1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased Cassette, 1986.
IN A NUTSHELL: Abbey Road fully encapsulates everything that is wonderful about The Beatles. It also recapitulates their entire career, from doo-wop (“Oh! Darling”) to psychedelia (“I Want You,” “Sun King”) to singer/songwriter balladry (“Here Comes the Sun”). As if to lay to rest any doubts about their talents, the album is chock full of amazing songwriting (from all four members!), incredible vocal harmonies, and even some knockout solos from the boys. It’s the most-perfect final album of any band ever.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Star Wars1 opened in American theaters in May 1977, a week before my tenth birthday, making me a prime member of the film’s target audience. The film had spaceships, lasers, robots, bigfoots, a swashbuckling cowboy and a princess (with no kissing!), plus a teen-ager who learns to fight with a lightsaber. It came at a time when I was young enough that I still played with GI Joes. All those Star Wars action figures were aimed directly at me, and my dad’s wallet.
But my family were targets the marketers could rarely hit. We weren’t destitute by any means, but we were definitely lower-middle class, a family of five living on a machinist’s hourly wages. We were fed and clothed, and had a few “nice things,” like bikes and church outfits and a handheld calculator that cost more than all three bikes together, and that was hidden in my mom’s desk, requiring special permission for my sisters and I to access it. But non-necessary expenditures were rare, and anything that could be found as a “hand-me-down” was. Those GI Joes that I still played with had come from my older cousins.
Also, my parents weren’t movie-people. It cost money to go see a movie. Additionally, they required leaving the house, and possible mingling with people, an experience my dad, in particular, found difficult. My parents never went out on “dates.” They were content to watch movies on TV with annoying commercial interruptions, years after they’d been released in the theaters. Throughout the 70s I only recall them going to three movies in the theater: The Sting, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, and one other.
My sisters and I periodically went to a kids movie – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory2, Bambi, Snowball Express, – and once or twice we went as a family to the Drive-In theater. But as a whole, my family were not movie-goers. I’d never cared about that fact until I returned to school in the late summer of ’77.
That’s when Star Wars fever was boiling over.
Everyone in my fifth grade class had seen the film, and I mean everyone. John H. claimed to have seen it 30 times, probably an exaggeration, given his well-known penchant for stretching the truth, and, frankly, his family’s well-known limited financial means. However, he could, indeed, draw an astoundingly accurate version of R2-D2 in chalk on the blackboard. And this being decades before the internet, and years before DVDs and even household VHS machines, he’d had to have gone to the theater more than once to draw such a great picture.
I figured there was no way I’d get to see Star Wars until it appeared on TV. I even discussed with my buddy, Bruce F., my only ‘wealthy’ friend with HBO, whether I could come watch it at his house, without commercials, when it finally ran. I thought it was hopeless to ask my parents to take me to an actual movie theater to see it, but I decided to give it a shot.
My dad told me he’d take me3. We went to see it one evening at a theater in downtown Lebanon, PA, and it was amazing. I will never forget the first time I saw Star Wars because 1) it meant so much that my near-hermit, movie-indifferent dad took me; and 2) it was such a cool movie!
I’ve thought a lot about it, and there’s only one other work that I so clearly recall experiencing for the first time, and that’s The Beatles’ Abbey Road. And I didn’t even have all the family baggage surrounding that experience!
It was a summer evening in 1986, and I stopped to shoot hoops in an elementary school playground with a guy named Jeff. He had a boombox in his nearby car and was blasting the tape. Some of the songs I knew, some of them I didn’t, but one trip through the entire album while we played HORSE and one-on-one, and it immediately became my favorite record. The sounds, the melodies, the guitar, the feeling, the ending … it made an impression. Of all the records I love, I can’t recall my first listen as clearly or as deeply as I recall that first Abbey Road.
