Nicole Pensiero, Pop Matters, March
It sounds like a weighty task, coming up
with your favorite album of all time. But for me, it was an easy,
no-contest kind of thing, which is testament to how much I love this
record: Abbey Road by the Beatles. It's an amazingly cohesive piece of
music, innovative and timeless. All that, plus the knowledge that this was
the band's last work together. A brilliant, unforgettable farewell.
As John Lennon himself griped, talking about music is a bit like talking
about sex; it's better to experience it than describe it. That being said,
I will do my best to articulate why this album rests comfortably at the
top of my list. Before getting in to those specifics, I will also say I
think it's especially important in the case of Abbey Road to look beyond
the actual songs to what was going on behind the scenes at the time of its
Only five years after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the
Beatles had weathered insanely crazed tours, changing fashions and social
mores (which they helped define), the growing drug culture, and the
increasing demands of their personal lives. While three of the four
members had met as teenagers, they were -- all still in their 20s --
worldly beyond their years.
Most recently, the Beatles survived the debacle of Let It Be, but barely.
(While Let It Be was released after Abbey Road -- and after the
announcement of the breakup in April 1970 -- it was recorded first, during
a miserable winter of the band's discontent in early 1969). So discouraged
were the Fabs by the final product, that Paul -- ever the cheerleader --
convinced the others that they could, indeed, do better. George Martin,
turned off by the captured-on-film squabbling during the Let It Be
sessions, agreed to return to the studio only if he could have real
authority and "the boys" were better behaved.
While tensions remained during the recording, of Abbey Road in the summer
of 1969, the Beatles made a concerted effort to make a great album. And
they succeeded. George Martin himself has called it his favorite Beatles
In the context of my own life, I was just starting sixth grade when Abbey
Road was released in September 1969; by the time the school year was out,
the band was no more. I remember listening to Abbey Road over and over
till every song was embedded in my 12-year-old brain. The fact this album
still enthralls me so is testament to its timelessness.
I felt very grown-up buying Abbey Road with my babysitting money -- it was
the first real "rock" album I ever owned. This was a less esoteric and
more radio-friendly record than 1968's The Beatles, a.k.a. "The White
Album". In addition to the obsessive playing of Abbey Road, I recall
getting fully caught up in the "Paul Is Dead" brouhaha that followed its
release. (Remember the "meaning" of the album cover? John, in white, was
"God"; Ringo, in black, the "undertaker"; dungarees-dressed George was the
"gravedigger". And Paul … well, Paul was striding across that album cover
barefoot, which meant -- in some ancient culture that was always very
vague -- that he was the "dead man".) Ah, the memories. Now onto to the
It's the summer of Woodstock, of the Manson murders, of Chappaquidick, and
despite the growing tension within the band, Abbey Road is recorded
without any major hassles, proving that the Beatles retained their musical
magic right 'til the end. Their chemistry was so perfect, so right-on that
even their splintering existence could not tarnish it. They quit at the
top of their game; perhaps that's why fans never could quite accept that
break-up, constantly asking them when, if they would ever reunite.
From the potent opener, "Come Together" -- with its weirdly ominous "Shoot
Me" sung by Lennon -- to the final strains of "The End", Abbey Road
managed to give each member of the band a chance to shine on their own,
while contributing to the bigger picture as a seemingly cohesive foursome.
Abbey Road is especially noteworthy in my book because it contains two of
George Harrison's best songs as a Beatle: "Something" and "Here Comes the
Sun". While Harrison's work was always overshadowed by the
Lennon/McCartney hitmaking machine, I've never failed to be impressed by
what good songs he did write, with hardly any support or attention given
by the aforementioned leaders.
On "Something", George's passionate guitar solo fleshes out the lyrics'
sense of yearning, and George Martin's subtle, sophisticated orchestral
score frames the song itself. "Here Comes the Sun", meanwhile, has an
amazingly catchy hook -- so pure that it gets lodged in the brain in a
matter of seconds through the expert finger-picking that opens the song.
Other highlights on Abbey Road include Paul's bluesy, wailing, "Oh!
Darling", (which Lennon reportedly wanted to sing, he liked it so much)
and John's equally impassioned but more avant-garde "I Want You (She's So
Heavy)". Even Ringo's "Octopus's Garden" has a certain whimsical charm
The highlight of Abbey Road, for me, has to be the 16-minute medley that,
back in the days when there were albums with two sides, closed out side
two. Paul has to be given credit for this; structurally, the medley was
his baby and his songs -- "You Never Give Me Your Money", "She Came in
through the Bathroom Window", "Golden Slumbers", and "Carry That Weight"
-- are the standouts. Still, the medley wouldn't work without Lennon's
contributions -- his "Polythene Pam" and "Sun King" add to the effortless
flow of the musical stream-of-consciousness.
While the band wasn't aware of its impending breakup -- at least, not on
the surface -- the closing track, "The End" truly did signify just that,
and each Beatle got a chance to shine individually before they closed up
shop and went away to become the Plastic Ono Band and Wings.
