A Track-by-Track Trek Down ‘Abbey Road’ On Its 50th Anniversary

widescreen crop of the back cover of the Beatles' 'Abbey Road' album which shows the letters of artist and title embedded in a stone wall as a woman walks past
Switching it up on you with the back cover! I happen to like the back cover and it never gets any attention. EMI/Apple Records.

Friends, today we come together to celebrate the 50th birthday of possibly my favorite work of art ever, not counting books, but definitely counting everything else. It was September 26, 1969, when Apple Records released Abbey Road, an album recorded by the Beatles in, not coincidentally, EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, on Abbey Road, Westminster, London.

They thought of calling it Everest and having a photo shoot in the Himalayas. Instead, they shot the cover on the street outside the studio, and named the album accordingly. To this day tourists hold up traffic, trying to recreate that cover, and there’s even a live cam watching them (scroll down).

This would be the last album the Greatest Band of All Time would make together (Let It Be would come out the following spring, but had actually been recorded earlier this year), and it was, and is, a masterpiece, a perfect note to go out on (with random accidental epilogue). So let me take you on a track-by-track trek down Abbey Road, with both objective facts* and my own subjective-but-absolutely-true-because-of-course-they-are opinions!

SIDE 1

1. “Come Together”: Timothy Leary asked John Lennon to write him a political campaign song based on the slogan “Come Together,” but John ended up riffing on a Chuck Berry song and turning it into a nonsense lyric that had nothing whatsoever to do with anybody’s political campaign. John’s actually saying “shoot me” in the introduction which is really creepy in retrospect. One weird little thing I like is that George is clearly playing the same guitar on this and on “Something,” coming up next—you can hear its voice, it’s like it just goes on to a new song. I like being able to recognize a specific instrument by its own voice.

2. “Something”: George Harrison’s first (and only) A-side single for the Beatles, and they still didn’t have the humility to give it to him completely: it came out as a “double A-side” with “Come Together.” HONESTLY, GUYS. There was that problem you have when you grow up with somebody—George was the youngest, and Paul especially (they’d met in elementary school) couldn’t stop seeing him as his little buddy long enough to realize how good he’d gotten at songwriting on his own. Then George handed them this, possibly the greatest love song ever recorded, and nobody could deny it anymore. Though Frank Sinatra was apparently fond of performing this song and referring to it as his “favorite Lennon/McCartney.” James Taylor had recorded a song called “Something In the Way She Moves” on the Beatles’ own label, Apple Records—produced by Paul McCartney—the year before. George got the line into his head and took it off in a completely different direction.

3. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”: Paul McCartney had plans for this song to be a great work of art, perhaps their next single, and kept pressing for perfection and completely boring the others, who, well, didn’t agree. It’s kind of a product of its time, a super-clean (style-wise) heavily-symbolic absurdist story song about a serial killer, that the Mods were all for but never made much of an impact with the general public. But Ringo did get to play an actual anvil, so that’s fun.

4. “Oh! Darling”: This track has the distinction of being the first song I ever performed at a proper public karaoke. It’s also the first song on this album that the Beatles worked on as a band, back when they were working on the Get Back album (the Let It Be album’s working title), though they then set it aside for half a year. When they did pick it back up, Paul’s perfectionism set in again, but luckily for the others he put the pressure only on himself, coming in early for days on end to record take after take of the lead vocal until he had a sound he was satisfied with.

5. “Octopus’s Garden”: Though he tended to sing lead vocals on one song per album, this is one of only two songs Ringo Starr actually wrote for the Beatles himself (the other is “Don’t Pass Me By” from the White Album). He saw it as a sort of sequel to “Yellow Submarine.” The guys had fun making bubble sound effects for this one using both audio mixing effects and plain old glasses of water with straws in them.

6. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”: Like “Oh! Darling,” they started this during the Get Back sessions, in February, but over the next six months they just kept remixing, overdubbing, and adding to the track to make a more “massive sound,” as can be heard toward the end, as the same few bars repeat over and over, getting louder and noisier each time. The ending repeats exactly 15 times before abruptly stopping in the middle of the phrase.

That’s where Side One ends if you’re listening on vinyl. Abruptly cut off in the middle of a musical phrase. It makes for a more dramatic effect to end the whole side that way rather than going on to the first track of Side Two, as a CD would have you do, but on the other hand, the first track of Side Two starts so quietly and gently that the contrast still works.

SIDE 2

To be honest, though Abbey Road is my favorite album, Side 2 is actually my favorite album side. When I lived with my parents’ vinyl collection, I’d play Side 2 over and over. It starts with my favorite song ever and slides into a soundscape that cumulates in the most perfect ending of all time (and random accidental epilogue). Abbey Road Side TWO is my desert-island disk.

7. “Here Comes The Sun”: No seriously, listen. This is THE MOST PERFECT SONG EVER RECORDED. That’s an objective statement. There is not a single note, a single instrumentation, a single handclap out of place. Ringo never gets enough credit as a drummer, but I’ve heard people play this song without the drummer putting in those little triplet fills where the time changes, and it just loses something! Thematically, you can actually hear the sun rising in the way the song builds from a single acoustic guitar into warm layers of instrumentation. George wrote it while hiding out in Eric Clapton’s backyard instead of attending another horrible Apple Records business meeting. The song took less than three sessions to perfect, and because John had recently been injured in a car accident and happened to be off recuperating still for those three sessions, there are also only three Beatles on the recording.

