originally published September 24, 2014
This Friday marks the 35th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.
Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.
The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.
This is not a happy group.
In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison.
It wasn’t pretty. This heinous atmosphere can be seen in the resulting film, Let It Be, which is probably why Apple – the company that still controls the Beatles’ legacy – hasn’t officially released Let It Be on DVD. The album was scrapped (though later pieced together for release in 1970), and the band could very easily have signed the papers and moseyed into the rock ‘n roll sunset. Then they were saved by this guy:
Producer George Martin had overseen just about every recording session since the band first stumbled wide-eyed into EMI Studios in London back in 1962. He had been shut out during those January sessions (and happily so – four sniping Beatles made for cruddy company in the studio), but he was eager to record one more album like a group, under the strict condition that he be allowed to wander through the thick fog of their monstrous egos to take his rightful position at the helm of the project. The band agreed.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had spent an affable day together in April recording “The Ballad of John & Yoko” without either of the other Beatles, so the hope was that the two would play together nicely for the new album. There were still concerns; Paul wanted another semi-conceptual epic like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while John just wanted to record a regular goddamn album. There was talk about stashing Paul’s songs on one side and John’s on the other. The infamous side-2 medley (which John later claimed he despised) was the compromise.
Matters weren’t helped when John and his new bride Yoko Ono got into a nasty car crash in June. John escaped relatively unscathed, however Yoko was committed to bed rest. Rather than condemn Yoko to the indignity of recuperating at home, John had a bed brought into studio 2 at Abbey Road so that she could continue to oversee the recording sessions, something that didn’t sit well with the other band members.
It was an environment which might have been more conducive to explosive fistfights than creative mastery, but somehow Abbey Road was completed. The original title of the album was to be Everest, which would have included a quick jaunt to Nepal in order to shoot a snapshot of the band beside the massive mountain, but that was scrapped. They just wanted to get away from one another, so to keep things simple they spent ten minutes walking back and forth on the crosswalk outside the studio while photographer Iain MacMillan stood on a stepladder and took one of the most iconic shots in rock history.
Then there’s the matter of the music.
“Come Together” landed Lennon in the fetid legal broth of copyright infringement, courtesy of Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” Most folks with a deft ear hear more of an homage than a rip-off, but that’s all muddy water and Ono sideball under the bridge now. Chuck never achieved the swampy, sloppy groove that carved this song into the cave walls of rock brilliance. As an aside, Paul did indeed sing the harmony vocal in the verse, despite engineer Geoff Emerick’s claims to the contrary. Geoff was right about the chorus though – that’s John harmonizing with John.
George Harrison finally tasted the top of the charts with “Something” – the first and only Beatles song to reach that high with George’s fingerprints all over the music and lyrics. Frank Sinatra called this “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”, though when he sang it, he altered the line “you stick around now, it may show” to “you stick around, Jack, she might show.” George must have liked the change; whenever he sang the song in concert, it was with Frank’s amended lyrics.
That blurry dude on the left is Mal Evans, who had been the Beatles’ roadie since the days when they’d sleep stacked on top of one another for warmth inside a frozen van. He finally showed off his supreme musicianship by pounding on the anvil for the chorus of Paul’s song, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a piece that John dismissed as “more of Paul’s granny music.” Which it totally is – fun, but fluffy. George called it “fruity.” Ultimately, Paul’s insistence on perfection on the track allegedly drove the other Beatles to loathe the song.
Far from reviled is “Oh! Darling,” a song so steeped in Louisiana swamp-pop, locals in the region apparently believed upon their first listen that it had been recorded by a local artist. John claims the song is better suited to his vocals, but fuck that; this tune is indelible evidence of the cosmic magnitude of McCartney’s rock voice. The story goes that Paul arrived in the studio early and recorded a single vocal take. He repeated this every day for a week in order to capture that perfect early-morning grit in his throat. While the song was never a single in the UK or USA, Robin Gibb’s cover from that wretched Sgt. Pepper movie hit #15 on the Billboard pop charts. Ugh.
Ringo Starr’s second published song (albeit written with a good chunk of help from George) often gets dismissed as a kids’ song. But as with most Beatles recordings, there are treats to be found within the textured grooves of “Octopus’s Garden”. Perhaps the funkiest recording tweak involved Paul and George’s vocals getting crammed through compressors and limiters until they sounded downright subaquatic. That, or George blowing bubbles into a glass of milk for a low-tech sound effect.
The song that Guitar World claimed to have possibly launched the genre of doom metal was John’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The finished song is actually a joining together of two separate pieces, one recorded way back in April (and featuring Billy Preston on Hammond organ), before the sessions for Abbey Road had picked up momentum. The abrupt cut-off that ends the track (and the side) comes courtesy of John, who selected the exact moment for the crescendo of instrumentation and Moog-synth-induced white noise to sever, leaving a jarring void as the needle shimmies into the inner groove.
