When I was a kid, I was far more likely to be camped out in front of my dad’s record player than outside scooping around in the dirt with my toy trucks. My dad was coal miner for 37 years — we lived in rural West Virginia — but on the side he was a guitarist and singer in a rock band. My mom was a big music fan as well, so I had a small but nice library of music to choose from, and sometimes live music as dad’s band rehearsed, or dad would practice his guitar.
It was about 1976 by the time I was old enough to really play the records myself; although, of course before that I happily listened to what my parents were playing, often at my prompting. “Play the Beatles!! Play the Eagles!!” My mom had a box of 45s from the ‘60s, everything from R&B to guitar pop, that I practically memorized. My dad had a collection of albums that he added to periodically, including Three Dog Night, The Doobie Brothers, Eagles, lots of Santana, Bread, Bob Seger, Paul McCartney & Wings (Band on the Run was a huge favorite) and, of course, the Beatles (and most of these albums, scratched as they may be, are now sitting on a shelf here in my music room). In fact, both of my parents were huge Beatles fans, and if music was playing (and it usually was), odds are it was the Beatles.
Their love for the Beatles quickly imprinted itself on me, and like millions of others I was fascinated by them at an early age. I loved everything about the Beatles. We had every album, and I greedily absorbed them all. The early stuff was all well and good, but it was the later material that really captured my imagination, especially as I got a few years older (ironically, my parents, my mom in particularm much preferred the early material). There was one particular album that held my fascination beyond any others, the album that I’ve spent more time listening to over the years than any other, by any artist: Abbey Road.
I was (and remain) intoxicated by everything about Abbey Road. There’s the enigmatic cover, with no text, just the band — all looking wildly individual in stark contrast to the carefully cultivated group image of their early years — walking through a crosswalk. They had grown up before my eyes, even if this had all happened before I was born. I knew the early stuff, knew how they looked and sounded, and there was such a clear progression in their music that it was easy for a young child with no musical training whatsoever to follow the trail. That path led to Abbey Road, the finalé, the last chapter of pop music’s greatest journey. The band members seemed to be crossing the road to walk into the studio and begin that chapter, which then ended in the music and in the stark brick wall on the back cover. It’s like they are walking with a purpose, that being to make one final musical statement before saying goodbye.
Oh, how I pored over that cover, perusing every detail and object as if they would provide clues to the wonderful perplexity inside. I wonder who the woman on the back was, with the short blue dress, standing in front of the rest of the text after “Abbey Road.” An “N” was visible, then…? A “J”? Was the fissure slicing off the “S” in “Beatles” symbolic of their ongoing fracture? How could the leaves be so green, the sky so blue on the front if the band was as miserable as I’d imagined, barely capable of being in the same room together. How could they make this music, as delicate as a half-forgotten dream fading toward dawn?
None of that mattered except that it housed a harrowing soundtrack inside, a sojourn along the winding, wounded cracks of a shattering dream. Perhaps I would have viewed it differently had I been alive to experience it upon its release, when it wasn’t evident to everyone holding it and listening to it that it was an epilogue, a last gasp that just happened to be a haunted summation of everything that unfolded before it. But I knew the history, and I knew that this was the end.
Knowing that, it’s impossible not to hear the finality in every sighing echo of beauty, every jagged snarl of guitar, every implacable drum roll. Even if you eagerly snatched up the new Beatles album in 1969, never for a million years having reason to believe it might be the last, how could you hear it even then and not know it for goodbye? Every moment is a wonder, every second fully worthy of its stature as the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll swan song.
Abbey Road opens with “Come Together”, a languid blues-rocker with a creeping, sinister vibe. Lennon’s half-whispered “shoot me” is almost buried in the thick elastic flourish of bass from which the long drum fill unfolds; you can just hear the “sh” sound over the faint echo of John clapping. The portentous swamp rock groove makes it easy to believe that “old flattop” with “ju-ju eyeballs” is “grooving up slowly”, like he’s lurching inexorably forward up the darkened corridor where you cower in a corner veiled in shadow.
