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THE BEATLES “ABBEY ROAD” (1969)
Come Together/Something/ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Oh! Darling/ Octopuses’ Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)//Here Comes The Sun/Because/Long Medley: You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End//Her Majesty
There they are, the fab four, locked permanently in a specific space and time (Abbey Road Studios, London, August 8th 1969) via an iconic album cover that has become one
of the iconic images of our times. It’s the perfect cover for this album: a band that seem in close-step until you analyse the album properly (a famously bare-footed Paul is a half-step out from the others for reasons unknown – perhaps he’s too busy enjoying the cigarette that was in his hand until over zealous anti-tobacco protest groups had the offending fag removed) and who now look so different from each other that anyone who had never heard of The Beatles before seeing this photograph (unconceivable as that is) would never have guessed that these four men had anything in common. Lennon is at the beginning of his ‘white’ period, looking more like a preacher than a musician, while Ringo is in a smart conventional suit, Paul is in ‘scruffs’ his tie-less suit flapping unbuttoned in the breeze while George comes dressed in denim. The range and length of hairstyles and the sheer variety of facial hair on display shows that, unlike every year up to 1967 and occasional months beyond, the Beatles no longer want to look the same or travel the same paths and that this slow moody walk to Abbey Road studios is one of the last they will ever make together. In fact, this turned out to be the penultimate ever Beatles photographing session, one of the very last shots of perhaps the most photogenic band in the world together (the last is a session from two weeks later, booked by fanzine ‘The Beatles Book’, whose editor even Lennon couldn’t say no to – although the grumpy look on Lennon’s face, his insistence on the shoot taking place in the grounds of his Tittenhurst mansion and his insistence on Yoko appearing in nearly every shot shows how much his priorities have shifted by then), so no wonder it’s cherished so. The cover could easily have been so different though – up until the last minute the plan was to fly the Beatles by helicopter to the highest mountain top they could safely get up to and call the album ‘Everest’ after the brand of cigarettes their engineer always seemed to be smoking throughout the sessions; like the plans to ‘perform’ the ‘Let It Be’ album on ‘QE2’ ‘the jungle’ ‘the desert’ etc (delete where applicable) the band were simply too tired to go through with the idea when push came to shove and elected on the easiest plan they could all agree with: simply going outside and getting the pictures over and done with.
The album ‘Abbey Road’ is an amalgamation of these two extremes. The general public and Beatles fans alike regard this album as ‘special’, as a last unexpected gift from a band that they already knew was in trouble and could easily have gone their separate ways without this one last precious message to keep us going through the ‘Beatles-less’ years they knew was to come. George Martin’s last burst of shiny production and the return to overdubbing as much as the band wants (which is a lot) after the ‘horrors’ of recording ‘Let It Be’ live’ (or intending to at any rate) adds to the feeling that this is a last burst of Beatle focus and unity, put together for ‘old time’s sakes’ and to ensure the Beatles’ reputation goes out on a high. The contemporary reviews of this album were ridiculously over the top in gushing praise across the board (for arguably the only time in the Beatles’ career – some morons didn’t even like ‘Revolver’!), not so much out of respect for the album as in respect for the band as a whole. Ask the average person in the street what Beatles album they love the most and statistically ‘Abbey Road’ is likely to come second (after it’s close cousin and similarly ‘flawed-but-perfect-for-it’s-times ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’). But the truth is that, by Beatle’s standards, ‘Abbey Road’ is a less than stellar LP. Undeniably there are several great moments on it: George’s two songs, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ ‘Because’ and the beginning and end of what will become known as the ‘Abbey Road Medley’, ending up with one of the greatest ‘single-line’ summaries of a career ever known, plus a Beatleish rejection of that perfection that’s entirely in keeping with their philosophy. But in between the band are in trouble. The sessions for ‘Let It Be’ (covered about a year ago on this site) weren’t the joyless, funeral march that many commentators took them to be, but they did take their toll on the band who barely rubbed shoulders with each other again thereafter. The return to overdubbing masks the fact that, actually, the Beatles spent less time in the studio as a group making this album than they did on ‘Let It Be’ and – a last ghostly choral coda in ‘Because’ aside – there’s precious little three-part Beatle harmony on this record. This isn’t so much the last Beatles ‘group’ album as the first Beatle ‘solo’ project, albeit one worked on by four men separately, with the usual wonderful Beatles eclecticism and variety suddenly sounding like four songwriters (yes, Ringo is writing now!) heading in four entirely separate directions. For a time, there, Lennon was so adamant that he had nothing in common with McCartney that for the first and last time ever he submitted a ‘running order’ for this album early on, one that would feature Paul’s work on side one and his own on side two (making the album start off joyfully with ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and then gradually imploding, the Beatles’ career ending not with the optimistic note of ‘The End’ or even the joke of ‘Her Majesty’ but with the sudden, harsh cut-out at the end of ‘I Want You’ (She’s So Heavy)’. Add in the fact that all four men at least had an eye on saving their best material for solo albums (early drafts of ‘Working Class Hero’ ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ were all existed before sessions for this album started – how great an album would that have been?) and you can see why ‘Abbey Road’ isn’t the ‘legendary classic’ so many people want it to be.
The saving ‘grace’ to some extent is the ‘Long Medley’ that takes up nearly three quarters of side two. Added to the album at if not quite the last minute then certainly halfway, it got the Beatles out of a problem, allowing John and Paul to use up a lot of the half-finished songs they had lying around and join them together instead of having to ‘properly’ work on new material. While the result is not quite as spookily perfect as similar Lennon-McCartney ‘collages’ (‘In My Life’ ‘A Day In The Life’ ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ to name but four), it does mean that the band manage to sound both epic and grounded all at the same time (a lot of these leftover songs are ‘rockers’) and while the medley goes through some very unexpected extra-curricular places in the middle, the beginning and ending of the medley just about see it through (in detail, the idea of starting it with Paul’s movingly pessimistic take on the Beatles’ future (‘You Never Give Me Your Money’) before acknowledging their grand past (‘You’re gonna carry that weight a long time!’, only the second time all Beatles sing in unison following ‘Bungalow Bill’), showing off the band’s similarities and differences via alternating guitar solos and Ringo’s only drum solo and then uniting for a final ‘End’). This skeleton theme for hanging the concept on is arguably a couple of songs too long (few fans would miss ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ or ‘Golden Slumbers’ I’d wager, although I’m quite fond of Lennon’s under-rated ‘Sun King’ and McCartney’s under-rated ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’), but it gives ‘Abbey Road’ a belated unity and purpose.
We don’t often look at the Beatles individually (they were a ‘group’ in all ways until at least the middle of the ‘White Album’ sessions’ in 1968) but it seems inevitable with this album. To take Lennon first, he’s not been having a very good 1969, obsessed with Yoko to the point where his creative spark is ending up in danger of becoming one-note. Out of the songs written for ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ only three songs are amongst Lennon’s best work and – notably – they tell more or less the same story (‘Yoko’ in other words), their titles even even sounding like parts of the same sentence (‘Don’t Let Me Down’ ‘Because’ ‘I Want You’). However, Lennon is on some sort of creative spike, dominating this album in the same way that McCartney’s material made up most of ‘Let It Be’ even if his material still isn’t quite as strong as it was in his ‘pre-LSD’ days of 1966 and further back. For perhaps the last time in his long career, Lennon returns to the ‘focussed gibberish’ of ‘I Am The Walrus’ and writes his final ‘nonsense’ songs, ones that delight in wordplay for their sound as much as their meaning (and ending a run of songs that also includes ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘I Dig A Pony’) and which are clearly inspired by Yoko (whose ‘anything and everything is art simply because of who the author is’ philosophy changed his life forever, or a couple of years at least). Barely a few weeks after this album’s last session, Lennon will discover ‘primal scream therapy’ and refuse to ever again write a song that doesn’t have some purpose, meaning or autobiography. In fact, arguably that train of thought has already begun with his strongest song on this album ‘I Want You’, Lennon’s simplest and most direct song since circa 1965, although it’s one of Lennon’s few songs for ‘Abbey Road’ that pre-date these sessions, an early version being half-heartedly recorded for ‘Let It Be’. Notably, Lennon barely plays on any of the ‘other’ Beatle’s songs and his interest appears to wane by the album’s end despite the fact that Lennon was – surprisingly – the Beatle most eager to make ‘one last great record’ with George Martin’s help ‘the way we used to’.
