Abbey Road, the LP that represented the final collaboration of The Beatles, was released this month 50 years ago to a public largely unaware of the tensions that had disrupted and sidelined their prior album. As the group climbed the charts again with this latest song, the news that they were splitting plunged their fans into gloom.
As I recounted in a prior post, Rubber Soul remains my favorite LP by the Fab Four, with hardly a dud from start to finish. Revolver and, of course, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been acclaimed as revolutionary.
But critics and fans have been correct in calling Abbey Road a masterpiece. In their final days, The Beatles continued to develop and innovate as songwriters and musicians, and even as their lyrics speak of the greatest stress they had ever experienced in their professional lives, the sonic surface was as smooth and gorgeous as anything they had ever put to vinyl.
No small credit for both came from the group member who might have come the longest way as a musical force: George Harrison. It was not only that his composition, “Something” represented his first A-side single for the quartet, but that—after being widely regarded as a mediocre guitarist in the early days of Beatlemania—he had become a peerless practitioner of his instrument. His confidence was evident in every note he played.
“The quiet Beatle” who had chafed at having his suggestions or contributions to prior albums shot down by Paul McCartney and John Lennon had even learned, like the two principal Beatles songwriters, to channel his frustrations into song.
“Here Comes the Sun” reflects Harrison’s elation when, after a stressful business meeting in the spring with his bandmates about the management dispute that eventually sundered them, he was able to drive out to the estate of good friend Eric Clapton and enjoy the first real sunshine of the season.
The time in the studio for Harrison and the other Beatles went far more smoothly than it had at the start of the year, when a planned album and documentary, Get Back, had to be shelved because of acrimony during recording sessions. (The tapes had been in such chaotic shape that Phil Spector, called in to salvage the product, released it over a year later as Let It Be—much to Paul’s consternation’s over the super-producer’s “Wall of Sound.”)
After a few months, McCartney approached longtime producer George Martin about working with them again. He agreed to do so, but only if they were more cooperative this time. They were as good as their word.
Years later, Martin still thought of this last collaboration as his favorite with the group he had helped to stardom: "It was a very, very happy album. Everybody worked frightfully well and that's why I'm very fond of it."
For me, the emotional centerpiece of the LP is the Side 2 medley, a string of half-finished songs that Paul figured out how to turn into a long suite. (In its wake, other artists would be emboldened to try similar quicksilver sonic experimentation, such as Cat Stevens in “Foreigner Suite” and Marvin Gaye in Here, My Dear.) It rises to a level of wistfulness in “Golden Slumbers,” where McCartney seemed to acknowledge the increasing difficulty of recovering the group’s initial joy in music-making (“Once there was a way to get back homeward”), and concluded with what amounted to a final bow in “The End,” with each of the Fab Four (even the reluctant Ringo) taking turns soloing.
Even Lennon, not above bad-mouthing McCartney in the months after the group’s breakup, couldn’t help tipping his hat to the lyric that concluded the medley and, it turned out, the group’s relationship with its fans: “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”
For a group that began singing about love (“Can’t Buy Me Love”) and gave one of its most buoyant endorsements of the emotion (“All You Need is Love”), it might have been the only truly appropriate way to bid farewell.
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