A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE BEATLES WITH KENNETH WOMACK, AUTHOR OF LONG AND WINDING ROADS: THE EVOLVING ARTISTRY OF THE BEATLES
By the end of 1968, the Beatles were in the doldrums, disillusioned by their own ubiquitous fame and strung out from the roller coaster ride that had made them the kings of rock and roll. They had spent five months in India searching for enlightenment and had returned to England disheartened, having found nothing more than another false god, which was what their infamous guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, had turned out to be. When they released The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album) in November, music critics were scarcely impressed, and many perceived the album to be a pale shadow of the band’s masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The truth was that the band was fractured by this time. Tensions within the group had escalated to such a point that Ringo Starr actually walked out of Abbey Road Studios while the band was recording The White Album, vowing never to return, and although Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison managed to convince Starr that he was still an integral and necessary part of the band, the writing was already on the wall—the band was coming apart at the seams.
After Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ original manager, died from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1967, Paul McCartney became the band’s de facto leader, a position he didn’t seem to relish but one which he took seriously. In December 1968, McCartney took it upon himself to give the band something to work and strive for, something that would renew their creative spirits, and the vehicle he came up with was the Get Back project, which would later become the album Let It Be and an associated film also known as Let It Be.
The idea behind the Get Back project was fairly simple: the Beatles would get back to their roots, eschewing the studio “gimmicks,” like overdubbing, that they’d used so successfully on their last three albums. By doing so, they would rediscover the common thread that had tied them together in their early days; a film crew would document the recording sessions and any associated live performances, and there was even some talk of touring again, something the Beatles hadn’t done for three years.
Recording started in January 1969. With Yoko Ono perpetually in the studio and the band mates often at each other’s throats, the Get Back project was an unqualified disaster, and the album that McCartney originally envisioned was never released. When the Beatles disbanded in the fall of 1969, Let It Be was the orphan stepchild of Beatles’ albums, a record that no one wanted to be involved with, and Phil Spector was brought in to rescue the session tapes from oblivion. The re-mixed album and the corresponding film were finally released on May 8, 1970, nearly a year and a half after recording began, and Let It Be became the last official Beatles album to be released by the band.
To further my understanding of what went wrong with Let It Be, I sought out fellow Beatles fan Kenneth Womack, the author of Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles. Ken is a Professor of English at Penn State University’s Altoona College, where he is organizing an international Beatles celebration in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In addition to panels and presentations, the conference will include film screenings, musical performances, art and photography exhibits, and keynote addresses by leading Beatles critics and musicologists, and will conclude with a commemorative screening of The Ed Sullivan Show as it was originally broadcast on February 9, 1964. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation (conducted by email) that Ken and I had about the Beatles and the Get Back project in June 2013.
CG: The Get Back project was Paul McCartney’s idea, and I see it as a fairly desperate attempt on his part to rekindle the spirit of the band. Do you think there’s any chance, however, that the project could have led to less, instead of more, discord? In other words, is there something that McCartney could have done differently that might have pulled the Beatles back together again?
KW: The Get Back (later Let It Be) project has become a revelation for me in many ways. For years, I understood it as ground zero for the band’s demise—and there’s no doubt that much interpersonal damage was done in those early weeks of January 1969. The idea for the project emerged during the production of the videos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” at Twickenham Studios in August 1968. With too many rum and-cokes in their systems, the band mates decided that an epic live performance was just what they needed. By the time that they started rehearsing at Twickenham the following January, though, the idea had already grown stale. The studio hours were nearly the opposite of their all-night sessions back at Abbey Road. And it didn’t help that John and Yoko were experimenting rather openly with heroin at this time.
What I find most remarkable about that crazy month, however, is the way in which they trudge along so pathetically, tearing at each other emotionally—with George even quitting the band briefly in mid-January. Then, at the last possible moment, as they prepare to trundle up to the roof for their final concert, they suddenly get their act together. In the space of a few days, they record a spate of classics, including “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be,” and “Two of Us.” I’d throw in “I’ve Got a Feeling” as a near-classic for good measure. What began as an unmitigated disaster suddenly transforms into a legitimate triumph.