McCartney, on the other hand, is all written out after a sterling run of form across ‘The White Album’ and ‘Let It Be’ (whose sessions were barely two months apart) and is unsure quite what his role in The Beatles is after ‘leading’ the Beatles through ‘Let It Be/Get Back’ in the hopes that it would ‘revive’ their old spirits and being proved wrong. He’s especially eager not to rock the boat and upset George Harrison again after their rowing was captured on tape for the world to see in the ‘Let It Be’ film – but that leaves him with a problem. Ever since Brian Epstein’s death in 1967 and arguably longer (since Lennon fell into an LSD haze in late 1966) The Beatles have been McCartney’s band, existing at times simply through his sheer will-power. His loyalties to his old friends and his shared belief in wanting one last great album can’t replace the fact that his three old friends are currently ‘suing’ him (for refusing to accept Allen Klein as his manager and a million other petty business things) and that the band are effectively coming back on Lennon’s and George Martin’s terms, not his own. Both ‘Oh! Darling’ and especially ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ are often given as candidates for the Beatles’ worst song; certainly they’re far from the wonderful run of songs Macca’s been enjoying of late, coming up with ‘Back In The USSR’ ‘Blackbird’ ‘Hey Jude’ ‘Let It Be’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Get Back’ within a 12 month period – which is a ridiculously strong run by anyone’s standards. Quite honestly, the fall-out from ‘Let It Be’ seems to have affected his confidence more than he ever let on and knocked his songwriting skills (there’s an outtakes out there of Macca’s ghostly lead vocal for an outtake of ‘Oh! Darling’ separated from the rest of the mix and Macca has never sounded more alone or desperately, seemingly crying out to the other Beatles ‘When you told me you didn’t need me anymore, I almost broke-up and died...Believe me, I’ll never do you no harm!’
Only George Harrison comes through this album with flying colours. The years 1969 through to 1970 is arguably George’s most inspired creative period ever, resulting in his best-known Beatle songs and all the songs from debut triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’. A combination of George’s growing spiritual beliefs and the happiest time during his marriage to Pattie Boyd (coming after the Beatles’ touring years but before she first meets Eric Clapton...) and especially the purchase of George’s wonderful Friar Park Estate and it’s wonderful, sprawling, healing gardens have given him new confidence and inspiration. Ironically, though, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ – which everyone else assumed was about his own garden – was written in Clapton’s garden where George had gone for a ‘rest’ after an endless Apple business meeting and ‘Something’ – long assumed to be about Patti from beginning to end – was actually inspired by the first line of James Taylor’s first record, released on Apple not long before ‘Abbey Road’. While John and Paul are, to some extent, keeping songs earmarked for solo projects close to their chest, George has such an embarrassment of riches he can afford to give lots away, so it’s surprising perhaps that he only gets two songs on the album, doubly so given the problems that John and Paul have filling up space (hence the medley of left-overs) and the fact that even the usually disparaging Lennon – who so resented taking part in George’s songs that he plays on barely a half-dozen over the years - called ‘Something’ ‘the best song on the album’ when asked to comment in interviews. It wasn’t George keeping his songs ‘out’ of the pot either: early versions of ‘My Sweet Lord’ ‘Isn’t It A Pity?’ ‘Awaiting On You All’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’ are all played during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions too, although only the latter ever comes close to making the album (John and Paul spend a lot of time working out some lovely harmonies, which makes its exclusion all the stranger – especially as last minute replacements ‘For You, Blue’ and ‘I Me Mine’ are nowhere near as memorable).George had a right to feel left-out of this album, which was organised at Lennon’s insistence and with McCartney’s eventual blessing (in contrast to ‘Let It Be’, which all but ends when he walks out on the band and only starts again on his terms when he agrees to come back), but instead Harrison seems to have taken a laissez-faire attitude to ‘Abbey Road’, appearing at near enough every session and not arguing too much over his lack of songwriting credits (perhaps the knowledge that he has ‘All Things Must Pass’ safe to go means he doesn’t care quite so much?)
That leaves Ringo. It seems hard to believe now but most of the Beatles’ 1969 sessions were fitted around their drummer’s activities, although as an actor rather than a musician (Ringo was in high demand this year, working on the under-rated ‘Magic Christian’ and the over-rated ‘Candy’ in quick succession). On the plus side, he’s had the time to work on ‘Octopuses’ Garden’ with George’s help, only his second ever song (give or take some lines added to Lennon’s ‘What Goes On’ and a verse in Cream’s single ‘Badge’ when George and Eric got stuck) and while no ‘She’s So Heavy’ or ‘Something’ it is, at least, better suited to the album than ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. On the downside, his drumming has lost the extra little spark he’d been bringing to the band across 1968 and ‘Let It Be’ and Ringo, much more than the others, seems to struggling to cope with the ‘overdubbing’ procedure which means that, rather than playing together, Ringo is having to work off tapes (to be charitable, it may be that Ringo’s parts are laid down first, around his acting work – in which case no wonder he sometimes sounds like he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on). His drum solo in ‘The End’ is unbelievably sloppy, even for a drummer who fought tooth and nail to never have record a drum solo on record and he sounds less ‘into’ these songs than usual, even Lennon’s most intellectual/autobiographical moments (traditionally the songs that Ringo plays on best: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ ‘A Day In The Life’ ‘Rain’ ‘She Said She Said’ and most of the ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ primal scream album) like ‘I Want You’ sounding a little false.
If there’s a theme to this album, it’s one of fate and destiny. For seven years now a whopping great series of coincidences have come together to keep The Beatles on their path to success – and now a similar range of events are conspiring to make them stop. Apple business meetings have turned sour, the rows over Allen Klein are splitting the cracks caused by the end of touring and the death of Brian Epstein even further and John and Paul’s new relationships to ‘significant partners part two’ (Yoko and Linda respectively) all point to signs that the ‘dream is over’ (we don’t hear about it till decades later, but George Harrison is meant to have had an affair with Ringo’s first wife Maureen in this period, damaging the relationship between the two Beatles who were always the closest). There are several cosy respites from this storm, which helps gives the album its overall sunny, happy feel (‘Something’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’ ‘Octopuses’ Garden’), but generally most songs on ‘Abbey Road’ tackle big themes of helplessness and hopelessness, a trait that’s unusual for a band who are usually writing from the point of view of having the world at their feet. Lennon is so obsessed by Yoko that ‘I Want You’ becomes arguably his single most intense song until ‘Cold Turkey’, a single hypnotic churning riff pulling the song relentlessly forwards seemingly despite the narrator’s attempts to hold back before ending the only way it can, with a sudden jarring splice of the master-tape. And this despite a back catalogue of similar angst-ridden material of which ‘Come Together’, with its opening cry of ‘shoot me’, is only slightly less macabre. McCartney might still be writing seemingly ‘jolly’ songs like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ but take a look at the lyrics: this is the crushing, unseen hand of fate that brings dreams crashing down about our ears at the worst possible moments and leaves us powerless to stop them. His pleading middle eight for ‘Oh! Darling!’ (which is more like the intensity in one of Lennon’s songs) and the sighing, despairing ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘Carry That Weight’ are further examples of the frustrations of this deeply melancholy period. It’s left to George and Ringo to add the smiles and laughs, but only just: ‘Octopuses’ Garden’ was written about a holiday the drummer took at the last minute after a nasty band row during ‘The White Album’ after which he seriously thought about quitting the group and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ was written straight after another interminable sorrowful Apple business meeting where old friends of several decades turned on each other and brought out wounds that had never healed. Curiously the surviving Beatles all talked about how fond they were of this album when making ‘Anthology’, and the band at least appeared to get on better than they had on ‘Let It Be’, but the idea of ‘Abbey Road’ as a ‘happy’ album with all four men pulling together as in the days of old is clearly wrong (the infamous story about Paul physically attacking John after one too many cracks at new wife Linda occurred during the making of this album, not ‘Let It Be’): ‘Abbey Road’ is a difficult album made by a band under duress but whose bounciest, happiest moments cast such a rosy glow over the album that the darkness is reduced to occasional shadows, scudding over shiny skies.
