The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969): On Second Thought

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This album, released 45 years ago on September 26, 1969, was simultaneously the Beatles at their best, and the sound of a band disintegrating. Such is the power and magic of Abbey Road.

We find John Lennon in peak form — punny, free associative, cool rocking and sharp. There’s also every piece of the Paul McCartney DNA, from throat-shredding shouts to curious dancehall dittys to billowingly emotional chamber-pop. George Harrison and Ringo Starr make important contributions, as well.

Then, just like that, it was all over. Though released before the flawed swansong Let It Be, this album actually represents the Beatles’ final full-length project. “Pick up the bags and get in the limousine,” Paul sings at one point, sounding devastated, “soon we’ll be away from here, step on the gas and wipe that tear away.” Just six years after bursting onto the scene with Please Please Me, they had come so far. The only place left to explore, it seemed, could be found in opposing directions.

As such, Abbey Road would always have a twilit romanticism about it, a lasting talismanic power. One sweet dream, it’s true, came true that day. Still, its very complexity, as the album explores both the Beatles’ strengths and how those strengths tore the group apart, is what brings us back to this album again and again …


BEVERLY PATERSON: Wracked by internal strife, the Beatles were barely hanging by their fingernails by the time they entered the studio to record Abbey Road. The writing was on the wall, and it was only a matter of months before the band, that for the past several years, not only reshaped the entire complexion of music, but changed the cultural and social landscape with their tremendously terrific tunes, would be no more. Despite being plagued by personal and financial issues, John, Paul, George and Ringo wound up conceiving an absolute masterstroke in the form of Abbey Road. It’s as though the band was aware they were on their last legs, and did everything in their power to conclude their collaboration on a grand note.

NICK DERISO: The triumph of Abbey Road, as much as anything, was that it made the Beatles sound again like a group, like a unit working as one — rather than a backing band for each track’s principal songwriter, as had become more often the norm in the intervening years after Sgt. Pepper. Even John’s penchant for leaner, funkier rock (“Come Together”), idyllic dreamscapes (“Because”) and searing studio experiments (“I Want You”) sound of a piece with the signature McCartney-Martin moments found elsewhere. They finally found a way to fully integrate George Harrison again too, making this his most complete outing since Revolver. Still, even as Side 1 ends up as an encyclopedic crib sheet for everything the Beatles ever did (good and bad), Side 2 presents its own lasting conundrum. For all of the dizzying moments of narrative wonder, the twinkling humor and emotional resonance, that now-famous album-closing song cycle can’t obscure a simple fact: The Beatles crammed nine fragments into 16 minutes because they were past the point where they could finish things, past the point of actually doing what it sounded like they were doing: Working together.

KIT O’TOOLE: Abbey Road ranks as a crucial part of the Beatles’ catalog for several reasons. First, it represents the group’s last recording. Second, it marks George Harrison’s official coronation as a full-fledged songwriter equal to the Lennon/McCartney partnership; therefore it remains a puzzle as to why Harrison was still relegated to two songs per album. Several songs hint at the turmoil the Beatles were undergoing at the time, both personally and professionally, yet the band sounds tight and focused. Finally, Abbey Road contains Ringo’s only drum solo.


S. VICTOR AARON: This song is one of Lennon’s very best, and his unmatched ability to string together nonsensical phrases that everyone sings along to anyway crested right here. But the rest of the Beatles gave their all, too. Paul’s hot and humid bass has him appearing to audition for Cream, George’s response to Lennon’s call during the coda is simple but strikingly human sounding, and the imaginative high-hat/tom-tom dance with the bass and rhythm guitar is yet another stellar moment where Ringo does not suck.