[quote style=”boxed”]I think that the Get Back / Let It Be project will always be a kind of way station. I also think that it is their greatest triumph as a band—the way they came back from the dead throughout that torturous month of January 1969 only to knock off a spate of classic songs. Who else can do that? And so spectacularly?[/quote]
Today’s rock bands pursue things so very differently, often taking three years between major projects. The Beatles, with their working-class ethic and hard-wrought background, simply didn’t operate that way. They had to be exhausted from the process that produced The White Album, which was released some 40 days earlier, yet they didn’t take so much as a vacation. The project might have also gone differently if they’d stayed inside their comfort zone back at Abbey Road or if, collectively, they had been more accepting of Yoko’s presence, but I’m not sure that there is much of anything McCartney could have done to save the day. With the exception of his well-known bickering with Harrison over the guitar arrangement for “Two of Us,” Paul is fairly laid back. He even good-naturedly engages in a jam session with Yoko at one point during George’s absence.
I think that the only way that Paul saves that band is by acceding to the others’ demands and accepting Allen Klein as their new manager. On May 9, 1969, Paul fatally balks at their plans in spite of the fact that the other three are ready to move forward with new management. And yet, in spite of John’s disgust at this turn of events, John seems to forgive Paul, and he even shows some excitement for the new album (Abbey Road)—in particular the medley that they are beginning to imagine as a kind of symphonic suite. But then another fatal mistake occurs in July, when John and his new family suffer a fairly serious car accident up in Scotland. In spite of his absence from the studio for a few days to convalesce, the other Beatles push forward without him, leaving Lennon very dramatically out of the creative picture. It was a slight, I would argue, from which they would never recover.
CG: I had no idea that Lennon and his family were in a car accident at that time. I assumed that he was less interested in recording with the Beatles since he had started a new band with Yoko, the Plastic Ono Band. Wasn’t he fairly fed up with being a Beatle?
KW: There is no doubt that life within the band was taking a toll on the group’s members in different ways, but the Beatles’ inner balance was clearly upset by a number of external issues—Klein, the Northern Songs debacle, the car accident and its aftermath, lingering tensions from The White Album, etc. One of the most tragic aspects of the whole business to me—beyond the loss of life and its toll on John’s family—is that Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980 robbed us of the kind of understanding of the events of the Beatles’ career that we might have had as Lennon moved into his 40s and beyond. When he died, he was still at that juncture, as we all are, where we find ourselves grappling with the past, still uncertain about some aspects and still attempting to make sense of it. In later years, he would have found emotional closure on many issues that would have given him—and us—a more textured and longitudinal view of the Beatles’ interpersonal narrative. You can see this phenomenon play itself out by reading the powerful interview with David Sheff—later published as All We Are Saying. We often credit John for his incredible honesty—and I believe that this is true, although you can see it shift throughout the 1970s in various interviews, when he provides honest assessments of how he feels at a particular phase in his life. What this doesn’t mean, of course, is that the conclusions are necessarily consistent or the same—only that he is being as honest as he possibly can about them.
CG: Is it fair to say that those tensions that were tearing up the band in 1969 also made the recording session at Twickenham stand apart from everything else that they’d done up to that point? Not only in the acerbic give-and-take between Lennon and McCartney (Lennon’s “the angels come” remark before the beginning of “Let It Be” comes to mind), but in the desperation and general fatigue that seems to soak through some of the lesser tracks, like “Dig a Pony,” in which the band seems to be struggling to come together.
KW: When you go back and listen to the multitudinous audio tapes from the Twickenham sessions, Lennon and McCartney are rarely at odds. Harrison seems most often to be at the center of the interpersonal challenges, which precipitate his sudden exit—and great exiting line, “See you ‘round the clubs”—on January 10th. The conversation that seems to have preceded his hasty departure was with Lennon around lunchtime, and it occurred outside of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s microphones, so history will never truly know what transpired. Interestingly, Harrison walks right out of the studio complex into George Martin, who was in the parking lot, fretting over the fact that he had just dinged Harrison’s car!