Abbey Road turned out to be the final album the band ever recorded. After the studio experimentation of Sgt. Pepper’s, the fraught individuality of “The White Album,” the band’s indifference to Yellow Submarine, and the awkward discomfort of filming the recording of Let it Be, (which was recorded earlier, but released after Abbey Road), it was to be a return to the camaraderie, synergy and musical focus that marked their earlier albums. Named for the recording studio in which they worked4, The Beatles’ Abbey Road is as good a final album as any band has ever recorded.
And John Lennon’s “Come Together” is as good an album opener as has ever been recorded.
The bass, the drums the whispered “Shoot me,” with the “me” obscured by echoing handclaps … it’s among the most identifiable 4 seconds in rock music history. The nonsense lyrics are fun to sing, and it’s actually John singing his own harmonies during the verses. The bass line throughout is one of the coolest ever. At 2:31 Paul plays a little curlicue at the end of a line, and you can hear a little bit of studio shouting, if you listen closely. Lennon plays the Billy Preston-like electric piano, and Harrison adds a terrific lead guitar. And the entire time Ringo proves he’s one of the most creative drummers in rock. At 3:13, a lengthy runout begins, and if you listen closely in the left side, you’ll hear Lennon’s great rhythm guitar. It’s a song that’s been played a million times that I never get tired of hearing.
“Come Together” is an obvious group effort, and teamwork is a feeling that permeates Abbey Road. Even on Harrison’s masterpiece “Something,” a certain Beatle-ness is evident that was missing on “The White Album.”
As with “Come Together,” the bass and drums are once again perfect and indelible. Paul’s widely ranging bass and Ringo’s slow tom rolls are perfection, and check out what Ringo does in the bridge (~1:14 on). Harrison’s guitar is also amazing, and his sound and slide work throughout, (on the solo, at 1:43, in particular) became a sort of template (perhaps unfortunately) for 70s lite-rock. As love songs go, the lyrics of “Something”, coupled with George’s voice, are among the best. And let’s not forget the wonderful harmonies throughout!
The collaboration among the band is even clear on songs on which part of the band is absent – for example “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which John considered “Granny music,” and so didn’t play along5.
It is a silly song, with goofy lyrics about a serial killer, but I do like the tuba-ish bass, which is played by Harrison. And it’s got that wonderful guitar throughout the choruses, pure Harrison in sound and style.
Of course, even while the boys sound like they’re playing nice together, there were still some hurt Beatle feelings. For example, John really thought Paul should’ve asked him to sing “Oh! Darling.”
But maybe those hurt feelings are why he played such amazing guitar on the song! It’s Lennon alone playing all those attacking slides in the verses and arpeggiated chords in the choruses. And it was revealed last year that Harrison actually played bass on the song! Just as Paul easily copped the “Harrison sound” in past guitar solos in, for example, “Taxman” and “Ticket to Ride,” Harrison plays a wonderfully McCartney-esque bass line throughout, changing things up every time through. (I particularly love the syncopated ascending run he throws in, about 2:28.) Paul sings the hell out of this doo-wop tune about a gal who left him, and the subtle backing vocals are perfect. Lennon finishes off the song with great harmonics.
With Harrison doing so much on the album – bass, songwriting, guitar – I find him to be the unsung hero of Abbey Road. He even helped Ringo write his second Beatles songwriting credit, “Octopus’s Garden.”
And of course, he played that super lead guitar! Lennon actually plays all the nice fingerpicking rhythm guitar. The bass is A+, of course, and I really love all the backing vocals, particularly during the great guitar solo (1:38), when they sound as though they’re under water! It’s a perfect Ringo song, his voice is great, and though the song is often criticized as just a glorified kids’ song, Harrison actually found the lyrics to be quite spiritual.