Does it matter that ‘Abbey Road’ is, to some extent, a fake Beatles album, built from overdubbing and additives? Well, yes and no. The best parts of the album ‘get away’ with it without you noticing (‘Somewhere’ may be a solo George song that Paul and Ringo spent about five minutes on and on which Lennon doesn’t appear but it still sounds highly ‘Beatleish’). Some of the worst parts, too, actually feature the band playing together in one room – notably ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, the interminable sessions for which are the biggest cause of band disunity since ‘Let It Be’ (Lennon giggling later that he thought he’d be trapped recording that song for all eternity, it went on so long). But there are others where we badly need a bit more ‘Let It Be’ about this album – like the swampy blues ‘Come Together’ where you cry out for some real Beatle interaction (the song works much better in ‘rehearsal’ form as heard on ‘Anthology Three’, where the fab four are indeed playing live), ‘Oh! Darling!’ (a song that could have really rocked but instead barely rolls). Frankly the best bits of this album are the ‘opposite’ to the best bits of ‘Let It Be’ – the funkier, rougher, all-in-one-room outtakes of the ‘Abbey Road’ songs on ‘Anthology’ and various bootlegs having much more pizzazz than the often-swamped productions on this album (whereas on ‘Let It Be’ it’s the ‘more together’ outtakes that work the best, Phil Spector shockingly overlooking relatively polished and ‘together’ takes of ‘I Dig A Pony’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ in favour of rougher, tentative versions). It’s strange, too, to consider what is ‘missing’ from this album, rejected so that songs like ‘Maxwell’s could get through: ‘Come and Get It’ (an uncharacteristically acerbic song that Paul always intended for ‘Badfinger’, even though the song couldn’t be less like the sort of quietly hopeful, forgiveness-inducing material that under-rated band were all about), ‘Oh I Need You’ (an unfinished Lennon ballad that sounds more like a McCartney one), ‘Teddy Boy’ (Macca’s veiled tale of Lennon’s life that ended up on ‘McCartney’) ‘Junk’ (one of Macca’s classiest ballads, again released on ‘McCartney’) and all the Harrison songs mentioned earlier. Surely, surely, if the band really were interested in giving all their best then the dream of this material could have been added to the album instead, turning a patchy record into a world-beating one? Well, the sad fact is that the Beatles weren’t always the best judges of their own material (just look at how they replaced the brilliant ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ with the hideous ‘Mr Moonlight’ on ‘Beatles For Sale’) – it’s just that, luckily for us, their mistake rate is one of the lowest in musical history, their ‘weak’ recordings numbering perhaps 10 at most (not bad for a career that resulted in nearly 300 with the ‘outtakes’ and ‘BBC’ sets!)
The problem with reviewing ‘Abbey Road’ is that it’s impossible to untangle it from the fact that this is and was almost always intended to be the final Beatles LP. The fact that the album managed to not be ‘terrible’, that the band had got to the end of it without disintegrating any further, featured such an iconic and easily copied photograph and had a deeply popular single in ‘Something’ released the same month was more than enough, the population of the world in 1969 interested in music breathing a collected sigh of relief. I’m not sure I entirely dispute the claim that ‘Abbey Road’ is a ‘good’ LP either. After all, ‘Abbey Road’ is in no way shape or form a ‘bad’ album – no record that includes ‘Here Comes The Sun’ ‘Something’ ‘I Want You’ ‘Because’ and ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ could ever be called that, five classics from three of the world’s greatest songwriters that deserve a place in any collection. No, my problem comes when ‘Abbey Road’ is referred to as ‘The Beatles’ masterpiece’ – frankly it’s probably the least consistent record they ever made (give or take the ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack) and to my ears ‘Let It Be’ has the stronger songs, if not always the stronger performances, while George Martin’s glossy production robs the album of more colour than it provides. ‘Let It Be’, recorded about six months before ‘Abbey Road’ but released approximately six months after, was called in one of the most famous reviews of its day (Alan Smith in the NME) as a ‘cardboard tombstone, a cheap and tatty epitaph for a band that did so much to change the face of popular music’. Well, if that’s the case (and by and large it is, however great spots on that record are) then ‘Abbey Road’ is one of those chintzy headstones, wearily blinking away into the night to make the plot look bright and fabulous and the fact that it’s creator was of huge significant importance while hiding the fact that the concrete is crumbling underneath. To my ears both albums come out more or less equal, with Lennon’s creative spirit up but McCartney’s fire dampened down, returning us full circle to the time when Lennon was the band’s creative force and reason for being. It’s been quite a journey, from Cavern basement to Abbey Road crossing, and the fact that the Beatles made another album at all after the spectacular fall-out on ‘Let It Be’ is a reason to cherish this album, oblivious of quality. It’s just a shame that, once and once only, ‘Abbey Road’ is more than hype than substance, an album that gets it spectacularly wrong as many times as it gets things spectacularly right and only intermittently reminding us of how powerful, pioneering, positive and pleasing the Beatles were. Goodbyes are always hard to do and yet we always want them to be perfect somehow – understandably, perhaps, ‘Abbey Road’ only half delivers on its promise of ‘ending things right’ after the false-start that was ‘Let It Be’, but oh what a wonderful half it is when this record gets things right!
‘Come Together’ is the last of Lennon’s great quintology of ‘nonsense’ songs, whose lyrics are deliberately obtuse and which have been arriving at the rate of one an album ever since ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ (e.g. ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘I Dig A Pony’). Inspired by Yoko and her mantra that all art is art simply because it is made by an ‘artist’, it’s the last of a run of ideas that are about to be halted forever by Lennon’s discovery of ‘primal scream’ therapy and a new-found belief that all songs have to be ‘honest’. Like the first three (but not the playful fourth) it gets away with the nonsense by sounding like it has some meaning: Lennon starts the song singing ‘shoot me’ in an intense whisper (scarily so, given the events of just 11 years later), sings with a ‘Walrus’ like sneer throughout (Liam Gallagher probably took his singing lessons from this song as well as ‘Rain’) and the lyrics, while gobbledegook, are definitely pointed angrily at someone (possibly Lennon himself). The song was written to order when LSD guru Timothy Leary decided to stand as Mayor of New York (fearing he’d win by a landslide and afraid of what he’d do next the powers that be managed to get him imprisoned during election weekend on old drugs charges that mysteriously evaporated once the election had been called) and despite barely knowing Lennon contacted him asking for a song. Chances are he was looking for a slogan akin to ‘All You Need Is Love’ or Lennon’s new one ‘Give Peace A Chance’, but an uninspired Lennon got nowhere until he started playing his favourite Chuck Berry records for Yoko and began wandering what he might have sounded like as a swampy blues singer...Unfortunately Lennon was so casual about it that he ‘stole’ not only the song’s distinctive riff from the Berry song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ but the opening two lines as well (‘Here come flat-top, he come grooving up slowly’); even Lennon couldn’t argue his way out of the fact that there was no way two songwriters could have come up with these two lyrics ‘independently’ and the ensuing court case will dominate his life for some time (trying to appease the song’s publishers he covers ‘Ya Ya’ for ‘Walls and Bridges’ and then concocts the entire ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ album as a way of getting round using old covers on an album of new material: his weariness over this court case – and a subsequent one whereby an unofficial album of the same material, ‘Roots’, is released without his say-so had huge effects, leading directly to his ‘retirement’ in 1974 and, by virtue of the press given to his comeback and the article that inspired Mark Chapman to believe his hero has ‘betrayed’ him, indirectly his death in 1980, all because of this one lapse in concentration).
Curiously, despite the problems this song caused – and the fact that Leary turned the song down flat, probably the first time since the early 60s anyone had said ‘no’ to a Beatle, Lennon was always deeply fond of this song; his only Beatles composition he ever played live (at the ‘New York City’ benefit in 1972). It’s certainly one of his funniest lyrics, arguably the closest he ever came to capturing the prose style of ‘In His Own Write’ and ‘A Spaniard In The Works’, mixing the obvious (‘one and one is three’ ‘he got feet down below his knees!’), ‘hip’ slang most of his audience wouldn’t know (‘spinal cracker’ is a Japanese term for a tradition where wives walk along their husband’s backs to keep them supple; ‘Muddy Water’ is a 1950s blues singer; ‘mojo filter’ an American slang term for cigarettes) and some Lennonish inventions that sound like they should exist (‘juju eyeballs’) and some in-jokes (‘Bag Productions’ is Lennon’s latest company – the idea being that if every human being spent their life in a ‘bag’ there would be no sexism, racism or religious awkwardness). Not all the lines work (inspiration is clearly running out by the third and final verse) and the song’s chorus is a bit of an anticlimax after so many imaginative lines (‘Come together, right now, over me!’), with the sexual innuendo sounding more like a ‘Carry On’ film. Some of the lines are deeply clever though (‘He’s got to be good looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see’) and among Lennon’s most inspired work since ‘The White Album’. What this song lacks is a melody strong enough to cope with the words (one of the few Lennon songs not to have a strong musical hook, he owes a great debt to McCartney who provides one with his memorable rolling bass lines, bringing out the song’s bluesy spirit) and any sense of tying the disparate images together into anything other than a ramble. Fun as this song is, it’s not as memorable as ‘I Am The Walrus’ sheer audacity, the whole-is-bigger-than-its-parts collage ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, the sneering good time rock and roll of ‘Hey Bulldog’ or the sheer playfulness of ‘I Dig A Pony’, one of Lennon’s most under-rated songs. Still, by turns eerie, comical and adventurous, ‘Come Together’ features one last great band performance (the early version one ‘Anthology Three’, with the band genuinely playing the same room for almost the last time, is better still) and some very clever ideas.
