Going from vague anecdotal evidence collected by me, most Beatles fans think of Abbey Road as the last Beatles album. This is partly because it was the last to be recorded (ALTHOUGH just to be annoying there was one final session, without Lennon, in January 1970 to knock off a proper recording of ‘I Me Mine’) and therefore any analysis of their development should consider it their last. It’s also partly because it makes for a better final Beatles album and, given the choice, we’d rather it was the final Beatles album. It finishes their career on a high and side two’s ‘long medley’ has the feel of a grand finale. And unlike the brisk forced-bonhomie of Let It Be, attempting to recreate the solid unit they’d been in Hamburg and during their early touring days, Abbey Road not only looks ahead to the future but deals with their break-up head-on, with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ referring to the legal battle within the group and ‘Carry That Weight’ (one of my favourite Beatles songs) addressing the magnitude of what they’d achieved together.
So the consensus is that Abbey Road, although not the final Beatles album to be released, is the final Beatles album in spirit. A more controversial issue, in my experience, is whether they were right to stick ‘Her Majesty’ at the end. The ‘long medley’ had been crafted to conclude with ‘The End’, featuring a drum solo from Ringo, a guitar solo from each of the others and then a lovely piece of quintessentially 1960s cod-philosophy (‘And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make’). It also seems to rattle through their career, running from an ‘Oh yeah!’ and a squalling rock ’n’ roll riff to a closing orchestral sting and languid guitar wash.
Then, when the album was being mixed, McCartney discovered that a track he’d decided to drop from the ‘long medley’ had been placed at the end of the master tape for convenience (once they became successful, nothing The Beatles recorded was ever junked – hence the Anthology albums). He decided he liked it that way and kept it there. So, did he spoil his beautifully crafted coda by chucking this acoustic doodle after it?
I don’t think so. To me this track sums up the story of The Beatles’ latter period, and that’s entirely because of where it is on the album. There are few groups who’ve shifted quite so decisively from one member leading the group to another. In fact, the only one I can think of are Ride. No offence to Ride, who I think were brilliant, but we’re not really talking about the same ballpark. Although The Beatles were very much a group – the first group to project themselves as four personalities – they were originally Lennon’s group. Yet as their working methods evolved, McCartney – with his multi-instrumental talent and greater interest in production – became more central, and it’s clear he continued to see The Beatles as enabling him to do things, rather than – as Lennon and, especially, Harrison did at times – holding him back.
The Beatles arguably became McCartney’s group around Sgt. Pepper, and there’s no doubt that they were his group after Brian Epstein died. For example, an interview with Richard Hamilton in Mojo about his sleeve for the ‘White’ album reveals that all his meetings were held with McCartney. Most of The Beatles’ projects in their last couple of years were McCartney’s idea. He often arrived at the studio ahead of the others, laying down demos and basic tracks – sometimes completing tracks without bothering to involve the others. Because McCartney was the first to announce that he was leaving the group, some people who don’t know the backstory assume that the group might have carried on without him. The truth is that by this stage he was the only one who cared. The Beatles without him was unthinkable.
And that’s why ‘Her Majesty’ feels so apt to me. At the end of an album where the group pulled together one last time, this track conjures an image of McCartney alone in the studio. The others have all gone home and turned out the lights, whilst he carries on regardless. But rather than playing some doleful lament for the group he’s lost, he’s being whimsical and irreverent. Yes, it treads on the gesture of giving each of them their solo spot in the final minutes of their final album – but after the effort McCartney had put into holding the group together long enough to make this record, I don’t begrudge him the last word.