1969: The Beatles / Abbey Road
by J A Gray
And we’re back with The Beatles. I’ve always thought 1969 was one of the finest vintage years in rock and pop music, and I could have cheerfully nominated any one of a dozen albums fit to stand spine-to-spine with the rest of the selections on these pages, but Abbey Road is much more than just another Beatles album (as if there’s any such thing as just another Beatles album). For one thing it’s the last one. Marcus had me well drilled on this fact from a very young age: Let It Be was recorded before Abbey Road, but released afterwards. Actually, one song from Let It Be, I Me Mine, was recorded after Abbey Road had been released, but we didn’t know that then. But to all extents and purposes, Abbey Road is the swan song, the last word from the most important and most loved pop group of all. This gives the album a heavy aura and a powerful mystique. It has a lot to live up to. How could a band that were almost in tatters by the spring of 1969 set aside most of their difficulties and produce a fitting coda to seven remarkable years as a recording group?
The first thing I noticed was the hair. Abbey Road was my second Beatles album. I was very drawn to that last album mystique and that famous cover photograph seemed to convey so much of what I was picking up on. No band name or title on the front, just four famous men. With a lot of hair, both on their heads and their faces. My mum disapproved. She had once held a torch for John Lennon but she sneered at the length of his hair on those later albums. She didn’t even like his glasses. He’d let himself go, she thought, after he took up with that strange Japanese woman. He’d been so handsome but then seemed to go out of his way to look as ugly as possible. Hers was not an isolated opinion. Up until the mid 60s, The Beatles had managed to bring two or three generations along for the ride, but by now the generation gap was in full effect…and it manifested itself in the form of a centre parting. Actually, it’s pretty hard to see very much of John’s appearance at all on Abbey Road’s front sleeve, at least in terms of his face. The hair falls in enormous curtains and is met by a mighty beard growing upwards from his chin. A pair of glasses and a nose just about make their way out of the undergrowth. John is leading the band across the zebra crossing, but it’s like he’s barely there. George and Ringo are similarly hirsute, if more open faced. Only Paul, who had spent the winter looking like a bearded sailor, is now clean shaven and youthful looking. The act we knew for all those years has already long gone. I used to spend ages looking at pictures of John in particular, searching for features that could prove that images taken in 1965, 1967 and 1969 really were of the same man. It’s no wonder that people were prepared to swallow the rumour that Paul had died and been replaced with a lookalike when The Beatles didn’t even always look like themselves.
Ah yes, the ‘Paul is dead’ rumours. Even more heaviness would be attached to the album cover when those started doing the rounds. I remember well Marcus telling me all about it. The stand-in for Paul being barefooted and out of step. The band dressed as preacher, undertaker, corpse and gravedigger. The number plate saying 28 IF (though Paul would actually have been 27). And older sleeves were now also apparently riddled with ‘clues’, especially Sgt. Pepper. All nonsense of course, but to a 7 year old lad it was powerful nonsense.
Other photos taken the same day show John’s face more clearly. He doesn’t look particularly well. Indeed, he and Yoko Ono had been having a tough time of it. At the end of 1968 they’d been busted for drugs (John took all the blame even though the bust was a set-up) and Yoko had a miscarriage. The pair had sought solace in heroin. Heroin in turn dulled John’s creativity, and throughout the infamous Get Back/Let It Be sessions of January 1969 he was struggling to produce songs. Paul McCartney, meanwhile, was knocking out minor masterpieces almost in his sleep. John’s leadership of The Beatles, having been under serious threat from his partner for years, was now all but a memory. And then no sooner had the Abbey Road sessions started than there was yet another setback. During a brief holiday up in Scotland, John lost control of the car he was driving with Yoko, his son Julian, and her daughter Kyoko all on board. Nothing more serious than a few stitches here and there, but it must have further shaken John’s composure.
So the album cover’s image of John is uncannily accurate. He was indeed barely there for some of the album’s recording sessions. He did rouse himself long enough to make a fair fist of maintaining the illusion that both Paul and he were still operating as equals. The lyrically slight I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ended up succeeding due to a magnificent group performance. Come Together may have started out as a Chuck Berry rip-off (indeed the publisher of Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me would later seek a legal settlement over the matter), but the final swampy arrangement made for a truly great album opener. Then there’s the delicate and wintry Because, influenced by Yoko playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. There’s also the hazy vibes and cod Spanish of Sun King, which in turn owes a little something to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. Sun King leads into Lennon’s final contributions, Mean Mr Mustand and Polythene Pam, a pair of barely formed caricature portraits which added a bit of fun to the big medley on the second side of the LP. But even if John’s contributions are mostly pretty convincing on their own terms, he only really comes alive when screaming out the vocal on I Want You, or ripping through his distorted lead guitar contributions to The End*. The rest of the time you could be forgiven for getting the sensation that he sleptwalked through the whole thing.
