Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Abbey Road

Abbey Road, one of the Beatles’ best records, was also their final recording, although Let It Be would be released the following year. Apparently, the group had decided, consciously or subconsciously, to make an album which would erase the bad vibes present during the Get Back sessions. Perhaps because they knew on some level that this would be the last record, they (and George Martin and Geoff Emerick, whose role during the Get Back sessions had been limited and nonexistent, respectively) put their all into it. The result is their most polished album, adventurous yet disciplined, experimental but always highly commercial. If they had to finish, this was the best possible note to finish on.

The form of the record was a compromise: John wanted an album of individual songs, while Paul and George Martin wanted to experiment with a medley of work. In the end, each got what he wanted.1

John may have fought against the medley, but it’s what lifted Abbey Road up into the top tier of Beatles records. Each song on Side Two from You Never Give Me Your Money through The End flows into each other like a dream (with a brief pause between She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Golden Slumbers). The result is a suite of songs following Mr. Mustard and his sister Pam in a loose series of events with an impressionistic feel. It’s not a concept mini-opera like the Who’s A Quick One, but it’s more effective in some ways.

Not that the songs on the first side aren’t strong. Come Together and Something were released as a double A-side, and George ended up the winner. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Ringo’s Octopus’s Garden take the record into zany and childlike territory. John’s I Want You (She’s So Heavy) seals the deal with a powerful chunk of heavy metal as good as or better than anything Led Zeppelin had to offer in 1969. All in all, it makes for an album that has aged quite well as classic rock.

Track by track:

Come Together: John was absent from the initial sessions due to an auto accident involving Yoko, Julian, Kyoko and himself; but when he began working on his brand-new song, he was on fire. It originated as a campaign ditty for Timothy Leary, of all people, consisting of the line “Come together, join the party,” but developed into a self-portrait with a return to surreal imagery. The opening line, “Here come old flat-top”, was pinched from Chuck Berry’s classic car song You Can’t Catch Me, and John got sued about it. Later on, as a result, he would record an oldies album; but that’s another story. Meanwhile, this piece of swamp rock, with magnificent bass from Paul and a whispered vocal of “Shoot me” between verses, came together to become one of the Beatles’ finest rockers.2

Something: My mother was convinced that Paul had written this song; when I told her it was George, she said, “Paul must’ve written it for him.” While I don’t believe that, George certainly penned a ballad which is as timeless as any of Paul’s classics. Speaking of first-line pinching, this song gets its first line from the James Taylor ballad Something In The Way She Moves, but since Taylor was an Apple artist at the time, it was all in the family. Originally this was 7:48, due to a long instrumental jam at the end which was cut out during the final mixing. Although recording was mostly done at Abbey Road, some overdubbing took place at Olympic Sound Studios. There was also an additional middle eight section which is present in George’s demo on Anthology 3 which didn’t make the final cut. I can never decide which is best: Paul’s bass lines, Ringo’s drumming, or George’s guitar work. It all shines. Originally, Joe Cocker recorded this song, and his version is fabulous and soulful.

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: This odd music-hall number originally surfaced during the Get Back sessions, but was rerecorded for Abbey Road. John and George both loathed it, but as far as the former, part of it was probably because he’d just come back to the studio after his auto accident, and here he was spending two days on Paul’s piece of fluff. Nevertheless, this ditty about a mass murderer, complete with an anvil clanked by Ringo and Moog synthesizer overdubs from Paul, is a fun and tuneful romp. I could easily hear the Kinks covering it.

Oh! Darling: Another Get Back leftover which is a doo-wop ballad from Paul. He recorded his lead vocal once each day over the course of several days to try to get that “first thing in the morning” feeling. It’s definitely one of his finer performances, but the song itself is a bit limp. Still, it’s played well. George ran his guitar through a Leslie speaker to give it that wavering quality.

Octopus’s Garden: Ringo’s second songwriting credit, although George helped him out, as can be seen in the Let It Be film. A country-flavored rewrite of Yellow Submarine, the inspiration for this came while Ringo was on holiday from the band during the White Album and learned about octopus’s gardens on a cruise.3 I love the guitar riff—again, George played with a Leslie speaker—and the down-home vocal from Ringo, who also blew bubbles into a water glass through a straw. A fun children’s song.

I Want You (She’s So Heavy): The first song recorded for the album, right after the Get Back sessions had ended. Originally entitled I Want You, John’s epic rock song to Yoko is actually two takes spliced together (the join occurs right after the final “She’s so”).4 His raw vocal and the massive guitar sound—John and George spent an entire session overdubbing guitars—give this number a true heavy metal vibe. It ends Side One with a drone of the guitar riff playing over and over, with white noise from a synthesizer (programmed by John) enveloping the surroundings in a noise like a rising wind, until suddenly everything just stops. No fade-out, no final chord. That effect was achieved by splicing the tape shortly before the end, as requested by John. It’s a brilliant and startling move.

Here Comes The Sun: John is not present on this George classic, probably my favorite Harrison Beatles tune. Inspired when George chose not to go into the Apple offices on a fine spring day, hanging out in Eric Clapton’s garden instead. Originally this included a lead guitar solo which was left out of the final mix. George played the Moog for the synthesizer overdubs. A perfect opener for Side Two.

