Not only is
it one of the defining pop culture images of the 20th century, but,
in retrospect, the iconic front cover of Abbey Road also communicates
everything you need to know about the album itself, as well as about The
Beatles and the end of the Sixties. Arguably the greatest counter-culture
movement of all time was about to end, both literally and symbolically, with
the horror of the Manson family murders and then the tragedy and chaos at
Altamont in the second half of 1969. So it was with The Beatles themselves, who
by this point could barely stand to be in the same room together. The artwork shows
us a complex truth, despite the striking simplicity of the concept. All four
are travelling in the same direction, in perfect synchronicity as a unit, yet
about to disappear off the side of the image, literally exiting stage left from
their adoring audience of millions. (Paul McCartney also isn’t wearing shoes, fuelling
all those ridiculous fan theories that he was in fact dead at this point.)
For The Beatles themselves, Abbey Road represented a chance for redemption after the strife and mess caused by the Get Back sessions earlier in 1969, planned as a return to live performance but which ended in deeper mutual distrust, notwithstanding that iconic rooftop performance. Paul McCartney had to pitch the project to producer George Martin, who had been so alienated by the ‘The White Album’ and Get Back experiences, as one more “like we used to” in order to persuade him onside. Implicit in this plea to Martin is that all four members of the group knew that this would likely be the final Beatles album. Although they’d not been a touring concern for nearly three years, John Lennon wasn’t too keen on recording as part of a group for much longer; George Harrison was increasingly frustrated at his contributions being overlooked; Ringo Starr had actually briefly quit the group before quickly rejoining. Only McCartney wanted to continue The Beatles, and even then, on his own terms and dictating the pace.
Beatles // ‘The Beatles’ (a.k.a. ‘The White Album’) at 50 years old
It’s this unspoken acknowledgment that frames Abbey Road and explains its enduring greatness. While it isn’t chronologically the final Beatles album to be released (the extremely streaky Let It Be was released in May 1970, salvaged from the torturous Get Back sessions) it is the last material they ever recorded together. It’s also worth pointing out that The Beatles’ domination of the charts was no longer absolute by this point. Having been so invincible for so long, with all those consecutive chart-toppers from 1963 to 1967 the sight of the Abbey Road’s double A-sided single ‘Something’ / ‘Come Together’ only reaching no.4 would have been a huge surprise to British pop fans at the time (it did reach the summit in the States, though). Looked at in retrospect, it all the more seems like the perfect time to bow out.
Abbey Road is the sound of a band who, despite all their personal misgivings directed at each other, were still capable of putting aside their differences and functioning at the top of their game. Unlike the schizophrenic and fractured ‘White Album’, these creations actually feel like Beatles songs, not the work of four solo artists. Working for the first time in pop history with an eight-track tape machine and recorded in stereo, their mastery of the studio by this point was unparalleled. It’s those ultra-modern production values that make all of the disparate strands and themes of Abbey Road feel part of the same package, in contrast to its predecessor 10 months previously.
Every single Beatle brings his A-game to the table (yes, even Ringo, despite him very rarely actually being needed in the studio by now) and the resulting record absolutely fulfils everything it sets out to do. In contrast to other post-touring Beatles albums, even the ground-breaking concepts behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which, let’s be honest, disguised a smattering of undeniably weaker Beatles songs, on Abbey Road the Fab Four’s ambition is matched by their execution in a manner that they hadn’t attained since Revolver, and hanging together in a way that the ‘White Album’ necessarily hadn’t.
Beatles // ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ at 50 years old
Even John Lennon’s big songs on the first side – the biting, swamp-rock opener ‘Come Together’ and the hypnotic, aggressive and raw ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ – feel like they belong on the same record as Harrison’s transcendentally beautiful contributions. Although he was certainly the most committed and enthusiastic Beatle by this point, McCartney’s songs tend to take a back seat when considering the first side of Abbey Road. The darkly eccentric ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ gets an unfair reputation, and the song certainly contributed to the ill-feeling in Abbey Road during recording, a perfectionist McCartney apparently making the group do takes over and over again for countless hours. The Zappa-esque ‘Oh! Darling’ was more agreeable to fans, with some hoarse McCartney vocals reminiscent of Lennon’s famously raucous ‘Twist And Shout’ way back at the start of their career.
