OK, this could get quite messy, so I’m going to try it this way:
At the beginning of 1969, Paul McCartney became convinced that the only way to get the band working together again would be to go back to playing live. That eventually, and with marked reluctance particularly from George Harrison, became a vague idea to do one concert and an accompanying documentary chronicling the making of the album which would go with it. This became known as the ‘Get Back’ project, and took up a significant chunk of the early months of 1969. It also didn’t go particularly well, as evidenced by the fact that Harrison properly walked out this time. As with Ringo the previous year, he was encouraged back into the fold, but with no manager looking after things, and competing factions demanding the right to oversee legal and financial matters, it seemed only a matter of time before everything crashed and burned.
All of this period properly belongs in the next post, but I’ll just zip past the turmoil of the ‘Get Back’ project by noting that it eventually was shelved, although not before a single came out, featuring Billy Preston on keyboards:
A slightly different version would eventually show up on the next album, but this was pretty much the only thing to come out of the original ‘Get Back’ sessions. McCartney, despairing of what had become of his band, suggested that they all stop fannying about and go back to making records the way they used to, with George Martin in control and just using the instruments to hand. Billy Preston stuck around for a few sessions, since it seemed he did help the atmosphere, but in all other respects the idea was to get down to work as if the last three years had never happened. The first thing to come out of the new sessions was another single ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’:
‘Ballad’ isn’t in any real sense a Beatles song, featuring only John and Paul, and describing in some detail the travails of Lennon and Ono since the start of the year, what with bed-ins and trying to find somewhere to get married and so on. I don’t know, at this remove, if anyone was fooled at the time, but I do think it’s interesting that, in spite of all the disagreements and tension between the pair, when the inspiration struck, they could knock off something like this in a few hours. However, it was only masking the reality; as the single was released, John and Yoko were in Montreal, holding another bed-in and recording a single of their own, released only a few hours after it was recorded under the name of ‘The Plastic Ono Band’. Oddly, and possibly contractually, it is credited to ‘Lennon – McCartney’, but it’s a Lennon solo record:
Sessions for the new album started up without Lennon, who was on holiday (and was involved in a car crash) in the north of Scotland; when he rejoined, it seemed as though perhaps some things had got back to normal – recording and writing continued for the rest of the summer, with Lennon involved as much as the others, in spite of his also planning what exactly the Plastic Ono Band was going to be. During the sessions, Lennon had presented the song ‘Cold Turkey’ to the rest of the band, but they turned it down. As the sessions came to an end, Lennon was invited to play the Toronto Rock Festival as the Plastic Ono Band. Organising this, together with plans to record ‘Cold Turkey’ seem to have finally made Lennon’s mind up. Less than a week before ‘Abbey Road’ was released, he told the other three that he was done; no longer a Beatle.
There was an agreement not to make the news public while it could hurt album sales, and there may have been some half-hearted attempts to either woo Lennon back, or to somehow work without him, but there’s little doubt that all four of them knew it was over. There was another album’s worth of material from the ‘Get Back’ sessions in the can, and that would allow everyone to carry on, pretending that nothing was wrong, but in reality, ‘Abbey Road’ stands as the Beatles final statement.
And, as you’d hope and perhaps expect, it’s a terrific statement; another attempt at what a rock album could be with almost an entire side devoted to something not heard before – a deliberate medley of songs, running the music together rather than just eliminating the gaps between tracks. You can read it as not having enough material to finish any of the songs, but I don’t believe that’s what’s happening here – I’m sure that it’s deliberately constructed, almost to demonstrate that even in extremis, this is a band still so full of musical ideas that they can’t fit them all on the album. Of course, Lennon’s original plan was for a side of his songs and a side of Paul’s. I like to imagine George Harrison sat at the back of the room coughing loudly when that suggestion was made…
Because, let’s be honest, the second and third best songs on ‘Abbey Road’ are George songs. I’m going to deal with them first, so I don’t run the risk of overlooking them as I dribble on about the best one. and the way it all ends. Both ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’ are exquisite masterpieces of songwriting; both appear as effortless as the best Lennon or McCartney songs, and both stand as evidence of just how good Harrison was becoming as a writer, as well as fitting perfectly into the late Beatles sound. If I had to pick, I think ‘Something’ shades it for the glorious guitar tone in the solos, and for the way it takes a lyric which could have rattled along on something raucous from the early albums and adds it to a musical invocation of lazy summer afternoons.
