Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Beatles 15: Abbey Road

1969 was a wacky year for the Fab Four. While the Get Back project limped along, several singles appeared, both under the Beatles’ name and that of the Plastic Ono Band. But Capitol held off from their instincts, and released their next album as originally intended. Abbey Road is the simple yet elegant finale to what Derek Taylor called the twentieth century’s greatest romance, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have possibly followed it up. And they didn’t have to, anyway.
The standard view is that each side was the respective work of John and Paul, who were further apart than ever at this point. But that’s easily dismissed, because if John wanted nothing to do with Paul’s side, why would he have contributed four songs? And how would he ever have allowed “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to stay on “his” side?
Paul can probably take the most credit for this album existing, as he was always the one keen to get his songs recorded. (He also worked closely with George Martin to get the sounds on tape.) His songs on side two are much more palatable than either “Maxwell” or even “Oh! Darling”, which sounds like he spent about five minutes on it. It’s the second side that’s his triumph, from the pointedly personal “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which sets the suite in motion, through “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and ending with “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight” and “The End” (which, despite having a three-Beatle guitar duel and Ringo’s only begrudging drum solo, was all Paul). Even “Her Majesty” serves a purpose—a nice afterthought, and something to hum to kill time while waiting to reboot your computer. Paul’s writing had certainly matured over the years, though those expectations would set him up for criticism once he was on his own and didn’t have the other three to impress. His guitar playing (as heard on “The End” and “Money”) was pretty good too.
John managed to hold his own, despite the distractions of Yoko, his peace campaigns and his own solo output. “Come Together” opens the album with a creepy menace to go along with the white-suited hairy guy on the cover. He continues the hard rock with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which builds steam until the plug’s kicked out, only to have a variation on the riff turn up on “Because”. The lush and liquid “Sun King” lyrically echoes George’s song, filtered through Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. He even allows his sense of humor to return with “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, two leftovers from India that fit well into the second side’s suite.
The secret weapon, of course, is George, who was virtually bursting with great songs by now but was only allowed two here—the aforementioned “Here Comes The Sun”, and the immortal “Something”, which both John and Paul agreed was the best song on the album. (And they were right.) George also had a lot to do with Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” coming out as well as it did—not just the guitar parts, but the bubbles through a straw, most of the changes and half of the harmonies. (Speaking of the harmonies, the boys’ angelic blend is all over the place, on practically every track.)
So what’s so good about this album? They truly went out on a high note. The overall sound is slick, and that’s not meant in a bad way. But just as they looked very different on the cover, the sounds they made had evolved too—just enough to fascinate those who’d been following the story and wondered, “What will they sound like this time?” Bands rarely have that effect on their audiences anymore, which is the 373rd reason why the Beatles were so damn good.

The Beatles Abbey Road (1969)—5

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