BEVERLY PATERSON: All the delectable ingredients associated with the music of the Beatles are amplified to stunningly intricate effects on Abbey Road. High quality songcraft, compounded by vibrant arrangements, potent hooks and glorious harmonies deeply penetrate each track on the album. The production is simply immaculate, and the songs are perfectly sequenced. Never ones to sit still, the Beatles explore and embody new ground on Abbey Road with hunger and passion. As a group, they may have been falling apart at the seams, but individually they clearly remained excited about creating music. By inserting such singular ideas and talents into a solitary stew, a rich blend of electrifying sounds was born.

KIT O’TOOLE: Since the band’s beginnings, the Beatles kept their obvious love of R&B front and center. This Abbey Road-opening track is no exception, as its heavy beat and throbbing bass gallop steadily toward Lennon’s opening vocals. The first lyric, “Here come old flat top,” further illustrates Lennon’s debt to soul — after all, it borrows from Chuck Berry’s 1956 single “You Can’t Catch Me.” Speculation has mounted for years over the song’s real meaning: Did certain lines take potshots at fellow Beatles members? Was it supposed to be a followup to the White Album’s “Revolution 1,” or the faster single version of “Revolution”? What leaves no room for argument is its funk, grit, and Lennon’s peerless rock vocal. “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free! Come together, right now … over me,” he growls, and we believe every word.

NICK DERISO: The reason the album stands up better than, say, The White Album is this “coming together,” this sense of giving it one more try. There’s more, however: While it’s “conceptual,” this one outstrips Pepper because it’s not locked into An Idea. Besides, the songs here, on balance, are stronger than those of either earlier album — even Ringo Starr’s. And the thing rocks a good bit more, in particular here on Side 1, where Lennon dominates.


KIT O’TOOLE: Need proof of how Harrison had evolved into a first-class songwriter? Just listen to this delicate ballad that perfectly balances a tender love song with full-out rock. The first line, “Something in the way she moves,” borrows from then-Apple labelmate James Taylor, who had just released his first version of the classic “Something in the Way She Moves” on his debut album. The myth persists that Harrison wrote the song in tribute to his then-wife Patti Boyd, although in subsequent interviews he denied this oft-told story. No matter the subject, “Something” soars with its poetic lyrics, subtle yet complicated bass work by McCartney, and Starr’s deeply varied drumming, from soft to heavy in the bridge.

S. VICTOR AARON: The first six words of the lyrics came from Taylor, but everything else about the song is all George who is announcing he’s arrived as a third, strong songwriting voice in the band. George’s heartfelt, solo with notes carefully spaced apart stood in stark contrast with the blizzard of notes that was beginning to become the standard way of playing elsewhere in rock. Only “Yesterday” has been a more endearing ballad from the Beatles.


S. VICTOR AARON: Paul’s attempt to create humor out of a murder spree falls flat.

KIT O’TOOLE: This McCartney composition may also be dubbed “just a cheerful ditty about a serial killer.” It remains controversial to this day: It’s one of those tunes fans either love or hate. According to Geoff Emerick’s Here, There, and Everywhere, Lennon hated the track so much he refused to play on it. While it probably doesn’t stand with The Beatles’ absolute best work, it charms in an offbeat way. The lyrics still sound silly — just listen to McCartney almost burst into laughter while singing the lines “So he waits behind, writing fifty times ‘I must not be so, oh oh oh.” The featured instruments are also quirky: the then-fairly new Moog synthesizer and the anvil, the latter played by none other than the beloved Beatles road manager and assistant Mal Evans.

NICK DERISO: Paul was reportedly laughing because Lennon had mooned him during the previous verse, which ends “so he waits behind.” All of that is funnier than anything that actually happens here — a pothole on the otherwise superlative Abbey Road. Convinced somehow that this could be a hit anyway, McCartney, and a rotating group of his hapless bandmates, somehow spent three days — three days! — recording this track. “He did everything to make it into a single,” Lennon said years later, “and it never was — and it never could have been.” Bang bang!


S. VICTOR AARON: Paul immediately acquits himself by belting it out with such convincing commitment, it single handedly saves this song.

