After the bad vibes of the sessions recording what would eventually become ‘Let It Be‘, it seemed that an another Beatles album may never happen, but remarkably just three weeks after those torrid sessions Paul phoned producer George Martin to arrange the beginning of new recordings. The first session for ‘Abbey Road‘ began in February 1969, but the bulk was done months later over that summer (mainly to allow Ringo to film ‘The Magic Christian’).
The sessions were far more productive and lacked the tension the ‘Get Back/ Let It Be‘ recordings did, possibly due to McCartney and Lennon having a great time creating the single ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko‘ in April which helped ease tensions between them. Yoko would say that recording was important for John as he was facing continual criticism from the press for his famous peace bed-in stunt, “Paul knew that people were being nasty to John, and he just wanted to make it well for him. Paul has a very brotherly side to him.”
‘Abbey Road‘ would be the last album the Beatles ever recorded, but there is still some debate over whether they knew it at the time or not. George Marin would say later, “Nobody knew for sure that it was going to be the last album – but everybody felt it was. The Beatles had gone through so much and for such a long time. They’d been incarcerated with each other for nearly a decade, and I was surprised that they had lasted as long as they did.” And this appears to be the consensus of feeling at the time.
Martin, Ringo, George and Paul all said they were very happy with the album and the band showed unity not seen for some years. Harrison said of the recordings, “we did actually perform like musicians again.” And Lennon seemed far more focused and engaged this time round, compared to ‘Let It Be‘, contributing much more material.
However, Lennon was more dismissive of the album afterwards calling it junk etc. This may have just been his post-Beatles bitterness coming through as he spoke very positively of it in interviews during the recordings, and may have been influenced on reflection by tensions between Yoko and the rest of the band due to her insistence of having input to the songs, including after needing to be bed-ridden after a car crash demanding a bed be brought into the studio so she could oversee the recording sessions. Paul was even quoted as saying, “We just had to work around her – and walk around her. It was the madness of the times: you just had to put up with it. What could you do? You couldn’t say, ‘Get that bed out of here.’ She was John’s girl.”
But despite this the album went without a hitch and the Beatles managed to record some of their best material giving the band a proper last hurrah.
It was released in September in the UK, debuting at number 1, where it remained for 11 weeks before being displaced for one week by the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, then returning there for a further six weeks before being replaced by Led Zeppelin II. What a period for music that was!
Abbey Road sold four million copies in its first two months of release, and remains to this day their best-selling album.
After the near end of the Beatles’ in the tumultuous recording of ‘Let It Be’, the opening track ‘Come Together’ sounds like a rallying call for unity within the band. Lennon originally wrote it as a campaign song for pro-drugs activist Timothy Leary’s aborted political run for governor of California, but the song works a lot better as a Beatles’ opening tune that has plenty of funk and cool Lennon vocals that make this an absolute classic.
Lennon said he wrote it based on an old Chuck Berry song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ and included the lyric from that song “”Here come old flat-top”, causing Chuck Berry’s estate to sue, despite the songs not sounding too similar even though the inspiration is obvious. To settle the claim, Lennon would agree to cover other Chuck Berry songs leading to the ill-advised covers album ‘Rock n Roll’ during his solo career.
‘Something’ is a song many see as Harrison’s best, but personally it’s one I won’t put in my top five of Harrison’s Beatles work as I much prefer his Revolver to White Album era stuff. Even Harrison wasn’t initially sure about the song holding on to it for months without showing it to anyone because he couldn’t believe it could be as simple to write a good song as this one. But it was seen by many as the moment Harrison came out of the shadows of the Lennon/McCartney song writing duo to be a force in his own right. I’d argue this happened much earlier however.
Lennon would later say it was the best song on the album, McCartney would say it was Harrison’s best ever song and Sinatra once said it was his favourite Beatles song of all, even covering it (although James Brown cover trumps all others). It was allegedly written for Patti Boyd, Harrison’s then wife, who would later marry Eric Clapton and have ‘Layla’ and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ written about her by him. Quite the muse really. Incidentally, something I didn’t realise until reading up on the song, Patti Boyd would divorce Harrison after his repeated affairs, with the final straw being catching him in bed with Ringo’s wife! Which is the first time I’d realised that had happened, bad bad George. Something Lennon called “virtual incest” later.
