Solid State: The Story of

Solid State: The Story of "Abbey Road" and the End of the Beatles

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Overview

Acclaimed Beatles historian Kenneth Womack offers the most definitive account yet of the writing, recording, mixing, and reception of Abbey Road.

In February 1969, the Beatles began working on what became their final album together. Abbey Road introduced a number of new techniques and technologies to the Beatles' sound, and included "Come Together," "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun," which all emerged as classics.

Womack's colorful retelling of how this landmark album was written and recorded is a treat for fans of the Beatles. Solid State takes readers back to 1969 and into EMI's Abbey Road Studio, which boasted an advanced solid state transistor mixing desk. Womack focuses on the dynamics between John, Paul, George, Ringo, and producer George Martin and his team of engineers, who set aside (for the most part) the tensions and conflicts that had arisen on previous albums to create a work with an innovative (and, among some fans and critics, controversial) studio-bound sound that prominently included the new Moog synthesizer, among other novelties.

As Womack shows, Abbey Road was the culmination of the instrumental skills, recording equipment, and artistic vision that the band and George Martin had developed since their early days in the same studio seven years earlier. A testament to the group's creativity and their producer's ingenuity, Solid State is required reading for all fans of the Beatles and the history of rock 'n' roll.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501746857
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 71,501
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kenneth Womack's previous books about the Beatles include Long and Winding Roads and The Beatles Encyclopedia. He is also the author of the acclaimed two-volume biography of Sir George Martin, Maximum Volume and Sound Pictures. Womack is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, where he also serves as Professor of English. Follow him on Twitter @KennethAWomack and visit kennethwomack.com for more Beatles history and insight.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

EMI TG12345 Mk1

n February 1969, the Beatles were at a crossroads. There was plenty to celebrate, as usual, for the world's most commercially and critically successful act. Their ninth LP, The White Album, was lording it over the charts and well on its way to becoming the biggest-selling album of the 1960s. Their most recent single, "Hey Jude" (backed with "Revolution"), was a global hit, and they were two years into a contract with the EMI Group that promised to keep their coffers overflowing until 1976. ("EMI" was at first an initialism for "Electric and Musical Industries.") But then there was the issue of the group's management, which was in disarray. 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, whom they had begun shunting aside during the sessions associated with The White Album.

And then there was their business empire itself. Announced at a press conference at New York City's Americana Hotel in May 1968, their creative music and film ventures, associated with Apple Corps, had gotten off to a rocky start. John Lennon remarked in January 1969 that if the company continued to lose money at its current rate, the Beatles would be bankrupt by midsummer. To make matters worse, Lennon and girlfriend Yoko Ono had developed a dependence on heroin, which the Beatle later claimed to have developed in the wake of a raid on his Montagu Square flat by Detective-Sergeant Norman Pilcher's notorious drugs squad. Lennon attributed Yoko's mid-November 1968 miscarriage to the raid, and he later remarked "we were in real pain" (after the miscarriage). In truth, Lennon's experimentation with the drug had begun much earlier — most likely during Ono's summer 1968 exhibition at London's Robert Fraser Gallery. "I never injected," he liked to say. "Just sniffing, you know." But as journalist and Lennon confidant Ray Connolly observed, Lennon "rarely did anything he liked by halves. Before long, heroin would become a problem for him." Meanwhile, Lennon's addiction had his bandmates alarmed. By the advent of the Get Back sessions, Ono openly joked about shooting heroin as the couple's form of exercise. "The two of them were on heroin," said McCartney, "and this was a fairly big shocker for us because we all thought we were far-out boys, but we kind of understood that we'd never get quite that far out."

In January 1969, the group's fortunes seemed to be taking a turn for the worst as they attempted to subvert the high-gloss production associated with Sgt. Pepper by virtue of a lo-fi return to their musical roots. With producer Glyn Johns at the helm and Martin relegated to the sidelines, they had slogged through the recent Get Back project only to triumph over their interpersonal demons with the January 30 rooftop concert and a flurry of sessions that resulted in a spate of recordings that would become classics, including "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road." If anything, their saving grace, demonstrated time and time again over the years, was their capacity to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. As far back as April 1964, John Lennon had penned "A Hard Day's Night" in the nick of time to provide a title track for Richard Lester's feature film at the height of Beatlemania. And then there was the November 1965 production of Rubber Soul, which found Martin and the Beatles barely beating the clock as they brought the album to the finish line in time for its bravura December release (in time for Christmas). As recently as October 1968, they'd been at it again, with the increasingly estranged Martin and engineer Ken Scott joining Lennon and McCartney for a breakneck, twenty-four-hour mixing session in which they prepared and sequenced the sprawling White Album for release.

