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.


Ross said...

This is one of the few Beatles albums I've heard in full. The other two are A Hard Day's Night and Magical Mystery Tour. This was before they were on iTunes so I bought the albums to get a couple of songs that I liked.

Glen O'Brien said...

So what was your verdict on the albums? Revolver is my personal favourite.

Chris Russell said...

Is this what you call leading a spiritual life, Glen? Either you are of this world or you are not.

Glen O'Brien said...

Sorry you see it that way Chris. I see God's presence in every area of life including music and I like to think my spirituality can be taken with me into every field of creative human endeavour.

Chris Russell said...

I agree wholeheartedly, and what happens when true spirituality meets popular culture? Do you do reviews of musicals, Glen? If we're going back in time, may I ask, for example, if you have any comments on "Jesus Christ Superstar" including the song by the character of Mary Magdalene.

"Turn the waters flowing into the drain into the garden".

Glen O'Brien said...

I assume you're trying to trap me into a comment about Mary Magdalene's love song to Jesus, "I Don't Know How to Love Him." If you have a question you'd like to put to me about this I would prefer you to be straightforward and come right out with it. You have already accused me of having a defective spirituality so what more exactly are you trying to gain from this conversation?

Chris Russell said...

Yes, it is true that I am trying to trap you into a comment about what you refer to as Mary Magdalene's "love song to Jesus". I confess I have had little to do with the Church (and nothing to do with Wesleyan Methodists) for nearly forty years. But I do recall, in 1971, Kingsley Ridgway telling me angrily that that particular song had come out of "the pit of hell". He never told me anything about Abbey Road. It seems like they made Christians differently in those days.

I guess that counts as an offence, but thank you otherwise for your more than interesting site.

Glen O'Brien said...

Now I'm a little confused. You rebuke me for being "of this world" yet you have had "little to do with the church for nearly forty years." I can't speak for Kingsley Ridgway (though I did write his official biography) and I'm sure they did "make Christians differently in those days," some of these differences were commendable,some less so.

Chris Russell said...

I'm not 'rebuking' you for being of this world. I might have said welcome, except that would be facetious. It could also suggest I thought being of this world is commendable, if not for dead Christians. The real question is whether you are compartmentalising your spirituality when you articulate popular culture without reference to God. I'm suggesting, on the evidence of your writing, that this may well be so in your case. As I see it, I don't need to have attended church a lot recently to make this observation.


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