(Before we begin, a little clarification: almost every Beatles fan under the sun likes to consider “Let It Be” to have come before this album because it was recorded first. On the other hand, this album was released first, and the band did record “I Me Mine” from “Let It Be” in 1970… so it was finished later, and therefore Abbey Road comes first for me. Now come at me with your “inauthentic Beatles fan” accusations.)
Abbey Road (released 26 September 1969)
Let us walk across the Abbey Road crossing in silence. Let our minds wander throughout the magnificence of the songs, and in doing so, let us contemplate the fragility of bands. (And then let us get out of the way, because Abbey Road is still a road. It has, like, cars on it. And other Beatle fans.)
It seems that the more a band is trying to hold itself together, the more they are doomed to fail. The sessions which preceded this album were Paul McCartney’s way of trying to get everyone to play as a band again (sigh — Paul and his nostalgia). Unfortunately, he then spoilt it by annoying basically everyone with his obsessive search for “getting a song right”, something which was so stressful, George actually left the group for a week. Eventually Paul realized that it wasn’t working, and they started afresh: leaving aside the material they had recorded (so that they could later milk it for what became Let It Be), the band hunkered down with George Martin breathing down their backs to make them focus. The result — miracle of miracles! — was some some of the best tunes they would ever create.
Sadly, yours were also the last tunes they would ever create as a band: soon after this, John told everyone he was leaving, everyone separated to do their own stuff (like Paul went off to become a total arsehole for the next two years), and aside from congregating to work on Let It Be, they never made new music as a foursome again. And yet… their swan song (recording-wise) is absolutely perfect, a statement of a band on their last legs that cannot be improved upon. Magical Mystery Tour may be my favourite Beatles album, but by God, in terms of musical perfection, it can’t be anything else but you.
Where should I even begin in describing how wonderful you are? Everything is so brilliant in you, that even Ringo’s contributions are stellar. Since I first listened to it two months ago, “Octopus’s Garden” has been one of my favourite Beatle tunes — on the surface, of course, it’s a simple children’s song, fitting Ringo’s image of “cuddly children’s entertainer” from songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”. (One wonders what the other three were trying to do, giving Ringo all the simple, childish songs…)
But this is different: this is Ringo’s song, written when he was on a holiday in Sardinia, trying to get away from all the stressful White Album sessions. Not only was his mind reeling from all the squid he had at lunch (though how he managed to turn “squid” into “octopus”, God only knows), but he was also very stressed from all the not-talking John and Paul and George were doing with each other. So here’s his piece: it’s a lovely, beautiful picture of the undersea world on the surface (piss off, David Attenborough), with all its angelic backing vocals and sound effects; but dig deeper and it’s a cry for the simpler days, when the Beatles weren’t fighting each other. It’s only Ringo’s second song, and yet he’s already managing so well by himself (okay, George helped him on the bridge, but that’s beside the point). When even Ringo can produce such a masterpiece, you know that its parent album is gonna be great.
And indeed you are an album where everyone seems to be pushing for the most awesome music they can ever create — the most complex productions, the most tightly-knit group dynamic, and so on. And yet it’s weird to note that all of these came from the simplest of origins: John’s “Because” features John, Paul AND George singing triple-tracked (so that’s nine voices) in a harmony so complicated that it’s actually hard to tell who’s singing the definitive tune (if there is one). And yet the melody betrays its humble origins: the chords at its basis are those of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played backwards, the melody and lyrics both simple and sparse. That John and co were able to create one of the most harmonically beautiful songs from that simple setup is certainly a testament to how advanced they were in their songwriting at this point, and it feels like I’m soaring like an eagle through the night sky as I’m listening to this. It might have been something from Fantasia.
