By John Wisniewski
Kenneth Womack is a world-renowned authority on the Beatles and their enduring cultural influence. His latest book project involves a two-volume, full-length biography devoted to famed Beatles producer Sir George Martin. Forthcoming in 2017, the first book in the series will be entitled Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966).
Ken’s Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles (2007) and The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (2009), which was named as The Independent’s “Music Book of the Year.” In 2014, Ken published The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the group’s legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ken’s books about the Beatles are included in the permanent collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives. Ken is also the author of three award-winning novels, including John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel (2010), The Restaurant at the End of the World (2012), and Playing the Angel (2013).
Ken is Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, where he also serves as Professor of English. He is Editor of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory, published by Penn State University Press, and Co-Editor of the English Association’s prodigious Year’s Work in English Studies, published by Oxford University Press.
John Wisniewski: How much and what kind of research went into compiling ‘The Beatles Encyclopedia,’ and how long did it take?
Dr. Kenneth Wommack: As you might imagine, composing the Encyclopedia took many years. The original version was close to 1 million words, as one might expect with a story as vast and detailed as the Beatles’ lives and work. In truth, I have been preparing to write this kind of work my entire life, having read and studied the band from age 12 to the present. In addition to compiling all of the facts and figures associated with the group’s story, writing a book like this one also requires the author to sift through a variety of different interpretations of the Beatles’ history in order to be factually correct. As you might guess, this can be a significant challenge, given the host of competing narratives that exist.
JW: What interests you most about the history of the Beatles?
Dr. KW: I am especially interested in their growth as artists. The idea that they could make the incredible progress from “Love Me Do” through Rubber Soul and Revolver to Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road in the space of just seven years is a source of continual amazement for me. It is an incredible story of hard work and passion that never grows old. But at the same time, I am endlessly astounded by the sheer impossibility of it all. The chances of this particular pop fusion occurring in mid-century Liverpool is off the charts near-impossible. But even still, here we are!
JW: What was the most interesting period in the history of the Beatles for you to write about in this book?
Dr. KW: I am continually fascinated by the mid-period Beatles, when they clearly find their mettle as artists and begin to realize, slowly but surely, that they are engaged in an aesthetic project that is much larger than themselves.
You can see this occurring even as early as Beatles for Sale, when Lennon, in particular, authored such songs as “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser.” These are signal moments in his development as a serious songwriter. As usual, the writerly competition that existed between Lennon and McCartney quickly found Paul rising to the occasion on Help! with “Yesterday” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” It really is an incredible period that sets the stage for later triumphs like Rubber Soul, Revolver, and beyond.
JW: I hear your next Beatles book will be on their producer, George Martin. Can you tell us more about it?
Dr. KW: Ground zero for the Beatles’ artistry certainly finds its origins in their working relationship with Sir George. Their drive and passion inspired him to draw upon his lifetime of thinking about musical production, orchestration, and arrangement. In many ways, the Beatles and Martin were the perfect vehicles for each other. The first book in my study will be entitled Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years, 1926-1966) and will encompass his early years through his 40th birthday in January 1966. It’s a new way of looking at the Beatles’ remarkable story from the vantage point of the very fortunate man who was invariably the primary audience for their groundbreaking work.
JW: What was the Beatles’ relationship like with producer George Martin, and how much do you think he contributed to the sound of their music?
Dr. KW:It was the making of them, and they, in turn, were the making of him. The Beatles’ early experiences with him, when they were essentially a four-piece beat band out of Liverpool, opened up a brave new world for them in the studio and as composers. He challenged them to let their imaginations run free, and their creativity accelerated like never before. He helped them to find ambition and artistry. By November 1962, when he suggested that they do the unthinkable for a minor pop group and make an LP, he had become their driving force. And to think that it was only just the beginning of an incredible odyssey that would take them from one landmark album to another.
Dr. Womack has a new book coming out on the life of Beatle’s producer, Sir George Martin, on Sept. 1. It’s anticipated to be the biggest Beatles book of the year.