Tuesday 19 January 2010

The BEATLES: Abbey Road

(#72: 4 October 1969, 11 weeks; 27 December 1969, 6 weeks)  
Track listing: Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Oh! Darling/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)/Here Comes The Sun/Because/You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Her Majesty
“Once there was a way to get back homeward.”
It is a scathingly hot day somewhere in the middle of a summer, some way towards the end of an age. Once these four young men smiled winningly at us from a balcony and now they cannot bear, or bother, to look at us. The grinning balcony is still only a ten-minute bus ride from where they are now walking and their home then was the same as it is now but so much, too much, has changed; three of them have a beard and three – not the same three – are wearing Tommy Nutter suits. They resemble not so much a gravedigger, body, undertaker and priest as three young businessmen leading their lackadaisical rock star charge towards a meeting. What do you mean, who are we? You ought to know by now. The era of PR sleevenotes long gone, the necessity for names or even titles vanished. In any case we’ll be off soon; you won’t need to be concerned by or about us. A journey from left to right, from the past to the future, from one decade to the next, from one stage of existence to another, and they’re not looking especially pleased or particularly distressed about it.
The original idea for a title was Everest. Their engineer liked to smoke Everest cigarettes. It was suggested that they fly out to the Himalayas for a cover shot. They gave the suggester a Paddington Bear-like meaningful stare and returned to their separate but still connected bits of business. Abbey Road? Well, that’s where we’ve been these last seven years; the home has become a brand, and we’re stopping just short of becoming a brand ourselves. That was probably just as well. Apple had proved that they weren’t really suited to the branding business, nor indeed to the business of business. There was always money to flow out of the tap towards anyone who wanted it. Wasn’t there? (One of the unsuccessful applicants for Apple funding was the writer and then hopeful filmmaker BS Johnson, who addressed a gruffily disgruntled letter to “Paul MacCartney.”)
The business was draining them, or at least their joint business account, and before long, no longer having an Epstein to join the dots for them (or at least make a good fist of dot-uniting), business split them, but then so did encroaching adulthood. McCartney was the romantic, the only one who didn’t want Klein the Stoney cold rationalist managing their affairs, the only one who wanted the Beatles to continue to exist as “The Beatles.” He couldn’t let go of the teenage notion of the Toxteth gang of four, hanging out forever, delaying responsibility and finiteness. He felt safe, warm, within their womb and feared the immediate strike of a hammer, silver or otherwise, if suddenly he had to fend for himself.
The other three were, above all resentful, sniping other things, bored. John already had one foot outside the door, his conceptual sexworks with Yoko and Plastic Ono Band activities now taking precedence; George wanted nothing more than to be the second or preferably third guitarist in an easy-going, semi-anonymous jamming band (or, with any luck, The Band); Ringo was just fed up. So Paul took the role of slightly over-ebullient scoutmaster; they stumbled through the recording of an entire album (see entry #77) and attendant documentary film as though they could still cut it, there and then, like they had done in the old, irretrievable days, only to find that, two-and-a-half years off the stage, they really couldn’t. So they pulled together, sat apologetic before stern schoolmaster George Martin, and resolved to make the best possible finale to their time together (their career, if not their individual careers), a marker which would modestly attest: This Is What We Were And What We Did. (Why would they have wanted to stand on top of Everest anyway? Their principal ambition after 1967 had been to get down from the top.) The sun is shining and there are two songs on the record devoted to the sun, but how strong or penetrating were its rays?
If you play the cassette edition of Abbey Road you will notice an odd change in sequencing: “Here Comes The Sun” now starts side one and “Come Together” side two. Perhaps it wasn’t so odd a reordering; indeed, despite the initial momentary imbalance from having the album begin with two George songs, it renders a queer logic. In all senses Abbey Road was a collection of individual Beatle songs (rather than “Beatles”) and having two Georges followed by two Pauls, then one Ringo and finally (before the collaborative Long Medley) the three Johns gives an air of the album being a trailer; look, they are saying, this is what we have to offer individually. It is rather like four slices of solo album samples before the group reluctantly reunite and take themselves out of, or into, history.
