40 Years of Abbey Rd.
By: Ryan Burleson
At 28 years old, I’m the same age that John Lennon was in September of 1969, the month that saw the initial release of Abbey Road, which featured the final material The Beatles would ever pen together. Of course, to suggest that this is “humbling” would be irresponsible and foolish: Sure, I play music, but like most of you, I don’t inhabit so much as the same stratosphere as Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr, with regards to competence in songwriting. (OK, maybe a few of you can touch Starr’s capabilities). No, I make the point to give this little blurb some context, some window into the remarkable amount of work the infamous quartet had accomplished by the time they hovered around what I would consider my still young age.
Indeed, it was only six years and a few months earlier that they’d unleashed Beatlemania on an unsuspecting public with the release of Please Please Me, initiating a run of 12 LPs that evolved the band’s sound dramatically in just over half a decade. (In that context, the stylistic “leaps” that bands like Radiohead have taken seem less severe, no?) For The Beatles, progress circumvented artless appeals to the public every year, though it’s a testament to the quartet’s instincts that their fans followed the band’s every whim — Abbey Road, for all of its experimentation, spent 17 weeks atop the UK charts and has been certified Platinum 12 times, marking one of those rare moments in rock history where the phrase “critically acclaimed” is a mere afterthought in light of the simple genius of the buying public. Though I‘m no purist, suffice it to say that those days are long gone.
But, what makes Abbey Road a classic, a collection of songs worthy of being covered from top-to-bottom today? For one, even in a vacuum far removed from the hype lavished on the record at any point in its 40-year history, it remains an infinitely rewarding listen. Strip away the narrative of the Beatles as sonic frontiersman, personal rivals, boyish heartthrobs, drug-induced spiritualists, political activists, utopian humanists or “the most influential band ever,” and casually forget that the four of them knew Abbey Road would herald the end before they recorded the first note, and you’ve still got one of the most wistful, heart-wrenching, near-perfect records of all time. From the opening, cryptic groove of “Come Together” and the equally hypnotic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” to the glacial, triple-tracked harmonies of “Because” and the Side B,16-minute medley of largely unfinished, though no less affecting songs that were spliced together by McCartney and George Martin, Abbey Road represents every facet of The Beatles’ aesthetic that is adored and envied in equal measure. It’s blues-y, psychedelic, imaginative, poppy, silly and most of all, profoundly moving, a work that feels more self-effacing than Sgt. Pepper’s or The Beatles, an effort that was meant to provide finality for its composers as much as anyone else.
Like all great records, though, the backstory does matter, and Abbey Road’s is certainly worth noting. For a couple of years before those sessions in the spring and summer of 1969, the four Beatles were hardly talking to one another, the product of nearly every type of tension that can form between collaborators, personal, creative and otherwise. 1968’s The Beatles (affectionately known as “The White Album”) had sparked a period of internal dissent that continued on through Yellow Submarine and the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, when even the manner in which the band made their records began to take a less collaborative tenor. But, at Martin’s urging, after being beckoned by McCartney, the band decided to make their final album in a way that was reminiscent of its early days, though it’d be naive to assume the same collegial spirit filled the studio with any consistency.
The tale of Abbey Road has other highlights worth mentioning, as well, perhaps no more so than the heightened influence of the late, beloved George Harrison. Already having sealed his spot in posterity as a legendary guitar player by this time, Harrison in the mid-to-late ‘60s began to refine his chops as a songwriter, as well, duties that historically belonged to Lennon and McCartney in The Beatles. But, on “Something” and “Because” — in my opinion, two of the strongest songs on the album — Harrison proved that his nascent compositional interests were not only valid, they were extraordinary. In particular, “Something” gave the band its first Harrison-penned hit, a song that Frank Sinatra allegedly once called “the greatest love song ever written.”
For its part, “Because” was actually the first Abbey Road song I ever heard. But, not by way of Harrison, Lennon or McCartney. It was at the turn of the century, in 2000, and I was finishing American Beauty for the first time from the bunk of my dorm room. In the credits of that film, the late, great Elliott Smith harmonizes with himself majestically over a sparse, reverent arrangement of the original. Until that moment, The Beatles were merely on my cultural periphery, worthy of my respect though hardly my attention. Yes, at that point I was still invested in the regrettable, high school-born idea that everything new was by definition an improvement on everything old. God, was I wrong. Years of investment into The Beatles’ music, story and significance followed, and I can now say without reservation that Abbey Road is one of my favorite collections, period, a worthy farewell to the band’s brief, but storied career.