Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Widely hailed as their supreme recorded achievement, an opinion with which the band members themselves concur, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was quite a departure from the aural template that the group had set in place with their first few releases. Choosing to retreat somewhat from their relentless touring and recording schedule in 1973, the members of Black Sabbath reconvened to work on the new tracks at a more leisurely pace. Vol. 4 had several signposts that pointed to a new direction, including a gradual abandonment of their signature lugubrious, sludgy sound. One significant difference with this record is that Tony Iommi had drastically altered his guitar tone. Production values were also much higher than before with strings and keyboard augmentation becoming more of a rule than an exception.
Still, there was no worry about Sabbath straying into Barry Manilow’s territory.
While recording the tracks for Vol. 4 back in ‘72, the Sabs hung out in LA, snorted mountains of coke and availed themselves of the pleasures of being rock stars in sunny California in the “let it all hang out” early seventies. Seeking to duplicate the process, the lads jetted back to the US to set about getting some new material together at the Record Plant. Trouble set in immediately as the vibe in the studio wasn’t the same due to the banks of keyboards and synths that had been brought in by Stevie Wonder, who was also working on a new project. The root of the problem was that Iommi was going through a brief dry spell with respect to new ideas. Generally, the others looked to him to come in with riffs and musical passages to which they could add their parts, sketch out melody lines and add lyrics. Cutting their losses, they trooped back to the UK and took some time to rethink their approach as Iommi went back to the drawing board.
The new rehearsal space was the dungeon in a castle in Wales, with band members continually having a go at scaring the shit out of each other. Once ensconced, Iommi reconnected with his muse and came up with the signature opening blast that became the title cut on the disc. Had things not turned around, the Sabbath story might well have ended right here. Once this temporary creative block was removed, the songs flowed beautifully and took several very uncharacteristic turns as they were mapped out.
Black Sabbath should be counted as one of the most important bands to ever plug in and play.
Want to know why?
Innovation by accident.
Most rock aficionados know about the unfortunate injury that a 17 year old Tony Iommi sustained to his fret hand while he was on his last shift in a sheet metal factory. The machine he was working with caught the tips of his middle fingers on his right hand, severing them instantly. He was a lefty and the incident almost brought an end to his guitar playing days. Perseverance coupled with invention allowed him to continue. He fashioned plastic finger tips to bear the brunt of applying pressure to the strings, though the guitar in standard tuning still made it painful to depress them with enough force to produce proper notes. His solution was to detune the guitar, thus slackening the pounds per square inch on the neck and making it much easier to play with prosthetic finger tips.
This significant event would eventually spawn a completely new genre. When Sabbath took shape, Geezer Butler detuned his bass to match Iommi and they became the heaviest sounding group of their time. Heavy metal in the darkest shade of black had arrived. Their approach was not without precedent, as Blue Cheer and Mountain had been walking the same sonic path, although Iommi's departure from basic blues structures gave them a unique angle, unlike anything else in the marketplace.
Critical reaction to the band was fairly chilly, quite often singling their material out as being plodding and simplistic.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” was a giant, raised middle finger to each and every writer who had ripped them, not recognizing that they stood in the vanguard as originators of a new type of music. It also stands as a very powerful opening salvo, which is solidly anchored by the rhythm section. Suddenly shifting gears, the riff is replaced with a delicate figure that leaps from the Wes Montgomery jazz playbook.
Nobody will ever let you know, when you ask the reason why
They’ll just tell you that you’re on your own, fill your head all full of lies
This section is reminiscent of the verses in the Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down” which also features a prominent F sharp minor. Crashing back into the main theme followed by a solo, things take yet another ominous turn with one of the most foreboding set of changes over which Ozzy floats his “helium voice”.
Distancing themselves from that incredible, bottom heavy sound on record may have been disconcerting for fans that were looking for more of the same. The quality output found on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was sufficient to silence even the harshest critic. The production is clean, while managing to avoid that antiseptic feel, as the listener is always reminded that a real band is kicking throughout. Out of the eight selections, only one falls flat with respect to standing up to repeated listening and that is the tedious “Who Are You”, livened up only by some decorative keyboard and mini-moog work by Rick Wakeman.
Wakeman lends his virtuosity on the 88s to “Sabbra Cadabra” as well as handling harpsichord and piano duties on “Fluff”. Legend has it that he exacted no more than a couple of pints of John Courage Best Bitter as payment for his services. He had struck up a friendship with the quartet when Yes and Sabbath toured together and was far more committed to having a good time than his Yes-mates were. Hence, some fun drinking sessions with Osbourne and Ward ensued and everyone bonded through the magic of cocktails.
In my view, just about everyone who picks up an electric guitar and thrashes out a rock song these days automatically owes mechanical royalties to Tony Iommi. Merely stating that he was prolific when it came to creating iconic riffs does not properly do him justice. Using a few examples from this LP, let’s have a look at the six-string bounty that was heaped upon them.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Five distinct themes
“A National Acrobat” - Six changes
“Killing Yourself to Live”- Six changes
He had so much going on in some of these compositions that, in some cases, he didn’t even trouble himself to return to the introductory guitar figure. This is one of many reasons why I think that people who knock the band demonstrate a profound ignorance of their accomplishments and influence.
