It sounds like a weighty task, coming up with your favorite album of all time. But for me, it was an easy, no-contest kind of thing, which is a testament to how much I love this record: Abbey Road by the Beatles. It’s an amazingly cohesive piece of music, innovative and timeless. All that, plus the knowledge that this was the band’s last work together. A brilliant, unforgettable farewell.
As John Lennon himself griped, talking about music is a bit like talking about sex; it’s better to experience it than describe it. That being said, I will do my best to articulate why this album rests comfortably at the top of my list. Before getting into those specifics, I will also say I think it’s especially important in the case of Abbey Road to look beyond the actual songs to what was going on behind the scenes at the time of its making.
Only five years after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the Beatles had weathered insanely crazed tours, changing fashions and social mores (which they helped define), the growing drug culture, and the increasing demands of their personal lives. While three of the four members had met as teenagers, they were — all still in their 20s — worldly beyond their years.
Most recently, the Beatles survived the debacle of Let It Be, but barely. (While Let It Be was released after Abbey Road — and after the announcement of the breakup in April 1970 — it was recorded first, during a miserable winter of the band’s discontent in early 1969). So discouraged were the Fabs by the final product, that Paul — ever the cheerleader — convinced the others that they could, indeed, do better. George Martin, turned off by the captured-on-film squabbling during the Let It Be sessions, agreed to return to the studio only if he could have real authority and “the boys” were better behaved.
While tensions remained during the recording, of Abbey Road in the summer of 1969, the Beatles made a concerted effort to make a great album. And they succeeded. George Martin himself has called it his favorite Beatles album.
In the context of my own life, I was just starting sixth grade when Abbey Road was released in September 1969; by the time the school year was out, the band was no more. I remember listening to Abbey Road over and over till every song was embedded in my 12-year-old brain. The fact this album still enthralls me so is a testament to its timelessness.
I felt very grown-up buying Abbey Road with my babysitting money — it was the first real “rock” album I ever owned. This was a less esoteric and more radio-friendly record than 1968’s The Beatles, a.k.a. “The White Album”. In addition to the obsessive playing of Abbey Road, I recall getting fully caught up in the “Paul Is Dead” brouhaha that followed its release. (Remember the “meaning” of the album cover? John, in white, was “God”; Ringo, in black, the “undertaker”; dungarees-dressed George was the “gravedigger”. And Paul well, Paul was striding across that album cover barefoot, which meant — in some ancient culture that was always very vague — that he was the “dead man”.) Ah, the memories. Now on to the music.
It’s the summer of Woodstock, of the Manson murders, of Chappaquidick, and despite the growing tension within the band, Abbey Road is recorded without any major hassles, proving that the Beatles retained their musical magic right ’til the end. Their chemistry was so perfect, so right-on that even their splintering existence could not tarnish it. They quit at the top of their game; perhaps that’s why fans never could quite accept that break-up, constantly asking them when, if they would ever reunite.
From the potent opener, “Come Together” — with its weirdly ominous “Shoot Me” sung by Lennon — to the final strains of “The End”, Abbey Road managed to give each member of the band a chance to shine on their own, while contributing to the bigger picture as a seemingly cohesive foursome.
Abbey Road is especially noteworthy in my book because it contains two of George Harrison’s best songs as a Beatle: “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”. While Harrison’s work was always overshadowed by the Lennon/McCartney hit-making machine, I’ve never failed to be impressed by what good songs he did write, with hardly any support or attention given by the aforementioned leaders.
On “Something”, George’s passionate guitar solo fleshes out the lyrics’ sense of yearning, and George Martin’s subtle, sophisticated orchestral score frames the song itself. “Here Comes the Sun”, meanwhile, has an amazingly catchy hook — so pure that it gets lodged in the brain in a matter of seconds through the expert finger-picking that opens the song.
Other highlights on Abbey Road include Paul’s bluesy, wailing, “Oh! Darling”, (which Lennon reportedly wanted to sing, he liked it so much) and John’s equally impassioned but more avant-garde “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Even Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” has a certain whimsical charm that works.
The highlight of Abbey Road, for me, has to be the 16-minute medley that, back in the days when there were albums with two sides, closed out side two. Paul has to be given credit for this; structurally, the medley was his baby and his songs — “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”, “Golden Slumbers”, and “Carry That Weight” — are the standouts. Still, the medley wouldn’t work without Lennon’s contributions — his “Polythene Pam” and “Sun King” add to the effortless flow of the musical stream-of-consciousness.
While the band wasn’t aware of its impending breakup — at least, not on the surface — the closing track, “The End” truly did signify just that, and each Beatle got a chance to shine individually before they closed up shop and went away to become the Plastic Ono Band and Wings.
First, we get Ringo’s one-and-only drum solo, and it’s a catchy, inspired, rollicking gem. Then comes the “Love You” choruses that lead into the amazing guitar round robin. Paul starts it off (showing that he was always a kick-ass guitarist despite being relegated to bass), then comes George’s distinctive riffs, followed by John’s howling, wailing guitar. A lone piano emerges from the din, and all three sing the line, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”, closing out the record with a sense of, well, completion.
(Ends up, though, that “The End” wasn’t quite the end; the then-hidden ditty, “Her Majesty”, followed after a brief pause, having the record end on an “up”, rather than solemn, note).
While the creepy-cheerful “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” always seemed a bit out of place to me on Abbey Road, I can’t flog Paul too much over that since it was basically his pushing and prodding and nudging and nagging that got the band back into the studio for this final masterpiece the first place.
While it bugs the heck out of me that McCartney wants have his name to come first on Beatles’ songs now — how big is this guy’s ego, anyway? — I have to begrudgingly forgive all that because of the amazing, timeless Abbey Road. For this record alone, he deserved to be knighted.