Editor’s Note: Contributor Matt Kindelmann deconstructs Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded together. Today, marks the 50th anniversary of its release in the United States, Sept. 27, 1969. (It was released a day earlier in the UK). The 11th studio album by the English rock band hit No. 1 on U.S. charts. While critics gave it mixed reviews when it was released, the album has become a classic and put a coda on The Beatles illustrious career.
After the icy and fruitless “Let it Be” sessions thawed, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr reconvened in the summer of 1969 at London’s EMI Studios to sagaciously and ambitiously craft what became Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded together.
Fifty years later, the album is still more than just a great collection of songs; it is proof that despite their uncertain future, The Beatles were able to put aside the differences to create a masterful musical statement that cemented their legacy.
George Martin was back in the producer’s chair for the album after being sidelined during the “Let it Be” sessions.
“I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, ‘We’re going to make another record, would you like to produce it?’” Martin said. “My immediate answer was, ‘Only if you let me produce it the way we used to.’”
Originally there was a disagreement about how to approach the record; John wanted to do a straight-forward rock-and-roll album, while Paul was keen to record a pop symphony or rock/pop opera. But they ultimately compromised with side one a collection of individual tracks to appease John and side two contained the medley that satisfied Paul.
The end result is a polished product of creative compositions, fine musicianship and a group like effort that is reminiscent of the “Revolver” sessions.
The first eight tracks are as eclectic as anything The Beatles had ever recorded and still sound fresh half a century later.
Side one has the swampy licks and curious lyrics of John’s “Come Together,” George’s lavishly smooth “Something,” Paul’s macabre, yet tuneful, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and his nostalgic “Oh! Darling.
Added to that were Ringo’s good-hearted “Octopus’s Garden,” and John’s minimalist lyrics and slow-building wall of overdubbed guitars of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
George’s beaming and optimistic “Here Comes the Sun” opens side two and the simple, yet thought-provoking lyrics of John’s “Because,” sung in triple-recorded harmonies by John, Paul, and George, hearken back to the classic three-part vocals of “This Boy” and “Yes, It is.”
But the 17-minute medley on side two, a patchwork of incomplete songs and expanded sketches that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what really makes Abbey Road shine.
The Beatles Abbey Road album cover, which has become iconic in its own right. Click the photo to buy the 50th anniversary remix from amazon.com. (Photo: EMI/Universal Music)
The medley begins with “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a song Paul wrote while in New York in March 1969. The lyrics reflect the strain he felt from The Beatles’ business bickering.
Like the medley itself, the song’s musical structure is composed of fragments, beginning with a piano ballad, then moving to a boogie-woogie section, and ending with arpeggiating guitars and cricket sound effects.
As the song fades out, mellow reverberating guitars reminiscent of Peter Green’s work with early Fleetwood Mac, fade in as “Sun King” begins. Ringo’s heavily draped toms achieve a jungle drum effect and the three part harmonies of John, Paul, and George sing in faux Romance languages.
John wrote the next songs in the medley while in India the previous year and each tune compliments the other.
The fuzzy and romping “Mean Mr. Mustard” was inspired by a newspaper article about a miser and is followed by “Polythene Pam,” which was partly based on a night John spent with poet friend Royston Ellis and a girl from the Channel Islands who was dressed up in only plastic wrap.
“Polythene Pam” opens with powerful twelve-string acoustic guitar chords and has a Liverpudlian feel with John singing in a very exaggerated Scouse, a dialect exclusive to Merseyside.
“She didn’t wear jack boots and kilts, I just sort of elaborated,” John admitted.
“Polythene Pam” segues into Paul’s “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” which was inspired by fans who broke into his home. Paul’s tune, a leftover from the “Let it Be” sessions, is breezy and its lyrics are as cryptic as anything off of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
The medley slows down and a somber ambiance permeates the opening piano and orchestration of “Golden Slumbers.”
Paul based the song on the poem “Cradle Song,” a lullaby by the dramatist Thomas Dekker, after seeing sheet music for the poem on the piano at his father’s home in Liverpool.
As he was unable to read music, he created his own melody. The song segues into “Carry That Weight,” which reprises the beginning of “You Never Give Me Your Money” and reflects the atmosphere at Apple Corps in the summer of 1969.
In a seeming act of solidarity, it features vocals from all four Beatles and sounds like an anthem.
“The End,” the last song of the medley, is the final track all four Beatles played on.
“Oh yeah, all right, are you going to be in my dreams tonight?” Paul screams as Ringo’s steady toms and bass drum give it a slight hip-hop feel.
Paul, George, and John, in that order, perform a rotating sequence of three sparring, two-bar guitar solos. Each Beatle’s guitar playing technique reflects their character:
Paul’s playing is fluid and playful, with a feel of perfectionism; George’s is melodious while methodical and John’s is pulsing, roaring, and contorted.
They sing “Love you, love you” in falsettos over their crescendoing solos until Paul, in front of a humming orchestra and a pulsating piano, ends the album (and the group’s career) with a Shakespearean couplet that sums up the soul of their music:
“And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”
Fourteen seconds after the last note of “The End,” the twenty-three second “Her Majesty,” a track not listed on the original sleeve and considered the first hidden track in rock, plays and abruptly ends.
Just as I had done with The Beatles seminal album, Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band, I spent dozens of hours staring at the cover of Abbey Road while the record spun on my stereo.
The front cover, one of the most famous and imitated images in the history of recorded music, contained neither The Beatles’ name nor the album’s title and featured the foursome walking across a zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios.
As a policeman held up the traffic, photographer Ian Macmillan stood on a stepladder and was given ten minutes to take the shot outside of the studio around lunchtime on August 8, 1969.
“The whole idea was Paul’s,” Macmillan said. “A few days before the shoot, he drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly.”
Macmillan found a good Abbey Road street sign to photograph for the back cover, but was annoyed when an oblivious woman in a blue dress walked right in front of his viewfinder.
He later decided that the “blue dress” photo was the most interesting of the bunch, and ended up using it. “I always loved the artsy feel of that back shot and when I met Abbey Road’s engineer Geoff Emerick, I asked him to sign the back cover for me. He noted that he’d never signed that side of the album before,” he said.
One can usually find a few gaggles of fans snapping photographs and recreating the cover’s poses at the Abbey Road crossing today in London.
While visiting one winter afternoon, I bummed a cigarette from a fellow fan and tried my best to look like Paul crossing the street.
The last time I was there it was heavily overcast, and much to my chagrin, the street was under construction.
I refused to let this ruin my moment and set my camera on the tilted “men working” sign in the middle of Abbey Road. As I began walking past the orange traffic cones and on to the zebra crossing, the clouds in the gray London sky parted as if on cue.
Here comes the sun, I naturally thought as I hit my stride and the timer on my camera clicked. Had the sun appeared a few steps earlier, I would have walked across the road barefoot.
A 50th Anniversary remix of Abbey Road is available for sale. Click here to buy it on amazon.com