KIT O’TOOLE: During McCartney’s Wings days, music critics complained that McCartney could only sing sappy, romantic ballads. (He recorded “Silly Love Songs” as his response, but that’s another story). Therefore the stereotype of “Lennon was the rocker, McCartney was the balladeer” was born, and persisted for many years. Need further proof that McCartney could rock? Here’s Exhibit A. In one of his finest vocal performances, McCartney bares his soul, yet conveys pure sexuality in lyrics typical of the blues: “When you told me, you didn’t need me anymore, well you know, I nearly fell down and died.” The Fats Domino-like piano, the ’50s-tinged reverb, and Harrison and Lennon’s backing vocals result in a Beatles standout performance. As for McCartney’s singing, listen through headphones to fully appreciate his slightly gravelly tone and his shoutouts to Little Richard and his own early Beatles days with the “whoos!” he inserts throughout the song.


KIT O’TOOLE: From heavy blues we turn to this delightful children’s song, written entirely by Starr. According to Anthology, the song’s inspiration came while sailing on Peter Sellers’ boat. Starr explained in a 1981 interview that “He (a ship captain) told me all about octopuses — how they go ’round the sea bed and pick up stones and shiny objects and build gardens. I thought, ‘How fabulous!’ because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea, too.” While the verses — and Starr’s simple but effective vocals — certainly account for much of the song’s charm, the arrangement proves key as well. McCartney and Harrison’s harmonic backing vocals, at one point processed to sound as if they are underwater, underscore the track’s whimsy, as does Harrison’s bright guitar solo.

S. VICTOR AARON: Another silly song like “Hammer,” yes, but such things are part of Ringo’s charm and specialty. However, the real star is George’s bluesed-up Carl Perkins guitar that holds interest long after the lyrics get a little tiresome.

NICK DERISO: At least they sound like they are having fun, which is more than you can say for “Maxwell.”


KIT O’TOOLE: During the recording of Abbey Road, Lennon was still experiencing the early stages of his relationship with Yoko Ono. This raw sexuality and pure longing are on full display in this track. During the first verse, Lennon and the band sound somewhat restrained, as if trying to contain wild passion. When he croons the line “it’s driving me mad” the second time, the band lets loose in an explosion of heavy electric guitar and guest Billy Preston’s pounding organ playing (the song’s secret weapon). Hearing Lennon vocally imitate the guitar makes for a thrill as well. Starr’s drums and McCartney’s steady bass add to the track’s overall, to use a bad pun, heaviness, suggesting a slower version of “Helter Skelter.” “I Want You” is perhaps the second loudest, straight-ahead rock song The Beatles ever wrote and played. Its wild alternating between soft and loud, restrained and wild, make for a fascinating roller coaster ride. For the crowning touch, Lennon adds white noise toward the end of the track, which ultimately engulfs the band. Is this a nod to Lennon’s increasing interest in avant garde or a further nod to lover Ono?

BEVERLY PATERSON: John’s valentine to Yoko, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is indeed heavy, as it rumbles and grinds to a hard and intense rhythm, then abruptly ends which was accomplished by cutting the tape right down the middle.

S. VICTOR AARON: Lennon contributes another stellar track, one with the raw soul of Big Brother and the Holding Company and Otis Redding, and adds the rock muscle of Jimi Hendrix. This is one time where the Beatles might have borrowed from their contemporaries instead of the other way around. Only, when the Beatles borrow something, they usually make it better, and here they do. Paul’s bass lines particularly on the lighter, jazzier mode of the song is dazzling, Lennon’s vocals gets across the anguish like few other can — and that abrupt ending is, for no reason I can describe, pure genius.

NICK DERISO: I’ll never forget the first time I heard Side 1. (Obviously, this was back in the days of vinyl.) When “She’s So Heavy” ground down to that abrupt halt, I thought my turntable had skipped. I jumped up and put the needle back down: SHEEEEESH-quiet. Again. SHEEEEESH-quiet. Again. SHEEEEESH-quiet. A smile curled up my face.


