|Photographer: Iain Macmillan , butchered by the author (sorry, Iain)|
The abbreviated Abbey Road:
- Come Together (4:20)
- I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (7:46)
- Polythene Pam / She Came in Through the Bathroom Window / Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End (8:35)
First, let me out myself as a full-on Beatlemaniac. If you didn’t know that about me before, you will after reading this post.
As with coffee, it's my Mom whom I can thank for my addiction. She played me my first Beatles songs and she brewed me the first cup of coffee I ever enjoyed. I was a Beatles fan from my earliest preschool memories (when Sgt. Pepper was my absolute favorite), through my youth (Let it Be was my first album purchase, and I listened to it endlessly), into my teen years (scattered: Revolver and the White Album), and finally adulthood (Abbey Road). Note 1 Notes are at the bottom...
Then there are the dozens of Beatles books I’ve consumed, including massive tomes like the Anthology and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. (The latter for a radio series I inflicted on our college radio station, in which I played and discussed one album per week.) Plus documentaries, bootlegs, conventions, and yes, I've been to the Cavern Club in Liverpool... "Where it all Began." (Thanks for that, too, Mom!)
A few weeks ago, a library book’s cover lunged at me and compelled me to read it: Dreaming the Beatles, by Rob Sheffield. It’s not a straight history; as the subtitle states it’s "The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World." I recommend it for any Beatlemaniac because it’s written with a shorthand style that assumes you already know the basics, and it allocates space to the growth of the Beatles' fame through the decades that followed their breakup. (For example, analyzing impacts of the CD releases in the 1980s, which introduced America to the British album versions.)
Well, I’d been reading it for a few nights when I had an occasion to listen to some music. I was on the road, but fortunately I have the whole Beatles catalog on my phone (of course!) so I simply hit play, then shuffle.
Apparently, the last selection I played was the Abbey Road album. The seven songs that proceeded to play struck me as the perfect encapsulation of my favorite album from my favorite band – and created a need in me to share this epiphany with the world. (Or at least a diversion from other work I probably should be doing!)
Abbey Road as an Album
The first song on the album played in its correct location because I hit shuffle after hitting play. That’s critical because Come Together is the opening statement of the album’s message, which is: “we are the greatest band in the world and this is going to be our best, and probably last, album.”
Keep in mind their career to this point. Come Together was recorded in July 1969, only 5 ½ years since they debuted on Ed Sullivan in January 1964. In those five years, they recorded ten albums, including four of Rolling Stone Magazine's top-ten albums of all time: the White Album (#10), Rubber Soul (#5), Revolver (#3), and Sgt. Pepper (#1). Note 2
More importantly, their music evolved. From their early “I/Me/You” days their lyrics took on new depth (Beatles for Sale, Help), they broke new ground in the recording studio (Rubber Soul, Revolver), led the psychedelic wave (Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and the overlooked Yellow Submarine), then broke back to the basics (White Album and Let it Be).
Abbey Road’s recording followed the hellish Let it Be sessions, during which the band made a conscious effort to “Get Back” to their roots in rock by rehearsing and playing songs as a group. The sessions were difficult because the Beatles were fighting over money, musical control, group dynamics (hello, Yoko), and everything else. Despite it all, the Beatles rediscovered themselves as a band (Note 3), and when they did they remembered that they were one of the best bands in the world. Note 4
With their songwriting better than ever, a newly confident Beatles headed into the Abbey Road sessions, committed to doing just one more Beatles record “like we used to” with producer George Martin. At the same time, everyone involved had a strong feeling that this would be their last one.
The song starts with its distinctive “shoot (me)”/bass/drum combination (Note 5), which continues for a while before John gets to verse, and reoccurs throughout the song. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how flat Come Together would be without that riff, which grabs you in its first moments and carries you along.
