Having inherited it, Abbey Road was the first vinyl album I ever owned. I was far too young to fully appreciate it, interpret it, or understand it, but that didn’t stop me from playing it on my portable phonograph player over and over again. While other kids my age were getting into Kiss, Queen, and Elton John, I was still spinning the Beatles, specifically Abbey Road.
It was a miracle that this album even got made. The foursome, whom I hope I don’t have to name, had just abandoned a recording session that went badly, namely the Get Back or Let it Be sessions. George had nearly left the band, Billy Preston had to be brought in to both add a little spark and cool out some tensions, and Paul and John were definitely not getting along. The now infamous `Yoko Factor’ theory about their breakup began soon after, but Paul’s devotion to Linda and her father was just as destructive. Regardless of why the Beatles broke up, they did soon after recording Abbey Road. Phil Spector would go on to mix Let it Be from the earlier sessions and it would be released after Abbey Road, but the latter was the last album they actually recorded together, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” the last song.
As had started earlier in the Beatles’ career, each member was finding his own distinct style and cultivating it. John became more avant-garde and sweet, Paul more concise and silly, George more mystical and tender, and Ringo, well, he just got more Ringo-y. “Come Together” was at once revolutionary and frightening, which is probably why it was sung by Alice Cooper in the awful Sgt. Pepper’s movie. With near nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics, the song also employed some unforgettable effects with the “shuk” sound blending into Ringo’s drums. If anyone ever doubted Ringo’s drumming ability, they need only listen to “Come Together.”
“Something,” one of two George Harrison penned tracks on the album, is a true testament to Harrison’s songwriting skills. The song became a widely covered standard, being the rare love song late in the Beatles oeuvre. Paul McCartney, after Harrison’s death, played the song on a ukulele and brought the house down. It was somewhat of an echo of George playing “I Will” on the ukulele on the Anthology special, and made it that much more personal.
Paul gets his first song in with the wacky “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” followed by another of his, “Oh! Darling.” The former is a story of a serial killing doctor set to madcap carnival music while the latter is a revisionist blues / early rock and roll number in which Paul gets his scream on. Then comes Ringo’s one contribution which had become somewhat the norm, throw one to Ringo to make him happy, in “Octopus’s Garden.” When I was young it was one of my favorites, and I have to admit, even now, I still enjoy it. It’s at least better than “Yellow Submarine.” It’s easily Ringo’s best, even among all of his solo work.
Taking a cue from proto-metal pioneers Cream and Jimi Hendrix, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was the Beatles’ attempt at the genre, and they ace it, of course. The last few minutes of building guitar lines are magical and spooky. The white noise hiss that is heard on the album is one of the first appearances of the now legendary Moog Synthesizer which Lennon insisted be on the track. John Lennon knew exactly what he was doing with each song he composed. Not only did he insist that Paul not change the lyric “The movement you need is on your shoulder” from “Hey Jude,” but he also insisted that “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” end abruptly at that exact spot.
Harrison’s second contribution, “Here Comes the Sun,” another breakout hit, yet again proving Harrison’s worth, was just as upbeat and hopeful as “Something.” “Because,” a rare simplistic song from Lennon, seems somewhat of a younger brother to “Across the Universe.” If you want to hear an exceptional cover of this song, you need look no further than Elliott Smith’s on the American Beauty soundtrack. Paul’s extraordinary “You Never Give Me Your Money” starts off a chain of segued songs that comprise the second half of the album, with portions of the song being reprised later. Changing from pretty piano ballad to a more uptempo beat, the song has some of the most memorable moments in the album including, “Out of college, money spent / See no future, pay no rent” and the soprano singing of “One two three four five six seven / All good children go to Heaven” at the fade out. The song was a ballsy way to speak about the tense money situations going on in the band.
After the sweet and slow half-Italian “Sun King,” Lennon goes into the second part of his medley contributions with “Mean Mr. Mustard.” That then gives way to “Polythene Pam,” a driving guitar song with great vocals by John. Originally, the tacked on closer, “Her Majesty”, was supposed to fall between “Mustard” and “Pam,” but was thrown out by Paul as he didn’t feel it fit. “Polythene Pam” did flow very well into “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” as they were recorded that way, with building guitars and a shout of “Lookout!” The harmonies of “Didn’t anybody tell her / Didn’t anybody see / Sunday’s on the phone to Monday / Tuesday’s on the phone to me” work to perfection before a song that almost always brings me to tears begins. “Golden Slumbers” is McCartney at his all time best, pulling off what could have been very sappy lyrics and making them believable and touching. “Carry That Weight” is next and features just the simple lines, “Boy, you’ve got to carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time” followed by the reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money.”
“The End,” although trickily not the actual end of the album, is a showcase of solos, Ringo’s drum solo first, then guitar solos by Paul, then John, then George, each with their own signature style. They all chant “love you” before the guitar solos and then after, Paul sings one of the most famous Beatles lines of all time with “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make,” a line which is so good that it excuses Chris Farley from reverting to a near sub-human in asking, “Is that true?”
“Her Majesty,” the song originally cut from the earlier medley, appears at the end of the album. It’s a simple guitar song by Paul, and ends the Beatles’ career on a quirky note. None of the songs on the second half of the album lent itself to become a single. If you played one song on the radio, you kinda had to play the whole side as they all blended together. The singles that were successful were George’s, while the flowing masterpiece of the second half is pure Lennon / McCartney.
Abbey Road was a brilliant album in every sense of the two words. It was a farewell as well as a celebration of what the Beatles were and are. Both “The End” and Let it Be‘s “The Long and Winding Road” were apt codas to the myth and legend that was the Beatles, and although they only lasted ten short years, their music, entirely different in the beginning than it was at the end, is eternal.