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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Abbey Road

This week forty years ago (September 26 in the UK and October 1 in the U.S.) Abbey Road was released. It was the last album that the Beatles recorded (Let It Be, though released later, was recorded earlier). My father probably picked it up very quickly upon its release, and I still have the vinyl disc, and of course a CD version (but I do not have the remastered one--my pocketbook dictates I have to draw the line somewhere). How many times have I listened to it? Could it be a thousand?

Gun to my head, Abbey Road is probably my favorite rock and roll record of all time, though it isn't laid out that way. It doesn't have a multitude of hit singles, and instead is dominated on side one by a strange and eerie John Lennon composition, and on side two by a series of medleys, snatches of song that together add up to a brilliant conclusion to the Fab Four's recording career. After the rancor of the Let It Be sessions, the boys wanted to go out in the old style, and they succeeded magnificently.

For one thing, Abbey Road has the best contributions by George Harrison and Ringo Starr of their Beatle careers. In fact, it isn't pushing it too hard to say that Harrison's "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" are the best two songs he ever wrote. As for Starr, his charming "Octopus's Garden" is by far his best Beatle song, an easy victory in that he only wrote two songs (the lamentable "Don't Pass Me By" is the other). "Something" only trails "Yesterday" as the Beatle song with the most cover versions, and no less an authority that Frank Sinatra called it the greatest love song ever written (even if he did err and also call it the best Lennon and McCartney composition). "Here Comes the Sun" remains one of the most uplifting songs from the rock era, a joyous celebration of life from the most spiritual of Beatles.

Lennon's contributions include the opening track "Come Together," which has many interpretations but it is probably simply a typically acerbic and sardonic self-portrait. His most daring song is the one that closes side one--"I Want You (She's So Heavy)," a dirge-like explication of lust that borrows from acid-rock styles and includes a chilling vocal, spooky synthesizer effects that suggest wind from the caverns of Hades, and a sinister guitar riff that continues on until the song reaches well over seven minutes--and then it stops, suddenly. I remember talking to a guy way back in high school who said he would listen to the song with his head against the speaker, and when the song ended he felt like his brain had exploded.

McCartney offers his typical style on side one with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Oh, Darling." The former is one of his retro music hall songs (Lennon disdainfully referred to them as "granny music," and refused to participate in the recording of "Maxwell"). A cheerful ditty about a homicidal maniac, it was a big favorite of mine when I was eight, but no so much anymore, but it's still irresistible. "Oh, Darling" is a pastiche of New Orleans' blues, with McCartney successfully employing his screaming vocal technique learned from Little Richard.

Side two, after "Here Comes the Sun," is basically a long medley, starting with "Because," which Lennon wrote using chords from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. That segues into "You Never Give Me Your Money," which I find to the richest composition on the record. McCartney starts it off with a nursery rhyme-type complaint about finances, but it morphs into something else, with enigmatic snippets of lyrics that are strangely moving: "One sweet dream/Pack up the car, get in the limousine/Soon we'll be away from here, step on the gas and wipe that tear away/One sweet dream came true today."

After "The Sun King," with its amalgamation of Spanish and Italian (plus a Liverpudlian phrase, "chick-a-ferdy"), comes two songs Lennon later referred to as "crap I wrote in India": "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam." They are cartoonish profiles but toe-tappingly pleasing. Then comes the final medley, a sweeping end to the Beatles' career. It starts with "Golden Slumbers," a lullaby with lyrics by English poet Thomas Dekker. This segues into "Carry That Weight," a song McCartney wrote with pointed lyrics, if one considers the context (both Lennon and Harrison thought it referred to the weight they would carry by deciding to break up). And then, appropriately enough, comes "The End," the last song all four Beatles recorded together. It is almost an encapsulation of their career, with the simple mantra, "Love you," hearkening back to the Beatlemania days, and then including instrumental solos (including Ringo's only drum solo) and finally McCartney's poignant farewell: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

But of course that wasn't the end. In one of the first examples of a hidden track, fourteen seconds go by before there is one last twenty-three second song, "Her Majesty," a throwaway ditty of McCartney's. The story is that originally it was to be included between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" (the opening chord of "Her Majesty" is the end of "Mean Mr. Mustard") but McCartney didn't like it and told the recording engineer to burn it. A prime directive of never throwing anything out from Beatles recordings existed, and it ended up spliced to the end of the album. McCartney liked the way it sounded (I've heard the other Beatles did not agree) and the rest is history. Perhaps it's appropriate that the record ends with a bad joke.

In addition to being a musical masterpiece, the album cover is one of the most iconographic in all of rock. It contains lots of Paul is Dead clues, and made a tourist destination out of a typical London zebra crossing (when I visited, I made the pilgrimage as part of a Beatles tour, and somewhere in a photo album in my closet is a picture of me crossing that road). The car on the cover (with the license plate number of 28IF, which any Beatle fanatic worth his salt knows) is in the Volkswagen museum.

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