The lyrics on this song are just another example of John throwing phrases together, some of which have meaning (“He got Ono sideboard”) and some don’t (“He got monkey finger”). Yet, John’s vocal phrasing is amazing - the way he stretches out “one and one and one is three” - and perfectly suited to his chunky guitar rhythms. More importantly, Paul continues to redefine how the bass guitar can contribute to a song, as an instrument of both rhythm and melody. (Click here for a wonderful post that showcases Paul's bass playing across several songs by isolating the sound.)
Come Together is a supremely talented band playing an amazing song in a pristine recording environment. Note 6 It’s the opening salvo of the album, and its hypnotic excellence demands your attention.
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
At this point, my playlist skipped forward to John’s song that closes side one of the album. Jumping to I Want You (She’s So Heavy) - hereafter, IWYSSH - from Come Together emphasizes the band-oriented songs on side one and skips the in-between studio creation songs of the type that Let it Be eschewed.
There’s no point in abbreviating an album unless you cut something out, but in this case the “Something” that’s omitted is arguably George’s best song. Note 7 That’s a loss, especially for Paul’s splendiferous bass work (truly one of his best). Another loss is Paul’s vocal on Oh! Darling, but omitting Maxwell and Octopus is OK with me.
What inspired me to write this blog was listening to IWYSSH right after Come Together. The power of these two songs in combination simply blew me away, despite the hundreds of times I've heard them before.
IWYSSH is a group performance that could easily slip into Let it Be, not a surprise because it was one of several of Abbey Road's songs rehearsed during the Let it Be sessions. This song was about John’s new relationship with Yoko, contrasted with his unsuccessful marriage to his first wife, Cynthia. (“Heavy” as in “a drag,” although I’m not sure if this is worse than the other interpretation.) It says something about John as a songwriter that IWYSSH has more meaning than Come Together, even though IWYSSH has only 14 different words in the lyrics. But again, more than what John says... it’s how he sings it, and how the band plays it.
Start with John’s initially restrained delivery, perfectly described in Tim Riley's book Tell Me Why as “John sings a blues duet with his guitar.” Note 8 As the song builds steam, his singing gets more emphatic until, by the verse that starts around 4 minutes in, it devolves into an early example of his primal scream songs (e.g. Cold Turkey, Mother).
But once more it’s Paul’s bass (and Ringo’s drumming) that make the song. Paul’s fills and bass solos are things of subtle beauty and Ringo’s variation in rhythm keep a repetitive song from feeling, well, repetitive. (Listen from 45 seconds in to 1:10, and especially from 1:45 to 2:30).
The second half of the song, the coda, may not be your favorite part of Abbey Road (it was never mine), but it’s a hypnotic raga thanks to the tightness of the Beatles as a band. They progress through the same chords multiple times - and play a purposefully monotonous rhythm – but still find small ways to vary it and keep it interesting. As if they aren’t making the music enough of a listening challenge, white noise gradually builds through the coda, with the cacophony building tension until the song simply cuts off. (The short version of the story was that John simply chose a moment during playback to cut it off.) Note 9
Listening to it digitally, IWYSSH makes a wonderful contrast with Here Comes the Sun, which immediately follows it. Going from the wash of white noise directly into George’s acoustic sounds like the musical version of the sun bursting through the clouds. (The album of course, required a flip.) But my abbreviated version jumped past the next few songs and landed on…
Ask me “What’s your favorite Beatles song?” and I'll answer, “side two of Abbey Road.” Note 10 I don’t feel like this is cheating, because starting with You Never Give Me Your Money, the songs are continuous. (I'm counting the crickets that segue into Sun King. That's why they're there.) Slicing to the heart of what makes Abbey Road great, it’s the second half of side two, and if you want a starting point to abbreviate from, it must be Polythene Pam. Note 11
It was at this point that I turned off shuffle, because the next few songs MUST be played in order. Start with Polythene Pam. It features more throwaway John lyrics, but some savage acoustic strumming (it definitely sounds like John filched that from Pete Townsend) and a tight groove that gets them through the verses and into the last third of the song, starting about 40 seconds in – after John’s last “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”.
