It sounds like the set-up for a joke. Four men walk across the street. It’s one of the simplest album covers in the history of rock n’ roll, but it became one of the most iconic images ever. When the Beatles made Abbey Roadthey were barely functioning as a band. For all their high harmonies on record, by 1969 they were a fractured collective of individual talents rapidly disintegrating into separate camps.
Though technically speaking Let It Be is the “last” album, it was recorded before Abbey Road. How fortunate that turns out to be because I regard Abbey Road as the Beatles very best recorded work. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandor the eponymous The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) are the gems in the catalog that sparkle brightest in the hearts of many rock critics, but I consider them spotty and in the case of The White Album, bloated and excessive.
That’s not to say there aren’t great songs on those albums, but taken in their totality neither one holds a candle to Abbey Road. In part because it is neither a loose concept album like Sgt. Pepper or a fractured mish-mash like The White Album. Or maybe it’s so damn good because the boys knew the game was already over when they were making it. There was always pressure on The Beatles, but John Lennon already had one foot out the door, Ringo Starr and George Harrison had both “quit” and come back, and Paul McCartney was trying to keep the whole mess together though it was like trying to hold a handful of water.
Unlike so many other bands that broke up bitterly and papered over their differences just long enough to put it back together and make shitloads of money from a “farewell” concert tour, when it was over for The Beatles, it was over and they closed the door, double locked it and threw away the key.
When I first bought the album on vinyl (y’know kiddies, those big black frisbees with the hole in the middle, kiddies, which if you accidentally scratch a frisbee is all it’s good for) I was both struck by how stark it was with no printed lyrics and only the bare minimum in credits, but how lush it sounded. I’ve never believed in playing very good music on a really cheap stereo system and the music on Abbey Road with its harmonies, intricate arrangements, and creative instrumentation should demand being heard on premium equipment.
Which is why 40 years after its original issue, I purchased Abbey Road for a third time, once on vinyl and twice on CD, but now with a bright and sparkling new digital remastered version complete with a mini-documentary, new packaging with plenty of photos of the band (but still no lyrics) all in an eco-friendly package, which is a bit of a pain in the ass because they way the sleeve for the disc forces you to pull it out with your sticky fingers.
The genius behind the introduction of compact discs wasn’t just in its superior sound to vinyl records, but the bottom line marketing magic that it compelled people to buy all over again albums they already owned. Time has been kind to Abbey Road though. Even the “throwaway” tracks such as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” hang together with the classics like Harrison’s “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
There’s no need for me to go through a track-by-track review of Abbey Road. Better critics than I have throughly dissected it and there’s a perfectly serviceable accounting on Wikipedia of the stories behind the songs.
Most bands there is no story behind their songs. They write ’em, record ’em and that’s all there is to it. Who gives a shit what the goofs in Kansas were thinking when they wrote “Dust in the Wind?”
Something: George Harrison’s most successful moment as a Beatle has been covered by over 150 artists including Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, James Brown (!) and Frank Sinatra, who called it “the greatest love song ever written.” Sinatra being Sinatra of course changed Harrison’s “You stick around now it may grow” to “You stick around, Jack, she might show.”
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: McCartney’s cheerful ditty about a serial killer proves that in every band there’s a song one guy loves and the other guys hate. Lennon called in more of Paul’s “granny-style ” writing. Harrison dismissed it as “so fruity” and Ringo sneered, “The worst session ever was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad.”
I Want You (She’s So Heavy): After the overdubs were complete, this would be the final song all four Beatles would ever work on. Another notable oddity was how the song abruptly ends as it builds in a looping crescendo of guitars, bass, drums, Moog synthesizers and a white noise generator. According to the recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, the terse edit was at the instruction of Lennon. While he and Emerick were listening to the eight minute long master track, Lennon told Emerick to stop it at the 7:44 mark leaving the listener with sudden and complete silence. It seems like just a studio trick now, but at the time when it was being played on a turntable, the abrupt finish was a minor stroke of Lennon’s genius.
Her Majesty: At 23 seconds, “Her Majesty” is the shortest Beatles song (or more accurately McCartney and a guitar). Originally part of the eight song medley that ends Abbey Road, it was placed between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” but McCartney didn’t like it’s placement and pulled it out.
McCartney told the tape operator to destroy the recording, but EMI music policy was no Beatles recording should ever meet such a fate. The song ended up as the album’s closer instead starting 14 seconds after the end of “The End.” It became known as a “hidden track” because it was left off original pressings of the viny record sleeve because they had already been printed. It is listed on the CD versions.
All this talk about vinyl records and album covers must seem quaint in the time of MP3 players. Hard as it may be to believe though, there was a time when people listened to more than one song at a time and The Beatles were masters of both the single and full length album formats.
The Beatles Anthology documentary was showing on VH-1 the day the remastered Beatles catalog and The Beatles Rock Band video game were released and my 19-year-old son justifiably wondered why all the fuss was about a rock band that broke up so long ago. It was my pleasure to tell him if there had never been a Beatles, I sincerely believe there would not be a music industry as we know it today.
Michael Jackson called himself the King of Pop, but The Beatles perfected pop music. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have soul. Not quite blue-eyed soul in an Average White Band kind of a way, but Liverpool White soul that you can hear loud and clear in “Oh, Darling”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and of course, “Something.” James Brown and Smokey Robinson both covered the song. If that’s not an endorsement, what is?