‘Something’ was the big hit from the album and the last Beatles single in their lifetime, disc-jockeys quickly promoting it from the B-side of ‘Come Together’ to an equal A-side. Unusual for Harrison (most of his love songs are unhappy and most of his songs are about God or philosophy rather than love to begin with), it’s amazing to think that it had already been hanging round The Beatles’ catalogue for some 18 months before being recorded (a demo, heard on ‘Anthology Three’ was taped on George’s 26th birthday in February 1968; shockingly he’ll ‘abandon’ this song in favour of silly fluff like ‘Savoy Truffle’ and arrogant fluff like ‘Piggies’). Perhaps that’s because, like ‘Yesterday’ before it, Harrison worried about plagiarism: the song seemed to arrive out of thin air, unusual for the writer who tended to work on his songs more than John (an instinctive lyricist and ideasman) and Paul (an instinctive writer of melodies) – in fact, like ‘Yesterday’ George seemed intent on ‘selling’ this song to an outside source (both Joe Cocker and George’s friend and Apple recording act Jackie Lomax turned it down – interestingly both share a similar raw, raucous voice that would have been very ‘wrong’ for the song). The first lines are indeed ‘borrowed’ (the second time in a row on this album), George actually going to the trouble of asking new Apple signee James Taylor (long before he found fame in the mid 1970s) if he could ‘borrow’ the opening lines from his song ‘Something in the way she moves...’ The two songs quickly go in different directions after this however, Taylor sticking to a more fairytale like vision of a Goddess and George’s lyric (surely inspired by wife Patti) the most down-to-earth he ever wrote. Like ‘Come Together’ the inspiration wanes by the middle eight (‘Stick around and it may show’ – what will?!) Slow and serene, without trying too hard, ‘Something’ is quite different to George’s usual style, with a memorable guitar hook and a quite beautiful tune that sounds more like something Paul would have written. Unusually, though, it’s McCartney who comes close to spoiling the track, adding a far too busy bass-line that dominates the other instruments in the mix (did Paul think this slow track needed livening up, forgetting George’s own stately part on his similarly slow song ‘And I Love Her’?), while Ringo’s drums are clinical and hollow for such an obviously ‘real’ song (Lennon, as usual on George’s songs, doesn’t appear). Despite such sabotage, though, George is at his best here: the track putting emphasis on his vocal (which he sensibly but bravely keeps single-tracked for most of the song, suggesting humbleness and awe) and his guitar-playing, both of which are superb. An important stepping stone to the confidence and ‘size’ of ‘All Things Must Pass’ there’s ‘something’ about ‘something’ that makes it one of the Beatles’ best known songs (No less than Frank Sinatra called this track ‘the greatest love song of the past 50 years’, although then again he also called it ‘Lennon and McCartney’s biggest masterpiece’, so that shows you how much attention he was paying!)
Alas if ‘Something’ was George excelling at Paul’s territory then ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is Paul failing at George’s. A sombre subject matter treated as a huge joke, this song about destiny regularly tops polls of ‘worst Beatles songs’ and has been notably absent from Macca’s tour sets down the years. No one else has ever said this but my theory is that this song was inspired by Beatles manager Mal Evans, a gentle giant who wouldn’t have harmed a fly, and is an attempt to rope him onto his third and final Beatles recording session (playing an ‘anvil’, following such heights as blowing bubbles into water for ‘Yellow Submarine’ and shovelling gravel on ‘You Know My Name, Look Up The Number’, his name metamorphomising into ‘Maxwell’ to better fit the song’s rhythm. If so, I hope he appreciated the joke because nobody else did; Macca drove the other three to distraction on this song, insisting on new arrangements and new takes convinced it would make a great ‘single’ even though Lennon, particularly, hated this song with its imaginary characters, the antithesis of his own work in the post-Yoko period (his sarcastic backing vocals are the best thing about this song). Charitably you could say this was McCartney trying to engage with the project (despite what you might have read in some books ‘Abbey Road’ was Lennon’s idea – and a slap in the face to McCartney’s ‘Let It Be’ idea of performing ‘live’); less charitably he must surely have known how badly this song would have gone down with the others (if you could pinpoint the band’s breakup to a single day, it’s the similarly fruitless one recording ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ where everybody fell out with each other and – unbelievably – was all for nothing anyway when Macca changed his mind about the arrangement). While not quite the worst song he ever wrote (it’s less twee than ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and better than a good half of the flaming awful ‘Flaming Pie’ for instance) it’s not one of his more inspired moments, the whole seemingly written around the very McCartney-esque decision to get his new favourite word of the day ‘pataphysical’ into a song (an imaginary branch of metaphysics invented by Alfred Jarry, an ‘absurdist’ playwright). Too brutal to be funny, too tongue-in-cheek to be taken seriously, the song falls between two stools, Paul for once in his Beatles career mis-judging the mood (signs of his solo career to come perhaps?) by rhyming the words ‘head’ and ‘dead’ and – instead of having Maxwell as a hapless hopeless narrator driven by fate – instead turns him into an un-caring murderer. Macca later explained that he felt that the ‘silver hammer’ was the act of fate that always gets in the way of people’s plans – which would have made a fitting subject matter for an album of songs about how the end of the Beatles is all but inevitable. However, what we get instead is a teenage hooligan who gets more sympathy from the narrator than any of his innocent victims, accompanied by a cod-music hall riff and a vocal that tries too hard to makes things funny (McCartney’s unfunny chuckle at 1:30, while Maxwell is writing lines, sounds desperate to make this awful song funny rather than genuine). For all, that, though, some of the rhymes in this song (this is a song written deliberately round it’s rhyming scheme’, something more common to Lennon’s songs) are genuinely funny: ‘Rose and Valerie screaming from the gallery’ ‘PC 31 says ‘We’ve caught a dirty one’; it’s just a shame that the context (girlfriend Joan, Maxwell’s schoolteacher and the judge in court all die a horrible death) is completely wrong. A poor man’s ‘Rocky Raccoon’ – and I say that as a reviewer who hates that godawful song too! Whoever put this song the ‘Blue’ compilation – instead of other period McCartney songs like ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ should have been shot, quite honestly. One of the biggest lapses in judgement on a Beatles record and a candidate for their worst recording ever, misjudged from beginning to end. ‘Instant Karma’, a solo Lennon track that borrows heavily from the ideas in this song, beats it in every way.
However ‘awful’ you consider ‘Maxwell’ to be, however, at least it was inspired – of sorts (inspired by the wrong idea, admittedly, but inspired all the same). ‘Oh! Darling’ is a McCartney track seemingly devoid of invention, returning to the boogie-woogie retro sounds of ‘Back In The USSR’ and ‘Birthday’ without sounding anything like as good. In fact, this is close to being a 10cc pastiche, not that that band exists yet (when they do, though, they rip this track off mercilessly for ‘Donna’, their debut single). Macca tries hard, delivering a nicely gritty vocal which apparently took some time to record (Paul, inevitably arriving first to most of the sessions, warmed up with this song every day for weeks before nailing the final take; Lennon mischievously said in the press at the time that he ‘hated’ this vocal his partner had spent such time on and that he should have sung the song himself!) Unfortunately, there’s not much in this song to get his tonsils into as twist about: seemingly his response to Lennon’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and a sign of commitment to wife Linda to rival John’s to Yoko, Macca simply isn’t built for writing a song of such intensity and the song’s comical 50s rock swing and gulping guitar parps get rather in the way of his message. That said, the middle eight is a good one, Macca finally dropping his guard for a passage of the song that seems to be connected with something else entirely (surely, surely, this is the first in a run of songs about Paul’s ‘nervous breakdown’ period post-Beatles, with songs of this theme dominating his opening trilogy of post-Beatles product ‘McCartney’ ‘Ram’ and ‘Wildlife’. It’s hard to read the middle eight ‘When you told me you didn’t need me anymore, well you know I nearly broke down and died!’ as being about Linda – my guess it’s about Lennon’s business meeting of mid 1969 that ‘he was leaving the group’). Alas a great vocal and a memorable middle eight don’t make for a whole song and – by McCartney’s high standards at least – ‘Oh! Darling’ is a forgettable song, adding little of interest to an album overflowing with ideas.