Even a cursory glance at the lyric sheet for this disc would be enough to raise an eyebrow. “A National Acrobat” explores the eternal cosmic questions that Geezer Butler playfully dismissed as being, “about having a wank.” Deflecting the controversial nature of his subject matter with humor, Butler knowingly wades into the long debated topic of “at what point does life begin?” with an ease of expression and deftly ties it to the concept of reincarnation. This is one of my favorites in their entire catalogue, as it is intelligently constructed on all fronts. Ozzy delivers the song with a wink (and a laugh toward the end).
Bill Ward propels the slow, twisting riff with his usual dexterity, steering the others smartly through all of the changes. He gave Sabbath an extremely important anchor for many of their flights of fancy, though what separated him from many of his heavy-rock contemporaries was his ability to infuse his time-keeping with swing. He was never lead-footed and you can hear a slight Elvin Jones influence in the way he flew around the kit.. There is a tendency to forget how much Ward contributed as a percussionist as he was overshadowed by John Bonham and Keith Moon in the flash department. His jazzy touches provide a finesse that balances well with some of the more ponderous explorations of early Sabbath, almost akin to the example of a heavy person that is surprisingly light on their feet. Those flourishes at the tail end of “Sabbra Cadabra” are prime evidence of his skills and lighter touch(not to mention the entire song-it cooks!)
Sabbath always had time for a mellow guitar interlude that generally served as a buffer to give the listener a breather from the exercises in brain-melting riffology. “Fluff” is the most developed of these themes to date. The guitar break in the bridge is pure Hard Day’s Night era Beatles, so convincing that it sounds as if George Harrison himself showed up to play on the session. Wakeman's harpsichord and piano decoration add up to a very sophisticated final product.
Both "Sabbra Cadabra" and "Killing Yourself to Live" are multi-part epics. They are also the last really heavy songs on the LP with the former seeing the band straying into near-Zeppelin territory. Ozzy howls about "his woman", though his distinctive phrasing is miles away from Robert Plant and borders on pathos in the breakdowns. Though he was never a technically perfect singer, he developed a style that perfectly suited the onslaught created by Iommi, Butler and Ward. Don't forget that this is the same John Osbourne that spent hours in front of the mirror as a teen trying to imitate his idol, Paul McCartney. It is to his credit that he found his own voice and niche as a front man.
"Who Are You" is simply boring, which was rare in their case.
Curiously, two very un-Sabbath-like selections were chosen for the homestretch and close the proceedings in majestic fashion. "Looking For Today" hammers home a "here today, gone later today" lyrical theme, cleverly taking a shot at the ascendance of the Me Decade's greedy, disposable consumer culture. Ward lays down a groove throughout the verses that echoes the scattershot patterns that Keith Moon employed in "Happy Jack" and "I Can See For Miles", though he plays it straight on the chorus. Iommi adds flute to the mix and the tune rides out on a repeated arpeggiated wig-out, topped off by dueling guitar solos.
Nothing in this remarkable set prepares the listener for the grandiosity of the finale.
Prefaced by a slice of faux-classical acoustic picking, the haunting theme gives way to a supercharged electric intro, fired by intense high-hat work and dramatic punches. Iommi does a nice scale excercise and the drums tumble into a very pretty, orchestrated verse.
Sorcerers of madness
Selling me their time
Child of god sitting in the sun
Giving peace of mind
On a black snow sky
Sadness kills the superman
Even fathers cry
Sweeping strings lead into the chorus, written by Ward. Overall, the sheer impact of "Spiral Architect" is quite stunning. Wil Malone's arrangement is tasteful and the momentum builds right up to the end as the tension snaps on the last note, applause is dubbed in and Sabbath take their bows. Bass and drums provide the perfect outro to fade. To say that this is a beautiful song is an understatement.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath marked a great turning point in the development of their sound, which saw them turn away from where they had started. Litigation, pharmaceutical intake and internal disagreement about how to proceed followed this excellent disc, with all three virtually bringing their operation to a halt for a period. Fans would see the group release just one more "classic" record the following year with Sabotage, though it would, sadly, be their last high calibre work of the decade.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Every now and then, a band lands on the music scene like a ton of bricks on a cupcake.
What else can be said about these guys?
Here they are, the original "not yet ready for prime time players" in 1977, long before they were hired to play Mr. Burns' birthday party...
Saturday, October 17, 2009
WORLD WIDE LIVE
Have you ever seen a more excited bunch of faces superimposed on an album cover? Look at Rudy Schenker (top left). He seems particularly proud to be part of the action.
Germany ’s finest melodic hard rock export hit their peak of popularity when World Wide Live rolled off of the production line in 1985. Released close on the heels of Blackout and Love At First Sting, this double live set played up their recent commercial successes while also offering up a few fantastic versions of tunes that stretch back to 1979's Lovedrive LP.
