The Records, Day Five: 1970 and Beyond

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

Abbey Road take two

Abbey Road (1969)

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.

Lisa Torem

1962 – 1966 (a.k.a. The Red Album)

1962 – 1966 (a.k.a. The Red Album) (1973)

I like to call “The Red Album” the angst-free Beatles.

It’s not that the Beatles were completely carefree during 1962-66, the period covered on the album. They were dealing with all of the problems that come with love, business, drugs and unprecedented fame. But the songs presented here capture the period before love, business, drugs and unprecedented fame began to tear the band apart.

The album and its companion, “The Blue Album” that covers the band’s greatest hits from 1967-1970, were released in 1973 — three years after the group broke up. But listening to “The Red Album”, it’s easy to pretend that the Beatles are still together and that fans are only a tour away from seeing the band perform live in their hometown.

In addition to angst-free Beatles, “The Red Album” also lacks any of the classic rock ‘n’ roll cover songs that played a such prominent role in the group’s early days. Any energy the album lost by leaving “Twist and Shout” on the cutting room floor is more than made up for by the chance to listen to John Lennon and Paul McCartney evolve as songwriters — and the band evolve musically — without the work of other artists getting in the way.

In the beginning, it was all about simplicity. There is no complicated mythology behind songs like “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do”. The songs are credited to Lennon and McCartney and the words and music were true collaborations between the two. The songs are personal only to the point that they are universal — after, all what guy doesn’t want to hold his crush’s hand? The Beatles’ early work is all about clever wordplay, just-right guitar chords and throwaway lyrics becoming words that stick with you for days because the three voices singing them sound so right together (Sorry Ringo.)

It makes perfect sense that the first half of “The Red Album” ends with “Yesterday”. Though lyrically straightforward, the song is worlds away from those that come before it on this album. It was written solely by McCartney and he is the only member of the group to appear in the recording. “Yesterday” is a prediction of the group’s future. It represents the point where there was no longer any question of the Beatles’ success being about the right group coming along at the right time with the right haircut. This is when the band began to elevate itself to the next level. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that “Yesterday” is my least favorite Beatles song. I skip it every time I listen to Help. But I listened to it over and over as part of “The Red Album” and there’s no doubt in my mind that it belongs there.)

The album’s latter half contains a few tastes of the early Beatles including “Help” and “Day Tripper”. They fit here — but as stark contrasts to the more complex, experimental work the group began to embrace. Although “Norwegian Wood” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” are credited to Lennon/McCartney, there is no question that they are Lennon songs. The reverse is true for “Eleanor Rigby” and “Michelle” — officially, the songs are collaborations but clearly belong to McCartney. Lennon was the outspoken controversial face of the Beatles and his songs are equally in your face; he makes no effort to hide his feelings. McCartney was always more of an enigma. So too, are his songs. You’ve got to dig behind layers of made-up personas to find allusions to real life. But these songs are also the beginning of the end, the point where the band stopped being about collaboration and started being about three members working to give the fourth what he wanted.

The end of “The Red Album” also marks the end of the Beatles as a touring band. Their final tour began in August 1966, a week before the release of Revolver, which includes “Yellow Submarine,” the last song on “The Red Album”. The group could play “Yellow Submarine” live — but it could never sound the way it does in the recording, as if the band were actually playing inside what the song eventually became, a psychedelic cartoon.

The only thing that isn’t timeless about “The Red Album” is the concept. When the album was first released in the 1970s there were only two ways to get a greatest hits compilation — buy the one released by the band or spend days holed up in a room outfitted with the right recording equipment. Now any music fan can create his or her own greatest hits mix CD in seconds; witness this essay, which was written to the accompaniment of a “Red Album” iTunes playlist that took less than five minutes to create. In about one hour, The Red Album tells the story of the Beatles’ rise to fame. It’s a tale worth playing straight through.

Rachel Kipp

1967-1970 (a.k.a. The Blue Album)

1967-1970 (a.k.a. The Blue Album) (1973)

For You, Blue. Let us not forget, it’s the “Blue Album”. Before it was the cassette, the eight-track, CD or digital download, it was a record, played on things called record players. And those records came inside of environmentally unfriendly covers that, for the most part, served the purpose later appropriated by magazines, music videos and online lyrics searches.

Talking about listening to music on antiquated machines probably sounds as old fashioned, today, as the idea of people watching silent movies with sub-titles did to kids like me, almost exactly 30 years ago. Of course, when I first put my impressionable paws on this artifact (a used copy procured from a classmate’s older brother who sold it to me for five bucks, a deal only slightly less spectacular, in my eyes, than the Louisiana Purchase), the Beatles had been broken up for less than ten years. Put another way, I got this album into my life at a time when many people still held out hope that the Fab Four might one day reunite. This quixotic fantasy got permanently put to rest when John Lennon was murdered in December of 1980.

Look at it. Even now, that cover shot is revelatory, poignant, perfect. That is the best band of all time at the very height of their superhuman powers (even if, unbeknownst to the outside world the group was already in the accelerated process of imploding). That image is a picture worth a thousand — or a million — words if ever there was one: a passage of time (artistically, creatively, personally) that covered epochs as opposed to years. Even a nine year old could see, clearly, how much had changed. The music bears this out, naturally, in ways that words and images can scarcely begin to convey.