‘Octopuses’ Garden’ is Ringo’s moment in the spotlight, after missing out on a vocal for the first time ever on a Beatles album on ‘Let It Be’. Correctly guessing that both Lennon and McCartney would have their hands full, Ringo asks George to work on only his second song (indeed, Harrison should have received a writing credit, arranging Ringo’s ideas into some sort of order and adding a tune – of sorts – via his sterling guitar work). As stated earlier, the song was inspired by a Ringo family holiday to Sardinia, taken suddenly when the drummer took a barbed insult to heart during The White Album and vowed never to work with the others again; thankfully a fortnight’s holiday cooled him off (the others recorded ‘Back In The USSR’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ with Paul on drums in his absence). Renting a boat, Ringo got talking to the captain who encouraged him to go scuba-diving by telling him about some of the sights he’d seen under the waters, including a place where Octopuses took to building ‘nests’ or ‘gardens’ from pearls. His imagination intrigued, Ringo started off writing a nonsense children’s song, a sort of 1969 ‘Yellow Submarine’, but somewhere a long line Ringo’s emotions bled through the song, the angry drummer imagining a safe haven far away from the storm-clouds of Abbey Road, ‘with no one there to tell us what to do’. Gardens were clearly in vogue at the time, George paying several hundred pounds to drape Ringo’s drumkit with flowers on his return (although the most moving response is Paul’s postcard, delivered to Ringo in Sardinia, which reads ‘You are the greatest drummer in the world. Really’ and is published in Ringo’s book of Postcards). One of only two Beatles songs covered by The Muppets (along with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’), ‘Octopuses’ Garden’ isn’t up to Lennon, McCartney or Harrison standards yet, but shows how much Ringo has learnt since ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ the year before, adding a proper beginning middle and end to the song this time and a catchy chorus and sweet backing vocals (which, dare I say it, sounds more like Harrison’s work). The underwater effects are great (McCartney especially sounding good), George’s guitar shines brightly (it might not be his best part ever but the sound is one of the best he ever got his guitar, ringing loud and clear) and even Ringo’s voice is more in-tune than normal. Filler certainly, but well produced and performed filler which puts it a class above the last two songs at least.
‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is anything but filler. Love it or loathe it (few Beatleologists are neutral on this song), this hypnotising song is impressively raw, dragging out one of Lennon’s most on-the-edge vocals on a lyric – while every bit as brief and non-descript as ‘Oh! Darling – sounds far more chilling and honest when connected to the lyric. Personally I’ve always loved this song which is perhaps the most open song of all about John’s relationship with Yoko. ‘Let down’ in his eyes by every ‘mother’ figure going (from John’s own mother Julia to first wife Cynthia), Lennon screams out his commitment here, pleading with the new love of his love to never ever let him down like those before her because he’s invested so much into their relationship. The curious subtitle ‘She’s So Heavy’ is a reference not to Yoko’s physical weight (she was and is of a very fragile build), but her intellectual weight: deeper than any human being Lennon has ever met, John can’t quite believe she has chosen him and accepts that – for the first time ever – his life-long question ‘I’m not like everyone else – but does that make me stupid or clever?’ – has been answered by her belief in him. Far from bringing him comfort, though, this thought brings him doubt – what if he lets her down or, worse, she lets him down? (It speaks volumes that Lennon’s ‘other’ key song of 1969 is B-side ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, a more straightforward song on the same theme; a second ‘unfinished’ song from the period is even more simply titled ‘I Need You’, like Harrison’s song of four years earlier). When Lennon sings that she drives him ‘mad’, he’s not doing it for effect or making a joke – he means it; the sheer intensity of their relationship (where the two didn’t spend any time apart for years, including going to the bathroom together) reflected in one of rock’s all time greatest riffs, a churning cyclical angry slashing of chords that range from a high sunny peak to a down-trodden angry swirl, a riff that must have pulled on all of Lennon’s physical strength to play after yanking him bodily around his guitar, never-ending in its balance of yin and yang, from happiness to fear and belief to doubt. The fact that Lennon, unusually, effectively ‘sings along’; with the riff throughout makes it clear that this guitar part is connected deeply to his feelings – like the guitar has been plugged directly into his heart, an idea that works wonderfully here. In fact Lennon’s guitar-work has never been better, especially his bluesy solo from 2:30 to 3:00, reinventing his ‘heavy rock’ riff for a 1950s sound.
Like ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, Lennon’s trickiest song on the album by some margin inspires easily their greatest ensemble playing of the period, Harrison’s doubling guitar every bit as strong and faithful as Lennon’s and McCartney’s genuinely excited bass riffs adding nice touches of colour (after Lennon turned up to the protracted sessions for this song with laryngitis one day, McCartney had no hesitation in taking over the vocal and sounds like he’s having a great time, instantly understanding the song – alas this much bootlegged take has yet to be officially released, along with similar ones of John tackling ‘Something’ and George tackling ‘Get Back’). Only Ringo sounds less than convinced, which is a shame given how much space this song has for his traditional ‘Ringo runs’ and well he normally plays on Lennon’s ‘heavier’, more emotional songs. An atmospheric ice-cold wind blows in halfway through the song, played on George’s newly bought mellotron (although opinion differs as to who actually plays it), adding to atmosphere as the song lurches far past it’s finishing point, circling on and on and sounding increasingly desperate and urgent, angular and awkward as it goes on and on towards the eight minute point. At last – after 19 straight repetitions – the song ends, not by finding any musical resolution but simply by having the tape violently stopped mid-cycle. For a long time ‘Abbey Road’ was planned to end this way, thus ending the Beatles’ career on an unfinished, violent, jarring note; the complete opposite of the ‘happy ending’ of ‘The End’, an idea revived by ‘The Beatles: Rockband’ game which closes on this song, the ‘wind’ heard on the song enveloping the band and swirling them back through time to the beginning and the ‘Cavern basement’ once again. Wonderfully thought out and terrifically played, ‘I Want You’ is not to everyone’s tastes (arguably out-toughing every Heavy Metal band in existence) but is a fascinating, important, groundbreaking track that proves how – at their best – the Beatles had a telepathic interplay like no band before or since. For me the highlight of the entire album.
‘Here Comes The Sun’ offers a warm, cosy rosy glow for the listener to bask in – the perfect healing tonic to the violent winds of ‘I Want You’. Written by a fed-up George who’d spent all morning in a business meeting and only arriving late for an appointment with good friend Eric Clapton at his house, this song reflects the writer’s gradual realisation that he still has the afternoon before him with the sun out and his best friend in a great mood. A gardener born and bred, Harrison spent as much time out in the open air as he could and must have been furious when the problems at Apple meant he had to spend so much time away from home – just at the point when George had met his property soulmate in the estate at Friar Park (built by an eccentric monk and left in disarray for decades), which needed a lot of work at the time. Stuck indoors for hours in London, George must have yearned for the country, a thought that Paul, too, will put to music in a year’s time in several songs on ‘Ram’ about his own ‘retreat’ on his Mull of Kintyre farm. George will return to this song of happier times once more, in 1979 when he meets and marries second wife Olivia after a very unhappy period, inspiring the similar songs ‘Blow Away’ and ‘Here Comes The Moon’. A happy, sunny acoustic riff and a silly but perfectly fitting lyric (referring to the listener as my ‘little darling’ and with the assured tagline ‘It’s alright!’, last heard in quite a different context during Lennon’s worried ‘Revolution’), this is a charming song about better times ahead that’s far more successful than its predecessor ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and is sure to put a smile on the listener’s face. Like ‘I Want You’ simplicity is the key here (these two songs would have been a better fit for the back-to-basics ‘Let It Be’ than most of the songs on that album), George originally intended to add much more to the song, abandoning a whole guitar solo in favour of keeping just the acoustic guitar backing (officially unreleased but available on Youtube). Lennon is again missing, but Paul does his old school-friend proud, adding a delightful bass part, a lovely harmony vocal and possibly the harmonium part too. Not that deep or pioneering, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ gets by from its sheer verve, spirit and pretty tune.