Lennon’s Twickenham ad-libs to which you refer—such as “Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members” and “Hark, the angels come”—were dubbed into the mix by Phil Spector during post-production; hence, they are really an illusion of interplay. These one-liners were non-sequitur remarks made by Lennon during the sessions, as opposed to any kind of forceful or derogatory commentary about Paul or the other Beatles. In and of themselves, they remind us about the artifice of Spector’s production and why McCartney, in particular, felt so strongly about providing a counter version of the project via Let It Be . . . Naked.
CG: It’s easy to forget how much artifice Spector introduced into the album, aside from those over-the-top strings on “Long and Winding Road,” because the changes are so seamless—until you compare Let It Be to Let It Be . . . Naked. But before we dig into Spector’s role, I just want to clarify your position on the Twickenham recording sessions—you seem to be saying that the Beatles’ interpersonal relationships didn’t have a major impact on the quality or character of their performances at Twickenham. Is that correct?
KW: Yes—and no. Let’s remember that those tensions had been around for several years. As Ringo notes in the Anthology, Let It Be was merely a new version of The White Album’s stressors. Imagine how the band’s chemistry must have changed back in 1963 when Lennon begins receiving accolades from a classical music critic for “aeolian cadences” in “Not a Second Time.” He made fun of it, yet he framed the article from The Times. Then you’ve got one classic after another in “Yesterday,” “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Those are real creative masterworks, and every iteration ratchets the interpersonal tensions ever higher. Heck, before “Yesterday” even surfaces, the “Lennon-McCartney” partnership had already been the subject of two UK television specials!
For my money, what makes the Beatles’ story so off the charts amazing is the way in which they willed their masterworks into existence during what Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, in their book back in the 1970s, called the “studio years.” After the Beatles free themselves from the rigors of a touring experience that no one, save Elvis, could possibly understand, they create Sgt. Pepper’s in what must have been a period filled with the liberation of creative purpose. But then Epstein dies, and suddenly things get much more difficult. Remember: they’re still young men at this point. Paul’s barely 25, and though he knew death early with the loss of his mother, as Lennon experienced with his own mother’s death, it’s a significant blow. The very next year, they spend the balance of 1968 making The White Album, which is a cultural bulwark if ever there were one, and follow that up with the Get Back project and Abbey Road. A mere two years after completing Sgt. Pepper’s and they’re in the studio making their swan song—a swan song that happens to be none other than Abbey Road. Who else does that? Who else can go to the mountaintop that many times in so short a period and come away with gold?
Did they have tension? You bet. And it must only get worse when you get to the highest highs of the creative food chain where they resided so magically during those later years. One of my favorite moments from John was one of his last—and it must be a great source of comfort for those who knew him and survive him, like Paul and Ringo. John has just hopped in the car with Dave Sholin, his last interviewer. He is literally taking his last ride to the studio; he had signed that fateful copy of Double Fantasy only moments earlier on the Dakota streetscape, and Sholin asks him about his relationship with Paul. Lennon doesn’t miss a beat: “He’s like a brother. I love him. Families—we certainly have our ups and downs and our quarrels. But at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I would do anything for him, and I think he would do anything for me.”
CG: McCartney has said something similar about Lennon since then, about them being like brothers—but those comments also came years after Lennon and McCartney had reconciled. And McCartney seems to have shelved many of the disappointments he had about the Beatles’ last year as a band, just as Lennon did, but one thing he apparently never got over was the manhandling of his songs by Phil Spector, when Spector was brought in to see what could be salvaged from the Get Back project. Aside from the orchestral treatments that Spector applied to “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be,” were there other things about the Spector production that bothered McCartney?