In the imagination of my young mind, I didn’t want to meet “old flattop”. After all, “he bag production, he got walrus gumboot… he one spinal cracker”. What the fuck does any of that mean? It hardly matters, other than to say: get away. Come together? No thanks. The first bookend of Abbey Road is riddled with a deep sense of unease. “Come Together” is John Lennon’s insidious fable, the dark underbelly of the enchanted wonders of “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
From such darkness comes a sighing wonder of love and beauty. With a lovely swoosh of Ringo’s opening drum-roll comes George Harrison’s “Something”, an elegant love song that turns intense and heated during the bridge before retiring back to its gently swaying grandeur in time for Harrison’s amorous guitar solo. “Something” is gentle and swirling with strings, but for all of that it doesn’t completely escape the emotional menace of “Come Together”. There’s something still there … maybe slight apprehension. Maybe there are qualms hidden in the romantic splendor.
We’re in a rather mad world, after all. Nothing is quite as it seems. That’s the only explanation for Paul McCartney’s mad jaunt about a serial killer, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. His droll delivery of the lyrics, the fruity vaudeville piano, and the flippant “de doo de doo doo” backing vocals all provide the sugar to hide the malice inside. With the actual metallic clang of the hammer ringing cheerfully under an ebullient wave of keyboards, there’s a gleeful malevolence to the song. After all, by the time the song is ending Maxwell is a hero. His supporters are urging the judge to set him free, and Maxwell responds by, of course, killing the judge. Is it just a novelty song, a bit of cartoonish nonsense with a chilling premise? Perhaps. Although the residents of Abbey Road sure seem to be beset by torment.
“Oh! Darling” is McCartney belting an old rock waltz, one of his endless genre exercises. His feverish vocals seem ripped from the heart. But consider what we know: a woman wants to leave, is trying to leave. It’s hard enough to communicate that to someone in any relationship, but she does it. And what does she get in response? A tender love song? No. Assurances that “I’ll never do you no harm.” Why would she need to hear that unless she has, in fact, been harmed in the past? McCartney’s half-mad narrator promises in a throat-shredding howl, “If you leave me, I’ll never make it alone!!” Co-dependent, much? Just a little obsessive? Maxwell, is that you? It’s another ripple of turmoil on an album that roils with it.
Only Ringo’s guileless “Octopus’s Garden” provides a respite from the shadowy and furtive characters we’ve met so far, but it only begs the question: Why? Why is such relief needed? Ringo’s joyous underwater fantasy has the air of someone wishing he was anywhere else, losing himself in his own fanciful imagination to at least momentarily banish the constant tension that surrounds him. “Oh what joy for every girl and boy, knowing they’re happy and they’re safe”. Safe from what? “We would sing and dance around, because we know we can’t be found”. Found by whom?
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is Lennon’s restless expression of … love? … to Yoko Ono. Lennon’s songs to Ono, such as “Don’t Let Me Down” and some of this solo recordings, have a mystifying desperation, like his very soul depends on her love. That’s evident here, in the long and tumultuous bluesy guitar. The lengthy piece has some of the best playing on the album — check out Paul’s wildly fluid bass lines, and the deft ease with which Ringo handles the song’s complex time signatures. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” builds toward a massive climax it will never reach, a circular riff that repeats and repeats with more white noise added at each pass until it’s maddening … and then sudden silence. It couldn’t have ended any other way. It feels like it might have taken another hour to get to the real fury of the emotional hurricane had the song kept careening along the way it was heading.
This is when listening to an album on vinyl is essential. You don’t go from that staggering moment of sonic escape and after but a moment ease into a sunny acoustic guitar, but that’s how you hear it on the CD. Nah. The time it takes to stop the deck, turn over the record, and place the needle at the start of Side 2 is a much needed breather. George Harrison, usually the most dour of Beatles albeit not as sharply acerbic as John, is once again collecting the only beams of sunlight to shine on the poor degenerates that populate Abbey Road. “Here Comes the Sun” is as lovely as anything he’s ever done. With its complex acoustic guitar pattern, delicate lead vocal and lovely melody, “Here Comes the Sun” is an intentional burst of good cheer. One that is needed, as Harrison himself admitted after writing the song–a single flare of warmth cutting through the murk of confusion, obsession, anger and paranoia. The band clings to it as if they’re feeding on its essence in order to get through the rest of their tortured journey.
“Because” is spirit, white and shimmery, hanging like a luminescent thread in the darkness. After the bedraggled White Album and the messy sessions for Get Back (which would later turn into the Let it Be album), there is a strong sense on Abbey Road that the Beatles wanted to get it right, wanted to show how good they could still be. Although the cracks of cynicism splinter through most of the album, they do indeed accomplish what they intended. Abbey Road is so warm it practically glows.
