By spring 1969, it was clear that the Beatles as a band was coming to a close. There were many and varied reasons for this, but in all honesty, it really came down to four guys, three of them close friends since 1957 or so, finally moving on and going their separate ways. The band, for all intents and purposes, had run its course of a decade-plus years, and now the four men had grown up into separate individuals. John, having long grown out of the allure of being in a rock band and finding new love and hints of stability, couldn’t wait to move on. Paul, even though he’d been the de facto manager of sorts in trying to keep the band together, now felt the urge to do his own thing. George, always in the shadow of his two older and more prolific bandmates and their sometimes volatile relationship, hungered for his own musical endeavors separate from the rest of the band. Ringo, the latecomer (a close friend since at least 1960, he joined the band in 1962) and friend to all, even had his own distractions: he had a taste and natural ability to acting and had active roles in multiple movies.
Even though the results of the Get Back sessions had been a disaster, they still planned on releasing it at some point; however, they had all decided (but not officially claimed) that if the Beatles were to dissolve, they wanted to go out on a high note. They asked George Martin to produce, who adamantly stated that he’d do so only if they recorded the way they used to: with direction, creativity, and a distinct lack of volatility. The band agreed, and returned to the studio.
The new project would be an interesting mix of new, old, and recent-but-unfinished. Though the majority of the album would be recorded in summer 1969–mostly between 1 July and 29 August, at Abbey Road–a few songs received a kickstart early on. Despite the slow erosion happening within and outside the band, the group as always had a never-ending itch to create. The genesis of some songs popped up during the Get Back sessions, such as “Octopus’ Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Others dated back to snippets from the India trip and The Beatles sessions, such as “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”. These were added to a small but significant list of completely new songs as well. A handful of these songs would be started in fits and starts before July, in between the many various personal appointments going on, such as Ringo’s filming and George’s surgery and recovery of having his tonsils removed. Even John’s unexpected car accident and recuperation caused slight delays and his lack of input. Mundane reasons to be sure, but perhaps this signaled that health (both physical and mental) were finally being taken seriously. The nonstop limelight of the sixties were giving way to the hide-for-awhile-between-releases seventies.
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Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site
Album: Abbey Road
Released: 26 September 1969
The Beatles’ final recorded album (and penultimate album release) may have been seen as somewhat of a sell-out to some critics of the time, and for varied reasons. It’s the most lush-sounding and intricately-crafted album of their career. This was a rarity in that it was recorded only in stereo (any monaural versions are not true and separate mono mixes like their previous works, but fold-downs of the final stereo mix), and on an eight-track mixing board as well, which gave them a lot more aural room to play with.
The title itself is an obvious homage to the studio that had treated them so well since 1962, even as they are walking away from the building on the iconic front cover. [Abbey Road Studios is behind those trees to the left, just behind George’s head and the “28IF” Volkswagen.] All four would eventually return to the studio to work on future solo projects, but as a band…privately, it was agreed that this would very well be the last project done as a full band. It only stood to reason that they go out the way they came in.
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[Note: Due to recent copyright arguments on YouTube, I unfortunately can’t post any video links this time out. Chances are the links for the previous Blogging the Beatles posts are dead too. Sorry about that! ]
Track 1: Come Together
The album kicks off with a startlingly swampy blues song from John. Originally inspired by Timothy Leary’s run for California governor against Ronald Reagan (Leary’s theme was “Come together, join the party”), this track shows immediately how well the four could play together when they put their hearts into it. The basic track for the final version (take 6) had all four doing what they do best: John singing some of his most offbeat lyrics, George delivering some great blues riffs, Paul slinking away on bass, and Ringo playing subdued yet intricate drums. The song itself really doesn’t have any meaning other than the possible self-parody John was known for, but that doesn’t really matter–the fact that it’s got one killer blues groove going is enough to make it memorable.
[On a personal note, this was probably one of the first Beatles songs I was aware of, having heard Aerosmith’s cover of it on the radio before I went to see Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a kid.]
Track 2: Something
Another relatively new song follows, this time one of George’s all-time best compositions. It’s a gorgeous love song (though per George, not about Patti–his aim was to write a love song with Ray Charles in mind as singer) that takes its own time unraveling, and its deliberate meandering only adds to the song’s excellence. By this time George had become quite adept at song structure, and this one is a great example: it starts quietly and sparsely, most of the tune relying on the lyrics to carry it. It isn’t until the second verse that George Martin’s strings come in to complement the melody. By the end of it we’ve hit the first bridge, the strongest of the sections, with each instrument building up in force and emotion before his second refrain of “I don’t know, I don’t know…”, bringing it all back down to quiet contemplation and a bluesy and Claptonesque slide guitar solo. In the last ten seconds of the song he hints at another bridge refrain, only to end the song on a high positive note instead. All in all one of his best tracks.
