Counterbalance No. 20: The Beatles’ 'Abbey Road'
The Beatles once again make their way onto the Acclaimed Music aggregated ranking of the Greatest Albums of All Time with their 1969 tour de force Abbey Road. Halfway through this edition of Counterbalance, Klinger and Mendelsohn realize they can steal but they cannot rob.
Mendelsohn: Abbey Road is a little bittersweet, you know? The end of an era, the final dissolution, a grab bag of whatever they had left over before they went on to lives of obscurity and whatnot.
Klinger: Yeah, whatever happened to those Beatle guys?
Abbey Road is, underneath its sheen, a very sad album. I noticed that a lot as I was listening to it this time. You know what it’s like? It’s like when you’re in a relationship that you know is coming to an end, but you both know that you really owe it to the other person to give it one last shot. So you put on your best clothes and head out to really nice place (maybe that place that used to be so special to you). You order appetizers and a bottle of wine and everything. And the thing is you have a pretty good time. The conversation flows freer than it has in months. You reminisce a little, you share a few secrets, and you even laugh a little about the whole situation. But even so, it’s still over. And you both know it. And nothing’s going to make it any less sad. But you have to go on anyway.
That’s where the Beatles’ heads were at when they made this album. After the carnival of recriminations that was the making of Get Back (eventually released as Let It Be), after they had each come to the conclusion that the dream was over, they decided that they owed it to each other. One last time. They called up George Martin, they sang in perfect harmony, and they made sure that everything—even Ringo’s song—was immaculately produced and arranged. The Lennon-McCartney juggernaut even ceded ground to George Harrison, who contributed two of the very best Beatles songs.
By the time listeners got to the end of the big side two medley, they had to have realized, even back in 1969, that something was up.
So even though I’ve been listening to Abbey Road since 1980, this time it really hit home for some reason. The thought of these guys gathering around to trade guitar lines on “The End” was surprisingly poignant. The three part harmonies on “Because” and “Sun King” were a lot more than just decoration. And all four of them gathering around the microphone—in the studios where they’d changed the face of music several times over—acknowledging the weight of the Beatles was something they’d carry forever? Stunning.
Mendelsohn: It is. Stunning and nuanced from start to finish. Except for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". I don't know what's up with that song. What was Paul trying to say?
Klinger: Paul was clearly trying to say that there is a lighter side to psychopaths hitting you on the head with a hammer.
Mendelsohn: Hell, I'll even issue Ringo a pass for his kiddie-ditty "Octopus Garden", but only because it was originally written to be a children's song. I'd hate to think a grown man wrote that thinking it could stand up next to the darkness of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" or the pop oddity of "Come Together" or the jubilance of the medley. But I suppose lil' Starkey was owed his due for keeping time over all of those years. He even gets a drum solo. I bet he crapped his pants when the boys told him to go at it for eight bars.
Klinger: Actually, it took a massive amount of coaxing from the other to get Ringo to do that bit in “The End”. Like most right-thinking folk, Mr. Starkey found rock drum solos to be dreadfully dull, and I think that’s why he kept it so tantalizingly simple. But then Ringo’s strength was always his ability to provide exactly what the song called for.
And that’s a big part of what makes Abbey Road work, in spite of songs that individually might not have passed muster. All four Beatles (even Lennon, who was pretty well
strung checked-out by that time) came together (see what I did there?) to do what they do best, mainly because they all seemed to be painfully aware that it was going to be the last time. Imagine if they just hadn’t bothered to release Let It Be, and this album served as their epitaph. It’s hard to conceive of a more perfect benediction.
Mendelsohn: If nothing else, they were professionals. I know we are going to be talking about these guys again real soon but this might be a good time to raise the question: why have they never been matched? There's a lot that goes into answering this question, but the after 40 years, the Beatles remain in a class by themselves in quality, quantity, innovation, and influence. They managed to be all things, to all people. Songwriters to touch the hearts of the populace and musicians' musicians. No one, and I mean no one, has gotten close. They remain the gold standard, the post where others are measured and cut down, the sun to all the guitar-playing, song-writing Icaruses.
Klinger: Icari, Mendelsohn. And although the Fabs have had their ups and downs in the public consciousness, they will remain the rock 'n roll urtext for a few simple reasons. I’m sure everyone will have his or her own theories, but these are a good jumping-off point:
1. They went out on top. Eight years and gone, baby. No disco records, no cheesy 1980s synths, no ill-advised attempts at rapping. And unlike other rock icons who will forever be remembered fondly, they managed to do so without incurring any casualties.
2. The Beatles were a very well-dressed band. This is in part because ’60s fashions (except perhaps at the absolute zenith of Edwardian psychedelia) have remained relatively durable. Apart from McCartney’s questionable taste in knitwear, there are few photographs in which the Beatles look especially silly. Well, maybe the collarless jackets.
3. Beatle music was just challenging enough to keep peoples’ interest without scaring them off. Even their freakouts were, for the most part, pretty catchy.
4. They were constantly evolving. They never made the same record twice, even though they were cranking them out at an almost Pollard-like rate.
Mendelsohn: I'd also like to add that they worked incredibly hard and got extremely lucky. I'd go into it but Malcolm Gladwell already got paid to write a book about it.
Klinger: So on top of all that, I’ve now also come away with the impression that Abbey Road is the least Beatles-ish Beatles record ever to Beatle. The album has a slickness of sound to it, which I think comes from the Abbey Road Studios finally upgrading their equipment from the original hamster-powered Edison cylinders. It also seems Lennon made a shift away from tricky chord changes toward more groove-based songwriting (most notably on “Come Together” and “I Want You”).
Mendelsohn: I disagree. If anything, Abbey Road is the Beatles' most Beatles-ish record. It represents the culmination of the band's career, everything you hear on this record has grown out of what the Beatles were. Instead of synthesizing the music they were hearing around them, as they had done on previous records, they synthesized the essence of the Beatles and distilled it into a final master stroke. Abbey Road was the amalgamated swan song to a career that had seen an incredible amount of change, but the Beatles still managed to summarize it in a way that only they were capable of doing.
Klinger: How is this possible? How can Abbey Road be the most Beatlesque Beatles album and/or the least? Maybe that’s the thing. The Beatles influence is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that at its highest concentration it can actually create the illusion that it isn’t there at all—and vice versa. We’re through the looking glass here, Mendelsohn.
I think what we’re saying is that the fabled magical mustaches of Sgt. Pepper eventually evolved into the full beards of Abbey Road (except for Paul, whose beardlessness may be attributed with his then-recent death). This caused the Beatles to go supernova once and for all, finally imploding in one final burst of three part harmonies and sparkly guitar leads.
Mendelsohn: Bingo. Beatle Beard Power, GO!