“Because”, an icy and angelic breath of harmony vocals over a cryptic synthesizer echoed by guitar, is the door opening to let in some of the cold. The floating lassitude, the smooth and restrained feeling, is in stark contrast to the overpowering tension that fills most of the album. But even “Because” is troubled in its way. It ends with the following line before descending into the nightmarish parable that makes up much of Side 2: “Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry / because the sky is blue.” It makes us cry, too.
Crying right into the bitterly caustic “You Never Give Me Your Money”. Gentle at first and then strident, McCartney’s “State of the Beatles’ Union” expresses more than any words possibly could why it was the end. It was no longer about creating, the joy of rock ‘n’ roll. It was about the fractured egos, the money, the amplified hurts that built up over the years. Everyone knew it, and yet everyone gives their all on the song. It’s like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, in which nearly every song is about one member fucking over another, and yet they all sing along cheerily with the piercing castigations as if they were just another vapid collection of pop songs.
“Sun King” is a small snippet of stately guitar and celestial harmonies — lovely night time music that’s utterly nonsensical. It’s almost as if John couldn’t find the words to fit the beauty of the moment, so he invented some: “Quando paramucho mi amore de felice carathon”. Oh, okay. He insists, “Everybody’s laughing, everybody’s happy”, but the somber mood belies that assertion. And indeed, with the damaged characters we are about to meet, it seems the height of irony.
“Mean Mr. Mustard” is a cartoonish recluse, an everyman who wanders into a the “long medley” and makes his dismal mark. This is when the boulder rolling downhill really picks up steam. The end is within reach, and you can feel it in every note. Barely a minute goes by before we meet another anti-hero, “Polythene Pam”. The sardonic echo of an earlier time, the repeated “yeah yeah yeah,” is sung in an exaggerated Scouse accent as if to say the song about a dangerous transvestite, complete with a searing guitar solo, is miles away from “She Loves You”. And, of course, it is. It’s all a bit nonsensical, of course. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”. Really?
It’s all a fever dream, bedeviled with shadowy characters that populate the world that swirls them and us and those around us, and maybe some of these people are us, at least part of the time. Abbey Road is every bit as kaleidoscopic as Sgt. Peppers, but instead of wonder and whimsy, we have working-class, everyday reality, and the genuine horrors of life. “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time”. The dream is almost over. With the sweet piano and gentle melody of “Golden Slumbers” rolling into the raucous singalong “Carry That Weight”, we know it’s coming. We don’t want it to come, but we can’t stop it.
Before you know it, you have Paul belting out “Oh yeah, all right, are you going to be in my dreams tonight!?!?” Then comes Ringo’s stoic drum solo, followed by chants of “love you” that seem aimed straight to the listener, and then the three-way guitar freakout in which George, John and Paul take turns assaulting their instrument with a savage abandon that harkens back to their early days bashing out old rockers in small clubs. Then a few lines of brisk piano, and Paul utters those beautiful lines that we both dread and yet brings tears: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. With a sighing flourish of guitar and harmony vocals, unironic and pure, the turmoil fades to a beautiful close. It’s not possible to imagine it ending any better, or more perfect. Some things are fated.
Then after a long stretch of silence, one bit of levity to break up the sadness — Paul’s mischievous acoustic coda “Her Majesty” pops up for 24 seconds of charm, and then disappears. Abbey Road is over, and with it the greatest pop group the world will ever know.
Yeah, I loved music as a child. Even more as I grew into a teen. It’s become a lifelong obsession, my constant (and sometimes only) companion, my refuge and muse. It was never a phase. The power of music’s hold on me has only intensified as the decades have passed.
Now I’m 42, and Abbey Road still fills me with a sense of wonder and fascination the very same way it did when I was still living in that old trailer off the dirt road in the woods of West Virginia, listening to it over and over as a child on my dad’s turntable. It didn’t spark my love for music, but it magnified it into a passion. It’s the foundation upon which so much of my life now rests. My love for music has shaped everything.
Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. John and George are gone, now, and so many years have passed that it should seem quaint. It doesn’t. It’s still as magical and ominous and ultimately uplifting as it ever was. None of its power has ebbed as the years have made us all older and more cynical. Some magic remains, and always will. Abbey Road is a pillar of solid rock buffeted by wind and waves that will never erode its power to mystify and delight.
I think I’ll listen to it again.