Maybe it wasn’t just Beatles fatigue. I’m better rested than I was late last week, when the first few tracks of Abbey Road sent me reaching for The Big Chill’s two soundtracks, and my ears should have been more willing to accept the clangor of the Beatles’ final recorded work. As I did with Sgt. Pepper’s, I grew up with some of Abbey Road’s most well-known songs. I have distinct memories of singing “Come Together” with a seatmate on the bus in eighth grade, and of being stunned and charmed by the absurdity of Lennon’s lyric as I heard them free of the song.
I’m a fan of the non-sequitur, particularly when what seems to be non-sequitur slants towards actual meaning. Nick Cave is a master of this–the line “I go guruin’ down the street” from “We Call Upon the Author” comes to mind–and for a while there Jeff Tweedy was, too. There’s something complicated happening behind Cave’s line that makes it work. It relies not only on the associations we have with self-appointed gurus, but also on the swagger with which Cave delivers the line; the singer of “We Call Upon the Author” is no benevolent swami, and Cave’s vocal smirk sells out his own pretensions. The lyrics and the music have to work in tandem in order for the line to work. I have no idea what Jeff Tweedy means when he says “Take off your band-aids/Cos I don’t believe in touchdowns,” but in the context of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” I can at least feel his drift. That song is built from the same form as “Come Together,” relying as it does on that one straightforward chorus line for its resolution. But where Tweedy delivers his nonsense in such a way as to lend it some kind of resonance, Lennon seems more interested in his own cleverness than in actually communicating anything. Sure, you could make the same claim about “I Am the Walrus,” but at least that song wore its goofiness like a rabbit suit. “Come Together” is played so straight that Aerosmith covered it, and covered it fairly convincingly, too.
That straightforwardness is my main complaint about Abbey Road, and, I realized this morning, the reason why I had no patience for it last week. Taken on their own, “Something,” “Come Together,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” are fine enough songs, even pillars of their era. But like Lennon in the album opener, they’re far too content with themselves. Abbey Road’s first side, while expertly written, does very little to distinguish itself from the music that was being made just as well by any number of other bands; their place in the canon is guaranteed more by their authorship than their actual quality. Maybe the problem last week wasn’t that I’d heard too much Beatles music, but that on Abbey Road I hadn’t heard enough.
So maybe I should have stuck it through to the second side. The famous medley (plus “Here Comes the Sun”) that comprises the Beatles’ last recorded work was dismissed by Lennon later in life as being a cobbled-together scrapheap, and that’s probably true from a factual historical standpoint. But it’s also an artistic success that greatly outshines the more-celebrated work etched into its underside. They run through the songs like the Lonely Hearts Club Band on a nostalgia tour, stringing together a few old favorites between the larger numbers. You can practically hear the crowd erupt as they turn “Polythene Pam”’s mod-rock into the fringed-out “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” The guitar line that twinkles out of “Here Comes the Sun”’s opening moments grows and expands along with Harrison’s lyric, melting away the first side’s chilly distance. And listen to Ringo, drumming along like they’re rehashing “She Loves You.” There’s a sense of celebration on side two that suits the closing of a career far more than the self-seriousness and melodrama of side one. And so “The End”’s guitar battle draws the record together, fighting into the waiting arms of those buoyant strings and McCartney’s famous last words.
Only you can’t count on the Beatles to sign off with so much sincerity. Abbey Road truly ends with the twenty-three-second ditty “Her Majesty,” a goof of a thing about McCartney having a crush on the Queen. “I wanna tell ‘er that I love ‘er a lot, but I gotta getta belly full of wine,” he sings. Cheeky.
I own no vinyl copy of Let It Be, so you’ll be robbed of the experience of hearing me go on and on about “Dig a Pony.” We do have a couple of late singles compilations, though, so we’re not quite out of the Beatles’ woods yet. But, have a little patience. We’ll be singing other songs soon enough.
1. Let It Be, which came out in 1970, was recorded before Abbey Road. Back to post.
2. My dad was a freshman at LSU when Abbey Road was released, back when the dorms that make up the facade of Tiger Stadium’s north side were still inhabited. He remembers someone propping cabinet speakers in their dorm windows just above the student entrance that fall, and everyone singing along to “Come Together,” changing the “toe-jam football” line to “We got Tiger football.” That story always gives me a chill for some reason. Back to post.