But on reflection, and in keeping with the LP edition which I have known for the last forty years, “Come Together,” the quietest beginning to any Beatles album, remains the better starter. After the rather chillingly carnal introductory whisper of “Shoot me,” answered by rat-a-tat rimshots and snares and underscored by a questioning bass and warm electric piano blanket, Lennon immediately reaches for his Chuck Berry security blanket (“Here come old flat-top,” for which he subsequently had to do an expensive royalty deal) but more subtly is reaching back towards the scattered shots of “I Am The Walrus”; the track is like “Walrus” come into focus, or fruition, or adulthood. There is no longer any particular need for rage or exhibitionism; his targets still sound relatively random but he seems to know exactly where to aim in order to hit them, and as the mist clears he proclaims:
”One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.”
The guitar prowls in for the central proclamation before the song dives back into post-Dr John ju-ju sensuality; the Beatles have never sounded so relaxed, nor so damned sexy. There is, as with much that is concealed within the belly of this album, more of a debt to The Band than is commonly acknowledged, but the intertextuality is subtler than “Glass Onion” (“Got to be good looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see” is a nifty riposte to the “I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” of “A Little Help From My Friends”) and the soft cries of “Right!,” “revolution” and “come” which decorate the song’s outward journey not only declare satisfaction with unmasking of the song’s various false prophets – this is nearly the seventies, you can trust no one except yourself, be duly warned – but also a rapprochement with the notion of “Revolution”; it will now come from the head, and therefore the mind. McCartney’s bass turns messy at fade, Lennon’s lead guitar plaintive and inquisitive throughout his call to deny all sense and order, to face the approaching decade with what we hopefully have learned from the previous one.
Then George finally gets to have his substantial say. At last, with “Something,” he appears to have found the peace which had been eluding him, or around which he had been skating smartly. Remember how when he emerged he did so with the sullen fuck-you likes of “Don’t Bother Me”; but he has gradually learned how to reach out towards the world and become part of its flow, and maybe has a better grip on the world of 1969 than his “senior partners” in the group. In retrospect the dying fall and rebirth of “Long, Long, Long” was his turning point and in “Something” – a song about the nature and manifestations of love – he understands what it has all been, and should be, about. The song still wanders as dazed as “Strawberry Fields” with Ringo’s ghostly cymbal sustenati and Martin’s strings, Billy Preston’s staccato organ and Harrison’s own wah-wah providing a bed of appositely soft flowers. His Scouse “no other lover” in the second verse – and of George Harrison verses there is none better or profounder – tells us that he is reeling with this new discovery. But is this happiness complete, unspoilt, free of insecurity? The middle eight suggests that it is not, with Starr’s thundering tom-toms, Harrison’s suddenly shocked cries of “I don’t KNOW!” and McCartney’s deep piano which rumbles down a staircase to the resumed piece of Harrison’s central guitar solo. Throughout McCartney’s bass sneaks in and out of the song’s contoured curvature as though giving a warning “Psst!” to George, but “Something” is more complete and, finally, happier than anything else on the record – and also wiser; consider the philosophical certainty of Harrison’s “You know I believe – and how.”
Then we come to McCartney’s perplexing pair. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is for the unwary the album’s most shocking moment (and the moment Lennon most hated); a jolly romp about a serial killer which plays like an unwieldy cross between “When I’m 64” and “Mack The Knife.” The “pataphysical” reference may be a nod to Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine (who were busy recording their second album, including the track “Pataphysical Introduction,” at Olympic Studios in Barnes at the same time that the Beatles were doing preparatory work for Abbey Road) but the blend of clanging “bang bang” anvil clunks, Harrison’s incongruous Chet Atkins fills and some highly disturbing clusters from an instrument we hadn’t heard on Beatles records before, the Moog synthesiser (not to mention the Monty Python lumberjack chorus at the end), remains uncomfortable listening; McCartney has subsequently justified the song as a metaphor for unexpected bad things happening when you think all has been sorted out (see “Ghosts” by Japan a dozen years later!) but it is as disturbing as the sequence in the original Willy Wonka film when Gene Wilder takes the kids and their parents through a high-speed tunnel decorated with images of sharks, blood and horror; they are aghast, terrified and destabilised but he happily continues to smile regardless, with those huge gobstopper eyes eager to devour the planet.