Much like the way I used to dislike “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s, but found myself growing to love it, this song is now officially one of my favorite Beatles’ songs. There’s so much happening, from an almost jazzy beginning through a slow-building musical fire that’s repeatedly tamped down, to a droning, repetitive, wild outro, it’s a song that simply requires repeated listens. “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston plays a terrific Hammond organ, and I noted so many times in this song where I went back and re-listened (Paul’s bass, 1:00; Preston, 2:00; harmonies, 2:05; Guitar solo with organ, 2:26; drums everywhere; Guitar 3:37, 4:05, 4:14, 4:19; studio shouting at 4:33) that, really, it would be ridiculous to list them all. Okay, so I just did, but basically I think you should go listen to this song a bunch of times in a row, on headphones. You’ll be happy you did. Listen for the extra hi-hat at 7:16, after which there are two more times through the pattern before the song abruptly cuts out.
More evidence of Harrison’s status as Album Hero on Abbey Road comes in the next song, one of the band’s most popular ever, “Here Comes the Sun.”
First off, that’s a cool video produced for the song last year. From the first notes of Harrison’s acoustic guitar, this song is perfection. Once again, McCartney’s rolling bass provides a great countermelody, and the backing instruments – a whooshing Moog synthesizer, a harmonium, electric guitar – give the song an uplifting sound. The lyrics celebrate, well, being alive, when it gets down right to it. The backing harmonies (by George and Paul – John doesn’t appear at all on the track) are brilliant. Ringo’s drumming is pretty straightforward, even through the 3/4 “it’s all right” sections. Then, from 1:30 to 2:12, during the “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” section,” he goes nuts with some of the coolest tom fills ever. It’s a tremendous song – upbeat, positive, fun to sing along to, interesting musically … I love it.
The rest of the album is unique and wonderful, and – for some people – almost as frustrating as “The White Album.” That album left some folks wondering “what if they’d truly collaborated and then pared the record down to the strongest 15 songs?” The second half of Abbey Road is made up of a medley of songs, and leaves some folks wondering “what if they’d completed all those snippets?” As for me – it’s interesting to think about, but I’m happy with the record as it is. The record builds, and packs an emotional wallop that may not have occurred with 9 more complete songs.
The beautiful “Because” is probably not part of the medley, but it melds so seamlessly with the rest of the songs, I usually think of it as the first bit.
Musicologist Walter Everett, in comparing the song to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” notes that both songs “arpeggiate triads and seventh chords in C♯minor in the baritone range of a keyboard instrument at a slow tempo, move through the submediant to ♭II and approach vii dim7/IV via a common tone7.” I think you should just listen to the beauty of the song, the voices, the sparse, hippy-ish lyrics, and not worry about all that. Then listen to this mix of vocals-only from the song, George, John and Paul (low register to high), each recorded three times to create 9 voices. Amazing.
Then comes the medley. NOTE: The Beatles(R) are very diligent in removing unofficial content from YouTube, etc. They only allow what they want floating around out there, which means … the version of The Medley that was on the original album, and the 2009 remix, is no longer available8 on YouTube as a single piece. The only full medley available is the version below, from 2019, when the band (i.e. McCartney) reshuffled things and put “Her Majesty” in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” where it had (apparently) originally been before a last-second change (made by McCartney!) before the album release. Also, the arrangements are different, with different vocal tracks, missing orchestral tracks, fewer guitar solos … SO – I’ll have a link to each song, below, but I like to hear the medley as a medley, so I’ll leave this here, too, even though it’s not the way I’ve always heard it. Ugh. Artists. Such prima donnas. (Love you, Paul!!)
