Album released this week in… 1969: The Beatles – Abbey Road
TRAVEL back in time to 1969. The 60s are dying just as the counterculture reaches its zenith with Woodstock. Peace and love are wafting like a bad fart in the air, Nixon is in the White House and the world’s most famous friends are falling apart at the seams. The Beatles were dissolving, dragged under by the weight of John Lennon being a knob, George Harrison wanting to spread his wings, Paul McCartney desperately trying to rally the troops and Ringo being… well, Ringo. After the aborted, back-to-basics ‘Get Back’ sessions that would later lead to Let it Be, the gang sequestered themselves in Abbey Road studios. At each other’s throats, Yoko in the corner, on the verge of imploding, the Beatles wrangled out their (truly) final and greatest album: Abbey Road.
On first glance the album seems rather disjointed. Peppy upbeat ditties like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ share vinyl space with the swirling arpeggios of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. Most of the entire second side is dedicated to a medley of unfinished tunes cobbled together with some stellar production wizardry by George Martin. On paper, it all seems like a hastily pasted-together mess, a desperate measure to salvage the crumbling facade of a band falling into rancour. The initial, decidedly mixed critical reaction would suggest this; Albert Goldman of Life magazine, for instance, disparaged it as “symbolic of the Beatles’ latest phase… round-the-clock production of disposable music effects.”
The reality is thus: Abbey Road sees the Beatles emerge from the self-indulgent experimentation of The White Album, reconciling the simplicity of their pre-Rubber Soul years and the musical complexity of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The result is, against all the odds, their most cohesive and thematically resonant album. It’s an album that highlights not only the finest aspects of songwriting, musicianship and sheer personality of each Beatle, but also the production genius of George Martin, who somehow manages to make every song – and especially the medley – blend naturally into the next as if they were always meant to slot together.
Though the medley was specifically designed to achieve this aim – as an attempt to match Pepper’s thematic consistency and a suitable finale to the Beatles’ career – the rest of the album hits such highs too. The acerbic, cryptic sneer of John’s ‘Come Together’, its simple arrangement prefiguring the viscous fury of his solo Plastic Ono Band, fades away into George’s beautiful ‘Something’, an exquisite, airy ballad. Ringo’s frankly lovely ‘Octopus’ Garden’ floats into John’s hypnotic ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, a song propelled by an arpeggiated riff, pioneering Moog synthesiser and a mantric coda that swirls and swirls in hypnotic rhythms until it abruptly stops – if you’ve ever wondered why, it’s because the tape ran out. There’s the lovely fingerpicked delight of George’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and the stunning vocal harmonies that fuel ‘Because’, backed once again by Moog and arpeggios.
And then there’s the medley. Oh lord, the medley. Perhaps the most perfect 20 minutes of connected music before Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the medley is the encapsulation of all things Beatles. Paul’s ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, a bitter, piano-led remonstration of Brian Epstein replacement Allen Klein dissolves into the laconic ‘Sun King’, a track that drifts lazily on into the peppy ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’. Then there’s the stunning ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘Carry That Weight’, followed by the only Ringo drum solo on record – ‘The End’, a recapitulation of all the themes of the medley into one glorious finale. A finale thoroughly ruined by the pointless, 20-odd-second-long “secret track” ‘Her Majesty’. Dammit, Paul.
Abbey Road is the best Beatles album, no contendre. It’s more consistent than The White Album, more focused than Let it Be and more musically refined than Sgt. Pepper with better songwriting than even Revolver. And how’s about that cover, spawning endless imitations on that bastard pedestrian crossing? But hey; in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, and Paul is dead.