The Beatles' greatest stretch of recorded music is the the last 30 seconds of Polythene Pam through the first 10 seconds of She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.
The band is rocking, and the boys are enjoying themselves. Deep in the groove they fall back to old habits of egging each other on with onstage banter. First Paul (“Yeah, Great”), then John with “Listen to that, Mal” and just before the crescendo my favorite spoiler ever: “Oh look out!” leading up to that sublime moment when Polythene Pam’s guitars cymbal-crash into Paul’s opening line ("She Came in...") and Ringo’s shimmering tambourine. Note 12
She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
With the musical climax over, Paul rips into his own set of meaningless lyrics. He didn’t do this often - I think John gets too much credit as the Beatles’ best lyricist - but again it’s not about the words. Note 13
This brief song has an essential role: it’s the after-glow of the crescendo from Polythene Pam, and it slows down the tempo for the next sequence of songs. Starting from their first album, the Beatles put great thought into sequencing their songs – and side two of Abbey Road was their masterpiece. Note 14
Of course, Paul’s bass is fabulous and features as a lead instrument throughout, with guitars only providing flourishes at the end of each musical phrase. In the first verse, he sets up an amazing bass line (10 to 30 seconds, starting with “She Came in…”) then in the second verse (:50 to 1:10, starting with “She said she’d always…”) he varies the bass line, funking it up. I also love the way Ringo’s drumming tumbles in on each new verse. (For example, from 45 seconds to 55 seconds, and again from 1:10 to 1:15.)
Although the songs are connected, a momentary pause precedes this song. This is critical because the tone of Golden Slumbers differs from what came before, with its soothing piano, orchestration, and Paul’s gentle vocals. But after the first verse the drums kick in and the song builds into its chorus, and we get a taste of Paul’s full-throated singing (“…smiiiles awaaaait you when you rise”), which the Abbreviated Abbey Road needs because we omitted Oh! Darling. Note 15
This song’s tempo downshifts again after its chorus as it enters the second verse, but it’s a short reprieve. The genius of the transition to Carry That Weight is that the same drums that marked the chorus on Golden Slumbers carry us unto Carry That Weight, which acts as a second chorus, seamlessly merging the two songs.
I toyed with removing this song from my abbreviated version, but that wasn’t how I listened to it, and you need this song in order to get ready for what follows. This is a “rest” song on many levels. Not only is it about sleep (it was a lullaby for which Paul wrote a new melody), but also because it’s a slight pause between the amazing climax it follows and the one that lies ahead. Like the pacing in a good movie that has a quiet scene between the chases, this song gives us a chance to catch our breath.
Carry That Weight
This song also has an important function: in 90 seconds, it transitions us from the orchestration of Golden Slumbers to the rock jam of The End. In the full Abbey Road, Carry That Weight also echoes the melody and words from the first song of the medley: You Never Give Me Your Money, a tough cut from the abbreviated version. Note 16
Carry That Weight also remains a great example of how the Beatles could combine an orchestra with their own instruments, for example when the brass section’s theme segues into a guitar solo (from 25 seconds to 45 seconds), without feeling forced. Here’s an appropriate time to give credit to George Martin, who was able to translate their musical ideas into orchestration that never overburdens the music, unlike Phil Spector’s orchestration of The Long and Winding Road. Note 17
And listen for the arpeggios at the end of the song that build the tension up until…
Where to begin with The End? How about this: let’s burst the bubble that the last lyrics on the last song of the last Beatles album are “And in the end… the love you take is equal to the love you make.” While that would be a wonderful sentiment, the last lyrics on Abbey Road are actually “Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl, someday I'm going to make her mine.” Note 18
So forget about the mythology of The End - sorry Chris Farley - and focus on the music. This song presents the Beatles as a band in amazing form, and (starting with the “Oh Yeah… All Right… Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight” lyric), we head into the Beatles final hurrah.
