Music

The Records, Day Five: 1970 and Beyond

And, in the end... With the release of Abbey Road, the Beatles ceased to be a band. They became, forever more, an idea: the go-to example, the archetype, of the rock'n'roll group. How do we remember the Beatles? How do we pay tribute?

Abbey Road (1969)

In the United States, Abbey Road has sold more copies than any of the Beatles' studio albums. Worldwide, only Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has sold more. When the Beatles' remastered albums were released in September 2009, Abbey Road was again the top-selling individual album.

Why?

Abbey Road rarely gets mentioned when the subject is the best Beatles album. Sgt. Pepper and Revolver usually slug it out for that title, with The Beatles the only other album in the conversation. Relatively few of the most hardcore Beatles fans will name Abbey Road as their favorite.

What gives?

Here's one theory. For the causal Beatles fan, and most of the hundreds of millions of people who have bought their records fall into that category, Abbey Road is the favored album. It's the easiest to like, and arguably the one that comes with the fewest hang-ups. It's not "old school", or dated in the way the pre-Rubber Soul Beatles records can sound. Yet, it's full of the unbridled and relatively uncomplicated passion that can make those early songs such a thrill. Nor is Abbey Road an album, like Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour, where studio experimentation runs neck-and-neck with the pure act of making and recording music. Still, it is rife with the boldness, adventurousness, and meticulous production that made those "psychedelic" albums so groundbreaking. If Abbey Road is not the greatest Beatles album of all, perhaps it is the quintessential Beatles album. If one's to get an idea of what the band was all about, what they were capable of, what they valued, it's a great place to start. Also, it has some killer tunes. But more on that later.

The Beatles was, for all its greatness, less a "Beatles the Group" album than a brilliant compilation of solo works recorded with the world's best session band. It was about establishing individual boundaries and personalities. Get Back, recorded immediately prior to Abbey Road, was an all-too-deliberate, ill-fated shotgun wedding between a super-famous, super-successful supergroup and its innocent, even naïve, past. You could argue, though, that Abbey Road is the band's first post-Beatlemania album without an explicit or implicit agenda. It's not trying to do anything other than be a good Beatles album. And, after years' worth of work with each other in the studio, the Beatles were nothing if not good. They were great, they knew it, and they gave themselves an opportunity to show it. If they weren't free of distractions -- and a pregnant Yoko Ono being wheeled into the studio mid-session on a full-sized bed left no question about that -- they were able to suppress those distractions more effectively than they had in years, and get to the business of making music. Abbey Road is the most focused of Beatles records. The focus and intent provides the album with its own aura.

Then there's the matter of finality. Abbey Road was released on September 26, 1969, in the UK, and five days later in the U.S. Not six months after that, Paul McCartney made the Beatles' split public. With this perspective, knowing this was that last music these four men would make together, Abbey Road takes on an additional emotional attachment. The last time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr ever sat together in Abbey Road studios, it was to listen to a playback of Abbey Road. The last bit of music they likely heard together was "The End" followed by the shard that was "Her Majesty". Everyone knows it now. Did the Beatles know it at the time? Most everyone involved has said that, while nothing had been decided, the general feeling was this was indeed the end.

It would be easy, and satisfying, to make a comparison between this record and a couple who have incredible sex after they've already split. To say that everyone simply came together, put on brave faces, and went to it like they did in 1963. But Abbey Road was not recorded that way. John Lennon, not surprisingly, did not like the idea of the "Long Medley", as it came to be known, which was mooted by Paul McCartney and George Martin. Lennon had little interested in such a deliberate, theatrical exercise. He was interested in from-the-gut, spur-of-the-moment rock'n'roll, and initially demanded that his songs and McCartney's each be segregated on separate album sides.

Though Abbey Road does come across as much more a group effort than The Beatles, none of the songwriting was collaborative, and Lennon is entirely absent from "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "Here Comes the Sun", and "Golden Slumbers", and adds only a backing vocal to "Carry That Weight". Lennon did miss studio time due to hospitalization following a car accident. Still, that the rest of the Beatles went on ahead, and that he didn't add any overdubs, is a telling sign of the band's working method at the time. Yet, on Abbey Road the two principal songwriters complement each other more effectively than they had done since the Sgt. Pepper days. On the "Long Medley" alone, Lennon's absurdist-yet-hypnotic "Sun King" and biting, ramshackle "Mean Mister Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" are enough counterpoint to keep McCartney's dramatic tendencies, and their attendant orchestrations, from floating off to Never-Never Land. Instead, the entire sequence is given a strange, almost ethereal poignancy.

Just as it re-enforces the songwriting stereotypes of Lennon and McCartney, Abbey Road also shatters them. Lennon's "Because" is one of the softest, gentlest pieces the Beatles ever recorded, and features their most gorgeous multi-part harmonies as well. McCartney's "Oh Darling" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" evince a toughness and respect for rock'n'roll traditionalism that dated back to the band's Hamburg days.

Then there's the matter of the playing and production. On Abbey Road, both are so strong, so airtight, that the album has maintained its reputation despite containing, in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus' Garden", two of the Beatles' least substantial songs ever. No one has ever accused the Beatles of being funky, but "Come Together" is the closest they came. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", and especially its apocalyptic coda, remains, after 40 years, one of the hardest, heaviest, most uncompromising pieces of rock music ever put to tape. Crucially, the band's musical peak also coincided with George Harrison's complete maturity as a songwriter. "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" not only give Abbey Road its two most timeless tunes, they also give it its heart and optimism.

Even if you're not swayed by the songs, the musicianship on display warrants -- no, demands -- listen after listen after listen. Striking guitar arpeggios abound. McCartney's bass truly takes on a life of its own, shuddering through "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and literally lifting "Here Comes the Sun". And Ringo Starr, historically noted more for his steady beat-keeping and idiosyncratic, teetering fills than his technical proficiency, simply rips it up, from his pitter-patter/hi-hat embellishments on "Come Together" to his punishing solo on "The End", possibly the only essential drum solo in recorded rock history. Ever the innovators, the Beatles on Abbey Road were among the first musicians to make use of the Moog synthesizer, for the most part doing so with a deft touch.

Maybe all the sales for Abbey Road are, in a sense, the fans' way of showing gratitude. Gratitude for the fact that, under excruciating circumstances and unfathomable pressure, for at least a few months in 1969, the Beatles could still be the Beatles everyone loved, for all the reasons everyone had ever loved them. Despite the odds. Despite, as was soon all-too-evident, the Beatles themselves.

John Bergstrom

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