THE BEATLES: ABBEY ROAD (1969)
1) Come Together; 2) Something; 3) Maxwell's Silver Hammer; 4) Oh! Darling; 5) Octopus' Garden; 6) I Want You (She's So Heavy); 7) Here Comes The Sun; 8) Because; 9) You Never Give Me Your Money; 10) Sun King; 11) Mean Mr. Mustard; 12) Polythene Pam; 13) She Came In Through The Bathroom Window; 14) Golden Slumbers; 15) Carry That Weight; 16) The End; 17) Her Majesty.
To say that Abbey Road sounds like no other album ever recorded is to say nothing. What is really important is that Abbey Road sounds like no other Beatles album ever recorded. Within the confines of the large world that is the Beatles, Abbey Road is a sub-world in itself; a musical mystery that was supposed to put a full stop to the Beatles career — then subtly replaced it with an ellipsis. It's an open-invitation album: «Terribly sorry, guys, for having to leave you so soon, but, in compensation, we'll just give you this cool idea you could perhaps expand upon some time in the future... and this one... and one more... and another bunch... and this... and this...»
It so happened that I came into first contact with Abbey Road at a somewhat later date, after I'd already heard and properly assimilated the rest of the Beatles' regular catalog. I remember that first feeling — what I heard that day struck me as the product of an entirely different band. It was the Beatles for sure, and at the same time, it was a different Beatles. I wasn't even sure I «loved» those Beatles to the same extent I «loved» the normal Beatles. It didn't feel like a musical piece that was supposed to be «loved». It had a mythological aura around it. It was part-time scary, part-time disorienting, part-time religiously beautiful. You couldn't make friends with that record like you could make friends with The White Album. You couldn't understand how in the world did they manage something like that. Years later, I still cannot put it into context. There is not a single thing about Abbey Road that would scream out 1969.
I understand now that it certainly had to take the traumatic effects of January 1969 to bring out this side of the band. The individual Beatles generally acknowledge that they went into the Abbey Road studios one last time in the summer of 1969 feeling, or even knowing, without saying it, that this was going to be their «swan song», and this could not help but add extra solemnity and seriousness — that last chance had to be taken. But there's more to that. Compare the band's material on Abbey Road with the songs on their first — and generally best — solo albums, released within a year or so. These are great albums, but they are understandable: John's bleeding confessions, Paul's homespun absurdism and/or romance, George's straightforward search for the meaning of life (and, er, Ringo's «songs to keep Grandma happy»). Abbey Road, compared to these, opens the «doors of perception» to something entirely different, and I am not sure how to call it.
Let us take off from the obvious. First of all, Abbey Road is grim. The only song here that can be called relatively sunny and optimistic is ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ, and even that one works like a momentary consolation rather than an all-out idealistic anthem. Even Paul is bleak: his trademark studio silliness evolves into black humor on ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ (which some even find repulsive), and his sentimentalism into unhealthy hysteria on ʽOh! Darlingʼ. George's ʽSomethingʼ, the album's one and only hardcore love ballad, alternates between devotion and paranoid fear. And John's songs... the beast was having a field day within him that summer.
Second, Abbey Road is distant. Most Beatles albums had their intimate or uniting moments, sucking in the individual guest or the collective host. Paul sweetly cooing along with an acoustic guitar. John letting you in on how he's so tired, he hasn't slept a wink. Friendly, inviting vaudeville. Singalong choruses for family audiences. We all live in a yellow submarine, naaaah naaaah na-na-na-n-na and so on. There is nothing of the sort on Abbey Road. These songs are not made for «us»; they seem to be talking to somebody else out there, and you have no idea who. With a different band, this approach could infuriate; with the Beatles, it intrigues. There's an odd channel here that leads somewhere — I am still trying to figure it out.