KIT O’TOOLE: From the messy, gritty love expressed in “I Want You,” the album transitions to this upbeat, spiritual track from Harrison. Written while strolling around Eric Clapton’s garden, the song exudes optimism that could be interpreted as romantic or religious, much like Harrison’s material on subsequent albums like All Things Must Pass. Starr plays elegant drums that never overpower the orchestral elements or Harrison’s delicate guitar riff that permeates the track. In fact, that riff remains one of the most recognizable of any song — audiences hear those first few notes, and they instantly identify the tune. Interestingly, Lennon did not play on this song, as he was recovering from a car accident.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Rippling with polish and precision, Abbey Road dispenses a variety of feelings and moods. It’s impossible not to be touched by the gentle beauty of “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something.”

S. VICTOR AARON: As memorable as “Something” is, this other submission by George tops it for its rich melody and lush, twelve-string acoustic guitar. An early use of the synthesizer showed how it could be used effectively and tastefully in rock music; unfortunately, few took heed in the following decade.


NICK DERISO: Stands as one of the greatest all-together-now harmonies to be heard on any rock record … and that includes the Beach Boys. Too, it marks the introduction of the synthesizer as a lead instrument — well over a decade before MTV. Take that, Duran Duran!

S. VICTOR AARON: Lennon is three for three at this point, this time because of some gorgeous, intricately layered harmonies set to a resplendent melody. Even the hippie-trippy lyrics can’t dilute any of that. Because the song’s so good, it makes me cry.

KIT O’TOOLE: This one starts off in a somewhat eerie fashion, with an harpsichord introducing the vocals. The words themselves are mysterious: “Ah, because the wind is high, it blows my mind.” If the tune seems to contain classical elements, the ears do not deceive. In 1980, Lennon recalled that Ono was playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano, and he suddenly asked her to play those same chords backwards. Those deconstructed chords became the foundation for the tune, and presented some challenging harmonic elements. Yet Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison nail the vocals perfectly, even though their voices are triple-tracked. To induce a chill down the spine, listen to the acapella version on the Love soundtrack to fully experience their astounding harmonies.


S. VICTOR AARON: Paul’s “medley within a medley” is chock full of great melodic ideas, smooth harmonies and his perky, wandering bass — all packed into four minutes. His best contribution on the album.

Kit O’Toole: During the Abbey Road recording sessions, the Beatles were in the final stages of their partnership. As has been well documented, the group squabbled over songs, Ono’s presence in the studio, and money. Specifically, their company Apple was failing, and Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones’ manager the Beatles had hired to turn their finances around, had proven to be a polarizing presence. As such, many meetings involved arguing over money, which would ultimately lead to the Beatles suing each other. Considering this background, this track’s lyrics take on added meaning: “You never give me your money, You only give me your funny paper. And in the middle of negotiations, you break down,” McCartney croons. As Harrison and Lennon join in harmonies, McCartney assumes his Fats Domino-worshiper persona present in tracks such as “Lady Madonna,” pounding the piano as he sings “but oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” As the tempo slightly increases and Harrison and Lennon’s buzzing, crunching guitars kick in, McCartney expresses his longing to escape to “one sweet dream.” “Pick up the bags and get in the limousine. Soon we’ll be away from here, step on the gas and wipe that tear away,” he sings. While this track clearly addresses the group’s inner turmoil, the song fragment still rocks hard.

NICK DERISO: One of the initial song-cycles-within-a-song concepts by McCartney. Too bad Paul was just getting started. By the time we get to Wings’ Red Rose Speedway a couple of short years later, McCartney has transformed a pretty good idea into nothing more than a handy way to tidy up his work station. But even those mashed-together edit jobs of half-finished song ideas can’t tarnish this terrific effort. When I only have time for a moment with Abbey Road, you’ll find me here, enveloped in a towering achievement that manages to fit in the personality, verve and specificity of each band member — even while deftly recognizing, by the final repeated chorus, both the hopeful optimism and crashing cynicism of the 1960s. I know, that’s a lot. It’s all in there. “You Never Give Me Your Money,” to me, is the last best thing this group ever did.