I’m going to quickly confess to liking ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (well, someone has to) – I think it’s a fascinating development of McCartney’s parody songs; it works on its own terms, and it’s a tremendously catchy melody as well as a lyric which can cause your kids to ask you just what you’re listening to – well, it did mine.
All through the album there are not only new and interesting sounds (it’s not just me who notices that ‘Polythene Pam’ basically invents the sound of punk, and ‘I Want You (She’s so Heavy)’ invents the kind of progressive rock which the likes of King Crimson were trying to get to grips with, is it?) but also echoes of everything which has come before it, from Paul’s destruction of his voice in ‘Oh! Darling’ in the manner of John’s treatment of ‘Twist and Shout’; Ringo’s return to the world of the Yellow Submarine, to the odd sounds and intricate triple-tracked harmonies on ‘Because’ echoing the intricacies of ‘Sergeant Pepper’. There are nods to Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac along the way, but what makes ‘Abbey Road’ stand alone as an album for me is the fact that it ends the way it does.
The medley is, as I said earlier, a deliberate attempt to do something different with a rock album, and I think it reaches heights which the Beatles don’t match anywhere else. I know that’s an odd thing to say, but I’ll try to explain.
First of all, ‘You Never Give me your Money’ sets out the stall for what’s to come – the main theme which we’ll be coming back to coupled with pace and style changes hinting at what’s about to happen. There’s a quick Robert Plant-style vocal followed by some Peter Green chords as we slide into ‘Sun King’ featuring the lush harmonies which would serve 10cc so well in the next few years. From the laid-back gibberish at the end of ‘Sun King’, we travel back to ‘Rubber Soul’-era songwriting from John, prefiguring Pam from the next song, then jumping seven years or so into the future as we hear about her punk uniform which could have come straight out of Sex on the King’s Road in 1976. Is it Pam who came in through the bathroom window? It doesn’t matter, because the sound is right up to date now, and it’s time to sign off properly.
There has to be a pause before ‘Golden Slumbers’ because you have to hear the last three songs as a single piece; a final summation of all these four have learned over the last seven years and giving them each a turn in the spotlight as they bid us farewell. First Paul’s extraordinarily gorgeous ‘Golden Slumbers’, easily the best track on here, and a simple summary of what’s happening – the last year has been Paul’s attempt to get them back to the way they were, but now he accepts it’s not going to happen: once, there was a way…. It’s been a lot of fun, we’ve all had a blast, but all good things must come to an end, and we’re ready to put down our instruments now and let all this drift off into history. Then there’s a fairly blunt realisation that you can’t just put something like being in the Beatles to one side;there will be no lullabies for anyone involved – the word ‘Beatles’ will appear in the first line of all of their obituaries, and everything they do from now on will be compared to what they did when they were together. They’re going to be carrying that weight with them for the rest of their lives. The current turmoil which inspired ‘You Never Give me Your Money’ resurrects the main theme and reminds us that it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses, but in the end…
In the end, these are just four kids who formed a band to see what might happen. It didn’t perhaps turn out the way they might have dreamed it, but who the hell has dreams like that? As the needle heads toward the centre of the record for the last time, each of them takes a turn to say goodbye; first Ringo on the drums, and then each of the others soloing in their own style, jamming their way through the last thing they would ever all record together, until the piano cuts them off and reminds them that there’s one more thing to say.
Few bands get to say goodbye on their own terms; even fewer manage to sum up everything they stood for in a run of songs which have so much packed in to them, and can top it with a simple couplet which echoes down the decades. The Beatles did, but then The Beatles were on a different plane from all the other bands.
Then, as if to prefigure the fact that nothing ends quite the way you planned, we get ‘Her Majesty’, left on by mistake, just to demonstrate that there may be perfect endings, but there’s always some music left over which someone’s going to stick out and just ever so slightly take the shine off. In truth, it’s a 9.5, but I’m rounding to 10 because if you’ve been following the story, and you’ve been listening closely, that final five-and-a-bit minutes should leave you uplifted and heartbroken all at once. What a gift, to live in a world with Beatles music in it.