But with Apple Corps spiraling out of control and the battle royal for the group's management getting increasingly ugly — would it fall into the hands of brash American businessman Allen Klein, whom Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr favored, or Lee and John Eastman, McCartney's attorneys and future in-laws? — the Beatles' ability to move forward as a creative team was hindered. As history knows, they would put aside their differences, if only temporarily, just long enough to extract one final triumph via their Abbey RoadLP. But how did they manage to pull it off against all odds? Yes, they were at the height of their powers, but they were struggling. How were they able to wrest new sounds out of their weary partnership that fateful final summer together?

As it happened, the last of the band's remarkable achievements as recording artists was borne on the back of an EMI Studios mixing desk. The facilities located at 3 Abbey Road had served, with only a few notable exceptions, as the Beatles' studio of choice since they had first alighted there on June 6, 1962, for their inaugural recording session with Martin. Nestled among the stately Edwardian homes of London's St. John's Wood, the studios had been built in 1830 as a luxurious residence along the footpath to nearby Kilburn Priory, a twelfth-century abbey that fell into the hands of the Crown after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1537. Known as Abbey Lodge, the main house comprised nearly twenty-three thousand square feet and included five reception rooms, nine bedrooms, a wine cellar, a substantial rear garden, and servants' quarters. In its last years as a private residence, Abbey Lodge was divided into flats. One of the building's last tenants was Maundy Gregory, a one-time theatrical producer and notorious political fixer who was rumored to have murdered his flatmate, famed British actress Edith Grosse, after persuading her to change her will and name him as the sole beneficiary of her £18,000 estate.

Purchased by the Gramophone Company in 1929 for £16,500 and rechristened EMI Studios, the facility officially opened its doors in November 1931 — scant months after Columbia Graphophone had merged with the Gramophone Company and formed the EMI Group. In the early 1930s, English composer Edward Elgar conducted recording sessions at EMI Studios for Pomp and Circumstance, the series of five marches that would immortalize his name. (The first march's tune "The Land of Hope and Glory" emerged as a British sporting anthem and signature melody for American graduation ceremonies.) During EMI Studios' early years, the facility developed a reputation for classical recordings by the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and Pablo Casals. In keeping with EMI's air of formality and British aplomb, studio personnel sported white lab coats. In 1940, Winston Churchill visited EMI to make propaganda recordings for the war effort. Seeing the white-coated engineers milling about, the prime minister famously quipped that there were so many white coats in evidence that he thought he'd ended up in a hospital.

During the Beatles' heyday, the EMI complex comprised three studios constructed behind the original estate, which served as the administrative quarters. The largest facility, Studio 1, which can hold a full orchestra and chorus, still accommodates much of the orchestral recording at present, with Studio 2 and Studio 3 providing progressively smaller creative spaces. During the seven years in which they had been in residence at Abbey Road, the Beatles had witnessed a number of studio improvements, including the facility's shift from twin-track to four-track recording. By 1968, they were eager to make the shift to eight-track, which was rapidly emerging as the industry standard. Formally known as the EMI TG12345 Mk1, the eight-track desk had finally been installed at EMI Studios in late 1968, scant days after the group had completed work on The White Album. By that juncture, the REDD.51 recording console, EMI Studios' mainstay technology since January 1964, had reached the end of a remarkable era that had seen the Beatles change popular music with a slew of hit singles and one landmark LP after another. From an original design by German audio engineer Peter K. Burkowitz, the legendary console drew its name from the Record Engineering Development Department, which had been founded by EMI technical engineer Len Page in 1955. The REDD.51 supplanted the REDD.37, the mixing desk via which the Fab Four had fashioned the early hits of Beatlemania, from "Please Please Me" and "Twist and Shout" to "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Given its signal role in the evolution of the Beatles' sound, the four-track REDD.51 machine came to be known as the "The Beatles' Console." The REDD.51 famously featured two EQ (equalization) settings, "Pop" and "Classic," reflecting the binary thinking of a bygone era in which records were understood as being from either one of two vastly different camps, a distinction that the Beatles blurred via the incorporation of symphonic, experimental, and ambient sounds into their evolving musical palette. The REDD.51 technology was distinguished by the mixing desk's valve circuitry, which relied on vacuum tubes for its power supply and produced recordings characterized by a dynamic frequency range, especially on the bottom end.