S. VICTOR AARON: The reverb-drenched guitar that opens the song borrows from Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross,” but soon afterwards, rich vocals dominate — a few sung in some nonsense mixture of Spanish and Italian. So far, we have three songs with “here come(s)” in the lyrics, and three songs that sent the Beach Boys back to the drawing board.

KIT O’TOOLE: After the emotional turbulence expressed in “You Never Give Me Your Money,” the medley transitions to this quiet, meditative tune. While the lyrics are fairly short, the most poignant moment occurs when Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney are singing that multilingual mashup — something that sounds gorgeous, yet actually means nothing. According to Lennon, “We just started joking, you know, singing ‘quando para mucho.’ Paul knew a few Spanish words from school, you know. So we just strung any Spanish words that sounded vaguely like something. And of course we got ‘chicka ferdy’ in. That’s a Liverpool expression.” Whatever the meaning, the trio’s multitracked vocals make the words sound romantic and mystical.


KIT O’TOOLE: Lennon composed this dubious ode to the meanest, cheapest man on the planet, certainly opposite to the “Sun King.” He “keeps a ten bob note up his nose,” lives in a hole in the ground, and is always ready to “shout out something obscene” — even at the Queen. This song exemplifies Lennon’s penchant for writing about eccentric, sometimes unlikable characters (see “Nowhere Man,” “Dr. Robert,” and “Sexy Sadie” for examples). As McCartney stated in 1994, “’Mean Mr Mustard’ was very John. I liked that. A nice quirky song.”


KIT O’TOOLE: Is this Pam the same Pam introduced as Mr. Mustard’s sister in the previous song? In any case, this track embodies Lennon’s great talent as an outstanding rock vocalist. In 1980, Lennon explained that he wrote the lyrics after meeting a friend’s kinky girlfriend, who liked to dress up in polythene. “She didn’t wear jackboots, and kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag — just looking for something to write about.” Judging by his spirited performance, Lennon obviously enjoyed singing naughty lyrics like “She’s the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World; yes, you could say she was attractively built — yeah, yeah, yeah.” When he cries “Oh look out!” before the next song, he provides the perfect coda to his raucous vocals.


S. VICTOR AARON: These last two were recorded together, and George’s sparkly lead guitar provides the bridge that ties John’s and Paul’s songs together.

Kit O’Toole: Not to be outdone, McCartney answers with his own ditty about a groupie. Women Harrison dubbed “Apple Scruffs” used to hang outside the Apple offices, Abbey Road, and the band members’ homes, hoping to catch even a glimpse at their heroes. One night an overzealous fan found a ladder in McCartney’s garden, laid it against the house, and after ascending it managed to climb through a slightly open window — yes, the bathroom window. Stories have varied, but its catchiness and rock vibe are indisputable. In addition to Starr’s heavy drumming, McCartney’s strong vocals, and Harrison and Lennon’s harmonic backing voices, the song succeeds on another level: word play. Lennon became famous for this talent, but McCartney demonstrates it in lines such as “she could steal, but she could not rob.” Clearly, he’s implying a difference between the two apparent synonyms, but leaves it to the listener to interpret.


KIT O’TOOLE: Heading into the medley’s conclusion, the Beatles sing what begins as a lilting lullaby. McCartney based the lyrics on Thomas Dekker’s poem “Cradle Song,” which he came across while visiting his father in Liverpool. Somehow the words seem to comment on the Beatles’ inevitable ending: “Once, there was a way to get back homeward. Once, there was a way to get back home. Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry,” he croons, gradually increasing in volume and emotion. Starr’s drums enter at exact moments, again never overwhelming the song’s lamenting tone.

