By Gillian G. Gaar
It is safe to say that nearly every Beatles record could be a five star-album. “A Hard Day’s Night” is unparalleled pop; “Revolver” has the group’s talents honed to a fine edge; “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) is a veritable feast of different musical styles. But “Abbey Road” proved to be a work of exceptional craftsmanship.
It was also The Beatles’ swan song; though released before “Let It Be,” it was actually the last Beatles album to be recorded. Though the group had nearly split up in January 1969 while working on the “back-to-roots” venture then titled “Get Back” (later “Let It Be”), by April, the band was back in the studio, where they worked steadily through August. Ironically, though there were numerous occasions when less than four Beatles were at a session, they sounded more like a group than they had since the halcyon days of 1967.
The album had a different character in those pre-CD days. Side One was a straightforward collection of six songs, with each Beatle getting at least one vocal turn (McCartney and John Lennon got two each), with Side Two, the “concept” side, where the first two songs are followed by two extended medleys. In essence, The Beatles were showing where they were at present on Side One, and where they might’ve gone on Side Two, had the group stayed together.
Like “Sgt. Pepper,” “Abbey Road” is an album dominated by Paul McCartney’s aesthetic sensibility — mostly on Side Two — but with less of his whimsy. The most whimsical, of course, was “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a light-hearted ditty that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Sgt. Pepper.” McCartney gave the song some bite by making his tale of a merry murderer a decidedly black-humored one, though the endless retakes nonetheless tried the patience of the other Fabs (you can see some of this discomfort in the film “Let It Be”).
But on the record, “Maxwell” was followed by “Oh! Darling,” with McCartney unfurling the rock ’n’ roll screamer voice he’d displayed to such good effect on “Long Tall Sally” and “Helter Skelter,” a smart retort to those who might have written him off as a lightweight. McCartney sang the song for days in order to get the just right degree of roughness in his voice, and it paid off with one of his most powerful vocal performances.
George Harrison came into his own as a composer on “Abbey Road,” with the songs he contributed to the album rightly considered among his best work (though it’s a bit ironic that the opening line of “Something” was pinched from another song — James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves,” released in 1968 on Taylor’s self-titled debut for Apple Records.
Harrison’s natural pensiveness resulted in a number that, while melodically beautiful, expressed a surprising amount of doubt in what was ostensibly a love song (primarily in the bridge, which bluntly states “You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know”).
Conversely, there was nothing hesitant in “Here Comes The Sun;” instead, Harrison’s repeated affirmation “It’s all right” beautifully complements another sparkling melody.
For his part, John Lennon was thoroughly caught up in his relationship with his new wife, Yoko Ono, who inspired much of his work during this period. The album’s opening track, “Come Together,” had started out as a possible campaign song for LSD advocate Timothy Leary. But when legal problems thwarted Leary’s would-be political career, Lennon transformed it into a funky slice of free association, kicking off with a few lines from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” (which eventually landed him in legal hot water with that song’s publishers), and references to “Ono sideboard” and “Bag Productions,” a company he’d co-founded with Ono. The Beatles weren’t known as a blues band, but this track showed they were more than capable of getting down.
But whereas “Come Together” indulged in playful wordplay, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” was stark in its simplicity, consisting mainly of variations on the phrase “I want you,” which Lennon delivered with increasing force throughout the number. The intensity inexorably rises as white noise begins to swirl, eventually engulfing the song until it abruptly shuts off. No other track in The Beatles’ catalogue is as punishing. “Because” was nearly as lyrically minimal, but is especially notable for its intricate three-part harmonies. The song is now used to open the show “Love” in Las Vegas, where it provides a suitably breathtaking beginning.
Most of Side Two came together under McCartney and producer George Martin’s influence, cobbling together bits and pieces to create a work that was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
McCartney’s wistful “You Never Give Me Your Money,” inspired by The Beatles’ business problems, leads directly into Lennon’s atmospheric (if lyrically nonsensical) “Sun King,” then introduces some typically Lennonesque characters, the unsavory “Mean Mr. Mustard” and the slightly kinky “Polythene Pam.” McCartney’s given the last word in “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” inspired by a break-in at his London home. The fun of the piece is in hearing how well the disparate sequences come together.
“Golden Slumbers”/“Carry That Weight”/“The End” clearly envisions the looming breakup of The Beatles: the realization that you can’t go home again, coupled with the responsibility of carrying a legacy that’s destined to live on. The “last hurrah” atmosphere is further heightened by Starr’s drum solo — the only time he so indulged himself — followed by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon battling it out on their guitars. But after a closing line seemingly summing up the group’s philosophy (“And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love you make”), there’s a final joke when the cheeky “Her Majesty” bursts forth unexpectedly from the speakers. It was another fortuitous accident, like the feedback during a session that ended up opening “I Feel Fine.” The snippet had originally appeared between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” but was removed and spliced on the end of the tape reel for side two; McCartney decided he liked it there, and left it in.
Overall, it’s a consummate Beatles album — fine musicianship, superlative vocals, expert harmonizing, a monumental leap from the “Please Please Me” album, recorded a mere six years before. And that’s the most tantalizing aspect of “Abbey Road” — who knows how far the group might have progressed in another six years? But it also reveals why the band broke apart, with Lennon’s work becoming increasingly personal in contrast to McCartney’s more objective third-person stance (and his unerring facility with melody), and Harrison finally able to break free from standing in the shadow of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Their talents were exceeding the limitations of the group format; in hindsight, it was the group’s very success that broke up The Beatles.
But “Abbey Road” also shows that even at a time when their personal relationships were fracturing, when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr dedicated themselves to working with — not against — each other, they were still capable of creating magic.
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