By Dave Thompson
Abbey Road is flawless. Lennon may have later claimed that he was wholly opposed to the medley idea, but at the time he was delighted with it.
For he knew, as McCartney did, that it brought a unity to the performance that simply slicing the songs into their composite fragments could never have done. The band sounded like a band again, and it didn’t matter, as McCartney told the London Evening News, that, “We didn’t do harmonies [together] like we used to.”
You wouldn’t know it from listening to the songs, and besides, it wasn’t enmity that provoked that particular divide, as McCartney admitted in that same interview. “I would have liked to sing harmonies with John [on ‘Come Together’], and I think he would have liked me to. But I was too embarrassed to ask him, and I don’t work to the best of my abilities in that situation.”
“Come Together,” one side of the double A-sided new single, was a Lennon composition based solidly on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” and intended as a tribute to Berry himself. The band did try to disguise the similarities; according to McCartney, it was he who transformed a once “very perky little song” into the foreboding, “swampy”-sounding number it became, by taking the bass line as low as it could go.
Berry’s publisher, Morris Levy, however, was not fooled and the ensuing accusations of copyright infringement would ultimately be responsible for Lennon returning to the Berry songbook (among others) a few years later, as he set to work on the Roots album, for release on Levy’s own mail-order label Adam VIII.
The internecine banter continued. Lennon claimed, “‘Oh! Darling’ was a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well. I always thought I could’ve done it better. It was more my style than his.” McCartney responded by raising the possibility that Yoko Ono had a lot more to do with the writing of “Because” than either the traditional Lennon/McCartney credit or the later assignation of the song to John alone ever let on (“it’s straight out of Grapefruit”).
It was the appearance of “Something,” however, that raised the most eyebrows — The Beatles’ included. Nobody knew George had such a song in him, and nobody even complained when Allen Klein declared that it should join Lennon’s “Come Together” as opposing halves of the band’s next double A-sided single. Few people believed Klein’s motives were purely musical; rather, he was clearly simply amplifying the policy of divide and conquer by which he brought three Beatles (Lennon, Harrison and Starr) into his camp and left the other one out in the cold.
But still it was a groundbreaking decision. In the past, John and Paul had guilelessly divided the A- and B-sides between themselves, with McCartney justifying that by insisting, “Until this year, our songs have been better than George’s.” Now, even he had to admit that the Quiet One had come up with a deafening shout, although George, who was sitting beside him throughout this exchange, barely rose to the bait. “Most of the songs this year I wrote last year or the year before. Maybe now I just don’t care whether you are going to like them or not. I just do them.”
“Something” went on to become one of the most covered songs The Beatles ever recorded. Little else on Abbey Road even came close, although the very fact that it was a Beatles record ensured that a handful of contemporary covers, and a slew of subsequent ones, would materialize. Booker T And The MGs even recorded an entire album of Abbey Road cuts, sensibly titled McLemore Avenue, after the studio where they habitually recorded.
More interesting was the critical response to the album. The Beatles themselves were more or less beyond being interviewed formally at this time, and when they were, it was business or personal relations that fascinated their interrogators. Abbey Road, then, was left to fend for itself in the journalistic marketplace, and Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward was by no means a voice in the wilderness when he declared outright, “I don’t much like it.
“Part of the reason can be found, I think, in a comparison of the production techniques used by The Beatles and Stones,” whose Let It Bleed was likewise still a new-ish release. Demolishing both McCartney and Lennon’s dream of creating an album that allowed the band to breathe in and among the technological flourishes, Ward explained, “The Beatles create a sound that could not possibly exist outside of the studio. Electronically altered voices go la la la in chorus, huge orchestras lay down lush textures and the actual instruments played by The Beatles are all but swallowed up in the process.” It was no coincidence, he said, that the album was named after the studio in which it was recorded.
Yet both Lennon and Harrison, in solo concert, would prove the live versatility of at least a handful of the album’s songs, and Ringo has never tired of “Octopus’s Garden.” McCartney was even airing “Carry That Weight” and “The End” as recently as 2003’s Back In The World/Back In The U.S. concert outings, and it was no surprise to discover that the live version of the former was no match whatsoever for the sheer kinetic drive of its studio counterpart. So many Beatles songs are put forward as examples of just how hard they could rock out when they wanted to, but the instrumental passage that drives “Carry That Weight” into “The End” remains the toughest, as no less than three electric guitars duel for supremacy while Starr prepares himself, unwillingly, for his first and only recorded drum solo.
“Solos have never interested me,” he said during the band’s Anthology project. “That drum solo is still the only one I’ve done. There’s the guitar section where the three of them take in the solos and then they thought, ‘We’ll have a drum solo as well.’ I was opposed to it. ‘I don’t want to do no bloody solo.’ George Martin convinced me.”
Nobody regrets it now. The crescendo to which “Carry That Weight” so stupendously builds, each Beatle playing hell for leather for his own moment in the spotlight, is followed first by the gentle au revoir of “The End,” then by a few moments of silence, and then one final goodbye, Paul’s “Her Majesty” floating as a virtual bonus track, uncredited on either sleeve or label, and available only to those listeners who took the time at the end of the album itself to sit and absorb what they’d just been listening to. Everyone else, those impatient souls who lift the needle from the vinyl the moment they think the record is over, missed out on it completely.
And that was Abbey Road, an album that John claimed not to have remembered, but which he also described as “competent”; that Paul said “worked out okay”; and that George remembered “liking and enjoying.”
As for everybody else, the rest of the Beatles-mad world? We played it, we absorbed it and we learned every line. We conducted invisible orchestras and leaped around the bedroom with ghost guitars in our hands. And then we slipped it carefully back into its sleeve and waited for the band’s next LP. We didn’t know, one ratty soundtrack notwithstanding, that there wouldn’t actually be a “next” one.