Speaking of flying: can I talk about the air of expansive optimism that everyone seems to be showing in you? It’s been ages since we’ve heard this attitude before: one might have to head back to Magical Mystery Tour or even Help! to get this sustained sense of happiness, or at least enthusiasm. But that was the happiness of innocence: you bring an additional sense of closure and contentment to the table, like a deep, calming breath one might do before heading out into the unknown. It’s mostly an optimism that isn’t shouted out through the lyrics like some angsty teenager, but through the unstoppable energy that they put into some of the songs.
In the medley, for instance, we have songs like “Polythene Pam” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” (based on a burglary Paul experienced at his home just round the corner: trust him to come up with the weirdest ideas) — pulsing with determined yet measured bursts of energy, driving like a sledgehammer. Then there’s the aforementioned “Because” and “Sun King” — songs which work in the opposite direction, showing off the soft harmonies that the four of them are capable of, filling your mind with expansive images that provide that sense of ease and euphoria that comes with a satisfied, content mind, like when you’re gazing at a calm lake or sleeping your way through this letter. It suggests that finally, the four of them have gotten a pretty good handle on their identity as the biggest stars in the world, and — more importantly — coming to peaceful terms with the legacy it entails as well. This calm enthusiasm seems like an oxymoron, but ALL of the band members demonstrate it well. Lennon, McCartney, Starkey… and especially Harrison.
Oh yeah, George. I believe that this is the first time we’ve ever heard a happy George before: he’s always been the quiet one, the sarcastic one, and since 1966’s Revolver, the annoying preachy one. But having gained the ascendancy after the Let It Be sessions, he is finally happy enough to let his radiance shine brightly. Has anybody reading this letter not heard of or listened to “Here Comes the Sun” before? If not I implore you to listen to it: scratch that, I will literally get down on my knees to BEG you to do so. To go through life without it is not just missing out on one of the most uplifting songs of the planet — it is missing out on the whole ESSENCE of optimism, the whole raison d’etre behind human happiness. It is a light-hearted ode to sunshine, and you can feel the sunbeams shining down on you even as you listen to the song, imagine George bouncing around Eric Clapton’s garden while coming up with the sweet melody that forms the basis of this song, even believe every single word of the lively lyrics. It’s just pure gold to listen to and balm for the soul.
Meanwhile, “Something” deals with his marriage to Pattie Boyd (he says that it’s about his religion, but like we’re gonna believe that), and it’s such a soulful tune that builds up to such an impressive climax, you fall in love with its honesty and simplicity… you almost believe Frank Sinatra when he says that “this is the best love song written by Lennon-McCartney”. (Poor George.) And you know what? It’s frankly quite a relief to know that George was also a person capable of love and warmth, and to know that this quiet young man, who always stood apart from the rest of the pack in terms of music and personality, was in the end human, like the rest of us.
He certainly was a lot more human than Paul McCartney, whose tracks can seem a little cloying at times, even misguided. This is something that one might also append to John at this stage: his “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is basically the title phrase and a few others repeated till you have it burned into your brain, followed by a slow jam — basically, standard John output when he was in a haze. But this is fine, because his is still lovely, passionate music and John at least takes his subject (i.e. Yoko) seriously. But who knows what Paul was thinking when he dashed out “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”…
Okay, so I don’t mean to say that it’s horrid, but this song is definitely his “Run for Your Life” moment. There are many ways to lift people’s moods, but singing about murderers who bash people’s heads in with hammers is emphatically not one of them last I checked. I’ve done black comedy before (I admit, not very well), but this really strays beyond good taste. It’s made worse by the fact that Paul genuinely believes that this is a funny subject and made George and Ringo sing backing vocals for days on end, “just to get the song and his deep thoughts” (yup, seriously) just right. The others got so mad at Paul that John climbed into the booth while the former was doing his take and mooned him — and Paul’s resulting laugh STILL made it onto the track. (Perfection, everybody.) Sadly, it’s also a song which is also very nicely put together and is very catchy: listen to it once or twice and you find yourself, to no small amount of horror, humming the chorus and its cheeky refrain, imagining the hammer coming down on everyone’s head. Thankfully, this bit is more of an anomaly amongst Paul’s songs on you, Abbey Road: I may like “Oh! Darling” the least out of all your songs, but I can’t deny that Paul’s earnest singing does give us a glimpse of the serious, impassioned singer behind all the insolent lyrics.