‘Because’, on the other hand, is as complex a song as The Beatles ever made. New to Western style music, Yoko was learning the piano to keep up with her husband (at the same time he was immersing himself in all things Japanese and avant garde art). Attempting to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ one day, Lennon jokingly asked her to play it ‘backwards’ – the melody that fell out, while not a perfect replica of the piece, was enough to inspire this song (some sources say the song is actually closer to ‘Moonlight Sonata’ played the ‘proper’ way – according to my ears, ‘Because’ is an approximation of the melody both ways, with typically Lennon unexpected changes of note to cover any gaps). Bare, naked and empty, it’s the closest the three ‘singing’ Beatles ever came to performing a capella (and indeed Anthology Three’ will feature a mix without the mellotron and guitar accompaniment) and shows off how well their voices went together – even if, unusually, McCartney gets to sing falsetto, something he rarely does on other Beatles songs. Again, how marvellous that three such different singers were born just a few miles away from each other and that they all met up when they did – some things about the Beatles’ story really do make you believe in fate. Talking of fate this icily beautiful song sets out – hailku-like – Lennon’s latest twist on his deeply spiritual lyrics for ‘Across The Universe’, only this time denouncing the religious imagery and stating the world is the way it is simply ‘because’. Having rid himself of the Catholic church at school and the Maharishi in India, Lennon’s only belief now is in love (more to come on this in his first solo album...), with some of the simplest verses Lennon wrote all successfully invoking spiritual thoughts. To a fanatical lover of harmonies like me (hence the amount of Beach Boys and CSN albums we cover), this accompaniment is near-perfect: there’s nothing more spiritual than hearing such different and distinctive figures combine in harmony and the effect is incredible, even if the song sounds rather more detached and ice-cool than Lennon’s usual work. Many reviewers have claimed that this song was inspired more by drugs than love (this is the period when both John and Yoko got hooked on heroin) and there’s something in that: glisteningly cold, as if all the ‘heart’ and emotions have been sucked raw from this song (and thus incredibly unique in the emotional Lennon’s back catalogue) it’s as if the narrator’s real emotions have been suppressed by this song and the images of nature and lines about ‘blows my mind’ are close to the images from a lot of ‘drug’ songs. Uncharacteristic as it is, though, and whatever the source behind it ‘Because’ is a marvellous song that finally makes good on seven years’ worth of Lennon re-writes of one of his personal favourites, the harmony drenched B-side ‘This Boy’ (for which ‘Yes It Is’ in particular is a dead ringer), but from an older, mature point of view. Correctly realising he’ll never work with singers of this calibre again, Lennon makes use of his friends one last time. The results are achingly gorgeous, The Beatles at their most CSN-ish.
The Abbey Road Medley is up next: a nine song segue that appears to have a theme (the end of the Beatles) but only really at the beginning and end. Made at McCartney’s suggestion, it gives him one last choice to ‘orchestrate’ the others and turn even their off-cuts into something usable: predictably Lennon hated the idea but was over-ruled by George Martin and accepted it when he realised he could use up lots of old songs and wouldn’t have to put much effort into the idea. At times the medley does indeed sound like a collection of ‘outtakes’ strung together randomly, losing its way badly in the middle, but there’s something satisfyingly rounded about it that other similar medleys (such as McCartney’s second go at the end of ‘Red Rose Speedway’) never quite get right. In context even the lighter songs in the string of entries sound faintly ominous and the slight mirroring of The Beatles’ years by reprising old themes and styles (albeit out of order – by rights the band’s most Scousish song ‘Polythene Pam’ should be first) is a moving experience for anyone who heard these albums in the years they came out. Fragmented, scattered, unfocussed and with bits of filler separated by moments of pure genius, it’s also a pretty good signpost of where all three songwriting Beatles will head in their solo careers.
The first song ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ should be last, for instance, with easily the best McCartney song on ‘Abbey Road’ telling you everything you needed to know about the Beatles-break up. Starting with a slow, sighing piano chord, you can almost hear Paul shrug his shoulders as he admits – a full six months earlier than Lennon – that ‘the dream is over’. His references to ‘funny paper’ comes from the interminable Apple business meetings, where the Beatles’ fortune was split four ways but to managerial obfuscation and sheer ignorance on The Beatles’ part of where their money was they never physically saw most of the money they earned: all they saw was bits of ‘funny paper’ with figures on them. By and large this opening section is a McCartney solo piece, three Pauls in harmony accompanied by his own piano and bass as if to emphasise how isolated he feels. A second section has Macca’s ‘brighter’ ‘Oh! Darling’ vocal singing and appears on the surface to be an entirely different character ‘out of college, money spent’. It’s clear, though, that Macca is talking about his Beatle days in the same way his peers probably talked about their college and university days, ending up at the end with a great deal of learning but also substantial poverty and confusion about what to do next. A gorgeous middle eight turns this song on its head though, with its message of doors opening while others close: in a repeat of ‘Two Of Us’ (Paul’s earliest song for Linda and their days spent getting joylessly ‘lost’ in the country, without any plan in contrast to the structured Beatle business meetings). Suddenly being out of work and with no prospects becomes the best thing that could ever have happened, ‘oh that magic feeling of nowhere to go’ as if Paul is audibly coming to terms with the fact that The Beatles are no more. A turbulent ending, with the tension raised via a chilling guitar solo (that sounds more like Paul than George or John) has Paul speeding away from the Beatles with only a last longing look over his shoulder before turning to look at Linda and a new life away from the mess the Beatles years had become. Telling her (and the audience listening) to wipe that tear away’ because ‘one sweet dream came true today’ this is McCartney’s happier take on Lennon’s better known ‘God’ stating that the author very much believes in the Beatles but that – to borrow another Beatle title – ‘all things must pass’. The most obscure of the five truly great ‘Abbey Road’ songs (along with ‘Something’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’ ‘I Want You’ and ‘Because’) it’s a typically upbeat McCartney farewell message that more than any of his other Beatles songs paints the path his early solo years will take. McCartney finally returned to this song after several years playing the ‘end’ of the Abbey Road medley in the mid 2000s, albeit shamelessly vamping through the second verse (‘And this is the best where I don’t know the words, but I don’t think I’m going to learn them before the end of the tour!’) His younger self was much more meticulous: hundreds of hours seem to have been spent on this track, almost all of them by McCartney alone, and they pay off handsomely with one of it’s authors deepest and most multi-layered works.
‘Sun King’, too, is a brighter spot in the medley, a lazy Lennon ballad (his one ‘new’ song in the Medley) that borrows heavily from two other ‘Abbey Road’ songs: the harmonies of ‘Because’ and the opening line of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ (Lennon merely adding the word ‘King’). The scene is a court, presumably a medieval one, where ‘everyone is laughing’ in their joy at seeing their ruler crowned. Louis IV was often referred to as ‘The Sun King’ and more than one person has pointed out that historian Nancy Mitford’s biography of the King (titled ‘The Sun King’) had been published in 1968. Lennon wasn’t much of a reader, though (except for books on philosophy, interestingly) and was less interested in history, so it seems more likely that a TV programme or a ‘dream’ inspired the piece (Lennon’s two main muses outside of Yoko in the second half of the 60s). Of all the songs in the medley, this is the one I’d wish had been expanded most, Lennon successfully invoking a mood of awe and tranquillity but having no space to go after two dreamily beautiful verses. Instead he ends this faintly Spanish song with two extra lines of goobledegook which translate roughly as this: “When for lots my love I’m happy in my heart, world of media my love girl, tongue-worm parasol, costs forced so much carousel”. While potentially a ‘Spanish’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ or ‘I Dig A Pony’, it’s probable Lennon was merely ‘filling’ his song with ‘likely’ sounding Spanish words but was too lazy to actually work on any ‘real’ phrases (‘Sun King’ is very much an unfinished song). Listen out for how much work McCartney is putting into the song, though, adding a lovely lilting restless bass part, a sensitive flowing keyboard part (which sounds more Rick Wright in Pink Floyd than The Beatles) and a taped sound effect of crickets made in the grounds of McCartney’s London house late one night (the same tape is re-used when Macca guests on the 10cc song ‘Code Of Silence’ on their album ‘Mirror Mirror’ in 1995, itself a leftover recording from Paul’s days writing with Eric Stewart in the mid-80s). A strong group performance and a fascinating opening verse sadly don’t make for the greatest recording ever, but ‘Sun King’ has an awful lot of promise – it’s a shame that Lennon never finished writing it.