First we get Ringo's one-and-only drum solo, and it's a catchy, inspired,
rollicking gem. Then comes the "Love You" choruses that lead into the
amazing guitar round robin. Paul starts it off (showing that he was always
a kick-ass guitarist despite being relegated to bass), then comes George's
distinctive riffs, followed by John's howling, wailing guitar. A lone
piano emerges from the din, and all three sing the line, "And in the end /
The love you take / Is equal to the love you make", closing out the record
with a sense of, well, completion.
(Ends up, though, that "The End" wasn't quite the end; the then-hidden
ditty, "Her Majesty", followed after a brief pause, having the record end
on an "up", rather than solemn, note).
While the creepy-cheerful "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" always seemed a bit
out of place to me on Abbey Road, I can't flog Paul too much over that
since it was basically his pushing and prodding and nudging and nagging
that got the band back into the studio for this final masterpiece the
While it bugs the heck out of me that McCartney wants have his name to
come first on Beatles's songs now -- how big is this guy's ego, anyway? --
I have to begrudgingly forgive all that because of the amazing, timeless
Abbey Road. For this record alone, he deserved to be knighted.
John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stone, Issue
46, November 15, 1969
Simply, side two does more for me than the whole of
Pepper, and I'll trade you The Beatles and Magical Mystery Tour
and a Keith Moon drumstick for side one.
So much for the prelims. "Come Together" is John Lennon very nearly at the
peak of his form; twisted, freely-associative, punful lyrically, pinched
and somehow a little smug vocally. Breathtakingly recorded (as is the
whole album), with a perfect little high-hat-tom-tom run by Ringo
providing a clever semi-colon to those eerie shooo-ta's, Timothy Leary's
campaign song opens up things in grand fashion indeed.
George's vocal, containing less adenoids and more grainy Paul tunefulness
than ever before, is one of many highlights on his "Something," some of
the others being more excellent drum work, a dead catchy guitar line,
perfectly subdued strings, and an unusually nice melody. Both his and Joe
Cocker's version will suffice nicely until Ray Charles gets around to it.
Paul McCartney and Ray Davies are the only two writers in rock and roll
who could have written "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a jaunty
vaudevillian/music-hallish celebration wherein Paul, in a rare naughty
mood, celebrates the joys of being able to bash in the heads of anyone
threatening to bring you down. Paul puts it across perfectly with the
coyest imaginable choir-boy innocence.
Someday, just for fun, Capitol/Apple's going to have to compile a Paul
McCartney Sings Rock And Roll album, with "Long Tall Sally," "I'm Down,"
"Helter Skelter," and, most definitely, "Oh! Darling," in which, fronting
a great "ouch!"-yelling guitar and wonderful background harmonies, he
delivers an induplicably strong, throat-ripping vocal of sufficient power
to knock out even those skeptics who would otherwise have complained about
yet another Beatle tribute to the golden groovies' era.
That the Beatles can unify seemingly countless musical fragments and
lyrical doodlings into a uniformly wonderful suite, as they've done on
side two, seems potent testimony that no, they've far from lost it, and
no, they haven't stopped trying.
No, on the contrary, they've achieved here the closest thing yet to
Beatles freeform, fusing more diverse intriguing musical and lyrical ideas
into a piece that amounts to far more than the sum of those ideas.
"Here Comes the Sun," for example, would come off as quite mediocre on its
own, but just watch how John and especially Paul build on its mood of
perky childlike wonder. Like here, in "Because," is this child, or someone
with a child's innocence, having his mind blown by the most obvious
natural phenomena, like the blueness of the sky. Amidst, mind you,
beautiful and intricate harmonies, the like of which the Beatles have not
attempted since "Dr. Robert."
Then, just for a moment, we're into Paul's "You Never Give Me Your Money,"
which seems more a daydream than an actual address to the girl he's
thinking about. Allowed to remain pensive only for an instant, we're next
transported, via Paul's "Lady Madonna" voice and boogie-woogie piano in
the bridge, to this happy thought: "Oh, that magic feelin'/Nowhere to go."
Crickets' chirping and a kid's nursery rhyme ("1-2-3-4-5-6-7/All good
children go to heaven") lead us from there into a dreamy John number, "Sun
King," in which we find him singing for the Italian market, words like
amore and felice giving us some clue as to the feel of this
reminiscent-of-"In My Room" ballad.
And then, before we know what's happened, we're out in John Lennon's
England meeting these two human oddities, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene
Pam. From there it's off to watch a surreal afternoon telly programme,
Paul's "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." Pensive and a touch
melancholy again a moment later, we're into "Golden Slumbers," from which
we wake to the resounding thousands of voices on "Carry That Weight," a
rollicking little commentary of life's labours if ever there was one, and
hence to a reprise of the "Money" theme (the most addicting melody and
unforgettable words on the album). Finally, a perfect epitaph for our
visit to the world of Beatle daydreams: "The love you take is equal to the
love you make ..." And, just for the record, Paul's gonna make Her Majesty
I'd hesitate to say anything's impossible for him after listening to Abbey
Road the first thousand times, and the others aren't far behind. To my
mind, they're equatable, but still unsurpassed.