KW: Certainly, the story about Paul’s concerns over the Let It Be album had mostly to do with Spector’s application of the Wall of Sound to key Beatles tracks. But as a writer and thinker about the Beatles, I don’t place any blame at Phil’s feet. He was carrying out a work-for-hire job in a clear effort to make a name for himself outside of his fading career at the time in the US, and it worked magnificently. He received a lot of work from Harrison and Lennon, in particular, in subsequent years. I don’t think the Wall of Sound was especially useful for the Beatles, given that it involves Spector creating an expansively produced result by feeding the signal from the studio into an echo chamber during the recording process. While I like the results that he achieved with Harrison’s solo LP, All Things Must Pass, it seems like an incorrect choice for the Get Back project, which was all about getting back to the basics, as opposed to creating a grand orchestral gesture.
CG: Definitely. And the Wall of Sound certainly does work for songs like Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity?” on All Things Must Pass, but didn’t Lennon have an even bigger beef with Spector than McCartney, after Spector’s escapades in the recording of one of John’s solo albums, Rock’n’Roll, in 1975?
KW: The incident in question takes on a certain poignancy for both parties, given Lennon’s senseless murder involving a handgun and Spector’s murder conviction many years later. During the initial October 1973 recording sessions for the Rock’n’Roll LP, both the artist and the producer were drinking heavily. At one point, as the album seemed to be losing its bearings, Spector fired a handgun into the ceiling in order to get everyone’s attention—and he succeeded, of course. Lennon famously remarked, “Phil, if you’re gonna kill me, kill me. But don’t fuck with me ears, I need ‘em.” The album went on hiatus for a year as Lennon moved on to the Walls and Bridges project. In the meantime, things got even stranger when Spector absconded with the master tapes for the Rock’n’Roll LP, only to return them several months later after recovering from a car accident that left him briefly in a coma.
CG: That’s a legendary episode in post-Beatles history in and of itself, but Lennon doesn’t seem to have held a grudge against Spector. McCartney, however, was still piqued enough, three decades later, by what Spector had done to Let It Be that he decided to issue his own version of the album, Let It Be . . . Naked, which strips away the orchestrations Spector had added and provides a cleaner version of the original recording. But is Let It Be . . . Naked fundamentally different from Let It Be, or should we view it as a sort of snapshot, a work-in-progress that provides hints of what the band might have achieved with the Get Back project, had the circumstances been different in 1969?
KW: In retrospect, all three are amazing snapshots in and of themselves. The original album, Get Back, which was to be produced by Glyn Johns, finds the group trying create a raw musical experience, while Let It Be is Spector’s work-for-hire rendition. And then you have the unvarnished, although far more professional and slickly created Let It Be . . . Naked. Because of the nature of its purpose, Let It Be . . . Naked may be the closest thing we could have to the original artistic vision, albeit after two members were already deceased. In contrast with the intentionality of The White Album, though, we must live with the fact that the Get Back/Let It Be project will always be an uncertain, corrupted text. At the same time, though, it is still a magnificent one.
CG: Well, with that in mind, if we view Sgt. Pepper’s as the pinnacle of what the Beatles were able to achieve as a band and consider Abbey Road to be the Beatles’ swan song, what exactly is Let It Be’s place in the Beatles’ canon?
KW: I think that the Get Back/Let It Be project will always be a kind of way station. It represents a certain juncture in their journey that is indispensable yet impossible to fully grasp or interpret. It really defies those aspects that are so much easier to behold with Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, The White Album, and Abbey Road. It is truly anomalous in that fashion. As I suggested earlier, I also think that it is their greatest triumph as a band—the way they came back from the dead throughout that torturous month of January 1969 only to knock off a spate of classic songs. Who else can do that? And so spectacularly?
CG: Ken, what’s your favorite track from Let It Be?
