophiles alike—who likely had little, if any working knowledge about the equipment upgrades at EMI Studios—the sonic differences were palpable. As far as they were concerned, the sound of the Fab Four had been— somehow—irrevocably changed.

But like all works of art, musical or otherwise, Abbey Road was the sum of its parts, as well as the result of a very particular sociohistorical context in the lives of the Beatles and their circle. The LP existed as only the latest rung in a creative continuum that had begun with the group’s earliest recordings and had progressed—often with remarkable leaps in songwriting and musicianship—from the primitive to the virtuosic. Explicating the role of solid-state electronics in Abbey Road’s production affords us with a signal means for understanding the ways in which recording and instrumental technology acted as potent ingredients in the LP’s status as a cultural event. But of course, technology exists as but one aspect of the album’s enduring acclaim. In many ways, Abbey Road was the express result of a highly particularized instant in time when technical innovations and appreciable advances in the bandmates’ performances and musicianship came together in astonishing, even unexpected harmony.

When the four lads from Liverpool gathered at EMI Studios in the early spring of 1969, the notion of going forward in any capacity as a working unit was a tenuous possibility at best. The January 1969 Get Back sessions had stretched the group’s interpersonal calculus to the brink of disbandment. At mid- month, George Harrison had briefly quit the Beatles—famously uttering “see you ’round the clubs” as he made his exit—only to be coaxed back via a carefully negotiated Fab Four détente. By month’s end, they had climbed atop the roof of their Savile Row office building for a final attempt at live performance—a last hurrah with portents that were hardly lost on anyone fortunate enough to be in attendance on that blustery January day. And if the Rooftop Concert had spelled the end of the Beatles—well, nobody in their inner circle, least of all the bandmates themselves, would have been surprised.

The fact that Abbey Road came into being in any form was remarkable under the circumstances. Reuniting in Get Back’s destructive wake seemed all but impossible, especially to Martin, who, having been frozen out in recent months from the band’s inner-workings, felt that the January 1969 sessions, with so much infighting and, at times, lackluster musicianship, marked an especially pitiful way for their world-breaking partnership to conclude.

Yet when the bandmates made their way back to EMI Studios over the following months—when they decided to give it one final go before slipping into the waiting arms of history—the Beatles somehow made it work. Aided by the studio upgrades for which they had long clamored and their own evolving talent and artistry, they willed one last production into being. Flourishing under these remarkable conditions, they honed an improbable musical epitaph for the ages.

For more information and to pre-order Solid State: The Story of “Abbey Road” and the End of the Beatles by Kenneth Womack, please visit Cornell University Press’s website

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                                            Dr. Kenneth Womack is Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, where he also serves as Professor of English. He is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles (2007), the Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (2009), The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four (2014), and a multivolume study devoted to the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin. His forthcoming book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, will be released in October 2019.


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