In Which We Dare to Cross “Abbey Road”

One of the reasons (I imagine) that I am fairly obsessed with The Beatles is that I am just a little too young to have experienced them as a going concern. When Abbey Road was released for example, I was three and a half years old. And yet I do remember a friend’s older sister receiving it as a Christmas gift just a couple of years later. And that’s the kind of near miss that can drive you batty. It’s like The Third Man — Harry Lyme was JUST here! It makes you chase ’em. I’ll always be chasing ’em.

I’ve been listening to Abbey Road a lot lately in anticipation of the 50 year benchmark. It’s never been among my favorites, and time has done nothing to alter that. I find that I can appreciate it and respect it, but never (as I do with Sgt. Pepper or Rubber Soul or even Help!) cherish it and need it. But it’s best to start with its virtues, eh? I often cite it (along with Shakespeare’s The Tempest) as an example of a self-conscious valedictory statement, one that quotes and restates previous career highlights as part of its goodbye. Thus you have “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” evoking “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Honey Pie”; and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” reminding us of characters like “Bungalow Bill” and “Dr. Robert”. “Oh! Darling” is in the ’50s rock style the Beatles started out emulating. “Golden Slumbers” evokes nursery songs like “Good Night” and “Cry Baby Cry”. And naturally “Octopus’s Garden” harkens back to all previous Ringo contributions especially the Lennon-McCartney penned “Yellow Submarine” Like the band’s highwater mark, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road is carefully laid out like a program or a show, and builds to a climax. And most interesting (and promising) of all, for the first time since the early days of 1964, their music (as opposed to George Martin’s) prompts comparisons to classical music and composers, and occasionally (as in Lennon’s “Because”) deserves them. And to give the devil his due, the record is frequently fun and surprising, in the Beatles tradition.

And yet…it all feels empty somehow, lacking in spirit, like a kiss between a couple after the spark has gone out. The four still function at a high level as a band because they all know each other’s instincts and moves so well, but they are not really sharing anymore. If they were, that long section at the end of side two would have been assembled by all of the songwriting members equally, not just Paul McCartney. The most heartening track from the perspective of group dynamic might be “Octopus’s Garden” , in which all members seem present body and soul, all making distinctive, instantly identifiable contributions. And that’s naturally because it is Ringo’s song; they have no stake on the track but to support him, much as they would later do on a couple of his solo albums, and much as they had earlier done on ALL Beatles’ tracks. But much as Abbey Road is hyped as their last group effort, it isn’t really that. It feels much more like one of those Wings albums like Venus and Mars or At the Speed of Sound where McCartney allots his bandmates a few spots for their own songs in what is otherwise his record. Interestingly, though, Lennon’s and Harrison‘s contributions here all strike me as stronger than McCartney’s.

For the first time ever on a Beatles record, the two strongest songs were written by George Harrison. The first Beatles record I ever owned was a 45 single of “Something” backed with “Come Together” on the Apple label, which I’d picked up at a yard sale. I love Harrison’s solo on “Something” so much I often re-create it in my head, I find it that beautiful, and well-realized and reassuringly perfect. It is, I believe, the only guitar solo I ever tried to learn note for note from sheet music. “Here Comes the Sun” was not released as a single but was good enough to be one, and got lots of FM radio play strictly as an album track (even if it competes with no less than three other “sun” songs in the Beatles catalog: “I’ll Follow the Sun”, “Good Day Sunshine”, and “Sun King”.) Harrison would whip both his bandmates’ asses the following year with the release of All Things Must Pass, containing two disks of songs, mostly ones rejected by Lennon and McCartney, all roughly as good as these two tunes, and now widely regarded as the finest post-Beatles Beatles record of them all. (Yes, I know it’s a 3 record set, but the 3rd disk is just jams no one ever listens to).

