How does one begin a discussion on one of music’s most prominent creations? Well, the easiest way to start it off is to comment on the topic’s unapproachability. That way, the critic can gently remind the readers that the topic they’re writing on is, indeed, expansive, and that the critic is in a unique position of being clearly and conspicuously beneath the topic they’re discussing. It’s been 50 years, what more could anyone say about “Abbey Road”?
And yet, I’ve got a word quota to fill and an editorial itch to scratch, so I’ll take the time to discuss the album and its significance — even to someone as ill-informed as myself. Last Thursday, Sept. 26, was the 50th anniversary of the release of “Abbey Road” in the U.K., and this Tuesday, Oct. 1, commemorates the anniversary of the American release.
“Abbey Road,” while undoubtedly the most recognizable record from The Beatles, isn’t their most influential. That accolade goes to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which set the standard for the concept album and broke The Beach Boys, among many other important things for music as a whole.
Again, though, in terms of recognizability, you can’t beat “Abbey Road.” The album art — depicting all four band members crossing a street — is iconic. The record opens with “Come Together,” arguably the most recognizable Beatles song ever. The album is actually a bit less adventurous and experimental than the records that preceded it, but it’s an incredibly cohesive and — let’s face it — timeless listening experience.
I don’t care how uncomfortable you may be with the utter ubiquitousness The Beatles possess in modern music culture: they’re not “overrated.” They’re rated precisely as they should be, because every single one of your favorite musical acts is influenced in some way by The Beatles, and many modern strains of music simply wouldn’t exist if the fab four had never met.
“Abbey Road” is also the band’s final record. While “Let It Be” was released afterward, “Abbey Road” was the last album the band recorded, and it ends fittingly on a track called “The End,” a two-minute track in which the bandmates take turns with guitar solos (including a rare drum solo from Ringo Starr) and ending with the line, “And in the end / the love you take / is equal to the love / you make.” It genuinely gives me goosebumps every time. They were all fed up with each other at that point, but their ability to give such a heartwarming goodbye cements the song’s legend.
It is the final Beatles track, and the solos foreshadow the directions that each of them would take after their breakup. Fittingly, their final song establishes each member’s individuality, as if to say, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be over. There’s four of us and we each love music in our own rights. The love will go on.” But everyone knew something important and inimitable had ended.
The rest of “Abbey Road” is no less rewarding (nor somewhat melancholic). The first half of the record showcases a few solid cuts, including the enduring George Harrison jam “Here Comes the Sun” and the Ringo-indulgent “Octopus’s Garden.” We also see the duality of Paul McCartney through the macabre, cutesie, hated-by-Lennon “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the pining, desperate “Oh! Darling.” John Lennon brings us into the second half of the record with “I Want You (She’s so Heavy),” which approaches eight minutes and is constructed in two parts, the latter of which drowns us in guitar fuzz before melting into the soft acoustics of “Here Comes the Sun” on side B.
But speaking of side B, the bulk of it forms the “Abbey Road Medley,” one of my favorite musical inventions. Spanning from “You Never Give Me Your Money” to the end of the record, the medley plays like a big 15-minute song in which all of the short, punchy tracks that make it up (constructed from unfinished songs that McCartney and Lennon both had lying around) seamlessly transition into one another. It’s the definition of cohesion and an incredibly engaging listen. Some of my favorite-ever Beatles jams come from this medley (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which all run sequentially, as if arranged by Christ Himself).
Even if it’s no “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the release showcases The Beatles at their best. Despite the growing tension in the studio, you still get moments that illustrate the unbreakable bonds the bandmates all had (like Paul’s little laugh in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” reportedly because John had been making funny faces in the studio).
“Abbey Road” is flawless pop rock and a perfect bow from The Beatles. If for no other reason, it’s important in that it heralded the end of an era. The Beatles hadn’t been active for even a decade, but in that time they had changed the landscape of music and laid the foundations for entirely new genres. That came to an end in “Abbey Road.”
And yet, there’s one last song after “The End.” Called “Her Majesty,” it’s a silly, 20-second ditty featuring just Paul and an acoustic guitar singing about a girl and wine, and it only exists because of a sound engineer’s orders to never delete any studio recordings from any of The Beatles.
It famously cuts off just before Paul strums the final chord, and though you can find a version with the final note online these days, for decades that was how the last Beatles album bowed-out: without a proper end.
That unfinished tune hangs in the air as the needle slips into the inner groove, a reminder that maybe good things never truly end. The Beatles would all go on to enjoy successful and (in some cases) influential solo careers, and their music is enjoyed and learned from to this day. Though the band members never met in a studio again, their music never disappeared. Nor did their influence, their art, their love — it’s existed for half a century and probably will for another.
If you’ve gone this long without hearing “Abbey Road,” I’d implore you to change that today. If you’re a Beatles devotee, it couldn’t hurt to give the record yet another spin. One hopes they’ll never hear that final note. It hurts to know that it exists somewhere, but when you spin the wax it always stops short. The music goes on, somewhere. It always will.