8. “Because”: John claims he was listening to Yoko play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and simply decided to “turn the chords inside out” to write this one. It’s not an accurate description of the chords, but the similarity in style is certainly there. The hypnotic arpeggios are paired up with three-way harmonies in triplicate—in that they recorded the vocals three times and layered them overtop of each other—giving it all the feel of a heavenly choir.

9. “You Never Give Me Your Money”: I always thought the title sounded sarcastic, along the lines of Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money,” and yet it starts with this gorgeous sad little piano bit (Paul McCartney isn’t known as a piano player, not like, say, Billy Joel or Elton John, but it’s what he does on the piano that kills me time and again. Put Paul McCartney and a piano together—my two favorite voices, human and instrumental!—and I’m done for, even if it’s just a couple bars of repeated eighth notes, see number 16 below), and then goes into lyrics that aren’t about greed and entitlement, but the frustration and confusion of these creative 20-somethings trying to navigate the business side of the recording industry and (as hinted at by George’s business-meeting avoidance two songs ago) hating it. Huh.

Anyway, though I feel Side Two makes a beautiful whole in its entirety, this song officially kicks off The Medley. They had a bunch of partial bits of songs, and Paul suggested that, instead of struggling to complete them each individually, they should string them together and make something bigger out of them. John thought it was pretentious, but he was wrong, because The Medley is the greatest thing ever, and as many times as I’ve listened to it I still have to stop whatever else I’m doing to lose myself in it/play air drums. It’s happening again right now. That’s what I get for trying to listen to my favorite album and type at the same time.

From the beginning, certain songs were always going to go together and were even recorded that way: “Sun King” and “Mean Mr Mustard,” “Polythene Pam” and “Bathroom Window,” and “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.” Beyond that there was still some shuffling and some uncertainty over transitions. It took a long time to figure out this transition, which is mostly tape loops of cricket noises, and is such a subtle transition that The Medley can theoretically break here and divide into Sub-Medleys, which I’ve indicated below by numbering the tracks differently:

10-13. “Sun King”: Working title “Here Comes the Sun King,” which they obviously couldn’t stick with since there was a completely different (and much better) song on the album with almost the same title already. The foreign-sounding words at the end are exactly what they sound like: complete nonsense that just sounds somewhat magical by being only occasionally in English.

“Mean Mr Mustard”: Mr Mustard’s sister was originally named “Shirley,” but they changed it to “Pam” when they put it into the medley to give the whole thing a bit more continuity, because apparently Mr Mustard’s sister dresses in polythene when not taking her brother on outings. The bit about the queen was originally going to tie it to “Her Majesty,” too.

Polythene Pam“: John had met an avant-garde woman dressed in a plastic bag at a party and couldn’t get over it until he wrote it into a song. He only managed to turn it into a bit of a song, so now it’s part of The Medley. One might note that John’s compositional contributions to The Medley (“Sun King,” “Mustard,” and “Pam”) are the least substantial bits, so maybe that’s why he was always more salty about the endeavor than the others.

“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”: But it is kind of cool that this and “Pam” were immediately put together and recorded as one, considering that one was John’s and this one was Paul’s and they never actually wrote songs together anymore, so it’s kind of a throwback to the old days. There isn’t really a proper transition between this and the next, which makes the next Sub-Medley the part most people think of as “the Abbey Road Medley,” if one must pick and choose:

14-16. “Golden Slumbers”: More piano, Paul, I love you. The refrain is based on a poem in a book of nursery rhymes he found on his dad’s piano. Here’s the shocking thing: none of the Beatles actually ever learned to read music. They did it all by ear, I’m freaking serious. But Paul was staring at this nursery rhyme, unable to read the music and unable to remember it if he ever had heard it, so he gave up and wrote his own music for it instead. And now most people know this melody instead of the original. Sorry, original “Golden Slumbers.”

“Carry That Weight”: My dad had put this Sub-Medley “Abbey Road Medley” on a mix tape I’d listened to long before I listened to Abbey Road proper, and so I didn’t realize that a good portion of this is actually a reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money” for years.

“The End”: This is Ringo’s only drum solo in the history of the Beatles. He hated drum solos. He had to be coerced into even doing this one, which is short and simple and barely even seems like a drum solo. But everybody has a solo in this ending, actually, which makes it kind of a perfect taking-of-bows song. The three guitarists have a three-way guitar duel: it rotates from Paul, George, to John and around, and you can really hear their individual styles in each part, too, like a conversation. AND THEN, John’s last solo grinds down and all that’s left are some simple repeated piano notes, and one last line, like a final proclamation to the world, “and, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” THAT IS THE WAY YOU END A ROCK BAND. THAT IS THE END!

Um, except it’s not.

17. “Her Majesty”: originally was going between “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” but when they cut a trial run of the entire medley, they decided it didn’t really fit. Paul told the engineer just to cut it out and pitch it. Cuts were literal cuts of tape back pre-digital, and the engineer didn’t feel right just throwing it away, so he stuck it, after some empty space, onto the end of the cut… and it got accidentally included in a trial pressing. But the Beatles liked the randomness, the surprise, of it, so when they recorded the official final mix of the whole thing… they left “Her Majesty” there. It’s like a last little wink. “Psych! You thought we were gone, but we’re not! We’re still here! The greatness never ends!

*Primary sources referred to for accuracy here are Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: Recording Sessions and The Beatles Anthology.

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