One last thing of note before we segue our way into the final medley: I haven’t got a concrete thesis for what you’re trying to convey as an album, but you are something of a “call to action”, sort of a unified effort to get it together as a band again. “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” may feel jovial and all, but these are actually the band’s statements: the music conveys the band’s feelings from being cheated out of their earnings, the dismay and anger peeking its head out from underneath the wry smile. However, one need only look at “Come Together” to find the most obvious example. Never one to hide his feelings, the song feels like an invocation, an invitation from John — the self-styled leader of the Beatles — to have one last hurrah before going their separate ways. It does sound like nonsense: John has admitted that he hadn’t the foggiest what the lyrics meant. But even when the Beatles create nonsense, they manage to turn the process into an art form, and with heart and honesty (as the bluesy style, so favoured by John these couple of years, would suggest), it can be cool to listen to, and thanks to all the contributions from all the members — John’s mystic vocals, Paul’s galvanising bass, George’s lively guitar solo and Ringo’s well-calculated drums — it is.
“Come Together” is only the first of many songs where the band fits together like they haven’t for a long time. This hadn’t been the case for God knows how long: as they all matured as musicians (even Ringo) and learnt more about the world, they had their own ideas about music and split apart. But throughout you, we find the band literally striking all the right notes together, as if they wanted to do some things before they disbanded. (I promise that not all the puns are deliberate.) This newfound sense of cohesion is what makes you so good: for the first time in years, they were working together as a band again, pursuing interests which everybody was interested in and not their own, wildly diverse ones. They worked to find the best combo of instruments to get the best effect, and when the four of them tried, boy, they could go places.
And to return to the point I made at the start of this letter: this really does feel final. Because, as we near the end of the album and we listen to Paul’s final trio of songs, we get an unmistakable feeling of finality. “Golden Slumbers” sets the stage nicely, with the drowsy atmosphere letting us feel the resignation that Paul and the others must have been feeling by then, and as they sing in “Carry That Weight”, they’re gonna “carry that weight for a long time”. They celebrate what they’ve achieved thus far, but at the same time, they’re wary that they might never do something on this scale again. The anthemic melody also has an “all together now” feel about it, sending the song higher and higher before exploding into the next song, showcasing all four of their talents: Ringo gets an extended, energetic drum solo, followed by Paul, George and John (in that order) doing their own free jam solos. Suddenly it’s Liverpool in the 1950s: they no longer feel like a band striving to keep itself together, just three musicians trying to outdo each other, keeping up their competitive spirits. And then stop, as we’re left with a simple piano chord (just like “A Day in the Life) and the members declaring that in “The End”, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Cue soaring orchestra and guitars, and the four of them turning and walking off into the sunset, each heading off to their own, separate, destinies, never to work together again.
And if any line has summarized the Beatles’ core message, it’s their last. When they gave out their love to each other, their musical relationship could really, genuinely blossom. This trio of songs, just like you as a whole, is a perfect encapsulation of what their potential as a band had always been, and would forever be: no less than the finest musical talents on Earth, fullstop. So their finest hour was not when they captivated crowds at every live concert, nor was it when they revolutionized the music world with LITERALLY every album they released. It’s you, and it’s beautiful.
P. S. Oh look, and here’s “Her Majesty”… she’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say, so…
Favourite track: This is an album where you go “this is the best song… no, this one… or maybe this one”. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM WORKS. For a very long time, though, I actually wanted Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” to have this spot — but having denied George the title for oh so long, it only feels reasonable to give him some credit by awarding it to his crowning glory, simply because it’s really “Something”.
(Featured image from cover of Abbey Road, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)