That’s a minor niggle out of the way then. Thankfully everybody else was on top of their game. Oh OK, Paul’s song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Ringo’s Octopus’s Garden are often cited as annoying and weak tracks that prevent Abbey Road being a perfect record. Neither song wins many popularity contests, though personally I always enjoy Ringo’s underwater odyssey. I think it’s charming and beautifully executed. Anyway, that’s the other niggle out of the way. Now then, as I was saying, the rest of the gang was on blinding form.
Paul’s major songwriting contributions are for the big medley. His You Never Give Me Your Money itself contains three songs within the song and is arguably the highlight of the album. His bass playing, which had been steadily growing in its finesse and originality, reaches an all-time high on the album. His riffs, countermelodic phrases, swoops and hammer-ons still delight years after you first notice them. In You Never Give Me Your Money, just after he sings “soon we’ll be away from here”, there are three rapid hammers played up the neck of his bass and that part slays me every time. Then a little while later, just after he sings “came true today, yes it did na na na na na na na” he does it again but this time he squeezes in seven of the blighters, effortlessly. And then the harmony vocals start up the “1 2 3 4 5 6 7, all good children go to heaven” refrain. See what he did there? Seven na’s, seven bass notes and seven children. I have no idea if this was intentional or just happenstance, but it’s a neat trick either way. Actually the maths isn’t at all important, just something I noticed. It’s really just those bass guitar licks that matter. If anyone’s with me in the room, I nudge them and tell them to listen to those bits. If anyone’s talking I ask them to hold it a minute. That’s probably doesn’t say much for my social skills, but, damn it, those are the two coolest parts on the whole record for me.
He also plays godlike bass on I Want You, Something and Come Together. He didn’t just play out of his skin on his own songs. He could be terribly overbearing and bossy when it fell to him to lead The Beatles, but he was also a real team player. He wanted everyone’s songs to sound as good as they possibly could. And it isn’t just his bass playing that impresses, Paul contributes some amazing singing. There’s his bluesy wailing on Oh! Darling, and, in Golden Slumbers, there’s his almost comedic switch from gentle croon to full throttled shout that would be guaranteed to wake any sleeping child. There’s also some quality piano playing, and his lead guitar contributions are often just as classy as George Harrison’s (in fact on earlier records like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper most of the times where you find yourself thinking “nice one, George!”, you should in fact be thanking Paul). It has been said that Paul has arguably never since bettered his singing and playing on Abbey Road. I would concur with that. Always the most accomplished and most versatile musician in the band, he brings so many of his towering talents to their last hurrah.
Speaking of George, he too reaches something of a peak on the record. You could argue that Something and Here Comes The Sun are not just his greatest songs of the Beatle years, but of his whole career. And after years of being distracted by the sitar and feeling outclassed by other guitar heroes both outside the group (Jimi Hendrix, say, or good friend Eric Clapton) and inside it (the aforementioned and still little known or appreciated abilities of Paul McCartney), George once more seems to be at home on his 6-string and his playing on these and other songs, notably Octopus’s Garden (which he is thought to have had more than a hand in co-writing with Ringo), is relaxed and confident. George is also very noticeable on most of the harmony vocals on the album as often he and Paul cut these parts when John wasn’t around. Never an assured lead vocalist, George always had a terrific instinctual ear for harmonies.
And now let us praise Ringo Starr. For years dismissed as the luckiest man in pop, Ringo’s reputation as a not very gifted percussionist seemed to be sealed forever when John Lennon once quipped that he “isn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. That quote gets dropped into every internet forum or message board when The Beatles’ musicality or drummers and drumming get discussed. Ringo must hate that quip. I’ll bet even John regretted it. Lord knows Ringo was often the first choice for a solo Lennon session, so he can’t really have meant it. And if Ringo wasn’t the best drummer in The Beatles, who was? Certainly not John or George who barely, if ever, sat on a drumstool. Paul though was actually a very decent drummer. That’s him playing on Back In The USSR and Dear Prudence on ‘The White Album’ (Ringo had walked out on the group because he was feeling unloved) and he’s not bad at all. But he’s no Ringo.
