Sunday, October 04, 2009
WHY DON'T WE DO IT IN THE ABBEY ROAD?
Faced with the prospect of trying to wring a marketable product out of the Get Back tapes, the group members chose to sit on the material. Word has it that the band was under the assumption that all of these tracks were purely for the movie/TV soundtrack. Therefore, they had no intention of putting it out as an LP until the film was edited and ready for release.
Two days after these film/recording sessions wrapped, Allen Klein was brought in as manager and the long, litigious mess that would hover over their monetary/business affairs for decades began to unfold.
Meanwhile, decisions about what course would be taken next were looming. Meetings were held and the general consensus was bittersweet. They would regroup to make one last great album as their Get Back episode yielded less than spectacular results. Lennon later candidly referred to it as, “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit ever, with a lousy feeling to it.”
Tell us how you really feel, Johnny.
Paul again was the catalyst for getting the project in motion. George Martin thought that he would not be involved in another Beatle session again, as the January recording period was nightmarish. When he took the call from McCartney, he was skeptical about the promise that everyone had agreed to make an album “like they used to”, free of the arguments and dissention that had marred the last two endeavors. The difference with Abbey Road was a commitment to make something that would maintain the magnificent standard they had set with their stellar discography to date and allow the group to end their time together on a high note.
Production values were at their highest for this LP as the studio it was named for had just installed a brand new 16 track desk which provided greater freedom to add layers without losing clarity in the final mix. Geoff Emerick returned to the team, joined by a young tape op named Alan Parsons who would be a guiding hand behind many successful recordings, including Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and his own “Project” (The Turn of a Friendly Card album is one of his best). One element that really jumps out when you listen to Abbey Road is the bass-heavy mix. In the early years, this was one feature that their records were sadly deprived of and the bottom end frequencies here more than compensate for that. (Ringo’s bass drum is very present in the mix.) Critics have often pointed to the fact that things sound almost too polished, but I disagree. My belief is that they had learned a valuable lesson in flogging themselves endlessly to get perfect live takes back in January. Namely, that their forte had always lain in their ability to take good material and perfect it in the studio at their own pace. This became a necessity as their ideas grew more complex with each subsequent disc. They were an excellent live band when they were switched on, though song craft in studio played a much larger role following their departure from the stage in 1966.
Cordial would best describe the studio atmosphere during this period, though guitars were still banged down in anger from time to time and arguments erupted. It was nothing compared to the past year, though and this made for some extremely rewarding end product. The suite of songs on side two alone is a masterful blend of odds and ends that emphasizes the whole over the sum of its parts. It also lined George Martin and McCartney up against Lennon in terms of what each side wanted to hear. The “pop symphony” or “long medley” as it was called was openly criticized by Lennon, who reportedly said that he was fine with listening to the “Something”/”Come Together” single and didn’t care for the rest of Abbey Road. He even stated at one point that he wanted McCartney’s songs grouped on one side and his own on the other.
Fortunately, democracy won the day.
Lennon’s first utterance on the rough and ready opener, “Come Together”, is obscured by tape echo, hand claps and the kick drum. It’s a bit spooky and somewhat prescient in light of the tragic circumstances that prematurely ended his life. Originally conceived as a campaign song for Timothy Leary who was seriously (!) considering entering the race to become Governor of California, Lennon revised the lyric and came up with one of his best late period pieces. He also screwed himself by incorporating (and altering) a line from Chuck Berry’s ode to fast cars (“You Can’t Catch Me”) to start the song (“Here come old flat top, she come groovin’ up slowly”). Morris Levy, who owned the copyright, would later engage Lennon in court, with the settlement triggering another legal battle, from which Lennon would win damages as a result.
Great feel, with impeccable playing from everyone involved is key to the energy generated here, while the wordplay is genuinely inspired.
Snaky, gliding bass work and smooth tom rolls broken only by quick high hat flourishes introduce the piece and the Beatles add yet another distinctive album opener to their already impressive canon. Within thirty seconds, without even a hint of the opening verse, “Come Together” announces its arrival with authority. Their prodigious talent as arrangers is too often overlooked. Close your eyes and listen to the homogeneity of contemporary radio and you will barely be able to tell one band/song from another. This was never an issue when it came to the music produced by Lennon/McCartney/Harrison as they created so many varied and memorable intros. Rarely would they fail to surprise or dazzle when crafting parts for each song.
