As I write this review of Abbey Road, coming closer to the end of the Beatles’ discography, we have all come to learn of the death of George Martin, Beatles’ producer, composer, band architect most likely to earn the term “Fifth Beatle” and to all members alive today, friend. Many tributes have been paid to the man, his technical innovations, his pop pioneering and his own performing skills for the Beatles and The Goon Show. But one his biggest skills as a producer was his ability to keep the band sounding and, as possible as he could, working like a singular unit, even as the band would continue to experiment, and even in the band’s tense final days. With news of his death, and the acknowledgement that their are far less Beatles main players still alive today than those passed, it has certainly put finality on the mind.
Which brings us to Abbey Road, the Beatles final album. Release wise this is not true, but Abbey Road would be the final album the band wrote and recorded. After the disaster that was the Get Back sessions, which will be written about in the next article, and behind the scenes issues that would soon rip the band apart, its pretty remarkable that the Beatles would be willing to make a final record at all. Enter George Martin. He would tell the story of how both John and Paul rang him wishing to make another Beatles album, and that he agreed under a condition: a condition that band worked together like their early albums, and stuck to his word and law like they would do in the beginning days. For the most part this was adhered to – expect for John, who had the absolute temerity to be in car accident during this time – and the music for Abbey Road was recorded within the span of six weeks. Six weeks. From the band’s beginning to its end, their ability to produce amazing work in such a short amount of time is unmastered.
This short section of time might explain why Abbey Road feels like the most cohesive album the band ever made, even more so than even their beginning rock and roll albums, even more so than the concept album about the fictional band. My two favourite Beatles albums fluctuate between The Beatles and Abbey Road, and on this front they are my favourites for polar opposite reasons, the formers sprawling diversity countered by the latter amazing consistency. The holistic nature of the album is such that the second half continues the conceptual ideas of Sgt. Pepper with the famous “Abbey Road Medley”, which if counted as a single song would make my Top Five easily. But that unity continues into each side, which reference each other musically, lyrically and tonally, all coming together with a farewell epigram that, whether subconsciously or not, the band knew things were coming to an end. With further lyrics on selfishness and money disputes, they were also channeling those final days into the content of the songs.
But the Beatles were not going to let that climate effect the tone of the music. That tone is key here, because despite it being the Beatles final album, and despite all the behind the scenes surrounding this period of the band’s career, if I could use any word to describe this album it would be “warm”. Even the songs about serial killers manage to sound like a big hug. From the opening bass notes to the hidden track, to the bright skies and bright suits of the iconic album cover, they face the direction of leaving with an affection bow and declarations of love. And in the end, through good and ill, that is what made Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, George Martin and everyone else involved “The Beatles”:
Track by Track
“Come Together”: The opening track to Abbey Road begins with that bass line, the melodic component to the whole track and maybe the most famous bass work of Paul McCartney’s career. Tight, controlled and just plain cool, the only thing that competes with it on that front in the whole Beatles catalogue is Ringo Starr’s work on the same track, with a rollicking drum riff counteracted with a simple tom groove which, to quote Dave Grohl “if you can do just that and have people dancing, you’re a fucking badass. If anything the guitars are moved to rhythmic duties on this track, though they reveal themselves towards the second half with sensual guitar licks and a chunky, building riff that makes that chorus line of “come together” all the more appropriate. The lyrics are of course the right mix of bizarre and cool, with John’s effortless vocals making the words feel like they make a lot more sense than they actually do. The descriptions are endlessly inventive, but never mention anyone specific. Though if the most common theory is true, and that these verses are descriptions of each band member, it makes the idea of this album being their farewell all the more appropriate.
“Something”: The first two tracks of this album made up the album’s promotional single, and they are the perfect combination in how they show different sides of the band’s artistic ethos. Where “Come Together” has a focused groove with free flowing verses by John, “Something” is the polar opposite, with a smooth, relaxed guitar and a controlled cadence of lyrics and vocal performance by George (which makes sense, being written by John and George respectively). Like “Long Long Long” this is a cross between being a clear song and an opaque worship of God, and when we get to the solo the spirituality and sensuality combined. This sound would go on to be one of the primary colours of George Harrison’s solo opus All Things Must Pass, which if you ask my own personal opinion is the best solo work that anyone in the band ever made.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”: In the list of song’s that always make me laugh, Paul’s first song for Abbey Road always makes it comfortably on my list. The bright pianos and sing song tone of Paul’s vocal so much juxtaposes with the lyrics concerning a serial killer’s ongoing warpath can only make a person chuckle out of the sheer cheekiness of it all (except John apparently, because John). Critics at the time accused this album of having a synthetic sound, which I feel was influenced by the use of new technologies, but that studio environment and synthetic tone of the Moog synthesizer is what makes song feel even more jaunty and comical than the tone already is (as well as the swirling sensations of George Martin’s organ). Oh, and the fact their is a credit dispute as to who played the instrument of the “anvil” is almost as amusing to me than the song.