This «distance» is perhaps best illustrated by one of my absolute favorite moments on the album — one that, for some reason, nobody ever talks about: the last minute of ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ, that section where the repetitive "one two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven" mantra kicks in. Before that section, the song is a mix of short, excellent musical ideas and understandable lyrical content; but once it begins, the combination of majestic arpeggiated riff, heavy wailing leads, and Paul's fearsome bass, gradually, softly giving way to a field of wind chimes and cicadas is simply something else. It seems simple when disentangled and put on paper, but the real effect is undescribable. It's psychedelic, I guess, but it isn't your average psychedelia. There's some sort of loneliness here, a weird feeling of being stranded somewhere in a whirl of alien happenings — nothing particularly threatening, more like a combination of «thoroughly uncongenial» with a sense of deep intelligence. Like you're encountering new life forms that you really know nothing about, but still get a feeling they must be smarter than yourself.
Still, the words «dark» and «distant» do not suffice to properly describe the atmosphere of Abbey Road. If you just asked me to name the first «dark» and «distant» band that comes to mind, I'd probably go along with The Cure instead, and Abbey Road is nothing like The Cure. Thus, here is a third defining feature — well, you probably saw it coming — Abbey Road is cathartic. Its songs are either big and sprawling, or tense to the point of snapping, or calm and serene to the utmost, and it all comes together in a total emotional spectrum. The only one missing is hatred, but that is to be expected. Who'd expect to see hatred on the Beatles' last album?
Each of these songs — including even most of the little pieces in the large medley — deserves several pages of text, but overkill never helped anybody, so, instead, I will just jot down some random observations on stuff, beginning from the beginning and then proceeding in no particular order. Here goes...
The opening seconds. Chuck Berry could sue John for all he wanted to: ʽCome Togetherʼ may be loosely built around the chords of ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ and even retweet the line about «old flattop», but otherwise, it's one of those cases where a borrowing of a bit of «form» adds a completely new «spirit». John's «shooing» (allegedly he is supposed to say «shoot!», but I never get to hear anything except the first consonant), Paul's jumping bass pattern, and Ringo's soft, but stern «crescendo rolls» on the drums — weird combination, right? Every single Beatles album up to then would start out with a bang — a crashing power chord, a loud guitar riff, a snappy, energetic vocal lead, or some other musical sledgehammer. Abbey Road is the only one that starts out with an atmosphere of deep mystery instead. A sign of «maturity»?
ʽI Want Youʼ — too heavy, too scary, too bizarre to gain mass popularity, but is there another moment in the Beatles catalog where John's voice would match so closely the wobbling modulation of John's guitar? Some of these "I want you, I want you so bad" actually remind of his Yoko-fueled solo experiments (Two Virgins, Life With The Lions etc.), but, since this is a Beatles album, the irrational primal energy here is properly harnessed and integrated into a «normal» musical structure — which only adds memorability and further emotional impact. And even if, on the surface, the song is about going love-crazy (the Japanese curse strikes again!), it is also John's only truly ambiguous composition on the subject: the «horrific» "she's so heavy" part paints a picture of strolling through a barren wintery wasteland, knee-deep in the snow, with Abbey Road Studios' brand new synthesizers adding heavy white-noise wind support. I'm not exactly sure Yoko would harbor the same feelings for this song as she did for ʽOh My Loveʼ.
Probably the greatest mood transition between a Side A / Side B contrast on a Beatles album ever — especially today, when you no longer have to turn the record over manually. Just as the wind howling that winds around the doom-laden chords of ʽShe's So Heavyʼ reaches its peak, the tape is unexpectedly cut off — and replaced by the lightest, prettiest, folksiest acoustic pattern on the album. For me, this is the single greatest «musical relief» in LP history, as George comes along and literally tears the listener out of the dark wings of depression, Galadriel-fashion. As I already said, ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ is not a lot of relief: it is short, quiet, humble, and already ʽBecauseʼ returns us to slightly more troubled waters, but sometimes «a gleam of hope» on an album works more intensely, with a more profound and lasting effect, than a whole side of it.