George Harrison’s two spotlighted contributions to the LP rank as his absolute best Beatle compositions. Long time associate Derek Taylor had a running joke with Harrison whenever either of them had an idea. Invariably, they would always say, “This could be the Big One!”
“Something” was indeed just that.
Conceived while the White Album was in production, it fulfilled every bit of the promise that Chris Thomas saw in it when George first played it to him and was a huge hit when it was pulled as the A-side to the only single released from Abbey Road. John named it as his favorite track on the record, while Frank Sinatra reportedly thought that it was the greatest love song of the past fifty years and added it to his live repertoire. Harrison was not amused by the fact that he perpetually introduced it in concert as a Lennon/McCartney number.
Nudging into McCartney’s territory in terms of melody, “Something” benefits from excellent foundation playing, especially the exquisitely tasteful bass work. Harrison redid his guitar solo live as the strings were being added. It is an incredible effort on all counts and truly represents the full flowering of Harrison's songwriting ability. As the last note fades, one gets the feeling that this could be their best disc and with your appetite whetted by the one-two punch of the opening selections, you certainly wouldn’t be faulted for believing just that.
Then “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” kicks in and Abbey Road veers toward “Subpar Avenue” with the clank of an anvil. This one should have been elbowed from the disc.
John: "The Beatles could have gone on appealing to a wide audience as long as we taped nice little folk songs like "Maxwell's Siver Hammer" for the grannies to dig."
George: "Paul would make us do these really fruity songs. I mean, my God, 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' was so fruity..."
“Oh Darling" is far superior, featuring a shredding McCartney vocal that he achieved by coming in to the studio early every day for a week to scream until it was honed to perfection. Essentially an update of fifties doo-wop with great harmonies, it still doesn't amount to much more than the fact that McCartney had probably been listening to Zappa's Cruising With Reuben and the Jets LP. Paul's take on the genre isn't very substantial, though it is flawlessly executed and contains a very cutting, distorted rhythm guitar part. Ringo's "Octopuses Garden" is an inoffensive tune, though it again weighs down the record with more fluff. Harrison generously stepped back, uncredited, as he obviously did much to shape the song and give it the country-ish solos that make it seem more interesting than it actually is.
Just as the whole operation seems destined for mediocrity, the ominous guitar figure that heralds "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" enters and makes you forget about the last three tunes. Suggestive of Mel Torme's "Comin' Home Baby", the lyric is a minimalist, primal declaration of lust that is torn from Lennon's gut. That great big "fuck off" riff is hammered home after basic blues changes, with excellent Hammond insanity provided by Billy Preston, dive bombing bass runs and inventive drumming from Mr. Starkey. John and George piled on the guitars while Lennon employed Harrison's newly acquired Moog synth to create the white noise that builds toward the end, slowly covering the instruments as the guitar part cycles over and over, hypnotically, until it ends abruptly. Lennon sat with Alan Parsons, listening to the finished product and instructed him to cut the tape at that point, using silence to jar the potential listener with an unexpected full stop. It is by far the heaviest cut and the second longest Beatle track, beaten only by "Revolution 9".
Side two of Abbey Road is truly what makes the record, with Paul and George Martin taking a number of fragments, slotting them in with fully formed creations and threading them together in a suite that comprises one of their finest song cycles. Often referred to as the “Long Medley” or the “Big One”, none of the tunes are related to one another, though like Sgt. Pepper it is clever sequencing and cross fading work that gives the impression of seamlessness. This remains quite brilliant forty years on and lifts the tension created by the weaker tunes on the flip.
Before delving into this excellent “back nine” of the disc, it’s important to note that much of this material dated back to the previous year as well as the Get Back sessions. No less than twelve of the seventeen tracks on Abbey Road were worked on during filming in January of that year. Lennon’s only new offerings were “Come Together”, “Because” and “Sun King”. Paul chipped in “You Never Give Me Your Money” and was the driving force behind “Carry That Weight” and how the pop symphony that comprised the second side took shape. This is not to say that there was a creative trough, but rather that the principal songwriters weren’t prepared to submit anything more than they absolutely had to for the sake of a band that was on its last legs. It is quite likely that they were hoarding newly penned songs with an eye toward placing them in the context of future solo work.