The month of April, 1969 featured a record number of sunlight hours for England, fresh off a brutally cold February and March. That, along with George’s exalted relief at having a morning to chill in Eric Clapton’s lush garden rather than deal with the prattle of business at Apple, propelled him to write what many consider to be his masterpiece. “Here Comes The Sun” almost featured a guitar solo – in fact, one was recorded by George before being scrapped. If you’re a fan, it’s worth watching this clip of his son, Dhani, grooving to the recently unveiled solo with George and Giles Martin.
The song “Because” was infamously penned by John Lennon upon hearing Yoko play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. He asked her to reverse the chords and a song was born. This isn’t exactly true – or perhaps Yoko didn’t succeed in matching the structure in reverse – but it’s a good story. Paul and George have both claimed “Because” to be their favorite track on the album, most likely due to its ethereal triple-tracked, triple-stacked vocals. Listening to “Because” is like floating on a river of pudding whilst getting massaged from the inside out. There are endorphins in the brain that are only triggered by the pure bliss of hearing this magnificent song.
Now to the medley. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is but one song, though its suite-style arrangement makes it feel like three. Money had been at the heart of the Beatles’ woes all year, as they risked losing the publishing rights to their own songs (and eventually would), and became mired in conflict over the band’s finances and the finances of their fledgling record label / ludicrous hippie vision, Apple. The backing track was actually recorded at Olympic Sound Studios, not Abbey Road. But we’ll let that slide.
According to George, “Sun King” was the Beatles trying to pull off Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”, a stunningly atmospheric instrumental that had been released into the wilderness of rock earlier that year. The poetic-sounding foreign lyrics at the end of “Sun King” consist of a handful of Spanish words that Paul knew, mixed with some Romantic-language-sounding gibberish and the term “chicka ferdy”, which was an old Liverpool childhood taunt.
“A bit of crap I wrote in India” is how John described “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Indeed, on its own it isn’t much. But it’s a fun 66 seconds, and features a spine-throttling fuzz bass played by Paul. One of John’s efforts to acquiesce to Paul’s medley idea was to change Mr. Mustard’s sister’s name from Shelly (as can be heard in an early take on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection) to Pam.
“Polythene Pam” was, in fact, a real person. A man who John claimed was “England’s answer to Allen Ginsberg” invited John over years earlier and introduced him to a woman who dressed completely in polythene (a British variant of the term ‘polyethylene’). That might be the story. Alternately, the song could refer to ‘Polythene Pat’, a fan from the Cavern days in Liverpool who used to eat polythene. Either way, it’s a messed up story.
Jessica Samuels claims that she was the one who came in through the bathroom window. One of the so-called Apple Scruffs – the obsessive fans (who may now be your grandma!) who staked out a perpetual patch of land outside the studio and the Beatles’ homes – Jessica says she climbed up a ladder into the bathroom window of Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood, then opened the door so the entire gaggle of fans could steal some photos and try on Paul’s pants. Why Paul was moved only to write “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” instead of pressing charges is a mystery.
“Golden Slumbers” is Paul’s tiny dalliance in ‘borrowing’ from another artist, in this case from the poem “Cradle Song” by 17th-century dramatist Thomas Dekker. He spotted the sheet music for the piece at his dad’s place, but not knowing how to read music he simply wrote his own and tweaked the words.
There isn’t much to say about “Carry That Weight”, though it was one of the songs that propelled that homeless weirdo to camp out on John’s property in the Imagine movie. It blends seamlessly from “Golden Slumbers” (which it should – they were recorded as a single track) and incorporates elements of “You Never Give Me Your Money” to create a thematic continuity for the medley. The Bee Gees covered this song twice. Why the hell they did this, I have no friggin’ idea.
“The End” is the resounding thud that slams the door on the Beatles’ incomparable recording legacy. They gave Ringo a drum solo (which he’d never really wanted to do), then launched into a trade-off of guitar solos, cycling through Paul, George and John in that order. The guitar solo roundtable was recorded in one take, with all three playing live against the pre-recorded backing track. It was the Beatles’ version of the late-60’s jam band scene, packed into a tight 2:20 song. This is the kind of song that rattles a ribcage to the point of nearly splintering – enthusiasm and discipline wrapped in a lettuce-leaf of magic.
The album should have ended right there. “Her Majesty” was a mistake; the song had originally been placed between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” in the medley, but Paul instructed tape operator John Kurlander to cut it out. He did so, but because he’d been trained not to toss anything out, he tacked it onto the end of the tape, in case Paul changed his mind. This explains the 14 seconds of silence before the song, whose final note is buried beneath the opening guitar of “Polythene Pam” and whose initial note is in fact the thunderous conclusion of “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Paul heard the happy accident and loved it, and so the song was allowed to stay. It sounds to the untrained ear like the simplest little ditty on the album, but just try to play that bastard.
The magnificence of Abbey Road wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together – John would inform the group of his departure precisely one month after the album’s final mixing session. Indeed, the critical response to the album was tepid at first, though it has since grown to become many critics’ favorite album, and remains the best-selling Beatles album to this day.
Perfection takes a winding, sometimes emotionally brutal path. In the case of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, we are all better off for their journey.