Prior to late September 1969, most people in the world were blissfully unaware that Abbey Road was the location of EMI’s London recording studios. Some keen fans may have spotted the name in news reports of The Beatles’ activities, but this was a time when it was of little importance to most fans where something was recorded. Ironically, given the album’s title, not all of Abbey Road was recorded at Abbey Road, and, in truth, the title is as much about the street and the zebra crossing outside as it is about the studio itself.
But when all is said and done, the album is for many, including this writer, the absolute pinnacle of the band’s achievements. All this, despite having been recorded as the band was breaking up amid internal strife and bitterness.
Abbey Road was The Beatles’ 11th studio album and the very last to be recorded (their 12th – and last-released – studio album, Let It Be, was mostly recorded prior to this record). Rolling Stone magazine called it “complicated instead of complex”, while Nik Cohn, writing in The New York Times, suggested that “individually” the songs are “nothing special”, The Guardian called the album “a slight matter”, and the Detroit Free Press suggested, “We expected inventiveness. We got a good LP.”
However, Chris Welch, writing in Melody Maker, felt just the opposite: “The truth is, their latest LP is just a natural born gas, entirely free of pretension, deep meanings or symbolism.” Similarly enthusiastic, The Record Mirror said that Abbey Road was “every bit as good as the last three” albums by the group. History, too, has been much kinder, with many now citing this as their favourite Beatles album.
What is it that makes Abbey Road a masterpiece? Well, the breadth of the musical vision, the sheer scale of the band’s collective musical imagination, and the audacity of it all, at a time when The Beatles were coming to the end of their time together.
And then there are the two George Harrison masterpieces, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’; both rank alongside the best songs the band ever recorded. Of the former, uDiscover’s Martin Chilton, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says “it’s almost impossible not to sing along to” – and he’s right.
‘Something’ is sublime, the perfect love song and John Lennon’s favourite track on the album. Often prior to performing it in concert, Frank Sinatra would describe it as “the greatest love song ever written” (while also erroneously saying it was his favourite “Lennon and McCartney composition”).
Side Two’s 15-minute “medley” begins with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, a Paul McCartney song. It transitions beautifully into ‘Sun King’, which was written by John and features John, Paul, and George’s impeccable harmonies. From there the medley runs into two more Lennon songs, ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’ (both written in India). Then it’s a quadruple shot from McCartney: ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’, the beautiful ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘Carry That Weight’ (which includes elements from ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’), before the medley closes with ‘The End’.
Opinion is divided among some fans and critics about some of the remaining tracks. However, there is no disputing the power, no denying the magnificence, of two of John Lennon’s compositions. ‘Come Together’ is one of the great opening tracks on any album. Likewise, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ just takes the band to a place they had never been before… towering.
The songs not entirely recorded at Abbey Road were ‘Something’, which features some overdubs recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes, West London. For ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ the band recorded the rhythm track in February 1969, at Trident Studios in Soho’s Wardour Street, where a composite of the song was then assembled. Work continued on the song until August (including a session on 8 August, when the album’s cover shoot also took place), as recordings were added to the original Trident tape; the finished song, completed at Abbey Road, was another composite made from two versions of the song. Meanwhile, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ was started at Olympic in May 1969, and then finished at Abbey Road over a number of sessions in July and August.
Abbey Road is far greater than the sum of its parts, a record that, more than any other Beatles album, stands the test of time when played as a whole. It is not an album to cherry-pick tracks on random play – this is one to put on, to luxuriate in ‘Come Together’, and to finish with a smile on your face as Paul sings about Her Majesty being “a pretty nice girl” on the closing, “hidden” track.
Scroll down to read 10 things you probably didn’t know about Abbey Road, and purchase the album here.
• George Harrison was sitting in the garden of Eric Clapton’s country house when he began writing ‘Here Comes The Sun’.
• All four Beatles were together in the recording studio for the last time on 20 August 1969, when they finalised a mix of Abbey Road.
• According to George Harrison, the guitar parts on ‘Sun King’ was inspired by the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s big hit single, ‘Albatross’.
• The word “pataphysical”, as heard in ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, came from the French avant-garde writer Alfred Jarry, who died in 1907. Paul became interested in his writing and discovered “pataphysics” (defined by Jarry as the “science of imaginary solutions”) in one of the writer’s later works.
• ‘Come Together’ was banned by the BBC in 1969 because it mentions Coca-Cola and the company had a policy against product placement in songs broadcast on the radio.
• ‘Octopus’s Garden’, written by Ringo Starr, was inspired while he was on board Peter Sellers’ yacht in the Mediterranean. The boat’s captain told Ringo how octopuses gather stones and shiny objects from the sea bed to build gardens.
• According to John Lennon, he asked Yoko Ono to play the chords to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ backwards to create ‘Because’. This is not entirely accurate, but it is very close to the overall sound of The Beatles’ song.
• As Ringo explained, the idea of the Side Two medley was born out of necessity: “John and Paul had various bits, and so we recorded them and put them together. A lot of work went into it. That last section is, for me, one of the finest pieces we put together.” Paul embraced the idea enthusiastically. “It gave the second side a sort of operatic structure, which was quite nice because it got rid of all these songs in a good way.”
• ‘She Came In Through the Bathroom Window’ was inspired by an incident when one of the Apple Scruffs (the girls who hung about outside The Beatles’ office) climbed in to McCartney’s house via the bathroom window. She then let in some of the other girls, who stole photos and clothes.
• Some of the lyrics for ‘Golden Slumbers’ are based on ‘Cradle Song’, a poem and lullaby from Thomas Dekker’s 1603 comedy, Patient Grissel. McCartney saw the sheet music, left by his stepsister Ruth, on the piano at his father’s home in Liverpool.