Still, the fact that the mop-tops caused controversy in the early ‘60s (look at the back cover) indicates how much fashion, and the world, had changed by the late ‘60s (look at the front cover). At the beginning and toward the end, the Beatles did many things first and more often than not, they did them best. Even when things didn’t go according to plan, the stars always aligned in unbelievable ways for this band. Consider the cover: that picture was intended to be used for the work-in-progress called Get Back; by the time it was finally finished (and renamed Let It Be) another set of images were utilized. This had particular resonance for fans in the U.S., since the band’s first album Please Please Me was not released stateside until its reincarnation as a compact disc in 1987. Therefore, the cover image “borrowed” for the Red Album was always the proper choice, and it was oddly disappointing to discover the correct chronology. (In hindsight it would have been remarkable to have the same pose at the same location bookending the beginning and end of the Beatles’ career, but that’s what the Red and Blue albums were for!)

And, it should be pointed out that, strictly speaking, there is no Blue Album (or Red Album) just as there is no White Album: in fact, each of the releases is entitled The Beatles with the red one signifying the years 1962-1966 and the blue one 1967-1970. But these monikers had less to do with the album covers and more to do with the fact that the actual LPs were blue and red, respectively. And that, my friends, was about as cool as it got for burgeoning Beatles fanatics. Suffice it to say, we had a lot of time on our hands during those pre-MTV and Internet days.

Listen to it. The first thing you might notice is that it’s not a flawless selection of songs, all things considered. But therein lies the difficulty masterminding a compilation that dares to represent the Beatles. Everyone who hears this album will quickly point out songs inexplicably left off (“You Never Give Me Your Money”!) or ones improbably included (“Octopus’s Garden”?), but in the final analysis, the Blue Album (along with the Red Album) remains difficult to criticize. In terms of turning on casual fans to the myriad riches recorded at Abbey Road, these documents deliver the goods, and entice the intrigued to seek out the source material. Also, these albums first came out in 1973, so they were essentially the first official crack at a “greatest hits” type compilation. Covering the hits and the songs that were important and/or influential is the most reasonable way to go. Besides, part of being a fan is thinking up (and ceaselessly revising) your own selections of essential tracks.

1967-1970. That’s it. That’s all the time it took for the Beatles to not merely change music, but create art that remains, in many ways, incomparable. The ocean they crossed in between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is difficult to describe; the universe they travelled from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to “Her Majesty” remains one of the creative miracles of the 20th Century. Taken as a single document presenting this evolution, the Blue Album is a holy grail of sorts.

The Beatles took a quantum leap with Rubber Soul (1965) and then doubled down with the sublime innovation of Revolver (1966). Quite simply, the biggest band in the world was recreating the world in its image and they were untouchable. And then Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys dropped Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney, steadily asserting himself as the group’s prime mover, was equal parts impressed and intimidated. Everyone knows what happened next. But before Sgt. Pepper helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, the Beatles released what is arguably the most transcendent single of all time.

Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

That these two songs commence the proceedings is appropriate and symbolic. From there it’s an obligatory round-up of Sgt. Pepper highlights and tracks found on Magical Mystery Tour. Then, the three singles released prior to The White Album: McCartney’s delightful Fats Domino-inspired “Lady Madonna”, and the band’s blistering take on Lennon’s “Revolution” (which, of course, would resurface in mellow and riotous incarnations on the next album). And then there is that little song called “Hey Jude”. Taken in context, as merely another masterpiece, it is easier (and perhaps more intimidating) to consider how incredible the Beatles were circa 1968. “I Am the Walrus”, “Hello Goodbye”, “Hey Jude”, “Revolution”… just another day at the office.

Going forward, even as John and Paul’s working relationship grew increasingly strained, the two were always able to improve one another’s work. After a few relatively “safe” (or accessible) songs from The White Album there is another block of transitional singles. “Don’t Let Me Down”, which never made it onto Let It Be (but did make the cut for 2003’s Let It Be… Naked release) and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the group’s last number one single in the UK (two songs that were available only on the Blue Album or the Hey Jude singles collection until the 1987 release of the CD Past Masters Volume 2). Both of these songs are very personal compositions written entirely by Lennon, but they each feature significant contributions from McCartney. Mac’s harmonizing (and screeches toward the end) on “Don’t Let Me Down” manage to augment the urgency and elevate it to the level what amounts to a desperate celebration — or a celebratory desperation if you like. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a song that would be witty, hilarious and moving (i.e., a typical Lennon song), but is kicked up several notches thanks to McCartney’s contributions. In addition to harmony vocals and his usual bass duties, Mac turns in a more than respectable performance on drums, and his ebullient piano flourishes practically turn the song into the equivalent of a smile. That the two estranged superstars, in a flash of inspiration recorded a hit single (about Yoko Ono!) as a duo on a random afternoon is just one excellent example of what truly sets this band above and beyond.

Even the so-called “quiet Beatle” gets his props courtesy of four songs on sides three and four. Needless to say, this representation of George Harrison’s work echoes his escalating confidence as a composer (and subsequent frustration regarding his unshakable secondary status — another important factor that helped hasten the band’s inevitable dissolution). The rest of the album features familiar tracks from the final two albums (and since Let It Be was released after Abbey Road there is a certain symmetry in putting those songs last — and hearing the then-unreleased single versions of “Let It Be” and “Get Back” helps one appreciate the unsterilized versions even more). Then, all of a sudden, it’s 1970.

The Blue Album then, was never intended to supplant or steal thunder from the band’s amazing catalog. It was — and remains? — an ideal introduction to the most productive four-year span in pop music history. It is remembered — and appreciated — as a sacred relic from a less complicated time. Its front and back signify the before and after shots of ancient history and an unimaginable future. It is a reminder that the mysterious, magical tour might not have lasted forever, but the music will.

Sean Murphy

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