Track 3: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Paul’s first offering for the album was originally a late entry to The Beatles but missed the deadline. It re-emerged briefly during the Get Back sessions (the band performs a run-through with Mal Evans on anvil in the Let It Be film) until it finally popped up in early July. Paul may have gotten a bit of flack from the other three during the sessions for this song, most likely due to his three-day attempt at trying to get as perfect as possible, much to the others’ annoyance. John actively disliked this song much like he did with “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, as it’s a very slight, twee song–another of his “Granny music” songs, as John would say. Still, Paul’s obsessiveness with this song actually makes sense on an interesting level: for a science-y sound he used a recently-purchased Moog synthesizer, which back then was a keyboard surrounded by a confusing bank of knobs, plugs and wires, so Paul must have wanted to take his time to make sure the sound worked with the song rather than it being an intrusive wall of bleeps and blats. [Even rock band keyboardists who were adept at using one, like Ray Manzarek and Keith Emerson, found it unwieldy at times.] It can be somewhat of a cutesy, cloying song, but it still works as an interesting composition, very much along the lines of Paul’s Sgt Pepper era tracks.
Track 4: Oh! Darling
Paul’s next track could easily sit alongside “Come Together” as one of the band’s best blues tracks. It popped up near the end of the Get Back sessions (you can hear a bluesier jam version on Anthology 3), but got a major boost on 20 April. The basic track is a wild and dirty jam–tighter and more melodious than “Yer Blues” but equally as fierce–with a surprising twenty-six live takes with all four playing loud and hard. Paul would then try numerous takes of his vocal, which he did on purpose: he wanted a raw-throat sound to his voice and would come in early so he could belt it out on his own. The end result is a down-on-my-knees heartbreaker of a track that sounds like it could have been recorded late at night in a packed smoky bar.
Track 5: Octopus’ Garden
Ringo offers one of his own tracks here, a light-hearted and fun track inspired by a cruise he’d taken in 1968. As with most Ringo songs for the Beatles, it doesn’t venture too far melodically, though by 1969, he had enough confidence and strength in his singing voice (quite possibly due to his recent foray into acting) that his delivery is quite strong here. It’s a nice summery song with John delivering some lighthearted fingerstyle guitar, Paul plinking away on the piano and minimal bass, and George supplying licks possibly inspired by slack-key guitar. The three also offer a lighthearted (and silly, during the solo) backing vocals that complement the song well.
Track 6: I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
The first side ends with a quite sinister track from John that ends up being the second longest track in their catalog at 7:47. It shares an interesting quality with a few other long tracks in their discography in that, in certain versions, they have an extended final section. “Hey Jude” features its famous four-minute fade out, and the early version of “Revolution 1” featured the same. The only difference here is that, unlike the “Hey Jude” coda featuring a different musical refrain than the rest of the song, we’re treated to the final arpeggiated riff here in the first few seconds of the song. Musically it may sound a bit corrupt and morally questionable–the minimal lyrics pretty much suggest a lecherous need for the focus of his desire–but all that aside, it’s one of the most powerful and dynamic tracks they’ve ever done. George and John both play lead blues riffs here and Paul chases along with a fascinating array of trickling bass lines. Billy Preston also makes an appearance here, playing a wonderful run of riffs on his organ. The song also changes tempo multiple times, going from a rock beat to a rhumba beat to a slithery dirge, until it finally hits the final arpeggio section again. At this point the riff doesn’t let up–it only gets darker and angrier and louder. A wash of white noise slowly enters the picture just past the five-minute mark, adding to the apocalypse until the last few seconds are about to take over and then–nothing. In a brilliant move from John, they chose not an ending or a fade-out, but a cold edit into silence, which leaves us gasping at the end of Side A.
Track 1: Here Comes the Sun
The second side starts off with a complete one-eighty from where we left off on the previous side, with a joyous, lighthearted song from George. Written on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny April day in 1969 at a house owned by Eric Clapton (and it had indeed been a long and cold winter in the UK that season), he’d decided to play hooky from the tedious day-to-day business at Apple and relax. Everything about this song is bright, from George’s delicate arpeggios and sing-song keyboard work, Paul’s upper-register bass playing (he only goes low during the “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” bridge), and even Ringo’s tight and quiet drumming. [John was laid up in the hospital due to a car accident from early to mid July, so he does not feature here.] It’s not overt, but the arpeggiated triplets are borrowed from the common codas for Indian ragas, especially with the wind-down “1-2-3 / 1-2-3 / 1-2 / 1” phrasing. This track also hints at George’s later solo work, especially from Thirty-Three and 1/3 forward, where he felt free to pursue his lighter, more spiritual side.
