Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Abbey Road (2)

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.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Abbey Road (1)

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.