“Oh! Darling”: Doing research for these album reviews adds a lot to my music knowledge, and whilst doing research for this song I came to discover there is/was a genre of music called swamp pop. Giving the composition of this song, with the slugging and bouncing guitars like a pair of boots going through a boggy river, that genre designation is one that is both appropriate and delightful. Just as delightful is the song’s waltzing rhythm, only broken by a rushing piano that replicates the kind of desperation this track is going for. In that same manner, Paul seems to be pushing his vocal chords to their absolute breaking point, tearing his through like John did when singing “Twist and Shout” just six years ago (which I want to emphasise. From Please Please Me to Abbey Road in six years. Amazing). Why John didn’t just sing it himself is anyone’s guess, but it makes for one of Paul’s most passionate performances.
“Octopus’s Garden”: Did you know that their are “Octopus’s Garden” haters in the world? One’s who criticise it for being essentially a children’s nursery song (though I don’t get why this is the song in the Beatles canon where that is the actual criticism rather than an asset, like “Yellow Submarine” and “All Together Now”)? Well I blow a big raspberry in the bottom of the sea in their general direction, because this track fills me with so much joy. A considerable improvement to Ringo’s first song for The Beatles, the magic world of the song that is described by Ringo’s carefree vocals (which he says was a way to escape from the climate of the Beatles at this time) is matched only in these terms by George’s guitar work which, to use bad puns for a moment, surfs and skips along the surface of the song before diving right in.
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”: After a first half full of many intentionally light songs, Side One ends with maybe the single heaviest song the band ever made, appropriate given the title. It’s also the longest to be an actual, guitar led composition, which considering it only has a handful of lyrics and never gets boring is quite the achievement. Weirdly I can hear the argument that the sludgy arpeggios of this song influenced “doom metal” pre-Black Sabbath (by a few months) more than I buy the “Helter Skelter” is porto-metal argument, even if both are probably equally not true. One name I definitely want to bring up in how epic and diverse the sound of this song is Billy Preston, who was brought in by George Harrison to diffuse the tension of those days and gives it his all in the colourful and alarming fills. I can only guess that the final guitar riff is so long because they wanted to fill every groove of the first half of the vinyl, but with that and the final sing-a-long of “Hey Jude” The Beatles pioneered the arena rock (in the studio, ironically) that bands like Queen would perfect in the crowds a few years later.
“Here Comes the Sun”: Although in the days of its creation “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and this song would not have played so immediately after each other, the way it works here is so affecting you would think it was intentional (the band had certainly done it plenty of times). Ringo might have written “Octopus’s Garden” in an attempt to escape from the hassle of the band and Apple Corp, but the more famous track built upon that circumstance was this George Harrison classic and gift to begging guitar players everywhere. That not because its completely simple though, on the contrary the multiple changes that sound so effortless and whole in the ears are pretty complex on paper, which shows George completely supplementing his Indian influences into a track without it sounding like that style of music. With it’s beautiful, overcoming adversity lyrics and feel with rising guitar lines, harmoniums and synthesisers, it is quiet starting point that the second half would built upon. I actually argue that with this consistency the whole second half of Abbey Road could construed as the medley if you wanted it to. Not true of course, but you’ll see why as we go along. Also, the fact that this wasn’t included on the Voyager Golden Record has caused unspeakable amounts of damage to our future relationship with the aliens.
“Because”: Similarly, this track’s introduction shares a hair’s length similarity with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Apparently the central riff was based on “Moonlight Sonata”, but with it being less 4/4 than an arpeggio with two notes at the end it feels artistically connected to the track that ended the first side of the album. But that central melody, played by George Martin on a Baldwin electric spinet (I don’t know either), it gives the song that regal edge of plenty a classical piece of Beethoven’s time. But with lyrics about the world being round accompanied with ethereal vocals – triple tracked by John Paul and George for a cavalcade of harmony – and suspended chords, it makes the synthesisers and the overall tone feel appropriately alien (More science connections). And with that final diminished chord, we don’t come back to earth until Paul’s piano in the next track. The official start of the “Abbey Road” Medley”. See what I mean about the connection?
“You Never Give Me Your Money”: Paul takes his frustrations at all the band’s contract negotiations with Allan Klein, the most exciting topic in the world, and turns it into the most joyous screed at the inability to trust people. It has all the tempo and of “Happiness is a Warm” but a piano and classical base that is very much a Paul McCartney touch. Also a Paul inspired choice is the song’s sudden abrupt transition into honkey tonk piano, which like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” makes its most bitter lyrics feel like they have a skip in their step. Oh, and the line “Out of college, money spent/ See no future, pay no rent/ All the money’s gone, nowhere to go” sounds WAY too prescient at this moment in my life.
