PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Counterbalance 20: The Beatles - 'Abbey Road'

The Beatles once again make their way onto the list with their 1969 tour de force Abbey Road. Halfway through, Klinger and Mendelsohn realize they can steal but they cannot rob.

Abbey Road
The Beatles

Apple Records

26 September 1969

Mendelsohn: The Beatles' 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. Do 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 a 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 concluded 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.

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, despite songs that individually might not have passed muster. All four Beatles (even Lennon, who was pretty well 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 fitting 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 after so many 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, songwriting 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 theories, but these are a good jumping-off point:

1. They went out on top. Eight years and gone, baby.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 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 masterstroke. 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 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). That 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!

* * *

This article originally published on 11 February 2011.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.