“Oh! Darling,” a slightly overwrought exercise in fifties R&B/doowop revivalism (which in turn inspired 10cc’s “Donna”) is on slightly firmer ground but it is still jarring to hear McCartney holler, “Please believe me when I tell you, I’ll never do you no harm,” directly after narrating the adventures of Maxwell. A more disciplined approach to the template Lennon used for “Yer Blues,” the track offers an equally committed group performance – note the rumbling collective rattle of drums and piano which herald each middle eight, in which latter McCartney screams more potently (“Hey you-WOOOO!” “WOOOOOOHHHH!!,” “Cry-y-yyyy-y-y”) than anything he’d done since “I’m Down,” Harrison wisely restraining himself to join-the-dots single-note guitar arpeggios. Echoes illuminate the final verse, McCartney’s throat palpably going but still capable of bloodcurling “DOO YOO!”s before floating ghosts of piano and guitar strokes bring the song to its end. Was McCartney going slightly stir crazy in the studio?
Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” offers some slightly less complicated cheer, George’s Chet nods far more at home with Starr’s good nature. But the song is still about escape – note Harrison’s sympathetic triplet of single line guitar notes in response to Starr’s moderately melancholy “sea bed” – and the various lyrical references to refuge (“Knowing they’re happy and they’re safe,” “No one there to tell us what to do”) are rather anxious for light. Ringo’s “near a cave” is especially wistful – virtually on the point of tears – although the sadness is temporarily extinguished, or obscured, by a thumping, on-the-beat instrumental break. The backing voices swoon as they swim through their Leslie cabinet fishtanks, and in its own undemonstrative, remorseful way, the song demonstrates more than any other on the album why the Beatles had to end.
Then Lennon returns, noticeably more wracked and distressed than he was at the beginning of side one; an ungainly 12/8 arpeggio of guitars, almost run into the ground by its own weight, crashes into the hitherto sunny picture – and inventing Siouxsie and the Banshees in the process – before the music settles into a troubled A minor variant on Mel Tormé’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” Lennon having nothing to say other than “I want you…I want you so bad…it’s driving me mad” but then there is no need for him to say anything more; the Ocean Child has taken over his life, his world, and one year on from the rueful acceptance of “Julia” he is in danger of being overpowered by his new muse; the love, the need for sexual tactility, overruns reason (“Come together, RIGHT NOW, over me”), and the music lumbers between E7, B flat 7, augmented A before the fearful arpeggio returns to trample over the trees (although interestingly the most piercing scream of “HEAVYYYYYY!!” appears to come from Paul!), McCartney’s fretful bass scraping its fingers up and down the singer’s shattering spine. The bossa nova model is as far a cry as imaginable from “A Taste Of Honey” and Billy Preston’s Hammond even conjures up the unlikely reminder of “Mr Moonlight.” Lennon’s final “MAAAAD…YEEAAAAAHHHH!!” signals the primal screams up ahead, and realising that there is no way out of this trap (is this song an unexpected parallel to “Suspicious Minds”?), the arpeggio of death, of hubris leading to inevitable and inescapable nemesis, is repeated, over and over, grinding the Beatles and their decade down with the promise of a less promising decade to come – there is more than a hint of the nascent Black Sabbath, not to mention clues to the later My Bloody Valentine.
Ultimately the song is gradually wiped out by storms of white noise from Lennon’s Moog, Preston’s atonal rumblings and subtle guitar feedback. It seems unable, not simply unwilling, to stop, even as it stops the world all around and within it. As an ending it is infinitely scarier than the climax of “A Day In The Life”; at least the latter offered hope, but the D minor grind persists, fifteen times in all before somebody finally flicks the off switch and the music, the group, the life, the sixties, are abruptly extinguished forever. And virtually until the last possible moment, the album side orders were reversed, with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” being the closer – effectively the Beatles’ last word - before Lennon was finally persuaded to relent. Here are the demons of “Help!” finally matured; there is a sudden, scarifying realisation that there is now no way back. But is there still a way forward? Side two opens, delicately and gradually, with acoustic guitars fading in, a patient Moog hovering in the middleground.