“Sun King”: Paul’s first section of the Medley moves quietly into the John half. The central line “Here Comes the Sun King” sounds way too connected to the song to be a coincidence, and thus demonstrates how the unity of this side goes beyond the Medley part. Also added to that is, like “Because”, the sheer amount of harmonies done by the three main singers of the band, which along with the bubbling sensation the bass and lead guitars, and even the crickets at the beginning of the track, makes this a song that you presume was exclusively made to meditate to. And with George Martin’s organ in the background, it builds to a definite religiosity (a god who apparently speaks in nonsense Spanish).
“Mean Mr. Mustard”: For being not very committed to the “Abbey Road Medley” concept, John was certainly able to great three segments to clearer occur in quick succession. Though I must admit that Paul’s harmony vocals on this song are so strong I thought for a long time he was the lead singer of this song. This is probably the least satisfying component in its individual listening, though that fuzz bass guitar pushed so far into the left channel is a delight, but that’s never something I have done until this point, so it’s no concern of mine.
“Polythene Pam”: I’m at this point glad that “Her Majesty” was taken out of the overall construction of the Medley (as it was meant to come prior to this song), because the abrupt ringing guitars that make the transition between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and this song is among my favourite moments on Abbey Road. And the guitars keep to that same level of rush, chugging along as though each member of the band is trying to keep up with each other, until George can’t take anymore and breaks into an off-kilter solo. All the while John asks to meet the model woman with masculine features that where polystyrene bags that I’m sure we all know in our daily lives.
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”: After a previous transition that was much more abrupt, the guitar solo of “Polythene Pam” at least gives us time to prepare, morphing and descending into the guitar lead of this song, clearly showing that they were recorded at the same time. It’s a much more relaxed pace, a change anticipated by John in his opening words off mic telling Mal (the roadie) to look out. I don’t think until this point the Beatles had made such overt references to their more rabid fanbase except in the movies, so it helps to make this tale extra humorous. Though that inspiration is transformed into a policeman who sees a women and for some reason changes his job for some reason. Although the last three compositions have been John songs, this sticks with the changing identities and aliases that makes it perfectly suited to follow those numbers. I think. Probably looking too much into it.
“Golden Slumber”: Based on a 17th century lullaby, this prepares for the epic climax to the album,. From Ringo’s drums and light timpanis, to George Harrison playing soft staccato notes on the bass, to the strings of George Martin’s orchestra being in constant preparation for the release of the next song. And with Paul’s belting vocals, this is less the preparation of sleep for a baby and more the entire world…
“Carry that Weight”: And all that build up, all that weight if you, makes the drum transition and the choral vocals of the title “carry that weight” feel like it is holding the magnitude of every noise that came before it. That is made to feel even more true when the refrain to “You Never Give Me Your Money” returns, though were that was on quiet, contemplative piano, here replaced with the bombast of a brass band and orchestra, arranged by George Martin, in a way helping to lift some of the weight from Paul’s shoulders. John Lennon gave the best review of this song, saying that the lyrics were “singing about all of us.” And this song is on the precipice of letting that weight go.
“The End”: Was their ever a title more fitting. Literally the final song that the band ever recorded as a group, it’s and gave each member to shine in solo. As well as a rumbling bass guitar that offsets the carnage, Paul also works with John and George with a series of twelve bar solo that, in testament to how simpatico they were as a band, manages to still sound like a single unified piece. But the standout solo ends up being, to the shock of many a sneerer, the drummer, who in a perfect fifteen second burst of creative energy gives a drum solo that a subpar prog rocker with a kit of fifty pieces and twenty minutes of time would kill to be as memorable as. And then, of course, is the farewell of the album, sang by the band over soft piano and warm guitars: “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”. Whether it was an epigram or an epitaph is up to you, but if there is any that summed up the band’s total songwriting philosophy, it is that one. And it was the line the band decided to end their final recorded studio album on. Rarely has anyone’s career ended better than that…
“Her Majesty”: …eh, except it didn’t really. On the one hand, these twenty seconds stop those last lines from a song literally called “The End” being the final call of a band, and that makes the sentimental and legacy driven part of me want to flip all of the tables. But then the part of me that is charmed by a little odd coda that serves as a further encapsulation of the band’s humour kicks in, and I feel a little bit better. Still though, twenty seconds? Really?
Taken as an album driven by a knowledge of its group’s end, Abbey Road stands in the highest echelon, and taken as a Beatles album, even more so. But the thing about finality is that it is never so. Especially when your a band that has given so much to culture, legacy, hearts and minds as The Beatles. Oh, and when you had an album of material you basically abandoned. No one’s letting you off the hook there…
What did you think though?
The Beatles Album Rankings
- Abbey Road
- The Beatles
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Magical Mystery Tour
- Beatles for Sale
- Please Please Me
- With the Beatles
- Yellow Submarine
Dedicated to George Martin. We took a lot of love from you. I hope we made enough back.