Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

There are a lot of things you can argue with about Abbey Road, the Beatles' penultimate studio album and the last one they recorded; but in this case even more than Sgt. Pepper, laying out and identifying the flaws paints you as a petty and joyless individual. From a cynical standpoint, the record sounds like high-and-mighty rock stars casting their celestial powers with immunity, but the great paradox of the Beatles is that they thought they were incredible ("the best fucking group in the goddamned world," as John Lennon put it), and they were correct. Hence, more fun to listen to than any other Beatles album, this singalong amusement park ride is guarded and calculated, but never claustrophobic. Its faults do not become clear until after it has faded; and strangely, even if its songs and music are settled and closed-ended in a way that the White Album and Get Back never were, its magic never fades, perhaps because it is the most populist creation in the group's discography -- keyed to the pleasure of the broadest possible audience.

And it is magic -- a career summary of sorts that makes clear the Beatles' awareness that their story was finished, or more appropriately, complete; if only other guiding lights of the '60s had reached similar conclusions around this time. (One reason for the Beatles' prolonged reign as the most popular band in rock past or present is that they knew when and how to leave their audience in a permanent state of yearning.) After being semi-estranged from the group during the Get Back project, George Martin was brought back into the fold and with his help, the Beatles cast it all as a nostalgia trip, a sort of clip show of everything the band (and their producer) had accomplished and were still capable of doing. You get the straight-up rock & roll, though maybe too little of it, the wicked humor, some friendly experimentation, and lots of tracks that segue and slide in and out of attention at will, sending hearts back to the mind-expanding summer of '67 when a world had opened up that already seemed to be fading after just two years. There are probably traces of every other Beatles album somewhere in this one.

Side One offers most of the conventional songs -- two of John's, two of Paul's, one each from Ringo and George. Side Two, aside from Harrison's breezy and moving "Here Comes the Sun" and Lennon's gorgeous but overly precious "Because," belongs to Paul almost fully, if not in terms of the makeup of its compositions or performances then certainly in its overall thrust. Here is the famous "Abbey Road medley," with its eight-song rollercoaster of unfinished ideas and minor puff pieces -- the emptying out of their notebooks another signal that they were packing it in -- built into a stunning crescendo for the band's entire career. Lennon's songs are funny but fluffy with conviction, the best being the energetic "Polythene Pam," initially -- like "Mean Mr. Mustard" -- written in India and demoed for the White Album but never finished; the medley concept made such an act superfluous. McCartney's portions are either bizarrely endearing ("You Never Give Me Your Money," "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window") or unabashedly schlocky (the beautiful melodrama "Golden Slumbers")... and yet, somehow, the whole thing not only comes off, but comes off beautifully.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" in particular, despite fragmentation that calls the scourge of the "rock opera" to mind at one end and the glories of the more languid and perverse "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" at the other, occasions what may be the most purely emotional moment in the band's catalog, certainly in Paul's career, which is impressive in a song whose overall meaning amounts to nothing much: this is when Paul adopts his bluesy Elvis voice to announce with wistful but unflappable assurance that "soon we'll be away from here / step on the gas and wipe that tear away / one sweet dream came true today," and for just a moment, the direct connection of all this to the bleak slide from the '60s on into the '70s, from the Beatles to Watergate and Vietnam and arena rock, ceases to matter and Paul seems to be communicating completely out of time, talking to any of us and all of us, assuring us that we can go on, which -- as the prospective fan grows older -- becomes increasingly important. To return to this moment is to access a hopefulness and charge that we are sometimes lulled into thinking is only accessible in our youth. Like the Beach Boys at their best, the song dares to look ahead by looking backward, and does so with unfaded defiance. Fine music was in Paul's future, but never a moment of such unforced and ageless romance, never one that swells the heart and forces it open like this. There are similar moments of odd transcendence in "Bathroom Window," all of them in the performance itself; Paul's ability to tap into his reserves of feeling in a singing voice that can sometimes seem all too calculated enlivened the already brilliant "Penny Lane" and the otherwise goofy "Lovely Rita," and it reappears here when he comes across as sounding absolutely free of himself, free of any baggage, when singing utter nonsense like "though she thought I knew the answer / well, I knew but I could not say."

The b-movie director Edward D. Wood Jr., or at least the biopic about him directed by Tim Burton, had an unconscious point about the worst ideas being the best ones if they're presented with the right enthusiasm. The Beatles, of all people, have the dubious honor of making that clear by stacking drunken inanities like "Sun King," "Carry That Weight" (which occasions a clever reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money") and "The End" together until they add up to something. It is strictly a studio triumph, of course, all the tweaking and knob-twisting of Sgt. Pepper perfected at an almost inhumane, overly professional distance, but a hell of a hummable one. And when taken as an elegiac look back at who the Beatles had been and who they became, the entire piece is touching in a way it could never be if divorced from the full context of the band's story. Please Please Me and Sgt. Pepper, in other words, are what make the medley work.