After a dying fall in the latter – echoing the final moments of “Long, Long, Long” – Harrison reappears, revitalised and reborn, welcoming the end of winter, the cessation of pain, the new beginning. There are comforting strings, a smiling Leslie-fed guitar, and a deft multitempo focus to the song – odd bar lines, unexpected handclaps – which imply a new and unshakable confidence. The piccolos and flutes which decorate the top line of the final chorus even manage to hark back to the Four Tops. The Quiet One’s reassuring message: “it’s all right” – don’t worry about the new age to come, the sun’s come out again, we will be happy, safe. But will we be together? It remains unclear. “Because,” which isn’t quite “Moonlight Sonata” played backwards (since that would again imply sunshine), is perhaps the saddest and most affecting track on Abbey Road, the shadows it casts the longest and possibly the most grievous. Perhaps inspired – some sources suggest written – by Spike Milligan, Lennon’s modest wordplay transcends its punnery to suggest a reflective dismay, a prematurely autumnal hopelessness.
More so than anything in the Long Medley, “Because” represents a life cut off before its time, not only because it suggests new avenues which the Beatles hadn’t really explored – how many of their songs owe such a direct stylistic debt to the Beach Boys (“Our Prayer”)? – but because it tells us where they might have gone; the Moog which materialises halfway through the song almost places it in an unlived seventies. Would they, as Lennon later dreaded, have ended up sounding like, or inventing, the Electric Light Orchestra had they gone on? Still, it’s impossible not to be at least minimally tearful – at least, for personal reasons, for this writer – at the prospect of what might have been had lives, and perhaps people, been different. The track was, chronologically, the last recording to feature all four Beatles, and it sounds different to and distinct from everything else they did in this year; like “I Want You,” it appears (albeit far more subtly) to finish midway. Then come the constructed long shadows of the extended goodbye. First Paul, the man who felt he had most to lose from not being a Beatle, drops the pretence and laments what has become of his old friends and comrades, as well as himself; six years on from “Money (That’s What I Want)” there is now only “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Back in A minor, the commonest key on the record, McCartney’s compressed sadness does indeed sound on the verge of breaking down.
But then again, McCartney has never been the man to mope for long, or stand still; with a brutal tough-love swipe (in its way as startling as Hendrix at Woodstock, quickly obliterating the deceased feedback of “Star Spangled Banner” with a sod-everything, lumpen thrust into “Purple Haze”) the song speeds up, transforms into C major, and McCartney gets down to business. The leitmotif “nowhere to go” revolves around his partially intentional determination as he realises that the silver hammer has split his life into shards. But he will make damned sure he does have somewhere to go when the time comes and by the time he reaches the giggly sweep of “Oh, that magic feeling,” accompanied by Starr’s grumbling tom-toms and robot boogie-woogie figures from guitar and piano, he feels a greater sense of relieved release, captured in a proudly pealing Harrison guitar solo, which continues to scale the scalar heights before culminating in a squeal of reborn ecstasy (for an improbable current parallel, see the last 90 seconds of Plan B’s “Stay Too Long”). “Wipe that tear away!” commands McCartney, now slightly irritated. “Came true…today…YES IT DID MY MY MY MY!” he suddenly realises as he attains his new self. Lennon, with a characteristic sardonicism, underscores McCartney’s liberation with his “all good children go to heaven” nursery chant. Climaxing with the same Harrison arpeggio that appeared on “Here Comes The Sun” – and in only slightly altered form on Cream’s “Badge” – the song disappears into tape loops of toads and crickets and McCartney’s live wind chimes which eventually resolve into “Sun King,” an affectionate nod to Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” whose gentle E major drift unexpectedly but delightfully shift into a C major vocal choir (all voices by Lennon). The Watney’s Bontempi organ from “Mr Moonlight” makes yet another reappearance while the multiple Lennons croon a succession of mixed Italian/Spanish/Scouse gibberish. From “Here Comes The Sun” to a mere “Sun King” (Louis XIV) – were appearances that deceptive? 