People like to condemn ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ as just another silly piece of fluffy Paul crap. It is music-hall-ish enough, yes, and the lyrics are silly (and rather clumsy), but it fits the album's tenseness — hey, silly or not, Paul just wrote a song about a juvenile serial killer! — and it introduces the Moog synth into the Beatles' array of instruments just at the right moment. Old-time vaudeville performed on hyper-modern electronic gadgets? Count me in. It also adds up to the overall mystery feel of the album.
John sometimes used to say that ʽOh! Darlingʼ was a song on which Paul should have traded the lead vocal rights over to him — he may have been right, having honed the art of «passionate screaming» ever since the recording of ʽAnnaʼ way back in 1963, but Paul's lungs in 1969 were no slouch, either. The song may own a serious debt to classic R'n'B and Louisiana swamp pop, but the bridge section — Paul screaming it out like a psycho over George's razor-sharp electric chords — strictly follows the «Abbey Road spirit». Dangerous, brooding, distant. It is hardly a coincidence that both John's and Paul's love statements on Side A dump sentimentality, replacing it with madness and aggression.
That sort of leaves George to do the honors, but ʽSomethingʼ isn't really a «love song» per se, no matter what Frank S. might have to say about it (well, he used to introduce it as a «Lennon-McCartney» song, too). George himself never admitted personally that it was about Pattie, and something tells me that his personal feelings for his wife in 1969 weren't really that deep to serve as chief inspiration. It's really a religious hymn, close in form and spirit to All Things Must Pass. And it isn't just sentimentally sweet: it swings from deep admiration ("something in the way she moves...") to nervous jealousy ("don't want to leave her now...") to almost aggressive insecurity (bridge section) — with what is probably George's best ever guitar solo going through all three of these states, one by one.
«Okay», says you, «but what about Ringo? Surely Ringo at least will be the one cheerful spirit in this morose bunch! He's singing about octopi — how can a song about octopi be dark and depressing?» Well, to each his own, but there must be a good reason why ʽOctopus's Gardenʼ is often considered the drummer's finest addition to the Beatles catalog — and to me, that reason has always been the subtly sad emotional state it generates. The band helped Ringo shape the simple little kiddie tune into a sonic masterpiece — the harmonies, Lennon's jangly rhythm in the back, the «synth bubbles», everything combines to really make it sound like a trip through an imaginary underwater paradise — but the lyrics clearly state that "I'd like to be...", and Ringo, perhaps subconsciously, sings it in such a longing manner that it is perfectly clear: the song is about something positively unreachable. (Okay, so we all know that none of us has a chance to see a real Octopus's Garden any more than the stage set of ʽLucy In The Skyʼ, but that's the difference: ʽLucyʼ and other songs like it were psychedelic, implying that all these wonder-locations were perfectly reachable inside your mind — maybe with a little help from your «friends» — but ʽGardenʼ is a «fantasy» song, utterly non-psychedelic in spirit).
And where does that sadness reach its climax? In George's brief leads during the final chorus refrain. At 2:34-2:36 you get an outburst of anger, at 2:39-2:41 — an anguished wail. I have always thought of these brief moments as the perfect way to blend the «lightness» of ʽOctopus's Gardenʼ into the immediately following «heaviness» of ʽI Want Youʼ (and, for that matter, the whole Side A has an amazing continuity and coherence to it, despite not being organized as a medley, but that would take too much space and time to explain).
And — about the medley. The opinion one usually gets on the medley is: «The Beatles had a lot of leftover fragments from past sessions, none of which worked well in and out of itself, so they threw them all together to prop up each other and came out with a masterpiece». This is probably correct, but it still requires understanding how the heck can a bunch of assorted odds and ends make up a masterpiece.
I think the medley should be thought of in terms of a «last gift». If the band subconsciously knew they were going out with this thing, it would have been natural for them to try and give it all they got — in particular, to somehow implement, at least briefly, every good idea they had stacked in the vaults (one reason, by the way, why ransacking the Abbey Road archives over the years has resulted in so few previously unreleased songs of any worth). It might have been possible to work all those little segments into three-minute long songs and sacrifice a few of the weaker ones — but it wouldn't have given the people so much. It also looks like a last-minute frantic competition between John and Paul: in the main body of the medley, three bits are John's, followed by three of Paul's, followed by ʽThe Endʼ which is generally Paul's but could be viewed as a collective thing, since most of it is occupied by jamming.
