It’s difficult to fathom the pressure that The Beatles’ own commercial momentum had created for the lads by the time they entered the studio in February ‘69 to record Abbey Road. But consider this: in a single 18-month stretch just a few years earlier, the band delivered three proper albums — Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — any of which may have effectively ended the “Best-Ever Album” conversation a little over half a century ago.
John, Paul, George and Ringo were running on fumes, and their relationships were fraying, but as you can hear on the Beatles 50th ‘Abbey Road Anniversary’ box set, just released with two-dozen alternate takes and demos, along with a 100-page book, the sessions were experimental and collaborative. And regardless of personal contretemps, they sounded more like a band than they had in quite some time. On occasion, they even sounded like they were having fun. This was probably going to be the last bit of it, a notion that must have crossed their minds, so why not make the goodbye a memorable one?
There were a lot of “firsts” related to Abbey Road: New recording equipment and techniques, new instrumentation adding fresh sounds into the mix, and helping to color in the sessions’ sonic edges. It was also to be the first Beatles album to be recorded solely in stereo.
There were only three “lasts” that really matter: It was the last time The Beatles entered a recording studio as a band, and it turned out to be their last album. And the second side of Abbey Road—which was to be The Beatles’ last opportunity to make a musical statement to the world—was a perfect, fitting goodbye that was thrilling and forward-looking and hopeful.
It was still a Beatles album through and through, impeccably recorded thanks to Sir George Martin, who Paul McCartney managed to coax back into the studio, but it also lit a creative path for the band members’ post-Beatles future.
Side 1 is bookended by muscular John Lennon songs such as “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with slinky guitar grooves, crashing drums and distorted vocals. They were sounds he was experimenting with on his then-side project Plastic Ono Band. It was followed by “Something,” which showed how George Harrison’s songwriting prowess had grown prodigiously, to the extent that “Lennon-McCartney” could no longer expect to dominate the album credits. McCartney then offers up “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Oh! Darling,” both of which could have lived on any release in his post-Beatles career. Ringo Starr’s second and final songwriting contribution to The Beatles catalog was “Octopus’s Garden” which is most notable for when it was reportedly written: within a fortnight that Starr, having left the studio, considered himself an ex-Beatle.
But it’s Side 2 of the album that has established Abbey Road as a singular achievement, even within The Beatles canon. It’s an 11-song suite that is perhaps the most talked about side of music in history, described as either a masterpiece or, by its greatly outnumbered detractors, an unfocused fragmented group of song ideas cobbled together by studio wizardry.
It opens with a promise, Harrison’s gorgeous “Here Comes the Sun” which gives way to a dizzying series of songs with a lack of air between them, making for jaw-dropping transitions. Listeners can’t be entirely sure how they stitched together “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” or where “Golden Slumbers” ends and “Carry that Weight” begins.
Side 2 of Abbey Road arrives with every manner of The Beatles’ genius on display—experimentation, songwriting, and musicianship. Never before has an album sounded so organic and so grand at the same time.
The album’s official last song, “The End,” begins with a single plinking piano key snapping the listener to attention. The message The Beatles wanted people to take from their nine-year-run: “And in the end . . . the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Many people associate The Beatles’ last album with Let It Be whose cover is almost funereal: four separate photos of the band members atop a black background. But Let it Be was recorded before, yet released after Abbey Road.
Meanwhile, Side 2 of Abbey Road is a more fitting closing statement, The Beatles’ actual last goodbye. While nodding to the future and what that may hold for those extraordinary songwriters, it also seemed more optimistic than prior releases, assuring listeners that everything was going to be fine, eventually. The decade was ending and so was the world’s greatest band. The Beatles didn’t burn out or fade away–it may, in fact, have been the first actual mic drop.
Fittingly, buried 14 seconds after its dramatic ending, is a 23-second coda from McCartney entitled, “Her Majesty” which reminds the listeners, despite the sadness that accompanies break-ups, it was okay to think of them and smile. Bands cannot last forever, but their music, thankfully, makes no such promises.
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