S. VICTOR AARON: I still raise an eyebrow when Paul emits a full throated holler on the “smiiiiiiiles a-WAIT you when you rise” line. Those are big boy pipes, there.


KIT O’TOOLE: A lyrically simple tune, the song continues where “Golden Slumbers” leaves off, even reprising “You Never Give Me Your Money.” It summarizes the anguish the four friends from Liverpool were experiencing, McCartney in particular. As he told an interviewer in 1994, “I’m generally quite upbeat, but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can’t be upbeat anymore and that was one of those times. ‘Carry that weight a long time’– like forever! That’s what I meant … in this heaviness there was no place to be. It was serious, paranoid heaviness and it was just very uncomfortable.” How appropriate that Harrison and Lennon join in on the “You Never Give Me Your Money” reprise, expressing mixed feelings at the group’s demise: “And in the middle of the celebrations, I break down.”

BEVERLY PATERSON: Thanks to an older brother with cool taste in music, I was fortunate to hear Abbey Road when it was originally released in September of 1969. Being a mere eight years young, I was especially partial to the vaudeville styled “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the childish demeanor of “Octopus’s Garden,” and I thought “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Carry That Weight” referred to chubby people! At any rate, Abbey Road has been on constant rotation on my playlist since I was initially introduced to its genius, and I never tire of listening to it.


KIT O’TOOLE: Whenever I hear this fragment, I have a specific fantasy of the Beatles standing in the studio, instruments in hand, ready to record. One of them says to the others “right, Lads, this is it, the last song we’ll ever play together. Let’s give it all we’ve got.” And then they let it rip, with each member taking a solo. Even Starr, who famously hates drum solos, gets his time in the spotlight. But when Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney trade guitar solos, sounding as if they are battling to the death, it remains one of the greatest thrills in rock and roll. As if this weren’t enough, they conclude the song and apparently the album with those famous lines: “And in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.” It seals the group’s lasting legacy as paragons of the 1960s, and echoes their powerful messages such as “All You Need Is Love.” What an ending to a superb album!

S. VICTOR AARON: The guitar duel is a special moment in rock; Ringo’s drum solo before that is … well, it’s not.

NICK DERISO: This album, because it has aged better than most of the very late-period Beatles albums, has actually gained popularity over the years. That’s even though, once Side 1 is done, there is very little overt Lennon sprinkled throughout the rest. What there is, however, is important: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven …” on “Money,” the spitting scouse attitude of “Mustard” and “Pam.” If you’re a Paul McCartney fan, Abbey Road remains his brightest, most artistically satisfying, moment — even now. However, it’s Lennon’s punctuations (and, to a quickly emerging degree, George Harrison’s), undoubtably, that make it so. While Side 2 (does anybody know what that is anymore?) of this album remains McCartney’s most cohesive pop symphony, it’s one whose energy and intrigue (despite his labored attempts at recreating it over the years with Wings) only grows more impressive after hearing those Lennon-less also-rans from the 1970s. Meanwhile, if you’re a Harrison fan, this was the album when his potential finally was realized.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Ignited by uniformly strong performances, teeming with emotive singing and telepathic instrumentation, Abbey Road contains zero faults. Contrary to many great bands, and I hope I don’t appear cruel by saying this, the Beatles knew when to quit. Rather than limp along and record crappy albums and charge fans big money for live shows, they threw in towel at the peak of their prowess. The fun had diminished and the friendship had soured. As attested by the progressive pop rock movements of Abbey Road, the band was once again forging inventive concepts and it would have been interesting to see where they would have traveled from there.


KIT O’TOOLE: Whoops, Abbey Road hasn’t ended quite yet: This odd little track comes crashing in about 14 seconds after “The End’s” conclusion. “Her Majesty” was originally intended to fit between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” which explains the chord explosion at the beginning of the tune. It’s as if McCartney can’t bear to take that final curtain call, signifying that, to paraphrase Lennon’s solo tune “God,” the dream was indeed over.

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