Recognizing that the REDD.51 was nearing the end of its heyday — and with transistor technology having come to dominate the global electronics marketplace — EMI Studios' white-coated technical engineers had begun making preparations for enhancing the facility's multitrack recording capabilities long before the TG12345 came to fruition. In addition to the technological leaps associated with state-of-the-art electronics, the features coupled with EMI's new mixing desk had their origins in the increasing sonic demands of the record conglomerate's artists, producers, and engineers. In 1967, EMI Studios' technical staff had begun holding meetings with the design engineers from the company's Central Research Labs with the mission of designing a more comprehensive mixing console that could not only handle the current expectations of the studio's clientele but also the anticipated technological shifts lurking just beyond the horizon. With their new design, the EMI engineers intended to supplant their reliance on tube circuitry with solid-state electronics. The prototype console for the TG12345 arrived at EMI Studios in June 1968. The machine's TG prefix was an abbreviation for "The Gramophone Company," an anachronistic reference to EMI's parent organization, which was founded in 1898. While the TG prefix was intentional, the desk's sequential 12345 suffix was purely a matter of coincidence. Working in the bowels of EMI Studios, the technical engineers at Abbey Road carried out an extensive testing phase with the TG12345. As the engineer Alan Parsons later recalled, studio personnel soon began to refer to the console as "the TG" or "the transistor desk," in reference to its solid-state circuitry. In comparison with the REDD.51, the new mixing console was enormous, with twenty-four microphone inputs and eight outputs. Over the next several months, the engineers familiarized themselves with the operation of the new desk. As Amp Room engineer Brian Gibson later recalled, "I remember when we first got the TG in 1968. We had the Mark I, which was more or less a prototype, and Abbey Road used to have what they called the 'Experimental Room' [room 65]. It was a little room off to the side of the studios which had tie-lines through to all of the studios. ... And I remember everybody was really knocked out at how clean the thing sounded. It had this sort of top-end sparkle, if you like, which I suppose is characteristic of solid-state equipment and maybe slightly lacking on some of the valve, vacuum tube designs. But I also remember that everyone thought that because it was so huge, it would be difficult to use — compared to the REDD desks, where you could reach every control whilst sitting down. Little did they know how big consoles would become!"

With its testing phase completed, the TG console was finally installed in Studio 2 during the weekend of November 23, 1968, the day after the release of The White Album. EMI personnel were immediately struck by the size of the new mixing desk, which was six and a half feet wide — two feet wider than the REDD console that it replaced. But the TG console's size was deceiving. Weighing 500 pounds, it was 250 pounds lighter than its predecessor, thanks to its transistors replacing the REDD console's hefty valve equipment. The width of the new console required the remodeling of Studio 2 to accommodate it. While the REDD desk had been situated in the middle of the control room, affording production staff with a vantage point that allowed them to observe the action below on the studio floor, the TG console's extra width rendered this impossible. To remedy the problem, studio personnel shifted the new console 90 degrees in relation to the control room window. Anyone seated at the mixing desk now faced a newly installed window peering into room 2A, the machine room where the studio's corresponding 3M eight-track recorder was housed. When production staff began working the new desk, they were often astounded by its seeming complexity and the sheer amount of gadgetry now at their disposal. The new console featured twenty-four faders compared to the fourteen sported by the REDD.51 desk. Perhaps most significantly, the TG console was eminently more nimble. Not only did each of the twenty-four faders provide considerably more flexibility for its user, each of the console's faders had its own EQ settings that allowed its operators to have greater control over the frequency spectrum. The TG console also possessed far greater panning control across the sonic field than the REDD.51.