That said, it's now clear that Side One is the more consistent of the two divisions, at least when you break its individual songs out of this context. It offers the album's most substantial composition and greatest performance -- John's wounding "Come Together," a gloriously played Chuck Berry homage that slows down and amps up until it sounds like total sleaze, infectiously so, and fulfills the promise of "The Word" by featuring the writer's best-ever sloganeering (with a side of the sublimely absurd), "Give Peace a Chance" and "All You Need Is Love" be damned -- and throws bones both to the Beatles' sophisticated followers in George's lovely, undeniable (if overproduced) classic "Something" and to the fans of dirty-ass rock & roll with Paul's "Oh! Darling" and John's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Vocally, the former is flawless; musically, the latter is. Both men could write far better songs than this, however, and Abbey Road often seems like a gigantic curtain hiding people who are saving their best ideas for when this gig is finished. (Unfortunately, "Oh! Darling" is one of the last good ideas Paul would have until 1973 or so.) "Something" is a notable exception, and prompted the band's first A-side that wasn't a Lennon-McCartney composition, eventually becoming an actual standard. Like several of George's other songs from this era, it's better stripped down in an acoustic version that was eventually released in the '90s with a much looser, more soulful vocal from George; but it's foolish to deny how effective the master recording is as a grand, deeply felt piece of soft pop. And for once, neither it nor "Here Comes the Sun" (a more appropriate home for the album's atypical gloss) comes equipped with any of George's odd cynicism and scorn toward the women he sings about. The corner he has turned, it seems, is allowing himself to be seduced.

Ringo Starr, curiously but as on Sgt. Pepper, supplies the most human touch of all. His second full-fledged composition "Octopus's Garden," though it's clearly "Yellow Submarine Mark II," is surprisingly magnetic and may have more lasting appeal than anything here aside from "Come Together." That's in part because of the sheer force of enthusiasm, and Martin's litany of sound effects helps elevate it, but it also fits the ecstatic mood of the record in a manner that "Yellow Submarine" didn't, never quite gelling with the druggy paranoia of Revolver. Surprisingly, the lyrics add a great deal to this; a fantasy of "no one there to tell us what to do" is one thing, but longing for people to live in circumstances "knowing they're happy and they're safe" gets at something deeper, a utopian ideal that must have seemed attractive to the sickly boy who'd grown up to be a working class musician and eventually an endlessly mobbed rock star, but resonates even more to anyone in the Beatles' far-flung audience for whom "safety" is an inherently beautiful concept. In the end, it's a childlike dream that matters more than its obvious, more famous antecedent because it's secretly about something obviously more real, and therefore more touching.

I'm even partial to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a music-hall routine backgrounding another of McCartney's long-winded articulate jokes, this one a black comedy that with a few twists could well have turned into his "Lady Godiva's Operation"; it's less a song than a loopy comedy sketch, so it's no wonder Lennon hated it (though his participation certainly sounds enthused enough), but could any band except the Beatles twist what amounts to a murder ballad into a grinning, playful singalong without alienating anyone?

None of the Beatles really appear to be running out of steam, bored as they may have been with the outlet by now; the reason they come across as more buoyant here than on Get Back is perhaps inherent to the flaws of that concept, though it's more likely that the writing was on the wall for them and that Abbey Road was produced, played, written the way it was and in a mood of relative peace because it was known, or at least suspected, that it was a last hurrah for the Beatles as a unit. At any rate, they continue to be wholly devoted to their craft. George Martin's work has evolved yet again, and it's surprising that the Beatles signed off on the record's extremely polished nature due in part to the new eight-track tape machine at the studio; they had rebuked the slick, overly professional sound of the pre-fame records they made with Bert Kaempfert and Tony Sheridan for Polydor in Hamburg, but Abbey Road is no less slick, which does slightly hamper its vitality even as it affords new opportunities like the entrance of surprisingly tasteful Moog overdubs and the most flattering stage George Harrison had for his guitar work on any record up to this point. If some tracks can be sugary and overblown when you listen too closely, the extra space also allows something like the harrowing conclusion to the eight-minute "I Want You" to sound as apocalyptic as "Revolution 9" with only the power of a stack of guitars and white noise in tow. Martin must have been in heaven with the possibilities eight-track offered for his ornate, baroque pop ideas on Side Two, but it's hard to miss that the greater difficulty in crafting Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and their harder, rawer sound, make those records considerably more exciting than this one.

But again, Abbey Road isn't meant to move further down the road. It's a celebration of the road itself. It sounds like it was meant to be "a suitable ending," and it is -- slightly corrupted by the flawed epilogue Let It Be, but thematically flawless in the way it presents itself as a specifically sanctioned finale to the Beatles' story. Paul had asked George Martin if they could make a record "the way they used to," and Martin agreed on condition of basic obedience. Had they not pulled themselves together long enough to make this happen one last time, the Beatles' legacy might have always seemed somehow incomplete. But they did, and it doesn't.


[Expanded from a review originally posted in 2003.]

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