‘Mean Mr Mustard’ is an older Lennon song, written in India during the 1968 Beatle stay with the Maharishi and taped as a demo on the band’s return to London (see ‘Anthology Three’). The last (chronologically) in the great AAA trio of misers (following The Who’s ‘Silas Stingy’ from ‘Who Sell Out’ and The Monkees’ ‘Mr Webster’ from ‘Headquarters’), this song is kinder to the persecuted Scrooge than both others but isn’t as funny as the demo which Lennon treats as a comedy (this straight-faced harmonised version sounds more like a drama). Quite why a spiritually led Lennon was thinking of such monetary matters in India is unknown – perhaps this song started off as a dig about capitalism, only the message got altered when The Beatles themselves became businessmen with Apple? Lennon’s quirky song has a great rhyming structure, ending each verse with no three rhyming words instead of the usual two, but not much of a tune to go with it and ends abruptly far too soon (it’s clear this is also a work-in-progress). Originally the second verse was about ‘his sister Shirley’ rather than ‘Pam’ but the name got altered by Paul to better fit with the next song on the album ‘Polythene Pam’. The best lines come at the end, when the old miser is brought out on the day trip he’s ever had to visit the Queen only to ‘shout out something obscene’. Funnier than ‘Her Majesty’, you sense that Lennon would gladly have sung this song at The Queen’s jubilee had he still been around as a coda to his old partner’s choice (which, apparently not realising the significance when McCartney sang it for the first time ever in concert, apparently really upset the old windbag). The Queen, of course, is a miser of the sort that Mean Mr Mustard can only dream of becoming.
‘Polythene Pam’ is another Lennon Indian leftover but the style of the song makes it more like one of the Beatles’ early songs. A raucous, unhinged Merseybeat rocker with a strong hook, it features Lennon at his most Liverpudlian – almost cackling his way through the ‘yeah yeah yeah’s – and a wonderful doubling of his acoustic guitar with McCartney’s burbling lead guitar part that would have gone down a storm in the Cavern. The lyrics were probably inspired by one of the band’s earliest Cavern supporters, in fact, a 14-year-old girl known locally as ‘Polythene Pat’ who had an interesting habit of eating bits of polythene (usually bits that had been ‘burnt’ for flavour and then cooled) and used to be given ‘gifts’ of polythene packaging by all her friends (possibly including Lennon). Having not met her in a good seven years, this sounds to me like Lennon imagining her possible future as a kinky sex proprietor ‘dressed in drag’ and wearing ‘jackboot and kilt’. At least Lennon has the kindness to say she was ‘attractively built’ I suppose (the ‘real’ Polythene Pat had a very respectable life as it happened), but it’s odd to hear him doing the very thing he’ll knock McCartney for doing many times over the next few years: writing imaginary songs about imaginary characters he doesn’t actually know. While clearly unfinished at just two verses and far from it’s creator’s greatest song, though, ‘Pam’ is rescued as a recording by the addition of one of Lennon’s greatest riffs ever (up there with ‘Rain’ ‘Day Tripper’ ‘I Feel Fine’ ‘Come Together’ and ‘Hey Bulldog’) and is highlighted by a terrific band performance in which McCartney in particular shines (both him and George are listed as playing ‘lead guitar’ on this track – but it sounds more like Macca’s work to me). A last glorious chance to hear The Beatles the way they were when they started, ‘Let It Be’ would have been a much greater album had it all sounded like this.
‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’ is a McCartney song that, typically, sounds far more ‘finished’ than any of Lennon’s and is a real ‘breakthrough’ in songwriting for its composer (dare I say it, his last great stab into the unknown until 1980’s ‘McCartney II’ or at least 1978’s ‘London Town’ at any rate). A cryptic song with fascinating multi-layered lyrics, it was inspired by a real incident when one of the ‘Apple Scruffs’ keeping watch outside his St John’s Wood house one day went a step too far and used Mccartney’s own ladder to ‘break in’ through an upstairs bathroom window left open and stole a precious photograph of McCartney (a moody black-and-white shot that, apparently, the Beatle never got back). Afraid they would get tarred with the same brush, the other ‘Apple Scruffs’ refused to tell on their friend and so McCartney got his ‘detective’ hat on to try and get it back, gentlemanly deciding not to get the police involved (Macca always had a kind heart when it came to Beatles fans, unlike – say – Ringo). The lyrics, then, are true – sort of – and the suspected fan did indeed come from a rich home (‘protected by a silver spoon’) and McCartney’s angry but understanding spirit comes over loud and clear in this song, wearily asking ‘Did anybody tell her? Did anybody see?’ whilst ringing around all the ‘leads’ he could find on the telephone. The second verse, though, is pure fantasy and seemingly contradictory (how can a dancer forced to ‘work for 15 clubs a day’ be ‘protected by a silver spoon?), Macca perhaps ‘inventing’ a life for his ‘criminal’. The third verse, though is kind-of-true again: taking a visit to America with Linda (and notifying the US police of their visit) Macca was amused to see the police he was talking to was named ‘Eugene Quits’, his Beatle sense of humour causing him to add the in-joke ‘And so I quit the police department’. By now the story has got very out of hand, but it does end up with a classic McCartney couplet, that the would-be criminal was only an amateur, that ‘she could steal but she could not rob’ – i.e. that she meant no harm. A fascinating song, the finished product is a little over-polished and again sounds like a McCartney solo project (singing multi-tracked throughout, it may be that Ringo is the only other Beatle featured) I actually prefer the earlier version heard on ‘Anthology’: laid-back, timid and with a riff that seemingly pulls itself reluctantly forward, it suits the song better than the rather in-your-face restless speed of the ‘Abbey Road’ version (and, as a bonus, features more of the other Beatles).
For me ‘Golden Slumbers’ is the weakest moment in the medley. Whilst the other songs either sum up the Beatles’ memories or their chaotic present, this ‘new’ song doesn’t fit being a hark back to the Victorian era. Literally actually: the words at least are by Thomas Dekker, Victorian poet, and were set to music almost a hundred years before McCartney was born. Paul discovered the piece when visiting his dad one night, recently remarried to a lady named ‘Angie’ and with a daughter, Ruth, who – still in awe of her half-sibling – was learning to play the piano. This was one of the pieces she was learning on that visit and proudly showed off to Macca who, of course, never learnt to read sheet music; never one to let that stop him, though, he simply busked this new version. A lot more ‘traditional’ sounding than the original (which, like many Victorian songs till Gilbert and Sullivan get going sounds awkward and doesn’t really take the singer’s ‘breathing’ into account) and frankly an awful lot better, it’s more evidence of McCartney’s sheer natural musicality. The lyrics, clearly, meant something for a man at the end of one musical journey and are similar to his own song from earlier in the year ‘The Long and Winding Road’ (although, ironically, most fans got to hear this song first when the final version of that album was held up till April 1970 and assumed he’d simply ‘embellished’ this recording). However this song quite honestly isn’t as good: there’s a real sense of loss and longing that makes ‘Winding Road’ sound real and believable: ‘Golden Slumbers’ is just the usual ‘lullaby’ song too brief to make much impact and George Martin’s cloying string arrangement rob and a bizarre choice to sing the last verse at full ‘stretch’ mean the subtleties and humbleness of this recording are lost despite sporting a typically lovely and rounded McCartney tune. Perhaps this song should have been left as an ‘in-joke’?