Now working in conjunction with one of EMI's newly installed 3M eight-track machines — which themselves had been sequestered, until other forces intervened, as the EMI techies ran them through their paces that same summer — the TG console in Studio 2 made its debut on a session, produced by Columbia's Norrie Paramor, by Cliff Richard and the Shadows (née the Drifters), the beat band that pioneered British pop music's shift from skiffle to rock and roll in 1958 with "Move It." For the TG console's inaugural November 1968 session, Paramor recorded a German-language version of Richard's "Don't Forget to Catch Me" ("Zärtliche Sekunden") for the singer's forthcoming West German release Hier Ist Cliff. As it happened, producers like Paramor and Martin required very little training on the new equipment, as they hardly ever touched the consoles. "It was considered bad protocol," Parsons later commented. Instead they left such duties almost entirely in the hands of the studio's engineering staff. As veteran maintenance engineer Ken Townsend later observed, the work-a-day balance engineers of the day relied heavily on EMI Studios' maintenance engineers to handle the technical aspects of procuring microphones and deal with the more complex tasks associated with the mixing desks. In so doing, the maintenance engineers created a turnkey operation of sorts for Martin and his colleagues. When a given session commenced, said Townsend, producers and their balance engineers could go straight to work, saving valuable studio time for recording new music. Not surprisingly, an inevitable rivalry developed among the maintenance and balance engineers, with the former deriding the balance engineers as "jumped-up button pushers" because of the way they would step into the control room and take over after the maintenance engineers had already done the technical legwork.

After its installation, the TG console was all the rage at EMI. The company newsletter, EMINews, with the bravado that one might expect from an in-house publication, described the mixing desk as "the most comprehensive sound mixing console in the world." EMINews highlighted the space-age qualities of the console, "with no less than 479 knobs and controls and 37 meters for use by the recording engineer." There was no denying the technical leap that EMI's engineers had achieved with the console, which boasted three times the microphone inputs associated with the REDD.51, as well as built-in limiters/compressors on every channel. The possibilities of the recording studio had been expanded considerably.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Solid State"
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Copyright © 2019 Cornell University.
Excerpted by permission of Cornell University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Alan Parsons, ix,
Introduction: "Unmitigated Disaster", 1,
1 EMI TG12345 Mk1, 10,
2 Stereophonic Sound, 38,
3 Tales of Men and Moog, 74,
4 "The Long One", 100,
5 The Wind-Up Piano and Mrs. Mills, 131,
6 Virtuosi, 159,
7 Tittenhurst Park, 186,
8 Letting It Be, 204,
9 Solid State, 223,
Acknowledgments, 241,
Notes, 243,
Bibliography, 257,
Index, 263,

What People are Saying About This

Rob Sheffield

"One of the world's foremost Beatle scholars takes a fascinating tour through the band's final masterpiece. Kenneth Womack sheds light on the struggle and strife behind 'that magic feeling,' as four artists on the verge of splitting apart somehow came together to make some of their best-loved music. Solid State is a brilliant and essential trip."

Chris Carter

"Solid State takes readers on a memorable walk across Abbey Road and into the hallowed halls of EMI Studios as Beatles expert Kenneth Womack explores the recording of the group's swan song LP. A fab job as always from Womack."

John Covach

"Womack takes us on a journey through 1969, providing an engaging chronicle of the recording of this landmark record. It is a must-read for anyone who knows the album—and the better you know Abbey Road, the more you'll enjoy Solid State."

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Solid State: The Story of "Abbey Road" and the End of the Beatles 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Peppyob 1 days ago
Kenneth Womack's book "Solid State" examines the making of the Beatles' final album "Abbey Road" in a detailed account that describes the background and recording process of each song. The "Solid State" of the title refers to the then new TG solid state mixing console that EMI had just installed at Abbey Road that replaced the tube driven analog console and allowed The Beatles and George Martin a lot of new features to work with. After the lackluster "Let It Be" sessions The Beatles wanted George Martin and Engineer Geoff Emerick back to attempt to recover the "Pepper" and "Revolver" type of creative recording. Of course there are a lot of references to these prior recording sessions and songs and the techniques employed. Naturally a lot of space is dedicated to the interpersonal relationships between the various Beatles and George Martin as well as Yoko who attended every session (sometimes in a bed John had installed in the studio.) Womack shows how this record was a brief return to a real collaborative effort for The Beatles. The "White Album" was sometimes described as 4 different solo albums and the "Let It Be" sessions degenerated into outright fighting but the author shows The Beatles managed to return to the cooperative spirit of the earlier albums for this their final recording. Each song and the recording process, as well as who played what, is described in detail. Great for Beatle freaks - perhaps too detailed for casual fans.
AMGiacomasso 4 days ago
I've been a Beatles fan for a long time and I read quite a number of books about them. This one is excellent and I learned a lot of new details about the make of Abbey Road. I liked the style of writing and found this book a pleasant and engrossing read. Highly recommended! Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.