FEATURE: The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty: Is This Album Their Finest Hour?



The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty


IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

Is This Album Their Finest Hour?


BEFORE the fiftieth anniversary of Abbey Road

 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

I will put out a couple more features – this one included. On the actual day, I will try and get something online that sort of says it all; a feature that wraps everything together. I have already explored The Beatles’ final album (recorded not released) from various angles and, before I write a feature on the iconic cover, I want to be more general and ask whether Abbey Road is their finest moment. The pecking order does seem to change over time - and it is interesting to see which albums rise and fall depending on time. There was a time when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was considered king. In fact, that album will always be in the top-three spaces but, if we look at the overall quality and memorability, can we say that 1967 release is their best? Certainly, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is important, iconic and hugely influential. I will talk about a few other Beatles albums (that could be seen as their best) but, according to reports, Abbey Road was not intended to be the last thing they recorded:

"And, in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take," the Beatles harmonized on the penultimate song of their last album, Abbey Road. But a new tape shows the band wanted to add to the equation. The story of the band is well-known even to the most casual Beatlemaniac and the common mythology maintains the group went into the studio fully intending to record a proper farewell. But the tape, found by Mark Lewisohn, captures the band planning further output, according to The Guardian.

The tape was made Sept. 8, 1969, two weeks before Abbey Road was released. It captures a band meeting between John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Apple headquarters in London’s Savile Row. It was recorded for Ringo Starr, who was in the hospital getting checked for intestinal issues. The subject was the band's next album and a possible single for they could get ready in time for Christmas”.

It would have been fascinating to see a follow-up to Abbey Road; them stepping firmly into the 1970s. Maybe it was just idle chat and speculation on their part - but it is good to know the band were not broken and resigned to calling it quits after they finished Abbey Road. I digress. There are three other albums I could consider Beatles’ best – as could most fans, for that matter. I have argued how Abbey Road is their most important album, but I do think it is one of their very best. Definitely, when we look at the rankings, Abbey Road has always been very near the top; that album that rarely fluctuates and falls out of favour. I think that is down to the importance of the record and the fact it is such a complete, rich listen. The other albums that challenge for supremacy are Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1967) and The Beatles (‘The White Album’, 1968). I think, when it comes to quality and completeness, Revolver is the closest challenger to Abbey Road. The psychedelia and experimentation; the genius of the material and the fact The Beatles had hit this new vein.

Maybe the band were reacting to the times or were particularly in-sync…one cannot argue against the notion that Revolver is one of the greatest albums ever. From the breezy-yet-angered George Harrison salvo, Taxman, to the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolver is masterful. Like Rubber Soul, there is such variety on offer. There are the jauntier efforts from McCartney (Got to Get You into My Life and Good Day Sunshine) but he always makes the heart stop with Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere. Lennon is not to be outdone with I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Tomorrow Never Knows. Ringo Starr’s drumming is phenomenal throughout and he provides a great vocal turn on Yellow Submarine – a song that effortlessly fits alongside Here, There and Everywhere shows The Beatles were not messing around! I cannot fault Revolver but, to me, Abbey Road, as of now, is higher in my mind; it seems more powerful and stronger. Maybe that is because we are preparing for its anniversary, but I find myself returning to Abbey Road for several reasons – I shall come to that soon. The Beatles’ eponymous double album of 1968 is another that, whilst strong and hugely impressive, does not fascinate me as much as Abbey Road. I love the fact The Beatles released this scattershot, sprawling album that has everything on it! The Beatles is an astonishing work that, again, contains so many moods and stories. I think there are too many weaker tracks and I need to be in a particular mood for the album.

I think the battles for the best Beatles album comes down to Revolver and Abbey Road. There are so many reasons why Abbey Road remains so intriguing and popular. In this feature, some great points are raised:

What is it that makes Abbey Road a masterpiece? Well, the breadth of the musical vision, the sheer scale of the band’s collective musical imagination, and the audacity of it all, at a time when The Beatles were coming to the end of their time together.

And then there are the two George Harrison masterpieces, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’; both rank alongside the best songs the band ever recorded. Of the former, uDiscover’s Martin Chilton, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says “it’s almost impossible not to sing along to” – and he’s right.

‘Something’ is sublime, the perfect love song and John Lennon’s favourite track on the album. Often prior to performing it in concert, Frank Sinatra would describe it as “the greatest love song ever written” (while also erroneously saying it was his favourite “Lennon and McCartney composition”).

Abbey Road is far greater than the sum of its parts, a record that, more than any other Beatles album, stands the test of time when played as a whole. It is not an album to cherry-pick tracks on random play – this is one to put on, to luxuriate in ‘Come Together’, and to finish with a smile on your face as Paul sings about Her Majesty being “a pretty nice girl” on the closing, “hidden” track”.

Fans have their own reasons why Abbey Road is their favourite…but I think there are so many layers to the album. The songs on the first side – Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – are so varied and you have the epic Something against the sillier Maxwell’s Silver Hammer; ending with the intense and hypnotic, I Want You (She’s So Heavy). If the first side is pretty special – and it is! – then the second tops it! Opening with Here Comes the Sun, you are beckoned in; Because takes you into a dreamy otherworld, whilst You Never Give Me Your Money starts the medley – or ‘The Long One’ as I have seen it called. This medley alone is a reason why Abbey Road remains so cherished and popular. Listen to how it flows from You Never Give Me Your Money to the completely different Sun King; it then changes gears for Mean Mr. Mustard before continuing with another Lennon composition, Polythene Pam. It is amazing how the band switch from the personal to ethereal; to the Lennon-written character songs and then back to McCartney’s personal/true song, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – about a fan who actually tried to get into his home.  Macca took most of the credit for the side two medley and, to be fair, his fingerprints are more over Abbey Road than Lennon’s – who was involved in a crash around the time. 

The songs weave together sublimely - and they are all pretty short. There is more consistency for the second half of the medley (Macca’s songs taking prominence) and Golden Slumbers goes into Carry That Weight. The End is that brilliant (sort of) finale that has the immortal line: “And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love/you make”. The End, ironically, gives us the first Ringo Starr drum solo - just as the band were spending the final days in a studio together. Her Majesty is a lovely hidden track and, at the time, hidden tracks were rare – Abbey Road has a lot of firsts and talking points. A brilliant album with two different sides, Abbey Road remains as compelling now as it did in 1969. I have read comments from people who feel the album sounds dated now and has lost its magic – I can never agree with that assertion! There is that ages-old debate as to which Beatles album is the best. I think Abbey Road edges Revolver, perhaps, as there is the quality of the music...AND the iconic cover! The fact there is a medley, a hidden track and, yes, the odd wobble (most of us skip past Maxwell’s Silver Hammer!) that makes it such an essential and interesting album. The fact of the matter is Abbey Road was the final time The Beatles played in the studio. It is the last big anniversary when we will have surviving Beatles in the world – their debut, Please Please Me, is seventy-five in 2038 and it would be optimistic to think Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be around then! – and Abbey Road keeps surprising you and offering new sides…fifty years after it was released into the world! Many will argue against Abbey Road being the best Beatles album but, as we prepare to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on 26th September, we can all agree Abbey Road is a…  

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

MAJESTIC swansong.