When The Beatles released their final studio album, Let It Be, it was met with a sense of ennui. The reaction was not that the album was bad, but disappointing, a sad epitaph to the most influential band in pop music. Yet fans of the fab four needed not believe that The Beatles went quietly into the night. Though Let It Be was the final album they released, in a strange twist, the final album they recorded was thankfully Abbey Road.
Released half a century ago on 26 September 1969 in the UK, Abbey Road was where The Beatles believed they would end their musical output. Producer George Martin called it a “very happy record”, supposing this was due to everyone thinking this was the end. There is no uniting concept to Abbey Road, allowing each member to express themselves to their fullest extent, shown clearly in the album’s best-known songs.
‘Here Comes The Sun’ proved Harrison’s as a songwriter with able to compete with Lennon-McCartney, and his ‘Something’ was so transcendent that Frank Sinatra believed it the greatest love song yet written. ‘Come Together’ allowed Lennon to express his pop rock adoration and is the perfect album opener. Meanwhile McCartney’s lead role in the medley and his vocals in ‘Oh! Darling’ were characteristic of his boundless talent.
Abbey Road is an album without pretensions, something which disappointed contemporary critics on its release. This carefree attitude of some parts only adds to the album. McCartney had to push hard even for the other Beatles to accept ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, which Lennon thought was “more of Paul’s granny music”. Despite it causing conflict, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is typical of McCartney’s more jovial side, which was so loved in ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. Either way it adds a levity which is needed between songs like ‘Something’ and ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’. Even the much-maligned ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is a lovely repose from the rest of the album.
Abbey Road is an album without pretensions
Of course, Abbey Road was an unqualified success, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and being one of the best-selling albums of all time. Even today the power of The Beatles remains strong, as, on its 50th birthday, Abbey Road has once again returned to number one. It has broken the record for the longest time before returning to the top, beating The Beatles’ own Sgt Pepper. Forbes have given estimates that this year alone The Beatles have had 1.7 billion Spotify streams, with 30% of these coming from 18-24 year-olds. Among this same age group the most popular Beatles track is ‘Yesterday’, while for the 55+ demographic it is ‘Norwegian Wood’, make of that what you will.
It may be a truism that The Beatles are successful par excellence, being perhaps the most enduring pop culture symbol ever. Their dominance over music is likewise immense. When Rolling Stone published their ‘500 Greatest Albums’, it was no surprise that four of the top 10 were Beatles albums. What was a little surprising is that Abbey Road is only at 14, Sgt Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and the white album all take precedence. Yet while Abbey Road lacks the invention of Rubber Soul and Revolver, and the cohesion of Sgt Pepper, it provides what no other Beatles album does: a satisfying end.
Nothing typifies the spirit in which Abbey Road was recorded than ‘The End’, which is really the penultimate song before ‘Her Majesty’. The recording of ‘The End’ was the final time all four Beatles recorded together. All four get solos, with even Ringo getting a rare drum solo. ‘The End’ even finishes with one of the most famous Beatles’ lines: “And in the end, the love you take/ is equal to the love you make”. McCartney credited Shakespeare for inspiring him to end on a couplet, and if any bad could imitate Shakespeare and not seem self-indulgent, it was The Beatles.
As Shakespeare bids farewell to the stage in The Tempest (“As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.”) So The Beatles look for their freedom in Abbey Road. If any band deserves our applause, our indulgence, then it is The Beatles as they sign off in Abbey Road.