originally published September 24, 2014
Friday marks the 35th anniversary of what I believe to be the
greatest album of all time.
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.
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
is not a happy group.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
there’s the matter of the music.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
takes a winding, sometimes emotionally brutal path. In the case of the Beatles’
Abbey Road, we are all better off for