The track putters to a natural end before Lennon hurls the group into “Mean Mr Mustard,” a jagged, colourful return to the character studies of Sgt Pepper. This too – via the line “Her sister Pam…” and Lennon’s joyous “He’s a DIRTY OLD MAN!” – segues into the terrific acousto-indie thrash of “Polythene Pam” with Lennon’s best and broadest Scouse on any Beatles record, its close-miked 12-string stabs clearly inspired by “Pinball Wizard.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he chants knowingly. “OH LOOK OUT!” he yells as he makes way for McCartney and “Bathroom Window,” slightly slower in pace and indicative of the comic book tales in which McCartney would subsequently indulge, though still using the same chords as “You Never Give Me Your Money” and owing a good deal to the previous year’s “Lady Madonna” (“Sunday’s on the ‘phone to Monday”). Gravitas returns, however, and with a quietly terrifying finality, as McCartney reaches “Golden Slumbers” with its ineffable lament of “Once there was a way to get back homeward”; at least Winwood still carried the implication or hope of there still being a home, but McCartney knows in his bones that such a place no longer exist; they’ve travelled too far, seen too much, been too many people. 
The spirit of Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker – whose plays included one entitled The Sun’s Darling – is summoned from the piano exercise book of McCartney’s sister (and, as with “Walrus,” there is the police siren piano). Then the music toughens up and a raucous, accusatory unison football chant of “BOY, you’re gonna CARRY THAT WEIGHT! CARRY THAT WEIGHT A LONG TIME!” – the antithesis of the reassuring mass togetherness of “Hey Jude” – comes into focus, complete with (Maxwell’s silver?) hammering piano. Strings signal a return to the original “Money” – where McCartney himself finally admits to breaking down – and then the “Carry That Weight” chant returns; the new, realistic Beatles, walking into their separate futures, knowing that what they’ve done can never be reproduced and certainly never equalled, and that this burden will remain with them for the remainder of their lives.
But rock guitars pick up on that last A minor and McCartney swerves into a possibly Led Zeppelin-inspired shriek before Ringo gets his one and only drum solo. In contrast to Ginger Baker’s workout on “Do What You Like,” I have rarely heard a drum solo which tries so manfully not to be a drum solo, and Ringo had to be pretty thoroughly persuaded to do it. He sticks to the beat and the point, and then – provoking more knowing tears of farewell – we realise, with the grinning, self-referential chant of “Love you! Love you!,” that the Beatles are saying goodbye to us, in turn. First Ringo takes a bow, then Paul, George and John get three rotating three-bar guitar solos apiece, Paul lively, George being more Clapton than Clapton and John snarling as though impatient to invent punk before the staccato piano and regretful Harrison guitar usher McCartney’s final, brief and ruefully wise statement – essentially, you reap what you sow, we get the ending you deserve – before the screen widens out, the strings sweep in and the song, and the Beatles’ career, ends on a wistful but still optimistic C major.
But not so fast – after twenty seconds of silence (the first twenty seconds after death?), the last chord of “Mean Mr Mustard” shocks the listener awake to leave a winking McCartney postscript, roving, like the Queen herself, from left to right channel, like the men on the cover, before that too is cut off. A sly “bye!” if ever there were one. That last smile of a farewell is, as it was always intended to be, immensely reassuring; although the Beatles know that they have no future as a group – as opposed to their legacy, their brand – the concept of a future still exists. Who, at the end of 1969, knows where these young men are heading, walking towards, least of all the young men themselves?
They are, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, walking away from one life towards the second (and third and fourth and fifth), but they know they will be tethered to this leafy street, this history that they will never be able to shed, this idealisation of a time which suggested everything but took its time to deliver anything (most of the results of sixties radicalism would bear fruit, for better and worse, in the seventies), particularly since they, together with their receptive audience, were chiefly responsible for creating it. Time to build new homes, time for the seventies. Well, almost. But there remains one, not entirely unexpected, coda to come before this tale too crosses over. Who in fact will end up being in people’s dreams tonight?