Track 2: Because
John’s next offering is a hauntingly gorgeous track featuring some of John, Paul and George’s best harmonies ever put to tape. Supposedly inspired by the chords to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and played on electronic harpsichord by George Martin (with John echoing the melody on guitar), it’s an extremely trippy and strange paean to…something, we’re not sure what. That’s not as important, though, as the vocal delivery by the three men is the most important part of the track. Recorded and overdubbed twice more so it features nine voices, the vocals carry the entire track through its just short of three minutes. The listener is still not entirely sure what the song is about, but that doesn’t matter, because it was absolutely lovely to listen to.
Track 3: You Never Give Me Your Money
The “Abbey Road Medley” official starts here with Paul’s not-so-subtle ode to their new manager, Allen Klein. [While John and George liked the man and Ringo was ambivalent as usual, Paul actively disliked and distrusted him.] That aside, it could also be considered an ode to working class suburbia, the ennui and frustration of being too broke to do anything but wish one was elsewhere. It’s a fascinating song of three separate parts: the slow and pessimistic arguing of lovers–the motif which is borrowed later on near the end of the Medley; the bustling daydream of hopes deferred played almost in boogie-woogie style; and finally the rocking and grooving finale of optimistic escape. Each section sounds completely different from the other two, even though it’s played straight through with very little change of instruments. It’s one of Paul’s strongest and most adventurous tracks of the latter period of the band.
Track 4: Sun King
John returns with a quiet and unassuming song similar to two others of the era: this is the second song highlighting quite detailed harmonies (similar to “Because”), and it also features the lazy F#m7-to-E riff inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”–the same phrase he’d used just a few months earlier on “Don’t Let Me Down”. The vocals are lovely, but the lyrics have even less meaning than “Because”, featuring just a few straight phrases and a lot of ersatz Spanish-sounding phrases. It ends at just shy of two and a half minutes, giving way to the next track in the medley.
Track 5: Mean Mr. Mustard
The next track segues in perfectly, right on beat and key, though it’s one of John’s leftovers from the Esher demos for The Beatles. It’s a slight and silly song about a miserly man who refuses to spend his money on anything (apparently inspired by an article he’d read). It could be seen as a filler track–and John quickly wrote this one off as a dud–but there’s some interesting bits here. First off, instead of a normal twelve-bar blues riff, the back half of the phrase goes up to D instead of down to A, giving it a bit of added flavor. The last few bars of the song are also done in 3/4 time rather than 4/4, as if to speed up the feel of the track. The song ends with a return back up to D–originally to segue into the short acoustic “Her Majesty”, but changed to segue perfectly into the next track instead.
Track 6: Polythene Pam
Another of John’s Esher demos for The Beatles, this one hints back at their early career and lives. There’s quite a lot of silly wordplay here–not the weird and purposely obtuse stuff John would write later, but his earlier, pun-filled works–and it’s sung in a very thick Scouse accent. The four are playing with gleeful abandon here, with a lot of guitar whoops and surfy licks, all with Ringo laying down a rumbling beat. As with the previous, the last phrase of the track changes chord here in order to lead us into the following track.
Track 7: She Came In Through the Bathroom Window
Paul returns with another extremely strong track, this one inspired by their erstwhile fans that hung around the studio and sometimes his house around the corner on Cavendish Avenue, in which one had actually broken into his house at one time. It’s a quirky song, not quite a love song but not quite a story song either; it’s a bit of both, a man and woman at odds with each other and yet entwined in each other’s fate. There’s some great playing here as well (both this and “Polythene Pam” were recorded in one go), with extremely tight vocals and instrumentation.
Track 8: Golden Slumbers
Another song from Paul, partly inspired by Thomas Drekker’s “Cradle Song” (and possibly inspired, though never proven, by Paul’s lingering wish for the band to go on as it once had), it’s a short and simple piano-based piece, but its dynamics are fastinating, as it starts out as a soothing lullaby but turns into an urging plea for a respite. This build from soft to loud carries the song over to the next track.
Track 9: Carry That Weight
Recorded alongside the previous track, it takes off from the heightened power of the previous track with all four members singing the chorus in unison. This is the most intriguing song on the album despite its short length, as it features multiple motifs from earlier tracks on the album: an extra verse from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and the arpeggios from “Here Comes the Sun.” Though Paul stated the song was about the frustrations of running Apple at the time, John and many others saw it as a commentary on the band themselves–even though they were on the verge of breaking up, they knew that whatever they did separately would never equal what they had done together as a band.
