Exclusive book excerpt: Beatles historian Kenneth Womack details George Harrison’s rise in ‘The Story of Abbey Road’
Acclaimed Beatles historian, Kenneth Womack, is on the verge of releasing what has been described as his “most definitive account yet” in the exploration of the writing, recording, mixing, and reception of Abbey Road.
In his new book, ‘Solid State’ which details ‘The Story of “Abbey Road” and the End of the Beatles’, Womack steps back in time to February 1969 when the Beatles began working on what became their final album together. Abbey Road, the group’s 11th studio album, introduced a number of new techniques and technologies to develop the band’s style but also marked the final time in which all four members worked together in the studio.
In his book, Womack focuses on the relationships between John, Paul, George, Ringo, and producer George Martin and his team of engineers as clear fractions begin to develop. Here, in this exclusive extract handed over exclusively to Far Out Magazine, Womack details a significant moment in which guitarist George Harrison made his biggest songwriting breakthrough and, in the process, shaking up the established band dynamics.
On February 25, 1969, his 26th birthday, George Harrison ventured into EMI Studios to record a trio of demos, including ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘Old Brown Shoe,’ and ‘Something’, with engineer Ken Scott working in the booth. When Harrison had debuted the exquisite ‘Something’ for producer Chris Thomas during The White Album sessions back in September 1968, he had only recently made his first pass at composing the song. “’Something’ was written on the piano while we were making The White Album,” Harrison said. “I had a break while Paul [McCartney] was doing some overdubbing so I went into an empty studio and began to write. That’s really all there is to it, except the middle took some time to sort out.” And that’s when he shared the fledgling song with Thomas. “While George and I were tinkling away on this harpsichord,” Thomas later recalled, “he started playing [a] new song to me, which later turned out to be ‘Something.’ I said, ‘That’s great! Why don’t we do that one instead?’ and he replied, ‘Do you like it, do you really think it’s good?’
Harrison continued tinkering with the tune, playing it for the other Beatles during the January 1969 Get Back sessions. To Harrison’s chagrin, Lennon and McCartney seemed unimpressed with his new love song, as did Martin, who later confessed to finding the composition “too weak and derivative” at that point. During a January 28th session at Apple Studio, Harrison can be heard fine-tuning the lyrics with his mates in tow and happening upon the A-major chord that would perceptibly alter the song’s dynamics. After reciting the composition’s first line—which the songwriter had borrowed in its entirety from the title of Apple recording artist James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves”—Harrison toyed with singing the phrase “attracts me like a pomegranate,” although John Lennon had playfully suggested “like a cauliflower.” After making their way through two performances of ‘Something’, the Beatles set the song aside yet again, leaving the composition’s future in doubt—at least for the moment. As for Taylor, the singer-songwriter took Harrison’s act of lyrical petty theft in stride, later remarking that “I never thought for a second that George intended to do that. I don’t think he intentionally ripped anything off.” Besides, “all music is borrowed from other music.” Years later, Taylor would joke that the final lyric of “Something in the Way She Moves”—“I feel fine”—had been stolen from the Beatles’ chart-topping 1964 single of the same name, so “what goes around comes around.”
Since completing his February 25th demo session, Harrison’s life had been thrown into disarray. On the evening of March 12th (which happened to be Paul and Linda McCartneys’ wedding date), Detective-Sergeant Pilcher struck, claiming to have discovered a block of hashish in Harrison’s Esher home. By month’s end, Harrison and wife Pattie Boyd would receive probation and a black mark on their travel documents for their trouble.
In April 1969, rehearsing with the tape running, the Beatles finally recorded a basic track for ‘Something’ that included Harrison’s electric guitar, McCartney’s bass, Ringo Starr’s drums, and their producer George Martin on piano. For Martin, it must have seemed like a revelation to be playing on a Beatles track again when just scant days earlier he had all but given up on the notion of working with the band in any capacity. At the same time, Martin belatedly began to reconsider his expectations of the Quiet Beatle. Like Lennon and McCartney, the producer had been admittedly too quick to relegate Harrison as a junior member of the band’s songwriting team. Years later, Martin observed that Harrison’s work had “been awfully poor up to then. Some of the stuff he’d written was very boring. The impression is sometimes given that we put him down. I don’t think we ever did that, but possibly we didn’t encourage him enough. He’d write, but we wouldn’t say, ‘What’ve you got then, George?’ We’d say, ‘Oh, you’ve got some more, have you?’ I must say that looking back, it was a bit hard on him. It was always slightly condescending. But it was natural, because the others [i.e., Lennon and McCartney] were so talented.”
By May, the other Beatles had become genuine converts to the quality of Harrison’s ‘Something’, a composition at which they had openly scoffed earlier in the year. McCartney took special notice of ‘Something’, which had emerged as one of the strongest cuts among their current spate of songs. But he also realized that his own controlling nature may have been working against him—and possibly for quite some time. As McCartney recalled, “George’s ‘Something’ was out of left field. It was about [Harrison’s wife] Pattie, and it appealed to me because it has a very beautiful melody and is a really structured song. I thought it was great. I think George thought my bass-playing was a little bit busy. Again, from my side, I was trying to contribute the best I could, but maybe it was his turn to tell me I was too busy.” But still, by McCartney’s reckoning, ‘Something’ was pure joy.
For Harrison, the group’s affirmation had been long overdue, but even still, it was no less satisfying. Starr took special notice of Harrison’s growing currency among the band’s core creative team, though. “George was blossoming as a songwriter,” he later recalled. “With ‘Something’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ are you kidding me? Two of the finest love songs ever written, and they’re really on a par with what John and Paul or anyone else of that time wrote. They’re beautiful songs.”
You can pre-order Kenneth Womack’s book ‘Solid State’ through the following links: USA and UK.