Thursday, September 26, 2019

Abbey Road, 50 years on

Today (26 September) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Abbey Road, the last album they recorded as a group. It doesn't seem that long, but I think that's a product of first becoming aware of the LP when it was less than a decade old.

In January 1969, the band had tried to make an album that they planned on calling Get Back, attempting to record it as they had done at the beginning of their career, with no overdubs, and no edits. It had been a horrible experience for everyone concerned, and the tapes got buried (for a while, anyway). The problem was that, trapped by the public's expectations of them, The Beatles were finding it very difficult to work together. Paul McCartney remained committed to the band, hoping it could last a lot longer. But he mishandled his leadership role, and came across as hectoring and nagging.

Meanwhile his former creative partner, John Lennon, had moved on, being besotted with his new lover Yoko Ono, and wanting to invest all his creative energies with her. Under her influence, he was moving towards writing more personal and confessional material, such that could not easily be accomodated on a Beatles album. George Harrison, after a patchy couple of years, was right back at the peak of his creative form, but was frustrated by only being allowed two tracks per album, and by being still, at 26, treated as the baby of the band. He also seems to have wanted to become more of a rock guitar hero, along the lines of his friend Eric Clapton. Both Harrison and Lennon were completely fed up being told by McCartney what to do. Ringo Starr wasn't happy either with the tensions around the band.

So how did they manage to produce what, in the words of one of the earliest pieces of Beatles journalism I read, is a remarkably together album for a band that was falling apart? A lot of it was surface gloss. The Abbey Road engineers had got their heads around the new eight-track tape machines, and were making records sound like they had never sounded before. Some of it was that, returning to an overdubs and edits approach, they could stay out of each other's way a lot of the time, though there were tensions, between Lennon and McCartney, Harrison and McCartney, Harrison and Ono, and Lennon and Linda Eastman, McCartney's new girlfriend.

But a big part of it was probably the knowledge that they were coming to the end of the band's history. Producer George Martin very much had this feeling, being surprised that they were going back into the studio at all after Get Back. Though Starr doesn't recall this being the notion, both Harrison and McCartney seem to have acknowledged it in song - Harrison in 'Here Comes The Sun', which looks forward to better days ahead, and McCartney with 'The End', a track that explicitly gives the four members an opportunity to shine as musicians. This would explain why Lennon and Harrison seem to have upped their game (though Lennon drew for some of his contributions on songs over a year old, and absented himself from recordings on various occasions). They were evidently more willing to let McCartney have his way, even allowing him to put on the album 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', his silly and lyrically nasty attempt to imitate the style of his brother Michael's band, The Scaffold. (Though they vetoed his attempt to put it out as a single, knowing that novelty singles was the last thing The Beatles should be doing.)

As a result, this is very much McCartney's album, and it often seems like a blueprint for his subsequent solo career. It was McCartney who, along with Martin, assembled the 'Long Medley' that takes up much of Side Two and is one of the album's more memorable moments. Such is the shadow cast by McCartney on this record that early critics thought three of Lennon's songs, 'Because', 'Sun King', and 'Mean Mr Mustard', were composed by his songwriting partner.

And yet, unquestionably the best songs on the album are those of George Harrison, 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Something' - his best compositions to that point, and pretty much the best Beatles tracks of 1969. Indeed, when Allen Klein was choosing numbers from Abbey Road for the compilation album 1967-1970, none of McCartney's contributions made the cut - Klein selected Harrison's two tracks, Lennon's 'Come Together' (which had been issued with 'Something' as a single), and Starr's 'Octopus's Garden'.

Abbey Road is a strange album - it almost seems to capture the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, and anticipates that The Beatles, either as a group or as individuals, will no longer be as central to pop music as they had been. Harrison looks to the future with his new Moog synthesizer, which he uses on 'Here Comes the Sun' and lent to Lennon for 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'. Both he and Lennon had obviously been listening to Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, as shown by Lennon's 'Sun King' and Harrison's guitar solo on 'I Want You'. The result, in some aspects, doesn't sound that much like The Beatles.

For me, Abbey Road is more evocative of summer than any other record The Beatles ever made. It might not always be my absolute favourite Beatles album all the time - I also have a lot of time for Rubber Soul, Revolver and Pepper. But it may well be the one I have listened to more than any other.

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