The second “Harrisong” of the set starts with a delicate, tricky acoustic riff that provides yet another signature side opener. There is a deft swoop into the first verse that suggests the arrival of that familiar solar orb in the morning sky. “Here Comes the Sun” was written in Eric Clapton’s garden during a morning where Harrison was playing truant, as he had grown weary of attending the interminable Apple board meetings that were the cause of consternation for all group members and those in the inner circle. Quite a pretty melody it is, as well. George also deploys the Moog synth to provide atmospheric coloring, as he did on several other Abbey Road selections. It’s never overdone, nor is it a cornerstone of all the arrangements. Certain artists tend to go overboard when discovering new sounds or exotic instruments, though the Beatles team generally chose to go the tasteful route with their experiments.
This is a “Threetles” performance as Lennon was recovering from a recent car accident. Ringo’s playing is inventive and he instinctively manages the subtle variances in timing with great precision. Look up ‘feel player’ in your music dictionary and Mr. Starkey would easily be in the top five. For all of the friction that had occurred between Paul and George, the former generally took great care to craft excellent parts which enhanced the latter’s work. I would tend to agree with Lennon’s estimation when he spoke about George’s position as the invisible man, taking notes and absorbing all that he could about the writing process from his senior band mates.
Lennon is uncharacteristically mute on this record, composition-wise. “Beacause” is one of his last (for a while) to feature word games and fanciful imagery within the body of the lyric. Yoko’s influence on his art would loom quite large. Her reasoning that all creativity should be an expression and a deep exploration of the artist’s personal feelings would color his writing for some time. Bottom line: If it wasn’t about you, it didn’t count. This approach would be taken to great lengths on his first proper solo LP, which comes close to musical exorcism at times. Here, John runs some very clever puns together as Paul and George join him to triple track some beautiful three part harmonies over a foundation of harpsichord, bass and Moog.
You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper.
Kicking off with a minor key, solo piano intro, McCartney’s subdued vocal is tinged with an uncharacteristic sadness. This multi-part highlight starts off sounding like he’s alluding to the fragmented affairs of the group and has surrendered any hopes of things returning to the way they were. Talk of negotiations is certainly reflective of what was becoming routine for the four, who were now sitting in boardrooms, often with lawyers present. When legal wrangling started in earnest, there was one particular occasion when McCartney sent his solicitor along to a meeting and didn’t attend himself. The others asked the startled barrister why he didn’t bring his bass.
Moving swiftly into a fast boogie theme and then shifting gears into what would be very memorable outro complete with a creepy, harmonized “1,2,3,4,5,6,7 all good children go to heaven” that cross fades into “Sun King”, they pack much invention into the guitar parts and allow for a nice solo in the bargain. Listen right here for what they edited out at the end of the track, including some extended Claptonesque lead playing courtesy of Mr. H.
Sunrise is again evoked thanks to a little bag of tape loops that Paul had made and brought in to assist with the transition into an understated Lennon tune that began life as a jam inspired by the Fleetwood Mac song "Albatross". This is the Peter Green incarnation of the band, several years away from pop superstardom and still very much rooted in the blues, as all three were alumni of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Then again, who didn't play in that band. John's "Sun King" is highlighted by harmonized gibberish lyrics and a rotating riff that abruptly ends with a drum pickup and we are suddenly treated to two quick vignettes, welded together as they are merely song fragments that Lennon demoed back in '68 and weren't taken much further lyrically.
"Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" fly by, with the latter sung in a very thick Liverpudlian Scouse accent and was apparently inspired by an evening that John spent with poet Royston Ellis and his girlfriend, Stephanie. The three wore bags made of "polythene", a common British contraction of polyethylene, and slept in the same bed out of curiosity about kinky sex.
Lennon dismissed both as, "a bit of crap that I wrote in India."
"She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" really changed from the arrangement worked out in January. It was given a quicker tempo and George provides a running commentary of guitar coloring, almost countryish in flavor, in response to each line of the verse. Paul wrote this about an incident where one of the so-called "Apple Scruffs" (female fans that hung around constantly waiting for members of the group) did climb through the bathroom window of his home and stole a picture of his father Jim. There are several different takes of this one and the version chosen for Anthology 3 is scarily close to the structure of "Free As A Bird".
A 17th century poem by Thomas Dekker was adapted by McCartney to form the bulk of the lyric to "Golden Slumbers". He came up with the tune, though. What is interesting is this clip of them listening to take one, roughly 25 years after the fact. No one seems to have a handle on who played bass on this pass through.