Appreciators of Ringo’s drumming often point to individual songs in the group’s back catalogue, like Rain, She Said, She Said or A Day In The Life, but you could just ask someone to listen to the whole of Abbey Road. From the complex rhythmic shuffle of Come Together (a part apparently suggested by Paul) through to his infamously first and only drum solo for The End, Ringo gives the listener a masterclass in drumming that is both imaginative and tasteful. It’s never flashy, it always serves the song, yet it’s not dull and uniform. His drumming has character, taste, and bags of feel. Many people talk about great musicians in terms of their technique, but even more important to many listeners is feel. That hard-to-describe quality is where most of the magic happens. And it happens when the musician understands the music on an instinctive level. Ringo has great understanding. He’s a wonderful drummer, so don’t let anyone try and convince you otherwise, OK?
There’s another man who may have well reached his career peak with Abbey Road. George Martin’s production is exemplary. For me it’s one of the two or three best sounding albums ever. It sounds big, smooth and polished with bags of detail and clever production touches, yet it doesn’t cross the line into sounding sterile and overcooked. Ringo’s drums never sounded this deep before. Paul’s bass was never so intoxicating before. Props also to engineer Geoff Emerick who was always leading the way in finding new and better ways to record instruments. The end result is a full and rich sound. George Martin had taken more of a back seat role with ‘The White Album’ and the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, and was most likely put off by he increasing amounts of tension and rudeness. Here with the band’s full blessing he once more assumes his traditional seat in the control room. Maybe he knew it was to be the last ride, maybe he didn’t, but he certainly delivered the goods. Sgt. Pepper might be a more colourful and inventive record, and some may make a case for that being Martin’s greatest contribution to pop music, but Abbey Road has the fattest and most delicious sound of any Beatles album and for me it’s his crowning achievement.
Abbey Road‘s greatness is the combination of all these elements. Even John’s partial withdrawal had its part to play. George Harrison was given room to grow as a songwriter and musician. Paul was given his head as the arranger of the big medley. A more fired up John may have upset this delicately balanced apple cart. George Martin was able to work with a band that was indeed still on the verge of breaking up, but that kept its underlying tensions in check, holding itself together one last time to ensure the quality of the good work that had always gone down in studio number 2.
I got my copy of the album around about Christmas 1973, possibly later. If I was 7 then Marcus would have been 13. He’d have been just at the right age then to be monumentally embarrassed by my singing “come together, right now, over me!” at full volume on the back seat of the family Austin Cambridge. The word ‘come’ still only had one meaning for me back then. I also further embarrassed him by insisting to one of the local lads he was sort of friends with that I knew more about The Beatles than he did. My throwdown challenge for this neighbour was to name the opening song on Abbey Road. He didn’t know the answer yet he insisted that it was a stupid question and that I was still a know-nothing little toe-rag. Marcus squirmed when he heard. Just what any 13 year old boy needs – a precocious little brat of a brother.
Many years later I got the chance to record at Abbey Road itself with my own band, Onionhead. I stayed locally and walked to work, passing Paul McCartney’s house on the way. I walked over that zebra crossing. We recorded in studio 2, used an old Beatles piano and Beatles mics. I was high on my Beatles history the whole time I was there. Only later did I think that Pink Floyd, Roy Harper and other musical heroes had recorded in the same space. That’s the thing with The Beatles, they tend to put everybody else in the shade a bit.
When I was a kid I used to look at the cover of Abbey Road, feel the pull of its mighty aura, and wonder if I’d ever hear a better album. My mum, though, never got past the hair.
* Just how great is that three way exchange of guitar solos? Paul, then George, then John, take it in turns to play two bars each, in case you ever wondered who was who. It, and Ringo’s preceding drum solo, was definitely the most exciting section of the album, and an inspired way to bring the medley to a climax.
N.B. Abbey Road is currently available on CD, in remastered form. A separate single cut early in the sessions paired The Ballad Of John & Yoko with George’s greatly underrated Old Brown Shoe. The former, cut by just John and Paul (the others were unavailable) was the most autobiographical song yet by John, and if it had been written a few months down the line would probably have been a Plastic Ono Band recording. Paul’s willingness to help John out on the recording, and agree to it being a Beatles a-side may well have scored him major brownie points when persuading John to record one more group album when Lennon’s heart was clearly no longer in it.
My other nominations for 1969 albums of merit:
Phil Ochs / Rehearsals For Retirement
The Velvet Underground (3rd LP)
Fairport Convention / Liege & Lief
Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
The Who / Tommy
Elvis Presley / From Elvis In Memphis
The Kinks / Arthur – Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1st LP)