The Scorpions had a rotating cast of musicians that had been making music together since the sixties. From the release of their debut in 1971, the band saw quite a few line up changes, though fuzzy-headed lead singer Klaus Meine was a constant fixture from this date and the group remained relatively stable through the 80s.
Boasting a tight rhythm section and some very flashy dual lead playing courtesy of Rudy Schencker and Mattias Jabs, they burn through stone heavy renditions of “Blackout” and “Big City Nights”. The performances were taken from five different venues in the US and Europe during their 1984 tour and are nicely sequenced by producer Dieter's Dance Party Dierks.
Perfecting their blend of distortion and melody in the seventies, the band entered the 80’s with a string of big albums. Embracing the MTV craze, they also made a series of videos that would have made Spinal Tap proud. (I’m looking at you, director of the “Rock You Like A Hurricane” clip)
Spandex-laden, poodle-on-the-head visuals aside, World Wide Live delivers as a really great document of the heavy “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” experience.
Except that you don’t get a tour T-shirt.
I would be willing to wager a pair of leather pants and three, dog-collared girls in a cage with 80’s mall-hair on the fact that these guys will continue playing excellent music together regardless of trends or fads.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
FREE FOR ALL
Quite often, in the midst of the feeding frenzies that accompany trends in music, a record will quietly appear that has little to do with the current flavor of the month. Without the haircut, ridiculous uniform or whatever other element that is au courant with the great unwashed masses, there is little hope of said release attracting much revenue, let alone attention. In the early 90s, with grunge all the rage, one such disc hit stores to the sound of one hand clapping.
Far too many of these stories are prevalent in the music business, lined up like empties in a dive bar at closing time. This one concerns the criminally underrated Michael Penn, brother of Sean, husband of Aimie Mann (also an excellent song writer) who is generally noted for his “hit” (“No Myth”) from his debut solo album, March.
His second full length effort, Free for All, is quite worthy of your time, should you be fortunate enough to find a copy. This is not to say that the contents will change your life, though you will be pleasantly surprised if you favor slightly dark, melodic pop.
1992 was not a banner year for those who mined this genre.
There were more than a few artists at that time (Neil Finn, Karl Wallinger, Lenny Kravitz, Matthew Sweet) who were taking a page from the "Golden Book of Mid-Sixties Song Structure" . Personally, I believe that 1966 was a high watermark in terms of creativity and saw the construction of a template that has been adopted by countless performers ever since. Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles Revolver, The Stones Aftermath, The Byrds Fifth Dimension…the list of gems from that fabled year is staggering. All would figure prominently in shaping the listening tastes of Michael Penn.
While he does wear some of the stylistic devices of his influences on his sleeve, the material has a twinkle in its eye and a cutting wit behind it that often belies the straightforward nature of the tunes. Grey clouds hover over this set right from the opener ("Long Way Down") which is a model of economy in arrangement, with a hint of bile in the lyric.
Now I would suppose that I'm not the only one and one never knows... but I got a feeling she's been sleeping with the whole wide world
His musical partner in crime, keyboardist Patrick Warren, fleshes out the soundscape by employing a Chamberlin (named for its inventor Harry Chamberlin) to provide the ethereal coloring that adds much to the retro feel of this disc. First unveiled in 1946, it is a musical instrument that was also able to play pre-recorded magnetic tapes and was the precursor to the Mellotron, which is functionally the same thing.
Here's an interesting interview with Chamberlin himself, should you have a moment to spare.
All things considered, Free For All showcases a writer who can turn a very important trick: Sounding upbeat when the subject matter is often fairly heavy and serious. Highlights are "Free Time", "Seen the Doctor", "By the Book" and the brilliant closer, "Now We're Even". Tastefully executed, it really doesn't have a bad track out of the ten. Your reward in all of this, aside from sturdy melodies, will be the multi-layered wordplay, at which he excels.
I loved a girl once beyond compare, She saw inside me and gave me air, She was assisting my surgery my heart was opened as she put a mask on me, I'm breathing but it's become a chore, now that you've seen the doctor don't call me anymore
Repeated listening will reveal the charms of this record, as it won't immediately grab you by the lapels and demand that you sit still for its duration. Out of step with contemporary tastes, it's a great pity that this one simply got lost in the shuffle when it was brand new.
Sunday, October 04, 2009
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 repetoire.
Harrison was not amused by the fact that he perpetually introduced it in concert as a Lennon/McCartney number.
Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.
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.
Cue loud screaming of a naughty word, a crane shot of an anguished listener on their knees in front of their stereo and then cut to flocks of birds exploding out of neighboring trees.
Abbey Road quite literally becomes “ Subpar Avenue ” with the clank of an anvil. “Maxwell’s Homicidal Adventures in Tinklyland” should not have been included in this set. He should have waited and stuck it on Wings Wild Life, where it would have been a two thumbs up, thrill ride of the century, number one with a self inflicted shot gun blast to the head. Which is pretty much what John and George wanted to do after frittering away precious time, endlessly rehearsing this inane children’s ditty.
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 better, 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.