One of the most popular pastimes among Beatles fans is to compile hypothetical follow-ups to Abbey Road, made out of the best tracks from the 1970 solo releases. (Yes! We know how to party, don’t we?) I’ve tried it myself but it’s not as simple as it seems. Do you make the best album you can make from the material, or try to assemble the album The Beatles might actually have made?
Harrison’s All Things Must Pass has so much good stuff, it’s tempting to pick out four or five tracks – but many of them had already been rejected by the group and there’s no reason to think Lennon and McCartney would have changed their ‘You’ll get two songs and you’ll like it’ policy. Then there’s the question of McCartney’s contributions: unlike Lennon and Harrison, he gave his all to The Beatles until the end and his early solo efforts are less full-blooded. His solo debut is a lovely record, but the tracks sound small and inconsequential next to the heavily-produced Harrison material. ‘Instant Karma’ is hard to resist, but can you justify including a track which might never have been written if Lennon had remained a Beatle? And so on.
Yet if the aim is to define what The Beatles might have sounded like in 1970 or 1971, there’s actually no need. They saved you the bother when they made Abbey Road.
This is a lot of people’s favourite Beatles record, but it’s one I’ve always found hard to get to grips with. I think that’s because it sounds so different to any of the others. That’s a slightly stupid thing to say, because as we’ve established most of The Beatles’ records don’t sound like any of the others (in particular those from Revolver onwards). But when I think of The Beatles, I think of 1960s music and much of Abbey Road doesn’t sound like 1960s music. Harrison’s tracks are pure early-70s AOR. Lennon contributes two of the least Beatles-sounding Beatles tracks in ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, both far more like the product of early arena-rock bands. Even McCartney’s doo-wop revivalism on ‘Oh! Darling’ anticipates the likes of Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and even Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’.
We’re covering the records in release order rather than recording order, so Let It Be comes last (I placed Yellow Submarine before The Beatles partly for convenience, but also because the film came out much earlier and so the songs were in the public domain). But applying the knowledge of what Let It Be sounded like, it’s clear that since finishing Sgt. Pepper the group had been putting less and less effort into sounding ahead of their time. There are some forward-thinking tracks on The Beatles, but also a lot of pastiches and doodles. Then, the ‘new phase’ of Let It Be was (as noted by Mic Wright on his blog about that record) actually a retrograde step, returning to a ‘live’ sound which comfortably accommodated a song they wrote in 1957.
On Abbey Road, knowing it would be their last album, they pulled their fingers out and did it properly. Because they hadn’t been thinking ahead for a while, when they did the result was a jarring leap. It’s bizarre to hear synths on a Beatles album (they were practically the only ones who could afford one, so few of their contemporaries were using them) – but here it is, bouncing merrily over ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and swirling menacingly in the outro of ‘I Want You’. The ‘Long Medley’ on side two, and in particular ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, fuse the group’s pop sensibility with prog’s ‘symphonic’ approach. The album all but dispenses with the notion of music as something you might want to dance to, embracing it instead as a mode of ‘serious’ expression. This divergence between pop and rock characterised much 1970s music, and perhaps wasn’t fully bridged again until the turn of the next decade.
As solo artists, the members of The Beatles were never really at the forefront of popular music again (although McCartney has made creditable efforts to keep pace via collaborations). We could speculate whether that might not have been the case had they stayed together, spurring each other on (in 1978 Lennon sent his former bandmates a postcard telling them they should be making records like Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, not that he could be arsed to do so himself). But I think that’s fruitless: the spirit of friendly competition that had made them a great band was no longer friendly, and for them to have stayed together would require them to have been fundamentally different people in the first place.