Okay, I admit it; I did it. I wasn’t competing with the hyperactive elbows of Japanese tourists, for it wasn’t a sticky summer’s day, but a chilly one in February. All the same, like everybody else making a journey that must be a perennial headache for the good motorists of St John’s Wood, I wasn’t going from A to B for anything other than the sake of a photograph – and in my case, the blurred, out-of-focus product of a cheap camera I had to wait days to develop at Boots. It was 1988 and I crossed the zebra on Abbey Road. Recalling the evidence, I look like a black stick insect captured from a considerable distance by an undercover spy new to the job, closer to a clandestine portrait of a Cold War suspect than a faithful recreation of one of the most famous record sleeves of all time.
Of course, The Beatles had the clout to close the road and prevent traffic from getting in the way – for a few minutes, at least. And they could call on a professional photographer with a decent camera, someone who didn’t have to worry about being run-over. From all accounts, there was no awareness on the part of the four individuals concerned that this photo shoot was a landmark occasion any more than the music they took a break from recording that Friday morning required a fanfare. In the pre-digital camera-phone age, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr must have been among the most photographed people on the planet; and this was treated as just one more shoot of many. Like the alluring blur of the mini-skirted lower half of the anonymous girl passing the street sign on the back of the imminent album, this stuff happened without ceremony.
As we career towards the end of yet another year in an era without an epoch, there has been the usual roll-call of cultural anniversaries to mark; and it seems apt that a weekend in which a cantankerous contemporary has embarked upon the drum solo that genuinely does never end, ‘Abbey Road’ should return to the top of the album charts – back for the first time since early 1970. When the LP was originally dethroned by ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (after a solitary week’s pre-Christmas displacement by ‘Let it Bleed’), fans were unaware John Lennon had expressed his desire to call it a Beatle day the previous autumn; with a movie and accompanying album to come in the spring, new manager Allen Klein was eager to maximise his investment. Therefore, ‘Abbey Road’ was marketed upon its September 1969 release as the latest instalment rather than the final chapter.
Considering the frenetic speed at which rock and pop moved and changed in the second half of the 60s, it’s perhaps no surprise that the output of the acts dictating the pace was so breathless. Of the big three – Beatles, Stones, Dylan – only the latter had taken a ‘year out’ since his debut album, and being missing in action during 1967 was largely a consequence of Mr Zimmerman’s mysterious motorcycle accident the year before. ‘Abbey Road’ was released just ten months after the sprawling double epic of the White Album, and the brief gap between two LPs had been bridged by a couple of chart-topping singles that stood alone from album inclusion. Oh, and the opening months of 1969 had also consisted of slogging through the aborted ‘Get Back’ project before its corpse was reanimated by Phil Spector as ‘Let it Be’ a year later.
So, yes, there wasn’t much slacking on the creative front. That said, John and Yoko’s globe-trotting peace campaign – which also encompassed an instant anthem and a live show in Toronto – had drained the Lennon juices somewhat. Although ‘Abbey Road’ opens with his gutsy homage to Chuck Berry, ‘Come Together’, and side one closes with ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ – a blistering excursion into swampy Hard Rock – Lennon is often AWOL on the LP. Yes, this enabled McCartney to progress unimpeded as he constructed the glorious song cycle that spans most of side two, but it crucially gave Harrison the platform to effectively launch his solo career with perhaps his most peerless twosome – ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Without either of those songs, it’s hard to imagine ‘Abbey Road’ possessing half its enduring magic.
The aforementioned ‘song cycle’, which begins with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ until pausing for a brief breath before resuming with ‘Golden Slumbers’, was a canny way of stitching together a few half-finished numbers that nevertheless shine in the medley, such as Lennon’s acerbic pair, ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’. But it is McCartney’s mastery of melody that carries the conceit beyond any accusations of over-ambition, making the listening experience a joyous immersion in pop perfection utterly free from the self-indulgence that often typified the twenty-minute songs marking many of the Prog monoliths to come; there’s rarely a dry eye in this house by the time we reach ‘Carry That Weight’.
The celebrated duelling guitars that accelerate the climax of this 16-minute suite are followed by one final moment of melodious calm before the whole journey is brought to a memorable end with a symphonic sweep that should have closed the album, and indeed the decade, as a fitting farewell from its most generous cultural ambassadors. Instead, the silence before the needle meets the label is eventually gatecrashed by a short, throwaway ditty called ‘Her Majesty’; its presence was due to the accident of an engineer, but the sudden and unexpected appearance of the track appealed to the band’s sense of humour and they left it in there without announcing it on the sleeve’s track-listing. Sometimes I laugh along; sometimes, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or ‘Octopus’s Garden’, it intrudes on the mood. But, as with all Beatle albums, there’s at least one song in there with someone’s name on it.
The slick, polished production of the album was at odds with the back-to-basics ‘roots’ approach that characterised ‘Let it Be’, something that was chic currency in 1969 courtesy of American acts like The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival; but one could argue the influence of ‘Abbey Road’ paved the way for the equally slick early 70s output of the Laurel Canyon aristocracy that went on to dominate US FM radio, as well as laying the foundations for British purveyors of technical excellence during that period such as 10cc – not to mention a 1973 product of the same studio, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
What sounded over-produced and artificial to the ears of contemporary critics weighed-down with Blues Rock baggage doesn’t distract from the quality of the songs where 21st century ears are concerned, however. ‘Abbey Road’ sounds like timeless pop at the peak of its powers – and one entirely free from any negative vibes; it’s a euphoric celebration of life set to music. No wonder its popularity is undimmed today. It contains the very factor at the heart of all the best Beatles music, and one that has probably kept them crucial to listening habits for more generations than merely their own – the ineffable human spirit at its most irresistible. The Beatles capture that better than anyone else. They managed to imprint it on vinyl and have continued to share it with us ever since. That’s quite a gift from them to us. Cheers, lads.
© The Editor