Despite it rather light-hearted tone ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was a major point of conflict during the recording process. Despite being a song Ringo said was their worst and Lennon absolutely hated, Paul quite liked it and spent as much as three days, or three weeks according to George, to record it. A considerable length given their first album took a day in total and it fed into Lennon’s accusations that Paul cared and put more effort into his own songs than anyone else’s, and was attempting to be the leader of the band.
The song itself is not one I enjoy; sounding like a reprise of the light-hearted songs about absurd characters heard on the White Album like ‘Bungalow Bill’ and ‘ob la di, ob la da’ without ever coming near to the heights of those songs. The violent imagery of the song also strikes a bum note and seems out of step with the usual good-nature of Beatles’ songs making Maxwell the most unlikeable of the Beatles’ character creations.
‘Oh! Darling’ has that great slow jam feel to it that reminds me of the brilliant ‘Yer Blues’ from the White Album. It’s great to hear a song that is a straight out love song, something of a rarity in the Lennon/McCartney outputs at this stage. The song is aided massively by a fantastic throat shredding vocal by McCartney given it a real heart and soul in what is probably one of his strongest vocals with the Beatles, although I can’t quite get over the idea this was a song tailor-made for Lennon to sing, but still an absolute highlight of the album.
‘Octopus’s Garden’ was written weirdly in the two week period during the White Album sessions when Ringo had actually left the band. It was the second composition solely by Ringo after ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ on the White Album, and is the natural successive to the Yellow Submarine in many ways, with its underwater theme, whimsical Ringo vocals and colourful imagery. I’ve always been a big fan of Beatles’ songs sung by Ringo and this is a highlight, with surprisingly deep lyrics about escapism and getting away from the wicked world, which is probably how Ringo felt when he left the increasingly toxic atmosphere in the studio at the time. Some dismiss this as the Beatles’ baby music, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of fun and a good palette cleanse in-between the heavier, more challenging songs they produced.
‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is a big heavy rock number Lennon wrote about his love for Yoko. Although Lennon talks about his relationship with Yoko as this beautiful love, this song has a lot of dark tones to it as Lennon repeats “I want you” almost as if obsessed or unable to think of anything else while the music bleeds a deep ominous heavy rock sound with big dirty guitar lines and an epic vocal from Lennon. It’s a simple song but an effective one that showed the Beatles could hit that heavier metal sound and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Led Zeppelins of the world.
The Beatles’ corporate venture Apple Corps was at the time haemorrhaging money and all members were embroiled in constant accounting meetings. The constant need for this was straining the patience of all members, Harrison, so tired of signing document after document, decided to sack it off for the day and went to Eric Clapton’s house instead. The relief and freedom he felt that day was put into the song ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ The song is Harrison at his most optimistic and happy, the way I like him, and the song is one of his finest. A real upbeat, sunny day song that stands shoulder to shoulder with McCartney’s ‘Good Day Sunshine‘, with a really great acoustic guitar piece by Harrison and superb drumming from Ringo.
While John is normally more associated with edgier Beatles’ material, down the years he wrote many beautiful songs, alongside his crazier ones. ‘Because’ is the perfect example and possibly one of the band’s most beautiful moments. He based it on Beethoven sonata 5 played backwards after requesting Yoko play it for him on the piano. The three way harmonies are some of the best the band ever did, a real gorgeous gospel choir, uplifting heavenly feel to them that flow perfectly through the simplistic lyrics. Easily one of my favourites on the album, alongside being one of George’s and Paul’s favourites too.
