The Beatles aren’t just better than every other band. They’re better than James Joyce, too.
That’s the considered judgment of Kenneth Womack, a Monmouth University professor specializing in 20th century British literature.
“They get better. They have a trajectory that starts down here with Love Me Do, and ends up there with The End. They have that level of growth. That’s the only reason, quite frankly, that I still study them,” Womack told a roomful of Beatles fans Sunday at the Morristown & Township Library.
The group’s musical innovations — achieved in just over seven years as a recording entity, in between grueling concert tours, radio- and TV appearances and movies — remain astonishing a half-century later.
“There was no cultural expectation for them. And yet they make that progress, that trajectory. To me, artistically, that’s fascinating. James Joyce does not do that, and I love James Joyce,” said Womack.
For a fast-paced hour he discussed his two-volume biography of the late producer Sir George Martin, whose studio contributions to the Fab Four should rank him higher than the “Fifth Beatle,” he suggested.
“It doesn’t happen without him,” Womack said of the musical and cultural revolution wrought by four cheeky working-class lads from Liverpool.
Womack knows Beatles trivia the way some people know baseball stats. He has written five books about the band, and pens the blog Everything Fab Four.
His symposium on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles (better known as the White Album) drew 1,000 people last month to Monmouth University, where he is dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The West Long Branch resident also has authored three novels. He holds degrees from Texas A&M University and Northern Illinois University, and he studied Russian language and literature at the Moscow Institute of Communication.
Born in 1966, the year of the Beatles’ ground-breaking Revolver album, Womack was too young to experience Beatlemania. Not so for some in Sunday’s audience.
Mark Camelotto recounted queues stretching from Morristown’s Community Theatre (now the Mayo Performing Arts Center) down Pine Street to Morris Street for hours before screenings of the Beatles’ second film, Help!, in 1965.
Prior to showtime, any movement of the closed curtain in front of the screen sparked screams from girls in the theater. “I didn’t understand it at age 11 or 12,” said Camelotto. But he quickly figured out he had better learn guitar.
WINDING UP THE PIANO
What draws Womack to the saga of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr is their improbable script.
They hailed from a fading shipbuilding city. Numerous music labels rejected them. Their manager, Brian Epstein, failed at everything he tried until finally finding a niche running his family’s record shops.
Producer George Martin was older and preferred making comedy albums. He, too, attempted to brush off the Beatles.
Their Liverpudlian speech reminded Martin of the Cockney accent he had worked so hard to shed during his training as a military officer candidate and classical pianist and oboist.
His origins were even humbler than the band’s; he grew up in London without indoor plumbing or electricity, and devoted considerable effort to cultivating a “posh” image, Womack said.
Their partnership would prove magical. Martin’s classical background enabled him to arrange and orchestrate many of the Beatles’ musical ideas. And he added some now-iconic solos of his own.
Womack shared audio clips of Martin on “wind-up piano”–the producer’s term for intricate solos recorded at half-speed and played back at normal speed in the final mix.
That’s George Martin on piano, accompanied by Harrison on guitar, during the instrumental break in A Hard Day’s Night. The baroque trills on In My Life, the barrel-house middle of Lovely Rita, the honky tonk of Rocky Raccoon, the boogie-woogie in You Never Give Me Your Money–Martin is at the keyboard in each instance.
Although he later produced America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Elton John and solo McCartney, Martin, who died in 2016 at age 90, always will be remembered for helping shape the Beatles sound, from the British invasion to the pivotal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
They are sounds Womack keeps coming back to; his next project is an Abbey Road book. Deconstructing Beatles music is a cottage industry. It’s hard to conceive of other artists inspiring such extensive archaeological digs.
“When you study 20th century British literature, or any other era, the cream of the crop rises to the top. That’s why we study James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, and we don’t study some other people you’ve never heard of,” Womack explained.
“The greats are high culture, and everybody else sort of disappears. The Beatles are the high culture of their discipline. They eclipsed the field. They eclipsed the genre.”
Long before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hatched Apple in a garage, the Beatles disrupted popular culture from EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 2.
“They came at the industry sideways — a failed dramatist-manager guy, a fake-accent producer guy who really knows classical music and doesn’t know rock…and the four Beatles from Liverpool.”
The venture should have flopped. Which is the lesson Womack plans to pass along to his grandchildren about the Beatles:
“They come at it sideways. And great things happen.”