What does it sound like?:
Yes, I thought I would review one of the best known LPs of all time. And why not? You never know, someone here might never have heard it. Or someone who professes to dislike The Beatles might be persuaded by my review to give it another go.
The way Abbey Road fits into the Beatles mythology is like this. Inspired by Pet Sounds, they hit a psychedelic high with Revolver (1966) and Sgt Pepper (1967), and turned pop music into art. Floundering for direction they spent much of 1968 messing about in the studio, and the resultant splurge of half-baked recordings became The White Album (a classic, but a flawed classic). In January 1969 they tried to record a live album, jamming and recording every minute, until they finished at the end of the month, cold and exhausted, with one last impromptu show for posterity on their office rooftop on Baker Street. By that point the game was up, they were all fed up being Beatles, and they had nothing left to say.
In that context, Abbey Road seems nothing short of miraculous. In the astonishingly compressed timescale of Beatles world, it was effectively a comeback album. Anecdotal legend says it was Paul who realised they needed to rally one last time to put a proper full stop on their career, and he enticed producer George Martin back to the studio with the promise that the boys would be on their best behaviour and it would be like old times again. Paul had the desire to make a snappy, polished LP, and the consensus is that they managed it.
It’s actually quite slim pickings for proper stand-alone pop songs. You could conceivably create a Beatles ‘best of’ sampler and not include any songs from this album at all. If anything, the balance was tipped in George’s favour – clearly sitting on a few gems (his songwriting having been sidelined until now by virtue of being in a band with two of the biggest egos on the planet), he contributed Something and Here Comes The Sun, two gorgeous, shimmering ballads which sounded as free as sunshine and as deep as the ocean.
John at this point was into gnomic, bluesy, stripped down fare, and his main contributions (Come Together and I Want You) opened and closed side one. What might have sounded primitive and one dimensional was made to soar by the addition of Billy Preston’s gospel and funk inflected organ sounds.
Paul appeared to be in novelty hell at this point, getting lost in fussy, clever clever compositions that warned of his patchy solo career to come. With the memory of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da still fresh, he outdid himself with Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, perennial favourite for Worst Ever Beatles Song.
But where Paul shone was on what I feel is Abbey Road’s humble classic – Oh! Darling. Clearly inspired by John’s Yer Blues from the previous year, Paul decided to go full doo wop, with a stomping 6/8 staccato piano and lots of wooh and waah backing vocal harmonies. In that delicious Beatle-y way, he didn’t stick to a traditional doo wop circular chord sequence, but turned the chords upside down to make it a bit stranger, a bit more otherworldly. (Bowie would later pull the same trick with things like Five Years and Drive-In Saturday). It’s a gut-wrenching song with a histrionic vocal (Paul at his peak was notable among white singers for his screaming), dripping with irony and foreshadowing glam rock. And Ringo plays a blinder, with some of the most spectacular and downright orgasmic drum fills this side of Ginger Baker.
Abbey Road could be regarded as an object lesson in rhythm guitar. From the capo nine D-sus twinkling of Here Comes The Sun to the sensitive colouring of piano ballad Golden Slumbers, the playing throughout is unflashy and delicate, lending an AOR sheen to the whole thing. Even John, notoriously clumsy and limited as a guitarist, brings his A-game. (You can sense the excitement and relief when our trio of guitarists let rip in a brief three-way guitar battle on The End at, er, the end of the LP – The Beatles doing Freebird).
This AOR sheen was new for our boys. To be honest, they hadn’t really got fully to grips with the studio since Sgt Pepper, and lots had changed since then. Everything was sonically warmer and cleaner, with instruments properly separated in the mix, subtler reverb, and a deeper, more satisfying bottom end. The heavy use of the Moog in colouring the tracks also gave things a wholly modern feel, offsetting the sometimes sugary orchestrations. Sonically, Abbey Road is in the same ball park as Dark Side Of The Moon (which it clearly inspired).
It’s an album that’s actually quite difficult to describe, which reflects the fact that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. Papering over the cracks to hide a dearth of decent new material, the sequencing is a stroke of genius (especially the celebrated medley which closes side two), a condensed journey through a ragbag of disparate songs – against all odds, it all flows majestically.
Lyrically opaque, it’s effectively a combination of nonsense verse (‘Sticks a ten bob note up his nose’) and cryptic clues to the financial mayhem underpinning the band at this time (‘You never give your money’). But the superficiality of the words allows the occasional trite sentiment to ring with the weight and simplicity of myth, retrospectively tinged by the knowledge that these are some the closing statements of the mightiest pop group to ever walk this planet: ‘Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time’, ‘All that magic feeling, nowhere to go’.
After a last euphoric, meaningless aphorism (‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’), it all ends with a resounding, full on, orchestral C major chord, which is allowed to fade naturally and give you time to reflect on the preceding forty minutes.
(Paul spoils the mood with a little 30 second acoustic ditty as a hidden track. But at this stage, who can blame him for wanting to keep the party going for just a few more moments?)
I experienced this LP through my dad’s record collection, and it was (and IS – I still have it) a serious, heavy 1969 original pressing. The four guys walking across the zebra crossing on the front cover seem untouchably mature, cocksure with a thousand years’ experience crammed into a decade, not one of them over the age of thirty. No need for sleevenotes or embellishments – just a tracklisting and an apple on each side of the vinyl. Even now, this still feels like a grown-up artifact, a reminder in times of doubt that pop music is not just a childish pursuit.
I finally visited the real zebra crossing for myself a couple of years ago. It seemed small and fake next to this otherworldly image that has dominated my Beatle-obsessed brain for nearly thirty years now. But I confess to an uncontrollable rush of emotion when I crossed from one side to the other. I’m not normally an emotional person, but I couldn’t help myself.
What does it all *mean*?
It’s a statement of intent, the colossus at the heart of twentieth century pop culture. Or, if you like, just a great run of addictive tunes put together in just the right order.
Goes well with…
Drunken attempts to match the vocal harmonies. (Sheesh, I didn’t even mention the harmonies in my review!)
Might suit people who like…
Blonde On Blonde, Déjà Vu (CSNY) and Dark Side Of The Moon.