McCartney’s main contribution to Abbey Road is, of course, its breathtaking eight-track medley that takes up the majority of side two. Contributing five of its eight segments (or six of nine, if you include ‘Her Majesty’, the 23-second song sketch that also serves as the first ever ‘hidden track’ in pop history) it’s a summation of everything that made the Beatles so enduring, condensed into a 15-minute suite. Kicking off with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, itself a little suite of segments, gives way to a triptych of Lennon compositions. The lush ‘Sun King’ is an enjoyable rip of Fleetwood Mac’s instrumental hit ‘Albatross’, but both ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’ are utterly disposable thumbnail sketches, which Lennon understandably thought very little of, and which both seem like makeweight contributions.
From hereon, though, the medley is steered by McCartney, and it’s a glittering finale to both Abbey Road and the Fab Four’s career. ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’ is an account of his home being invaded by fans, which then gives way to a glorious finale. The gentle, swelling lullaby ‘Golden Slumbers’ sets the tone for the full-band collaboration ‘Carry That Weight’, a display of camaraderie and an acknowledgment of everything that that they’d been through together, before show-stopping ‘The End’ offers all four members a solo, signing off with the poignant line “the love you get is equal to the love you give”.
That emotional poignancy is present all the way through Abbey Road, that’s unmistakably there even when you discount the retrospective emotional projection fans place on it with the subsequent knowledge that this was indeed the final Fab Four album. Many of the tracks have a wistful wisdom to them, a sense of both reflection and resolution, of coming to terms with the past and an acknowledgment that they must move on. As George Harrison said in the title of his solo album, all things must pass. Sometimes that theme is stated explicitly, such as on the emotional clout of ‘The End’, and on ‘Carry That Weight’. Speaking as part of the Beatles documentary series Anthology in the Nineties, McCartney pointed out that, for all of the group’s reputation as a counter-cultural, rebellious force, Abbey Road contained none of those sentiments, and that’s another notable aspect that Abbey Road doesn’t really share with any other Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s. He rightly said that the “songs deal with peace, love, understanding – none of them said ‘hey kids, tell your parents to sod off or run away from home’”.
But for most of the time, it’s present just under the surface. The tranquility of Harrison’s ‘Something’ – a song towards which both Lennon and McCartney both expressed professional envy, and which Frank Sinatra hilariously claimed was his favourite Lennon-McCartney composition (!) – obviously speaks to a mental and spiritual restfulness. His other great song from Abbey Road, the beatific ‘Here Comes The Sun’, indicates much the same mindset while reflecting the continued influence of Indian classical music on his work. While many notable for its guitar effects and extreme production values, its lengthy outro betraying a progressive-rock influence with its heavy, cyclical riff, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ has emotional impact too, representing the sound of all four Beatles playing together, for one last time. The serene ‘Because’ boasts some of the most ambitious and complex harmonies ever committed to record in a pop context. Even Ringo’s ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is endearingly daft, elevating it above the disposability of many of his previous contributions to Beatles albums.
Whether Abbey Road is The Beatles’ best album is debatable – it often gets overlooked in favour of the kaleidoscopic Revolver, the ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s… or the fascinating ‘White Album’ – but it’s certainly the best produced, and has emotional heft like few other records in history. What’s also not in any doubt is that Abbey Road is an eminently fitting swan-song for a pop culture phenomenon like no other, one that helped to both change Western society, and fundamentally shift how careers in music could progress, what people could expect from pop artists.
Listen to Abbey Road by The Beatles here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
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Tags: 50 years old, 50th anniversary, Abbey Road, Apple, classic 60s, Ed Biggs, George Harrison, George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Beatles
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