Though it wasn’t supposed to play out this way on Abbey Road, John Lennon feels about as absent from the tracks he didn’t write as he does on the White Album. The blame for some of the missed sessions can be chalked up to a car accident that laid him up for a time, but if it really mattered to everyone, wouldn’t they have rescheduled? He seems all too glad not to have played on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, for example. As was the case with Harrison, Abbey Road catches Lennon in the process of finding a new sound all his own, which is interesting, given that he was the founder of the band. Dominated, if not overshadowed, by McCartney since the time of Revolver, Lennon had begun to explore his new voice beginning with the White Album. It would find its full flowering in his Plastic Ono Band LP in 1970.  Of his Abbey Road tunes, the catchy, crude “Come Together” was the one that got all the airplay. I had never even heard “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” prior to acquiring the album. It’s not a favorite with fans or the general public but it’s one of the principal examples of Lennon’s new stripped-down, minimalist, “honest” aesthetic that emerged from his relationship with Yoko Ono. Like most of Abbey Road, musicianship, as opposed to songwriting, carries the day.

This is very much the case with McCartney’s songs on the album also, though most of his contributions possess a workman-like, uninspired quality, victories of craft rather than thunderbolts. Rare for him, he has no single-worthy song, no “Hey Jude” or “Let it Be” on the record. (His big single during this stretch was the bubble gummy “Come and Get It”, which he gave to Badfinger). You can argue, I suppose, as many do, that his stitching together of all the parts that make up the suite at the end of side 2 is his act of brilliance. But the actual bits he is patching together feel like makework to me. They are not great songs, not even fragments of great songs. “You Never Give Me Your Money” seems a weak theme to peg a recurring motif on.  My favorite of his songs on the album is probably “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”, though it still sounds like a Get Back era two-chord jam (as it essentially was). I find something arrid and labored about most of McCartney’s songs on the record.

Likewise, in contradistinction to the White Album and Let It Be, the musicianship overall is so tight as to be airless, almost as though it were a concerted effort to restore the Beatles’ reputations as musicians after the loose sound of those other albums (one of which hadn’t been released yet). “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” SOUNDS like it required the dozens of takes McCartney famously demanded, and not to good effect. (If it comes to that, it might have sounded better recorded live in a London pub with a bunch of drunks chiming in on the chorus. In fact, I know it would have). But the group had been in the process of coming apart for over a year at this point. Abbey Road is the sound of a ceasefire, a temporary truce. Yet it remains cold and impersonal. You could well regard it (as I do) as their first reunion album. There’s your answer:  When people ask, what would it sound like if the four Beatles got back together? It would sound like Abbey Road. Because they had already done that.

Boldened by expressing that heresy, I now hazard another. Abbey Road strikes me as an indication that even if the Beatles hadn’t broken up, the slide to mediocrity they all succumbed to in the ’70s would have happened anyway. At best, once Lennon outgrew his political agenda and Harrison got over his religious proselytizing, I envision the four coming together to make fairly vapid if pleasant pop. For example, when you listen to Lennon’s and McCartney’s big solo singles of 1974, you can easily picture them as vehicles for the pair or the group. McCartney’s “Listen to What the Man Said” and Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, are both danceable, saxophone driven, catchy, and unambitious. Further, the latter song is a duet, with Elton John doing a part that might have cheerfully been performed by McCartney. And yet, while the former partners might have done these tunes together…so what? No one could claim such an event would have broken any barriers or frontiers.

Nor, one might say, does Abbey Road. It’s all either recapitulation of their own stuff (as we said), or imitation of other stuff going on. Several artists (the Doors, the Rolling Stones, etc) had made rock tracks longer than “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which was the Beatles longest song not including “Revolution #9”. Several groups had already made concept albums and rock operas much more cohesive and ambitious than those of the Beatles (the Who’s Tommy springs to mind). The Rolling Stones had already placed a hidden track on Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, two years prior to “Her Majesty” on Abbey Road. And other bands had recorded guitar battles and drum solos, and one has to admit, much more impressive ones (although I do love this 3-way guitar battle).

50 years ago, Abbey Road was not universally well received by critics (who naturally had no idea that it was destined to be the Beatles’ final studio album) and I imagine those writers were hearing a little of what I’m describing: the sound of much work and little play. “Oh, that magic feeling — nowhere to go.” Don’t get me wrong — I’ll always enjoy listening to Abbey Road. But for maximum joy, there are other Beatles albums I’d go to first.