The segue into "Carry That Weight" has everyone hollering into the mic, with a breakdown that features an brief orchestral reprise of a line from "You Never Give Me Your Money" a full stop and we're back into "carrying that weight" for another few bars until the gears shift to the familiar C to A major arpeggio that faded into "Sun King" earlier on. The homestretch of Abbey Road gives all four the chance to solo. Ringo goes first, with an insistent bass drum thump over which he executes a few tom rolls. Never a champion of the "drum solo" he keeps his bit short and sweet and the group blasts into a rock motif over which the words "Love you" are chanted in unison, going up the scale as Paul, George and John (in that order) each take two bar solos that cycle until everything comes to a dead stop, save for a lone, insistent piano.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make
With that, came "The End" of an incredible recording career.
Not so fast.
Roughly 20 seconds after the last note fades and just as the needle was poised to slide into the run out groove, a cymbal crash comes out of nowhere. This is followed by a quick acoustic snippet by McCartney which mirrors the surprise ending on side one by having the last guitar chord lopped off, ending mid strum. "Her Majesty"'s opening was the final, crashing chord of "Mean Mr. Mustard", while that last note remained buried in the mix of "Polythene Pam" as it was originally slotted between those two tunes in the medley. It was a happy accident, as engineer John Kurlander was told to edit the song out of the mix. Knowing that he was not to discard anything that they recorded, he spliced it onto the end of the master tape. Everyone got an acetate copy of this, liked what they heard and it remained in place when the album was pressed.
AND IN THE END...
This was a very slick record, made very much with the aim of doing something better than what came out of Get Back/Let It Be. It was greeted with mixed reviews at the time of issue. Side two justifies its existence, though it loses points for some of the crap on side one. Imagine if you will, a full group recording of "Come and Get It" in place of "Maxwell's Getting Hammered" and "All Things Must Pass" nudging out "Octopuses Garden".
Then it would have been their finest disc.
Abbey Road sold more copies in the US than any of its predecessors (roughly 5 million right out of the gate back in ‘69) and it seemed that the group could do no wrong. No details surrounding the band’s continued existence (or lack thereof) were made public, so listeners assumed that it would be business as usual in 1970. Some saw Lennon and Harrison’s moves (albeit separately) back to live performance as a hint that the quartet might be gearing up to tour again. Advancements in technology saw sound systems and stage gear grow larger, giving artists the ability to project their sets to massive audiences.
All of this speculation would come to nothing though, as the greatest songwriting partnership of the sixties was finished. Flaming out amongst personal, creative and business differences, the four men who had instigated a revolution in sound and culture would never regroup to make new music.
The last studio session with everyone present took place on August 20th, 1969.
Their legacy was further tarnished by a slew of legal issues that dragged on for years and put more than a few lawyer’s kids through university. Lennon’s shocking murder in 1980 stunned a generation, cruelly cutting short the life of a great talent and robbing his family of a husband and father. The possibility of a group reunion passed with him, giving poignancy to the fact that there are no happy endings when you tell the rest of the story.
Settlement of long standing litigation in the late eighties brought some form of closure to the tangled monetary and business situation of the surviving group members. This opened the door to complete The Beatles Anthology project, giving Paul, George and Ringo a chance to retrace their time in the biggest group on the planet. Entertaining it is, candid it is not (with a few exceptions). Serving as a chronological roadmap that tracks their progression from birth right through to the break up of the band, the documentary has much to commend it and is packed with amazing performance and interview footage.
Ultimately, when we pass, we have no control over the guardianship of our history. For the average person, family members pass on the stories and photographs, though most of us are forgotten with the passage of time after we've left the 3-D realm.
The ability to tell your story properly depends on how well you have documented it.
The Beatles story is a larger than life fairy tale that has grown to epic proportions. Two members are now gone, leaving McCartney and Starr as primary caretakers. Every subsequent generation that discovers their music, as I did so many years ago, sees and hears the genius behind it.
For myself, taking the time to write about their recorded output has been a lot of fun. Striving to provide a more objective overview of their work, I really wanted to avoid the myths and focus on both their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Now, with the re-mastering and re-release of their entire catalogue, they are once again the top selling artists on the planet at the time of this writing.
Not bad for an act that disbanded 40 years ago.