KW: How about I answer it like this? For the 1970 Spectorized version, I am an enormous fan of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which is a masterwork in my book. The musicianship is sharp, the musical dialogue is unforgettable, and the middle-eight—with Paul screaming his way into oblivion—is otherworldly. For Let It Be . . . Naked, I would have to go with Lennon’s ethereal version of “Across the Universe.” It is one of the most exquisitely natural and unmediated versions of his voice, and it is pure, unadorned beauty to my ears.
If I might turn the tables here, what’s your standout track from Let It Be, Chad?
CG: “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Across the Universe” definitely get two of the top three spots for my best Let It Be tracks, but I would have to go with “Get Back” as my number one. I love the melding of the old and the new in “Get Back,” which seems to combine the best strains of 1960s rock and roll with that emerging trend of “funkiness” that would dominate music in the 1970s. There’s a universal story in the lyrics of “Get Back” too, and the slight ambiguity there appeals to me—it calls to mind Lennon and McCartney’s best moments of creative interplay, the sort of feedback that created songs like the insufferably lovable “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
KW: “Get Back” is indeed a perfect case in point about the greatness that lives, in spite of everything else, at the heart of the Get Back project. Over the course of 17 days in January 1969, the Beatles rehearsed some 59 iterations of “Get Back.” In so doing, they slogged through a seemingly endless parade of false starts and bouts of sloppy instrumentation on the way to perfecting its distinctive galloping groove.
It started when McCartney toyed with the bass riff that drives Lulu’s “I’m a Tiger”; then he borrowed a portion of the song’s lyrics from Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea,” one of May 1968’s Esher demos in which George sings, “Get back to the place you should be.” An earlier version of “Get Back” witnessed McCartney indulging in a comparatively rare moment of political satire. On January 9, Lennon and McCartney had improvised a number entitled “Commonwealth” in which they derided the Conservative party’s repatriation movement to limit the sudden influx of thousands of Indian and Pakistani immigrants who had been denied the right to work in Kenya. But within a few days, “Get Back” took a decidedly different, more playful turn. Originally known as Joe and Teresa, McCartney’s quirky “Get Back” characters eventually morphed into pot-smoking Jo-Jo and Sweet Loretta Martin, an enigmatic drag queen. Ultimately, what makes the song work is the sheer time that the band devoted to allowing it to develop organically. And the result is a classic for the ages.
CG: In addition to the other books you’ve written about the Beatles, you have a new one coming out next year, The Beatles Encyclopedia. Can you tell us something about it?
KW: It’s entitled The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. It will be two volumes and nearly half a million words. And I’ll tell you what—it’s been like climbing the mountaintop all over again to capture the Beatles’ lives and works from their inception through the present. The challenge has been to illustrate the vital information and accomplishments associated with their collective and solo careers in such a relatively limited space, all things considered. I’m very proud of the result, especially in terms of the attention that I also afford to their post-Beatles work. As time passes, everything is being sucked into the vortex—whether it’s Revolver or Band On The Run or the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album. At this point, it all transmogrifies into the Beatles’ all-encompassing story.
CG: And you also have a novel that is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin University Press in the fall.
KW: My third novel, Playing the Angel, takes place in Katrina-era New Orleans and traces the story of Tiff Proulx, who works as a living statue, posing as the Statue of Liberty for the French Quarter’s tourist trade. By night, she descends into the darkness costumed as the Angel of Mercy, defending and protecting the storm refugees from the thugs who pock the city’s wayward streets.
CG: When can we expect to see The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four and Playing the Angel in bookstores?
KW: The two-volume set of The Beatles Encyclopedia is tentatively scheduled to be released contemporaneously with the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Meanwhile, Playing the Angel should be available on September 1st.
CG: I want to say a sincere thank you, Ken, for having this discussion with me about the Beatles and the Get Back/Let It Be project. It’s been enlightening and entertaining, and I’ve learned a lot; I want to wish you all the best, and I look forward to reading Playing the Angel and The Beatles Encyclopedia when they come out.
KW: Thank you, Chad. This has been a stimulating and thought-provoking conversation indeed!