By the Book: 'Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles'
In Solid State, acclaimed Beatles historian Kenneth Womack offers the most definitive account yet of the writing, recording, mixing, and reception of Abbey Road. (excerpt)
Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles
Cornell University Press
When it was released in the autumn of 1969, the Beatles' Abbey Road album enjoyed generally favorable reviews, with the likes of NME (New Musical Express), Rolling Stone, and Time rewarding the Fab Four's latest album with strong notices. For the most famous band on the planet—having commercial and critical dominion over the world of pop music for nearly six years—it was a very enviable par for course. But other reviews were mixed, even disparaging at times. The venerable New York Times took surprising issue with the Beatles' offering, deriding the LP'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 there. For the balance of his review, Cohn didn't pull any punches, criticizing the majority of the LP's songs as ranging from "pretty average stuff" to "unmitigated disaster." For Cohn, 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?
In spite of Cohn's relatively tender age, the twenty-three-year-old Brit 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 more than two years earlier when Richard Goldstein lambasted the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the same paper. As with Cohn, Goldstein heralded a new breed of cultural critic. A wunderkind of sorts at just twenty-two years of age, he 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 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 premier 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 acknowledged the problems: "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' 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. It stood out from their extant musical and filmic corpus.
In its own way, Abbey Road too acted as an outlier, somehow 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." Ward's critique existed in stark variance with the opinion of his colleague John Mendelsohn, who had rewarded Abbey Road with a rave review in the pages of Rolling Stone that same month. In contrast with Cohn, who lauded the medley as the LP'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 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). 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 preceding few centuries, the Beatles' latest works were treated as bravura cultural events. In the run-up for these, the critical main readies itself for a veritable feast of sublimity, keeping in mind the opportunity for a high-profile media massacre if it finds the awaited work lacking in style or substance. Take none other than Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Originally premiered in Vienna in May 1824, Beethoven's Ninth finally made its London debut in March 1825, when it was presented by the Philharmonic Society of London under the conduction of Sir George Smart. The prominent British music journal Harmonicon minced few words in delivering its pronouncement, writing in a banner editorial, "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."