It was the 40th anniversary of Abbey Road, the Beatle’s last studio album in August, giving music mags and MP3 blogs a chance to review their final opus afresh. Except, most of them didn’t really review it. They skimmed over the first half of the disk – what used to be “side one” in vinyl days – and headed straight to the medley on side two.
If Beatle myth is to be believed the sixteen minute side two symphony was, like many Fab innovations, a happy accident. Lennon and McCartney didn’t have much in the way of new songs, so they stitched together fragments and scraps. George Martin’s Pepperesque orchestration used “You Never Give Me Your Money” to glue this tuneful trifle together. And, like many of their accidents (the feedback at the start of “I Feel Fine” or the backwards vocal used on “Rain”) it’s ultimately better than what most other bands do on purpose. That’s why people can’t shut up about it. That and the fact that “The End” is the most satisfying closure to a band’s career ever committed to record.
Each Beatle gets a turn to show off in the soloing section, not in traditional Beatle style, but in the heavy rock idiom that would dominate popular music for the next three or four years. It was like they were saying “Yeah, if we decided to keep on going, we’d totally rule”. It finishes with all three singers in faultless harmony, followed by guitars and strings terminating in similar concordance.
It’s brilliant and thrilling – and when “Her Majesty” comes in, puncturing the pomposity of the moment with a stab of twee whimsicality, it neatly summarises the Beatle’s quixotic decade of musical innovation.
But, for all that, Abbey Road’s most famous side feels inorganic and constructed. It lacks the spontaneity of Revolver, the scrape of plectrum against string you can hear throughout Rubber Soul. Its closest relatives are Lennon’s psychedelic patchworks of the Pepper era; I Am the Walrus, Strawberry Fields and a Day in the Life – but there’s no central thread holding it all together. No memorable motif or narrative drive. It’s slick and beautiful and it’s The Beatles – but under duress.
And there lies the strength of side one. It’s the sound of The Beatles moving on. Let it Be (released after Abbey Road, but recorded before) showed The Beatles trying and failing to be the same tight little R&B outfit that played Hamburg’s Star Club in ’62. On Abbey Road, side one, that pretence had been dropped. At this stage they were three world class solo artists – and a decent drummer. And while this was nothing new (the White Album is a collection of solo Beatles performances for the most part), Abbey Road sees them accepting those roles.
It was as though McCartney, Lennon and Harrison individually realised that The Beatles would be the best backing band they’d ever have – and this was their last chance to exploit it. It’s interesting to look at what each Beatle does with his moment.
McCartney’s side one contributions are the weakest, for example. The throwaway Maxwell’s Silver Hammer uneasily fuses Macca’s nursery melodies, heard to better effect on the White Album’s upbeat “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”, with an outdated and misogynistic tale of serial murder. And while “Oh! Darling” allows McCartney to channel Little Richard and do his throaty rock voice, it’s a slight construction that smacks of 12 bar improvisation. A thrilling performance saves it from Anthology 3 – where it becomes apparent that Paul was keeping his best songs (Teddy Boy, Junk) for his solo album. It could be that Macca was saving himself for side two where, apart from Harrison’s opener and Lennon’s Beach Boys and Beethoven homage “Because”, he dominates.
John Lennon memorably gets to open Abbey Road with one of his best tracks since Revolver. “Come Together” is sex on a stick; dirty, slinky – as authentic a rock and roll song as McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” is manufactured. He closes too with the same raunch, the same grime – in the blunt and confessional “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. With its apocalyptic grunge and relentless, riffing repetition, it’s a dark mirror of “The End”. The latter pulses with exuberance and invention, the former grinds and winds on and on. Lennon and McCartney have never seemed more bi-polar.
If anyone owns the none-medley section of Abbey Road, it’s George. Though Allotted his customary pair of slots, he produces the album’s best known tracks – songs that would become standards in years to come. “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are similar in pace, performance and production. Mid-tempo, romantic and tinkling with delicate melody – they mediate between the metal negativity of Lennon’s heroin dirge “I Want You” and the sublimated, passive aggression in McCartney’s jovially homicidal “Silver Hammer”. In short, they play the same role Harrison played in the band.
Each Beatle sets the tone for their solo career on side one. McCartney would soon issue his home brewed, eponymous debut – similarly assembled from song fragments and half realised ideas, stitched together with a nod and a wink. The medley structure would be one he’d return to again and again (most notably on “Back to the Egg”, Wings final album). Lennon made Plastic Ono Band next, where primal scream therapy allowed him to strip his music back to basic guitars, drums and a howl of self reflection. As for Ringo – Octopus’s Garden sets his template. Or maybe it was “Goodnight” on the White Album, or “Yellow Submarine” on Revolver. His solo output sees him typecast as Ringo rather than Richard Starkey – the sad eyed clown first depicted in a Hard Day’s Night and set in stone thereafter.
What would George do next? In “All Things Must Pass”, the triple album set he issued in 1970, he proved that the pair of perfect songs he contributed to Abbey Road were no fluke. If we exclude the final side – an indulgent jam session with his rock star mates – “All Things Must Pass” is the best and most Beatley of the solo records. If you’re a fan of Abbey Road – which you should be despite its flaws and failings – Harrison’s first solo record comes naturally next on the playlist.
In retrospect, the running order of Abbey Road is viewed better the sides are tranposed. Side two is close to The Beatles of old, George Martin and Geoff Emerick steady at the helm as we say hello and goodbye to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Side one is a shadow of The Beatles to come; the separation after the road has been crossed. And yet, none of them would make music this complete again.