Ringo’s drum solo in The End is dismissed by many (and to be honest, it’s nowhere close to his best work), but keep in mind that he didn’t like drum solos. Ringo is the kind of drummer who holds the band together, and makes everyone else better. (One of my favorite parts of the documentary Eight Days a Week was Paul's emotional retelling about playing with Ringo for the first time.) This was Ringo's only recorded solo, and it was created by isolating his drumming from a track with other instruments. In other words, they tricked him into it!
After the drum solo comes a truly amazing sequence that symbolizes the full circle of the Beatles' development. In their Quarrymen days (1958-1959) John, Paul, and George were just three guitarists who couldn't keep a drummer or find a bassist. Ten years later, they are still just three guitarists trying to outdo each other in a guitar solo competition that gives great insight into their musical personalities.
At 54 seconds in, the three trade off the lead part, each of them playing two measures in a rotating order that goes: Paul – George – John – Paul – George – John – Paul – George – John. Note 19 There are many similar analyses of the guitar solos, but again I’m going to lean on Tell Me Why for the best condensed quote: “Paul's lines are typically melodic, George’s are soaring and virtuosic, and John’s are intensely rhythmic.” The last part, by the way, does no justice to John’s solos, which are pure Rock and Roll. (I think that deep down John believed he really was the best guitarist in the band, and he makes an excellent case for it here!)
If you see Paul live these days, he does a great version of this with his two guitarists – and that’s the vision I keep in my mind of this recording: the three of them trading parts, each trying to outdo the others. (Embedded videos aren't working here, so follow this link. https://youtu.be/F7_NAElaYR0 Jump to 2:06 to go to straight to the solos.)
The end of The End features a crisp finish that emphasizes everything that made the Beatles great: lyrics, melody, performance, and production. Note 20 All at once everything drops away, and – echoing Carry That Weight - we’re left with a solo piano and Paul’s voice, singing that famous couplet (“and in The End…”), with a touch of all the sounds in their arsenal: guitars, drums, piano, orchestra, and vocal harmonies.
And just like that, the album (and the band) are done. (The abbreviated version trims Her Majesty.) In its abbreviated form, Abbey Road is 21 tight minutes that showcases how to end a career... with a masterpiece.
I tried to also abbreviate this post, by moving commentary into these Notes.
Note 1: It goes on: my wife Elizabeth was a massive fan when we met – our wedding had a Beatles cover band - and I’m pleased to say that our son was steeped in the Beatles from a young age. Interestingly, he prefers the early albums, and it’s been a pleasure to rediscover those with him.
Note 2: I'm using the British releases, and I’m counting from Hard Day’s Night through Let it Be, which was (mostly) recorded but not released. And I’m counting as one album both the White Album and Yellow Submarine. This count of 10 excludes Abbey Road, plus the two LPs they recorded in 1963: Please Please Me and With the Beatles. So, if you count the 7 years from 1963 to 1969, the Beatles recorded an astounding 13 albums. Plus singles, which were released separately, and included: Paperback Writer/Rain, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, Hey Jude/Revolution.
I tried to find another artist that had anything close to that level of productivity and quality. From 1987 – 1991, U2 released two amazing albums (The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby) and one good one (Rattle and Hum... with a Beatles cover). Led Zeppelin recorded 5 colossal albums from 1968 – 1973 before they slowed down. From 1966 - 1972, the Stones had 7 good albums (bookended by Aftermath and Exile on Main St, with two in Rolling Stone Mag’s top-50 list), before hitting a stretch of lesser quality. From 1964 – 1969, Bob Dylan released seven great albums (including numbers 4, 9, and 31 on Rolling Stone’s list) before his quality weakened. It’s probably best the Beatles stopped before the mid-70’s hit… they seem to be a difficult period for all – even the former Beatles.
