On a muggy August 8, 2009, hundreds of Beatles fans trudged across the famous zebra crossing in London’s St. John’s Wood to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of Abbey Road. The best-selling UK album of 1969 and the fourth US best-seller in 1970 has inspired many such pedestrian efforts.
Ironically, the Beatles’ last record contained many firsts. For instance, the Moog synthesizer takes center stage in Lennon’s celestial track “Because”, giving it an ethereal sheen. Minimalistic notes back up celestial harmonies that recall those of the Beach Boys. The Moog also embellishes the cynical “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and Harrison’s dreamy “Here Comes the Sun” (which he composed in friend Eric Clapton’s garden). In many ways, Harrison had outdone himself here as both singer-songwriter and instrumentalist. We’re also treated to another Harrison masterstroke—“Something”—inspired by first wife Patti. The introductory line, “something in the way she moves” was snatched wholesale from James Taylor, but the combination of the simple progression using a major seventh chord as a base against heart-felt lyrics like “don’t want to leave her now, you know I believe and how” followed by a memorable instrumental hook made this an instant classic. Even Frank Sinatra claimed that it was one of the best love songs ever written.
“Abbey Road”—recorded on an eight-track as opposed to the standard four-track the boys had employed on previous albums—allowed for previously unsung talents. “The End” featured Starr’s only Beatles-era drum solo, and that track’s guitar solo was divided equally by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon: each took two bars and then repeated the sequence. Starr also got a shot at singing his own whimsy, “Octopus’s Garden”, which he penned on a trip to Sardinia.
McCartney pulled references from Thomas Dekker’s 17th century song “Golden Slumbers” and wraps soft chords around the ballad’s dreamy message “once there was a way to get back homeward, once there was a way to get back home, please, pretty darling, do not cry and I will sing a lullaby…”. This song is just one example of the synthesis achieved in this landmark album. Classical ideas merge with modern, and magic ensues.
We see the other side of McCartney here as well. Not just satisfied exploring a bed-time ballad, he switches to feature his flexible range and rough-hewn blues-tinged voice on “Oh, Darling”. “When you told me, you wouldn’t need me anymore,” he moans and his voice has the texture of sandpaper against rusted wrought-iron. But, in “You Never Give Me Your Money” he serenades us once more against broken-chorded piano. Though it’s said that McCartney wrote this to antagonize Lennon—they were encountering legal battles—when he mentions “you only give me your funny papers”, the vocals are tender and belie that image. It’s not until the words “out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent” that he roughs up again. Then the delicate melody subtly sneaks into subsequent orchestral tracks—a leitmotif reminiscent of an operatic aria.
Lennon also gets to stretch his range. In the nearly eight-minute-long “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”, he pits raw vocals against a progressive and repetitive rock riff and the results are catastrophic emotional bliss. It feels glorious to have Lennon all to yourself for such a length of time. In less expert hands, this mix might have been monotonous, but there’s enough variety in Lennon’s phrasing and in the guitar work that what you really feel is a hypnotic euphoria. The Moog reappears to create a “white-noise” effect and the tune concludes with an apocalyptic jolt.
Lennon makes me laugh sputtering non-sensical phrases with wry mocking delivery in “Come Together”. “He got feet down below his knees, got to be good looking, he just do what he please.” Not since “I Am the Walrus” has wordplay like this delighted our senses. In addition, the production is jangly, catchy and clean. The whoosh of voices before a hollow ostinato completes the package.
The harmonically lush “Sun King” includes a splash of Italian phrases—again that synthesis of classic with fresh. The grand finale is a medley including “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—a true story written about a fan who climbed into McCartney’s home—and the kitschy, slowly evolving “Mean Mr. Mustard” and quasi-punk “Polythene Pam” are like microcosmic character sketches.
There is nothing predictable on “Abbey Road”; it feels like each piece has a ghost or skeleton underneath its surface just waiting to be excavated. Of course, your mood will dictate which cut is most moving or enjoyable, but I love the quick pace and energy here. I also like knowing that if I’m in the mood for Lennon I won’t get half-assed, thrown together Lennon. I’ll hear his primal scream and I’ll hear McCartney’s unabashed truthfulness. There’s really nothing missing in this album. The lyrics are evocative and often comical. Heavy blues, rock, punk, ballads, ditties—they all cross paths. There are no primadonas here, either—each Beatle is succinctly represented and has the opportunity to star. Yet, in navigating that famous crossing at Abbey Rd, these four young men would no longer hold hands and look both ways. Each would go straight ahead.