‘Carry That Weight’ finally picks up where ‘You Never Gave Me Your Money’ left off, a full four-man Beatles chorus (with Ringo, curiously, mixed loudest) shouting out the title line over and over, sounding like a chain gang forced to work against their will. Recognising that the final Beatle years have been a bit of a slog, Macca responds by saying that, apart, all their careers will be ‘slogs’ compared to these golden years and that all four will ‘carry the weight’ of being Beatles for the rest of their lives. A surprise return to ‘Money’s tune, sung more tongue-in-cheek this time, belatedly adds some structure to the medley by reprising an ‘old’ song as a ‘middle eight’ in a new one (and sounds to me as if McCartney had been listening to The Who’s Tommy’ released that Spring, which uses a similar technique quite a few times), this time Macca seems to be moaning about all the hard work: ‘never giving’ his pillow in his quest to make this album and ‘breaking down’ during the ‘celebrations’ (I’m intrigued to know what Macca means here although it might be worth noting that this song was taped and presumably written nigh on the date of Paul’s marriage to Linda). For me ‘Carry That Weight’ is another ‘weaker’ Medley song, too undeveloped to really make an impact as a ‘chain gang’ song and the band performance sounds less than stellar here, highlighted by the two Georges: Harrison’s stinging guitar work and Martin’s evocative brass accompaniment, which might not fit the song but does give it a bit of grandeur. Amazingly both this song and ‘Golden Slumbers’ were recorded before most of the rest of the melody and yet seem to fit here like a glove.
And so we come to ‘The End’. Most of ‘The Medley’ was by Paul alone but this finale does the best thing it possibly could: show-off the band’s ensemble playing and giving all four members their turn in the spotlight. Ringo’s up first and the best thing you can say about his only recorded drum solo (for which he had to be coaxed over several days, apparently) is that at least its better than Dennis Wilson’s on Beach Boys track ‘Denny’s drums’ and Bill Kreutzmann’s on the Grateful Dead’s ‘The Other One’ from ‘Skulls and Roses’. Frankly, though, Ringo is too far out of his comfort zone here and the lack of anything else to catch the ear simply reveals what an ordinary drummer Ringo was when not spurred on by Lennon’s deeper emotions. Even I can play this drum solo single-handedly on ‘Beatles Rock Band’ and I’m rubbish! (good luck trying to play along with ‘Rain’ or ‘A Day In The Life’ though!) Personally I’m waiting for Bobby Elliott to record his first drum solo for The Hollies and knock every other AAA drum solo sky high... Paul, George and John (in that order) then switch guitar solos, playing solo for a few bars three times each and successfully spelling one of the reasons for The Beatles’ true success (their separate and distinct personalities) in the context of another (the band backing each other up superbly while they play). While credited to McCartney, I’m intrigued to know how much input the others had into this song, which at least sounds as if (at the very last minute) McCartney has finally learnt how to push the others towards working on his ideas, while allowing them the scope to be themselves. Had he learnt this lesson earlier The Beatles might have carried on for years yet. Listening to the guitar solos its fascinating how much each Beatles draws on both their past and future: Macca’s opening riff sounds very like his work on ‘Taxman’, George’s last solo (one before the end) is a dead ringer for what Eric Clapton played on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ while Lennon’s last angry flourish is only a crotchet or two away from ‘Cold Turkey’ while his ‘middle’ riff sounds like the one from ‘Revolution’! I’m intrigued too as to who decided the band should play in this order, thus giving Lennon the (almost) last word: is this a full circle admission that The Beatles at least started off as Lennon’s band? Or is this McCartney trying to get a despondent Lennon interested in doing anything for this medley at all? Macca isn’t done yet either: returning to the tinkling piano that started the medley in the first place he ends with one of his greatest and most quoted phrases: that ‘the love you take is equal to the love you make’. Reaching out to the audience, Who-style, McCartney excels himself here by offering a ‘perfect’ sense of closure and suggesting that The Beatles have had as much fun as their audience have. The theme of ‘karma’ is also particularly suitable to this album, given it’s themes of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and a growing sense that just as a whole lot of coincidences conspired to start the Beatles’ story when it did so another whole lot are conspiring to end it this way too. A last sudden rush of Beatle ‘angels’ reach up into the sky one last time for a spectacular but somehow not OTT ending, although the very final note of all is a bit of a curious one: it should sound like the final chord resolution of ‘A Day In The Life’ but instead sounds slightly flat (the greatest music writer bar none, Ian McDonald, claims that the whole second half of the song is flat, suggesting that the overdubs were put on ‘wrongly’; to my ears, though, it’s just this last note).
However that would have been too perfect an ending wouldn’t it? In a second perfect farewell, the group that more than any others believes in coincidence, synchronicity and keeping mistakes intact in their products adds a ‘final’ farewell. ‘Her Majesty’ shouldn’t be here at all – it was intended originally to be part of the medley in-between ‘Mean MR Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’ (which is curious as to my ears that’s the segue that works best on the whole medley), hence the crashing last chord (from ‘Mustard) and the missing last note, which left the Beatles’ career still waiting to be ‘resolved’ for some 25 years (which would have been lost in the opening barrage of notes from ‘Pam’). Sadly no ‘intact’ version of the medley heard this way seems to have existed so we’ll never truly know how well this segue would have worked – McCartney, though, didn’t think the ideas worked and instructed tape engineer John Kurlander to cut it out and throw it away. Under orders from George Martin to never throw anything by The Beatles away, Kurlander instead copied it to the ‘end’ of the master reel separated by some 30 seconds of blank tape. Playing the album back some weeks later the effect apparently made McCartney laugh and it was his idea to keep ‘Her Majesty’ there, as an unexpected encore that on original copies of ‘Abbey Road’, isn’t even listed as a ‘proper’ track. A real curio, ‘Her Maj’ is a finger-picking acoustic McCartney song so brief you wonder why he bothered to tape it at all, although the folky tune is nice and the sentiment (the narrator wants to tell the Queen he loves her, but can only do it when he’s drunk and thus the opposite of what society would expect) is very McCartney, sticking two fingers up to society but in a very gentlemanly, polite manner. The Beatles had, of course, met The Queen when she gave them their MBEs in 1964 for ‘services to music’ (‘services to tax’ would have been a fairer assessment) and McCartney will go onto to collect a knighthood at the shockingly late period of 1997, long after several comparatively minor musical stars collected their awards. Perhaps McCartney’s drug convictions across the 1970s and his imprisonment in 1980 got in the way? Goodness knows why he thinks Her Majesty is a ‘pretty nice girl’ anyway – a thieving scrounging pointless anachronism that costs more to the UK every year than the welfare bill, The Beatles of all people should have known that the ‘silver spoon’ protection she and her family enjoy is a terrible example to give to a country that should be proud of how anybody from any background can get along in life, without needing the ‘protection’ of a ‘silver spoon’. Hopefully Beatle scholars in centuries to come will hear this track and go – ‘blimey, to think they still had Royalty back then, despite the many brilliant changes that took place in the 1960s, how terribly sad’ and then go back to listening to all the Beatles’ music on their Z-pods or whatever they will have by then.
The Beatles’ music, you see, will last forever. People knew that even back in 1969, when this album came out – in fact they probably believed it more. After all, how can it not? No other band did so much to change the face of not just music but society and probably no others ever will. ‘Abbey Road’ left a world in mourning, with only the eagerly anticipated but genuinely-perceived-as-a-let-down encore of ‘Let It Be’ to follow and ‘Abbey Road’ was thus treated with gushing praise from every corner, including the corners the band had never reached before, all of them knowing that if the Beatles say the break-up is final, they really do mean it’s final and that never again in their lifetimes will they see such an occasion as this. However ‘Abbey Road’ is a beginning as much as an ending, the first time (after bits and pieces on The White Album) that the band actively worked apart and an album that they all seemed to know would be the last. There’s a funeral air over this record that’s unsettling, even now some 44 years on, and it’s ridiculously hard to look at this album objectively and away from the release date of September 1969 (which beats the end of the 60s by a bare three months). To be truthful ‘Abbey Road’ is, objectively, one of the weaker Beatles records around: ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ ‘Oh! Darling’ ‘Octopuses Garden’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’ are all amongst the weakest Beatle recordings, McCartney especially enduring a creative slump after the rows and turbulence of the ‘Let IT Be’ period sapped his confidence. However George’s two songs, Lennon’s better two songs (‘I Want You’ and ‘Because’) plus the best of the medley give the impression that this album is deeper and better than it really was/ Unashamed to embrace the fact that this is a ‘farewell’, ‘Abbey Road’ gets much of its sentiment spot on: waving goodbye with tears in the eyes but with equal promise of things to come. This is the end of an era and it’s all here, good and bad, wise decisions, lucky gambles and hopeless excess in equal measure. At 17 tracks and the longest Beatle longplayer running time outside ‘The White Album’, ‘Abbey Road’ takes you on a journey much further than the confines of that famous level crossing. Few have ever dared venture quite this far again...Overall rating 7/10.