The most recent example I could think of is the White Stripes, who released 7 albums in 9 years (1999 – 2007), during which Jack White also released another album with the Raconteurs and a solo movie soundtrack. Jack White’s a force of nature, by the way, with musical talent simply flowing out of him. If you want to see this, do yourself a favor and watch him dominate Jimmy Page and The Edge in the documentary “It Might Get Loud.” The film includes the fascinating tidbit that guitar wasn’t his original instrument; he switched from the drums to accompany his wife, who started playing them. Sample clip below... notice how Jack White's playing has so much more feeling.
I blame my own lack of musical knowledge for not knowing other examples of epic album runs (especially anything after the 1970s), and I welcome your suggestions in the comments.
Note 3: “Get Back” was the album’s original name, although “Let it Be” wound up being a more appropriate title by far. Fascinatingly for us, the documentary “Let it Be” captures all of this in process. You see them fighting, but also get a chance to watch them coalesce as a band, especially in their final concert. The rooftop performance was their compromise with Paul, who wanted to tour and play live at small clubs. The others hated the idea, but Paul goaded them into doing something.
Playing songs together as a band was novel because their albums from Revolver through the White Album were increasingly solo recordings where the song writer used the others like session players, brought in outside musicians, or record songs completely on their own. (*ahem* … Paul)
The difference on Let it Be was rehearsing songs as a band prior to recording them (the rehearsals are the bulk of the film), and they reclaimed their swagger as a group. Here’s one from the Let it Be rooftop performance: Don’t Let Me Down (featuring Billy Preston on keyboards, although you barely see him!). Take note at 1:20 when John forgets the words and fakes it.
Note 4: They had more competition in 1968 (e.g. Zeppelin, The Who, Hendrix, a more confident Stones), but being a great live band was their original claim to fame during the “mach schau” years from Hamburg to 1962. The 1963 – 1966 span touring the world playing inaudible 30-minute sets soured them all on playing concerts. This was well documented in the recent film 8 Days a Week, a great addition to the Beatles archives.
Note 5: As with many of John's songs, the actual lyrics are debatable. For several reasons, this happened a lot: John's love of word play (read one of his poems and you'll get an idea), his tendency to chew gum while he sang, and I think he just loved confounding the lyric analysts. (Exhibit #1: Glass Onion.) Growing up, I never thought that he was saying any specific word in the Come Together riff (for a long time, I thought it was a percussion sound, not a voice!), but apparently the lyric analysts have decided he sang "Shoot Me," with the latter word smothered by the music. This is obviously creepy in retrospect. Of course, don't believe the lyric analysts. They also have the lyrics as "hold you in his armchair, you can feel his disease." To me, there's never been any question that he was saying "Hold you in his arms till you can feel his disease."
Note 6: A tip on this song that I learned when I had that radio show in college. The Beatles’ records always had superb production values, and this one has something special. Put on headphones and play the song, paying attention around 2:25. To quote from one of the all-time great Beatles song analysis books, Tell Me Why by Tim Riley: “After the guitar trails off on its last piercing note, there’s an astonishing linkage back to the verse: electric piano carries most if it (moving to center), but after repeated listenings bass and guitar criss-cross in their midrange, suspended together out of time before falling back into sync.” Just listen... it’s 7 seconds of musical bliss.
Note 7: Here Comes the Sun, also on Abbey Road, is another personal favorite, at least partly because our friends Bobby and Jonathan played it on acoustic guitars as Elizabeth walked down the aisle at our wedding. Thanks, guys, that remains one of my all-time favorite life moments!
Note 8: Just as Paul is under-recognized for his lyrics, John is under-appreciated as a guitar player. But don’t take my word for it... (start this at 15:04)
Note 9: I’m not entirely sure what message John had in mind for the long coda and the white noise, but its inclusion is fascinating. They are giving up valuable real estate on a Beatles record to what seems like filler (the three-minute coda is 1/15 of the total album, and is longer than ten of its 17 songs), but John loved defying expectations – especially at this experimental point in his life. I also found that their use of multi-tracked guitars playing killer riffs is credited as an early version of doom metal, pre-dating Black Sabbath by several months.
