Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Beatles - Abbey Road (1969)

The Beatles were in such disarray in the spring of 1969 in the aftermath of the troubled Let It Be project that they produced a disparate bunch of recordings without rhyme or reason and several unfinished songs and a couple of throwaways with no definite plans for them.  George Martin could be forgiven for thinking that the group would drift apart and that he would never work with them again . . . and he did think so.  But by that summer, the Beatles returned to this unfinished work, recorded more material, and turned it all into a magnificent last hurrah.
Abbey Road was a subconscious effort by a band on the verge of breaking up to finish their partnership on a high note.  As the last album the Beatles ever recorded together, it was the perfect parting gift to the rock world - as critic John Swenson noted, Abbey Road set the standard for the pop and rock of the seventies, with its polished production, its immaculate music, and its concept of pop as a grand statement in and of itself.  
Abbey Road is as innovative as Sgt. Pepper but in a more professional way; there's little experimentation with tape loops and the like.  It's more in the vein of the White Album, reworking pop and rock conventions in fresh ways, but with more of a united effort.  Rather than play apart, the Beatles play as a band again, and their musicianship has long since matured; John Lennon and Paul McCartney display their instrumental versatility with flair, George Harrison comes into his own as a lead guitarist and as a songwriter, and Ringo Starr proves himself as a drumming virtuoso once and for all with his steady beat throughout and even a solo.
The record strikes a perfect balance between the straight rock and roll that dominates side one and the grand medley that anchors side two.  John's gritty "Come Together," a song about nothing less than sex, drugs, and rock and roll and John's association with all three, kicks off the record nicely, and Paul's "Oh! Darling" recalls his raucous Little Richard pastiches from the Beatles' early days.  There are some incredible moments of inspiration here; in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," Paul campily (and cunningly) casts Murphy's Law into a tale of a homicidal medical student set to a music-hall romp, while John makes a beautiful, soulful ballad like "Because" out of the reversed chords of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." And the group's longest song ever (unless you count "Revolution 9," which isn't actually a song), "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" says more about the complexities of love with its swirling heavy rock than with its simple lyrics.  All three songs use a Moog synthesizer with great dexterity and subtlety, and the power of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," in which John employed the Moog to create a storm of white noise, is accentuated by its sudden ending. 
The biggest accomplishments on Abbey Road, though, are George Harrison's songs and the long medley. "Something" is the original power ballad, its melody carried by one of George's most memorable leads, while his masterpiece "Here Comes the Sun" is an astonishing blend of folk harmonies and synthesizer lines, carried by a good band performance that includes an acoustic guitar as bright and shimmery as the song's message.  The medley of songs in various stages of completion slowly begins with "You Never Give Me Your Money," Paul's comment on the Beatles' finances, and builds with each song and song fragment, going from gentle melodies to straight rock to bright symphonic pop and finally culminating with "The End," in which all of the Beatles' accomplishments of the previous six years are triumphantly summed up by Ringo's aforementioned drum solo, a guitar duel, and an orchestral finale.  Apart from a brief tease with the throwaway afterthought "Her Majesty," the Beatles have gone out on top.  The show is over. 
Every time I listen to Abbey Road, when it comes to a close, I suddenly hear the opening harmonica riff of "Love Me Do" in my head, as if the Beatles had come full circle.  They did.  They broke out of the starting gate and went on to end on top.  And though it would be the bedrock of popular music for years after the group's demise, Abbey Road also presented a challenge for the next great band or solo artist hoping to change the face of pop.  More than forty years later, the challenge remains unanswered.
(This is my last record review for awhile.) 

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