Kenneth Womack, dean of humanities and social sciences at Monmouth University where he serves as professor of English, is also a renowned Beatles authority who has written several books on the group. These include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles (2007), The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (2009) and the two-volume biography Sir George Martin – Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin – The Early Years, 1926-1966 (2017) and Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin – The Later Years, 1966-2016 (2018).
His latest book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, looks at how the Beatles created one of their most celebrated albums as they headed toward dissolution. The book will be published Oct. 15 by Cornell University Press. Ahead of its release, Billboard has an exclusive excerpt from Womack’s book below.
In the summer of 1969, the Beatles were on their last legs. In one of the band’s last great moments of triumph, John Lennon served up “Come Together,” one of the Fab Four’s finest recordings.
For the Beatles, the “Come Together” sessions proved to be an instance of sheer and much-needed joy. Captured in eight takes, the performances speak for themselves, with John Lennon turning in a soulful, masterful lead vocal as George Harrison found a groove on his Gibson Les Paul Standard. The Beatles’ rhythm section was in fine form, with Paul McCartney playing a distinctive looping bass sound on his Rickenbacker, while Ringo Starr perfected his slick tom-tom roll for the song’s motto. On the whole, the session was loose and effortless, with Lennon good-naturedly ad-libbing “got to get some bobo” and “Eartha Kitt, man!” After weeks of uncertainty and disarray, Lennon had returned with a vengeance, and his bandmates responded in kind with some of their most inspired playing in months—and arguably since the waning days of The White Album.
The July 21st session also marked engineer Geoff Emerick’s full-time return to the Beatles’ stable. He had visited throughout the production of their new LP, but he had only recently been able to conclude his outstanding non-Beatles professional obligations. In addition to working at Apple Studio in order to undo experimental electronics engineer Magic Alex’s latest fiasco, he had worked on the Wallace Collection’s Laughing Cavalier album and the Koobas’ eponymous release.
Working in the Studio 3 booth with producer George Martin, Phil McDonald, and John Kurlander, Emerick was truly back in his element. He had even come around to the notion of working with the newfangled solid-state desk, which he had initially disdained. He later admitted that “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.”
Interestingly, the “live” sound of “Come Together” was initially captured on four-track tape, with all four Beatles arrayed across the sound palette. Having selected take 6 as the best, the production team copied the song to the 3M eight-track machine to provide additional space for overdubs, as well as the opportunity to manipulate the EQ of the individual tracks at their leisure. Working on Tuesday, July 22nd, Lennon superimposed a new lead vocal, while Harrison added a rhythm guitar part. But the great highlight was McCartney’s inspired electric piano performance. Years later, McCartney would cherish his fond memories of playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano: “Whenever [John] did praise any of us, it was great praise, indeed, because he didn’t dish it out much,” McCartney recalled. “If ever you got a speck of it, a crumb of it, you were quite grateful. With ‘Come Together,’ for instance, he wanted a piano lick to be very swampy and smoky, and I played it that way and he liked it a lot. I was quite pleased with that.”
Quite suddenly, the impasse was over. Whether it had found its roots in John and wife Yoko Ono’s recent Scottish car accident, or the group’s ongoing managerial stalemate, or Lennon’s inability to stomach yet another session devoted to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the Beatles had found their way out of their interpersonal morass yet again. With “Come Together,” the bandmates had managed to right their ship in a matter of hours. Playing off of Lennon’s renewed energy, the others had responded in kind. As always, it was the music that lived at the heart of their inspiration. “I think it shows on the record when we were excited,” Starr later recalled. “The track’s exciting, and it all comes together. It doesn’t matter what we go through as individuals on the bullshit level. When it gets to the music, you can see that it’s really cool, and we had all put in 1,000 percent.” With the unexpected triumph of “Come Together,” the band had found its way back. And just in the nick of time…