And it is true that many of the links are not particularly special «per se». ʽMean Mr. Mustardʼ sounds fairly pedestrian. ʽShe Came In Through The Bathroom Windowʼ has a vocal melody that is almost primitive by Paul's usual standards of the time. ʽCarry That Weightʼ is just a mildly catchy anthemic refrain — it had to be fattened up by a reprise of ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ to save face. But linked all together, they work so well through contrast more than anything else. The peaceful, religious serenity of ʽSun Kingʼ shattered to bits with the onset of John's «Brit-character assassination» (first the brother, then the sister Pam). The way John's sarcastic «oh, look out!» at the end of ʽPamʼ segues straight into ʽBathroom Windowʼ. How McCartney's quiet lullaby, addressed to a little baby, magically transforms into «boy, you're gonna carry that weight...», presumably addressed to an already grown-up baby.
And, of course, how ʽThe Endʼ winds it all up by giving all the band members a chance to have their say — with the only three-part guitar jam and the only drum solo in official Beatles history — and bringing it down with just the sort of lyrical testament that the fans would expect from the Beatles. Of course, "and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" is a slightly naïve way to formulate the human equivalent of the energy conservation law. But the Beatles' notes always speak far more effectively than their words — and the guitar phrase that brings down the curtain is a gorgeous finale... except that the Beatles wouldn't be the Beatles if they didn't succumb to the tendency to deflate the pathos a little bit — thence came ʽHer Majestyʼ, the first «hidden track» in LP history (the «song» was originally intended to be part of the medley, then excluded and tacked on to the end almost by mistake — but not really by mistake). Some humorless people actually resent its presence — well, it's a hidden track, guys, just pretend it's not there. (CD editions actually list it now, which, I think, is not right.)
Yes, it is true that, by the time the band went into the studio that summer, they already had the first steps of their solo careers projected in their heads. It is also true that they spent less time collaborating on each other's material (Paul himself admitted that Abbey Road suffered from having too few Lennon/McCartney vocal harmonies). But there is also no denying that Abbey Road is a collective album nevertheless. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band did not have, and could not hope to have, a song like ʽCome Togetherʼ on it. All Things Must Pass, great as it was, did not have a ʽSomethingʼ (ʽI'd Have You Anytimeʼ comes close, mood-wise, but is a bit more impassioned and a little less majestic). And even within Paul, something died that allowed him to make stuff like ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ – so complex, diverse, and emotionally non-trivial.
Could there have been another Abbey Road in these guys, had they not parted on such abysmal terms? I cannot exclude that. If you simply take the best solo Lennon, McCartney and Harrison from 1970-71 and slap them together, you won't be getting a Beatles album; but when they got together, the Beatles always brought out the... well, not necessarily the banal «best» in each other, more like a desire to be «unusual», to transcend their own personalities and be somebody else for a bit. John could be the walrus, or, at least, get walrus gumboot; Paul could sing about serial killers; George could at least pretend to dedicate his songs to women; even Ringo could wander around in octopus's gardens instead of singing the ʽNo No Songʼ. Therefore, there is no knowing how a Beatles album from, say, 1973 or 1979 would have sounded like. No knowing at all.
But on the other hand, there is no way more perfect than Abbey Road to bring a band's career to completion. The record does not have everything — it has a little less sunshine, humor, and lightly colored vibes than you usually expect from the Beatles. All of these things are replaced with extra weight, wisdom, «maturity». But everything other than that, it's got plenty. And once it's all done, ʽThe Endʼ locks and bolts the door, then throws away the key in the direction of ʽHer Majestyʼ. Do we really need more from the Beatles? Just our natural greed calling out. One thing is for sure: Abbey Road would have lost some of its tremendous impact, had its importance and influence been diluted by further releases. And for all those genuinely hungry for more — well, there's always the solo records. No dark, distant, cathartic magic in them, though.