Note 10: If you insist “no, you’ve got to name a single song” then sequentially, over the years, my answer would have been Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Hey Jude, Paperback Writer, and I’ve Got a Feeling – with the last one as my current answer.
Note 11: Her Majesty was originally placed between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam on the album, but was removed because it wasn’t working - and now it's inconceivable (to me) that it ever seemed like a good idea. The operator who cut it out spliced it at the end of the tape just to keep it, and when Paul heard it there he insisted it stay. You can still hear the last chord of Mustard at the beginning of Her Majesty!
Note 12: "Mal" was Mal Evans, the Beatles’ long time roadie / bodyguard / companion. Here is an interesting question: would the moment be better without the plot spoiling “Oh look out”? On one level it detracts from the moment – do we really need John to tell us that something great it happening? But it’s such a human moment. To me, it says that, despite all of the burden of being THE BEATLES, they could still enjoy playing great music together.
Note 13: One of my bootleg records has a rehearsal of this song with some alternate lyrics (e.g. “…and so I quit the police department, and got myself a proper job”) and a great moment at the end when John and Paul make fun of the “Sunday’s on the phone to Monday” lyrics. I posted it for your pleasure, see below. These bootlegs are the from the unused Let it Be footage, hence the camera talk at the beginning. My favorite part starts around 1:35... (Oh John, we do miss you!)
Note 14: Is there any better start to a record than the “one, two, three, faw!” that kicks off Please Please Me, or their Twist and Shout that closes it? Interesting bonus point: the recent theatrical releases of "Deconstructing the Beatles" are a boon for Beatlemaniacs. Deconstructing Revolver noted that, like Please Please Me, Revolver also starts with a count-in. But on Revolver, George’s distorted voice reflects both the studio effects and the drug use that were influencing their music – showing how much they’d changed in just three years.
Note 15: Paul has a couple of styles of singing. He’s got that famous sweet voice (Yesterday, Blackbird, Fool on the Hill), he has a rock voice (Back in the USSR, Lady Madonna, Paperback Writer), and then he has that full-throated Little Richard style (Long Tall Sally, I’m Down, Helter Skelter). It’s amazing how he can switch between them, too, as in both Golden Slumbers and Oh! Darling. Today, Paul’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but on Abbey Road it was at its peak.
Note 16: You Never Give Me Your Money was Paul's song about the unpleasantness of the Beatles' financial dealings - the same issues that would soon break up the group. ("You never give me your money / You only give me your funny paper") Imagine how awkward it was to record it with them!
Note 17: Which was what drove Paul to ultimately remix and release Let it Be… Naked, a very good addition to the Beatles catalog.
Note 18: And as Rob Sheffield conclusively demonstrated, Let it Be was the last album both because they released it last – and because they recorded “I Me Mine” after Abbey Road was released. So, the last words on the last Beatles album are actually “I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition” - which is wonderful in its own way.
Note 19: Keep in mind that Paul played guitar before he ever played bass, and played guitar brilliantly on songs such as Blackbird and Another Girl. In fact, Paul played the guitar solo on Taxman – George’s song! – because George was unable to get it right in the studio. And let’s be honest that some of George’s solos over the year were dreck, with examples being: the early version of “One After 909” on Anthology #1, “If You’ve Got Trouble” on Anthology #2, or “Baby’s in Black”.
Note 20: The End didn't always end like this. Anthology #3 has a version of The End with its original ending – a long piano chord (like the end of A Day in the Life) that fades in and then out. I’m so glad that was cut, showing that sometimes editing is the most important part of the creative process. Which is where I’ll leave this, recognizing that I’ve spent WAY too long writing about an abbreviation of something that is monumental on its own, and doesn’t need me. (But thank you for indulging me in this chance to share my epiphany with you!)