Because: A friend of mine and I once argued about the merits of the Beatles vs another band (I think it was Manheim Steamroller), and he contended that the Beatles had never used both harpsichord and a synthesizer on the same recording, whereas this other group had. Well, unfortunately I couldn’t remember, but the Fab Four did indeed have a song which combined those two elements, and this was it. John wrote the ballad after hearing Yoko play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and asking her to play it backward. It’s a beautiful semi-psychedelic number with absolutely gorgeous harmonies from John, Paul and George, with nine overdubbed vocals. George Martin played the harpsichord, and George Harrison the Moog synthesizer. Ringo played a beat on his hi-hat for the backing track only; it didn’t make it onto the final mix.

You Never Give Me Your Money: Recorded at Olympic Sound Studios (the basic track) and the beginning of the famous medley, written by Paul about Apple’s legal and money woes. The ending proved problematic until Paul came into the studio with a baggie full of tape loops which he’d recorded at home; these were used as the transition into the next number. I love his vocals; the pain of the situation really comes through in his voice.

Sun King: This and Mean Mr. Mustard, both compositions by John, were recorded as one track originally entitled Here Comes The Sun-King. The pseudo-Spanish (or perhaps Italian) allegedly came to Lennon in a dream. The guitar work and harmonies are exquisite.

Mean Mr. Mustard: One of John’s odder characters, possibly inspired by his father. Originally the line went “His sister Shirley”, but was changed to better fit the medley. Paul does some great harmonies with John, and again, those guitar arpeggios are fantastic.

Polythene Pam: Inspired by a woman John had met who liked to wear polythene bags. It took me years to understand most of the lyrics, which refer to the British tabloid The News of the World, drag, and jackboots and kilts. Some truly furious acoustic guitar work from John, too. Recorded as one track with the following recording.

She Came In Through The Bathroom Window: Paul’s number about the groupies who were breaking into his house. Every time I hear the lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? Didn’t anybody see?”, I get shivers down my spine. First recorded during the Get Back sessions.

Golden Slumbers: A lovely ballad by Paul—mostly; he got the lyrics from a 16th-century poet named Thomas Dekker. Someone had set the words to music, which Paul couldn’t read, so he just began playing and singing his own tune (with a few alterations). John is not present on the recording due to his auto accident. George plays bass. It was recorded as one track with the following song.

Carry That Weight: Again, John does not appear on this tune, written by Paul with a reprise of You Never Give Me Your Money. All three Beatles sing lead. Either Paul or Ringo plays timpani (they both attempted overdubs).

The End: Originally entitled Ending, written by Paul. Despite Ringo’s drum solo, which he had to be talked into, the first mixes had guitar work included alongside it. The final guitar solos are taken by Paul, George and John, in that order, so all four Beatles had instrumental showcases; and indeed this number highlights their proficiency unlike anything else in their catalogue. Paul’s “And in the end…” line is beautifully poignant.5 The orchestral tracks overdubbed onto this and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight were done in one multi-studio session costing EMI quite a few pounds. The uplifting finale is enough to make one’s heart ache the first time you hear it. Until….

Her Majesty: Since it’s now listed on the CD and on iTunes, it’s no longer a surprise; but when the electric guitar chord came crashing in after some thirty seconds of silence, I jumped a mile high on my first hearing. This brief acoustic ditty praising Queen Elizabeth originally occurred between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam in the medley’s rough mix, but then Paul decided he didn’t like it and asked the second engineer, John Kurlander, to cut it out and throw it away. Kurlander removed it, but stuck it at the end of the tape with about twenty seconds of leader tape, unwilling to actually discard a Beatle’s creation. Malcom Davies, who cut the lacquer of the rough mix for the Beatles’ use, also left it on; and thus the final surprise in an album brimming with them was created. The fact that it was saved from a rough mix explains the electric guitar chord opener (it came from the ending of Mean Mr. Mustard) and the lack of a final acoustic chord.

The iconic album cover was photographed by Iain Macmillan on August 8th, 1969, at EMI Studios (later renamed Abbey Road Studios in honor of this record). Paul had just come from his nearby house in a pair of what are now called flip-flops, and took them off for some of the photos. Pictures were taken going both ways, but the one of them walking away was the best. The Volkswagen Beetle shown sold at Sotheby’s in 1986 for 2,300 pounds, complete with license plate. Thanks to the Beatles, Abbey Road Studios is now visited daily by fans who have their photo taken crossing the same crossing (albeit repainted many times). There’s even a Webcam set up there; the app can be found on iTunes and probably Android, so you can watch at any hour of any day. The album was almost entitled Everest, after Emerick’s cigarette brand, but the group couldn’t be bothered to go to its foothills for photos. We can all be quite grateful for that.

Released in stereo only September 26th, 1969; released originally on CD in 1987, remastered and re-released September 9th, 2009. Abbey Road is one of the Beatles’ best albums, and although it works better as a whole than as a collection of strong songs, it still captures them reclaiming their status as the greatest rock band ever. Yes, you’re gonna be in my dreams tonight.

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TIMELINE FOR UPCOMING REVIEWS

October 7th: Past Masters

October 28th: Anthology 1

November 18th: Anthology 2

December 9th: Anthology 3

Sometime in December or January: The White Album (50th Anniversary Edition)

Also planning to review the Red/Blue albums, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Rutles’ first album, sometime in 2019. I’ll give notice.