Monday, March 12, 2012

The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)

Abbey Road is arguably The Beatles' most fully realised album. From the menacing crawling bass line of Come Together at its opening to McCartney's hidden love song to Her Majesty that closes the album we are taken on a tour of the musical genius that was The Beatles. Sometimes criticised for lacking cohesion, as if by this late stage the four Beatles were simply acting as four solo artists rather than as a band, for my money that description is more fitting for the diffuse and sprawling eponymous 1968 album The Beatles (affectionately known as The White Album). Here there is much greater fusion where the distinctive stamp of each artist is clearly recognisable yet "The Beatles sound" is here in a way never captured on any of the post-breakup solo outings.

Here we have not one but two of George Harrison's finest songs. Something is a beautiful love song with an incandescent guitar solo whose bent notes are exquisitely touching. And the sunshine bounces off the gently lilting Here Comes the Sun giving The Beach Boys a run for their money with the joyful refrain, "Sun! Sun! Sun, here we come!" Standing in the shadow of the powerhouse songwriting duo of Lennon and McCartney, George did not always get his due but his genius is evidenced on the strength of these two songs alone.

McCartney's Maxwell's Silver Hammer is a piece of macabre British comedy whose darkness is obscured only by its happy music hall melody. And what wonderful rhyming couplets! "PC 31 says we caught a dirty one"; "Rose and Valerie screaming from the gallery." Oh Darling's aching cry shows once again that Paul was a screamer as much as a balladeer. Once Paul really opened his throat, Little Richard was never very far away Even the obligatory Ringo novelty number Octopus's Garden, is a mini masterpiece of innocence with its country lilt and undersea setting. "We would be warm / below the storm / in our little hideaway beneath the waves." The first side (yes kids, records used to have two sides) closes with the pealing bell-like guitar part of I Want You (She's So Heavy). It breaks into two haunting Latino shuffles reminiscent of Santana and then rolls on and on in a seemingly endless dramatic oceanic swelling until its sudden aural cutoff, eschewing all accepted wisdom about how a song should end.

The advent of the CD meant the loss of that reflective hiatus between side 1 and side 2 which used to leave the listener with a pause either of eager anticipation or "let's see if things improve." Here it was definitely eager anticipation. Where Side 1 of Abbey Road is clearly six separate songs, Side 2 is more like a suite with most if its songs seamlessly connecting into each other. Even though the melodic changes are quite abrupt, somehow it all holds together. After Harrison's aforementioned Here Comes the Sun we have the trippy Because with the feel of an outtake from Magical Mystery Tour. "Because the world is round it turns me on." The extended suite of songs that make up most of Side 2 sees one marvellous Lennon-McCartney musical idea (mostly McCartney) seamlessly flowing into the next whether rocking out to Polythene Pam (with its self-parodying ''Yeah yeah yeah") or drifting on the shimmering melody of Lennon's The Sun King. She Came In Through the Bathroom Window is such a great undeveloped song idea at under 2 minutes, it's no wonder Joe Cocker had to give it an extended treatment.

This masterpiece of a record is in fact The Beatles' swan song. Let it Be, though released later (1970) was recorded earlier so in Abbey Road we have the true "last Beatles album." Rather than the almost exasperated message "Let's just let it be" the last message we are left with on the appropriately titled The End is a more philosophical reflection, "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." So ended a remarkably short seven years (1962-1969) that changed the world. Was it really such a short space of time? I give this stone classic a well deserved five stars.


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