Famous for being one of the first rock songs about being screwed by the music industry, “You Never Give Me Your Money” introduces a melody on piano that will return throughout the medley. The song’s various sections are held together by the genius of Ringo. The chiming guitars (1:34) in the “magic feeling” section give me chills every time. I think it’s might be Harrison playing it, and the chiming continues (1:50) when a great guitar solo enters, maybe played by John? Either way, the dueling guitar work is stellar, and when the pair doubles on the solo (along with Paul on bass near the end of the solo, 2:12 – 2:32), with Ringo’s fills, it’s some of the best Beatles stuff on record. Every time I listen, I hear something new. It’s actually a rather sad song, particularly for a Beatles fan, and considering it’s the last album. “Step on the gas and wipe that tear away …”
Next comes “Sun King,” a kind of repeat of “Because,” vocal-wise, with awesome harmonies, this time on nonsense, faux Spanish lyrics. The guitar work of Harrison and Lennon is, once again, really sweet. And Paul plays a slightly distorted bass that sounds cool. And check out Ringo’s bongos! The song transitions quite suddenly with a nice Ringo fill into …
“Mean Mr. Mustard.” For all of Lennon’s complaints about Paul’s “granny music,” this composition of his is not too far from that description! Paul plays a fuzz bass9 and sings harmonies. This song, though short and somewhat insignificant (anyway, it’s my least-favorite part of the medley), really showcases how the voices of John and Paul blend together. It’s about a miser, with a sister named Pam, who turns out to be …
“Polythene Pam.” Those three acoustic chords that open the song are so simple and so grand next to McCartney’s swooping bass. Great harmony vocals, as usual, on a song about a particular woman (who seems much different than her brother). It’s one of Ringo’s most creative, terrific drum tracks, and George’s solo (0:49) adds so much, leading to (“Oh, Look out!) …
“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” Actually, George’s guitar seems to continue right through into this song, with the same tone. He’s hero-George again, and his guitar work is my favorite part of this song. His guitar sound, coupled with the vocals is another place on the album where I always get chills. This is another awesome Ringo performance, too, with classic swingin’ Ringo hi-hat and Ringo-y fills, like 1:20 and 1:26. And don’t sleep on John’s 12-string acoustic, in the left channel! The song was written by Paul after an actual Beatle fan actually climbed into his house through his bathroom window.
The medley has about a 2 second break here, as the powerful “Golden Slumbers” is cued up. It’s one of Paul’s best vocal performances, fluctuating between sweet and powerful with ease on lyrics partially adapted from an old poem10. It also has some fine orchestral work (WHICH IS REMOVED FROM THE MEDLEY VERSION, ABOVE!!), arranged by George Martin. His strings never seem overdone, like the ones Phil Spector added to Let It Be, and it’s nice to hear him go out with a bang on Abbey Road, as well.
“Carry That Weight” is kind of the second half of “Golden Slumbers.” John was recuperating from a car crash, and doesn’t appear on either song (except vocals in the chorus), but hero George plays 6-string bass on both. It has a nice reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and some nice electric guitar from George. It transitions quite suddenly into …
“The End,” is truly a bittersweet song – the final time the band played together, on the final song of the final album, and titled “The End.” And it really delivers a thrilling demonstration of the 4 lads’ musical abilities. It features (0:20) Ringo’s only recorded drum solo (unless you count those 8 bars in “Birthday,” which nobody does) and dueling guitar solos from the other three. The solos start about 0:54, and rotate, 2 bars each, in order – McCartney, Harrison and Lennon. They sound like they’re having so much fun!! I love listening to the distinctive styles of each, with Paul flashily ranging up and down the neck, George playing tricky bends and rockabilly-ish riffs, and Lennon mostly playing simple licks and dirty chords. When the solos end, about 1:30, and Paul’s piano remains, I once again feel the frisson, leading into the famous couplet from Paul: “And in the end the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.” (I get a little misty typing it.) Somewhat lost in there is the fact that Harrison and Lennon play cool riffs behind the lyrics, and Ringo’s drums are orchestral and brilliant to close things out.
Perfection. And it wouldn’t be perfection without a little mistake: “Her Majesty.” As discussed above, this song was originally excised from the medley, then was mistakenly added to the end of the master tape, so it made it onto the record. It’s Paul on an acoustic, singing to the queen. And it’s really a song for our time, 2020: at 23 seconds long, it’s the perfect song to sing so I’m sure I wash my hands a sufficient length of time!
This was a long post – if you made it to the end, bless you. Leave a comment so I can thank you directly. But I love Abbey Road so much, I could have typed three times as many words. Long, long ago, on a playground far, far away, I had no idea it would still resonate with me as a 53 year old.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
“Here Comes the Sun”
“You Never Give Me Your Money”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”
“Carry That Weight”