The medley of songs that dominate the second half of the album is the Beatles last hooray. A crescendo of music that is an absolutely fantastic piece of work highlighting the quality they could still produce. Lennon in his usual post-beatle “optimism” said it was junk and just a load of half-finished songs cobbled together. But this is actually why I think it is so brilliant and a wondrous achievement, the Beatles were able to take a group of eight completely unrelated songs and yet mould them together to one coherent and seamless whole.
Ringo would later say, “Out of the ashes of all that madness [the recording of Let It Be], that last section is for me one of the finest pieces we put together.” And I’d tend to agree it is the finest bit of their last two albums.
‘You Never Give Me Your Money‘ starts the sequence and is about the money troubles they were having with the Apple Corps at the time, but it’s hard to realise given how sweetly Paul sings it and the tenderness of the piano playing. This melts into the more upbeat vocals by Lennon, which mirrors money worries of the everyday man, but the happiness in escapism. It’s almost like Lennon/ McCartney are reprising ‘A Day in the Life‘ but reversing roles with Lennon this time giving the day-to-day account and Paul being more dreamy.
‘Sun King‘ returns to the heavenly harmonies of ‘Because‘ and again delivers gorgeous Beach Boys’ esque sounds. The beautiful laid-back guitar strings make this one of the most relaxing and soothing songs they ever did. ‘Mean Mr. Mustard‘ follows and is Lennon writing about a story he’d read about a miserly man who was bizarrely hiding his money in his rectum! Why John would want to write about this I have no idea but there you go.
‘Polythene Pam’ is either a thoughtful tribute to one of the Beatles earliest mega-fans Polythene Pat or an account about a weird sex threesome Lennon had with a beat poet and a girl wrapped in polythene. Or both. Either way, the fast guitar work and Lennon singing slightly distorted make it sound like a mix between the Kinks and Slade, which shows how easily the Beatles could jump in and out of various genres and sounds so seamlessly. This blends into ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ which is pretty self-explanatory referring to groups of girls who would hold vigils outside the Beatles’ houses at the time. One girl got a ladder and came into Paul’s house through the first-floor bathroom window and stole some photos. Instead of being mad, Paul wrote this rather lovely tribute to those fans and their dedication.
‘Golden Slumbers’ is kind of a cover with the lyrics coming from a 400 year old song. McCartney had seen the words but didn’t know the melody as he couldn’t read sheet music, so made his own. The song is a real highlight of the medley, an epic song with a huge orchestra backing and an even bigger throat-destroying vocal by McCartney, which is still one of his best. This switches into ‘Carry That Weight’ which describes the financial difficulties the Beatles were going through, and more specifically the heavy burden and stress McCartney was feeling about it but also about trying to lead the Beatles after Brian Epstein died. It has a quite lovely trio of singing of Ringo, Harrison and McCartney and it feels almost criminal that they broke up when you listen to how seamlessly they compliment each other.
‘The End‘ finishes the medley brilliantly with a Ringo drumming solo, the only one he would ever do, and guitar sparring from Lennon, Harrison and McCartney before falling into a real sleepy sombre number which is McCartney trying his hardest to put a fitting end to the Beatles with one final hooray. It ends with the line, “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” An absolute fitting send off to a band that gave so much joy to millions.
‘Her Majesty‘ is more a hidden track, a nice little whimsical closing number with McCartney with tongue firmly in cheek singing of his love for the Queen of England. Originally supposed to be part of the medley, Paul decided to cut it but engineer John Kurlander who was so used to never throwing recordings away sliced it to the end of the recording tape. McCartney liked the edit and kept it on. It’s a nice soft way to end the album so the listener can catch its breathe after the epic wave of musical styles heard in the medley.
As the last recorded album, this really should have been released last too. It is much better overall than ‘Let It Be‘ and from beginning to end is an absolute joy to listen to as the Beatles really rallied to make something special despite the tension that had built-up. The only sadness is that there is not more, that these talented four guys didn’t go on to produce more music as a band after this, but then the albums they created in this time are truly remarkable. An absolute show of the pure talent John, Paul, George and Ringo had, and what they leave as a musical legacy has never been matched.
Ten out of ten and a huge celebratory sandwich