Track 10: The End
A hard edit after the final arpeggios of the previous song brings us to the penultimate track of the album, and the only song that features a solo from all four members of the band, even Ringo, who hated drum solos (and gets his out of the way first thing). Each guitarist then shows off their one of their signature styles: Paul with his bright and full notes; George with his bluesy bended notes; and John with his hard and crunchy riffs. This builds up gradually until it stops short and all instruments drop away except for Paul’s quiet piano, hovering for a few seconds before the final coda kicks in.
And it’s one hell of a heartbreaking coda: it’s a final goodbye to everything that the band endured in the sixties–all its ups and downs, highlights and misfires, pleasures and pains, successes and failures, celebrations and losses, and everything in between, summed up in one line: …and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. One short angelic “ah-aah”, and the song…and the band…is done.
Track 11: Her Majesty
…and not to be left on such a morose note, an almost thrown away track formerly wedged between “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” gets added as a last wink and nod to their fans. Paul’s short acoustic ditty is a bit of an afterthought and thrown on by Abbey Road tape operator John Kurlander and forgotten until the final mix listen. The band enjoyed the surprise, and decided to keep it in. The cover for the first editions of the album had already been printed and did not mention this song, and so was considered an early example of a “hidden track” on a rock record.
If the Beatles wished to go out on a high note, or at least finish their career as a band with their best work to date, Abbey Road certainly did its job. It’s not considered their best album overall, though it’s quite high up on an extremely high number of critics’ lists, but given their history and the place they found themselves in at the end of the sixties, it can definitely be considered their best output at that time.
Over a surprisingly short stretch as a recording band–just about seven years, from late 1962 to mid-1969–they’d touched upon so many fascinating and disparate musical styles, from Tamla and Motown to blues to country to folk to pop to psychedelia to hard rock and beyond. It only made sense that Abbey Road become a swan song of their own voices and styles–this was the band as themselves. It was also an album similar to The Beatles in a way; it was the sound of four different men’s styles, gelling miraculously where the previous album failed to do so.
All four members would be working on solo releases by the end of the year, and their initial solo work would carry hints of what they’d given to this album. John’s post-avant garde albums would feature both hard-edged and plaintive work, indicative of his personality; Paul would be free to continue on his poppier and more melodic work; George, finally free from John and Paul’s shadow, would shine through with excellent songwriting and guitar work; and even Ringo would shine with some of his best singles–often aided by the other three, in one way or another.
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Single: “Something”/”Come Together”
Released: 31 October 1969
Unlike previous single releases, the band had no leftover tracks they wished to release, and so they chose to feature two of the strongest songs from Abbey Road here. They felt that George’s “Something” was the stronger track, and gave it the “apple skin” side, giving John’s “Come Together” the “core” side.
Side A: “Something”
As mentioned in an earlier post, this track popped up late in the sessions for The Beatles, but George felt strongly enough about this track that he felt it would work better on their next project (or possibly a solo release, considering the situation). The phrase “something in the way she moves” was borrowed by label mate James Taylor, but the rest was all George’s creation, and it’s lovely. An interesting bootleg version lasted a surprising eight minutes, with a lengthy piano coda at the end played by John (whose instrumentation is all but obscured in the final version). This coda would be dropped, but John would end up using it for the track “Remember” from his Plastic Ono Band album the next year.
Paul would revive this song much later from about 2002 onwards, playing it mainly on ukulele, as a loving tribute to George.
Side B: “Come Together”
John’s great bluesy rocker actually got him in legal trouble in 1973; the line “Here come old flattop/he come groovin’ up slowly” sounded way too similar to the line “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me” from Chuck Berry’s single “You Can’t Catch Me”, and was soon sued by Morris Levy and Big Seven Music Corp, that song’s publishers. Wishing to avoid any further problems, they settled out of court with John agreeing to record a handful of other songs held by that publisher. The sessions for those songs would be infamous and troubled in their own way, mainly by drugs and drink (John and a host of friends, including Harry Nilsson), an unstable producer (Phil Spector), and a relationship breakdown (John and Yoko), but by 1975 he made good on his agreement and released Rock ‘n’ Roll, his last recordings before semi-retiring for five years.
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For the Beatles, these recordings would most likely be considered their last original work as a band. They hadn’t exactly broken up or informed anyone that they had done so, but they had chosen not to say anything for the time being. The wedge had been planted the previous year, but the arrival of Allen Klein had been the final nail in the coffin. They may have met up occasionally for business meetings or Beatles-related issues, but by this time they were no longer a recording entity. The only thing left at this point would be to set their affairs in order–and perhaps release whatever became of the Get Back sessions–but other than that, the band was pretty much over at this point. All that remained was the music.
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Next Up: No One’s Gonna Change Our World and The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record