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Happy 40th Birthday To Abbey Road
Author: Robert Benson

Robert writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates ""

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Happy 40th Birthday To Abbey Road

It was forty years ago, on October 1, 1969, that music history was made, it was when the Beatles released the iconic LP called Abbey Road in the US (it released on September 26 in the UK). Most of the recording was done between July 2 and August 1 of that same year, it was a time when the Fab Four were at their worst, as personal issues were now getting in the way of the creative process of songwriting.

Paul McCartney had suggested to producer George Martin that the group get together and make an album "the way we used to do," and although the group had been seemingly going their separate ways, Martin agreed, but insisted that he would be allowed to do it his way. Somewhat reluctantly, all four agreed, and in later interviews the surviving band members stated that they knew at the time that this would be the Beatles final production and therefore agreed to put aside their differences and "go out on a high note."

Abbey Road has since become one of the most successful Beatles' albums of all time, being certified by the RIAA as 12x platinum. In the UK, the album debuted at #1, staying in that position for eleven straight weeks before being knocked down to #2 by the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album for a week before reclaiming the top spot for another six week run at the top. In the UK, Abbey Road was the best selling album of 1969 and the forth best seller for the decade.

Abbey Road
"Abbey Road" Album Cover

In the US, the album debuted at #178, they quickly moved up to #4 and by the third week on the charts it went to the top spot for eleven consecutive weeks. In total, Abbey Road spent an amazing 129 weeks on the Billboard 200, even re-entering the charts at #69 on November 14, 1987 when it was released for the first time on CD. When the band broke up, Abbey Road had sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and was the first Beatles' album to top the 10 million mark in sales worldwide (it reached that plateau in 1980).

The Beatles, as a band, were no longer one cohesive unit, there were petty differences and these just seemed to escalate as the end of the Beatles was known to all; yet somehow the band were clearly in their musical prime, writing songs and music that would help define their respective careers. The Beatles had set the bar very high and delivered this legendary music despite the strained conditions. The result is an album filled with inventive melodies, innovation and an apparent culmination of their brilliance and just reinforced their status as the world's best rock and roll band.

Working with an eight-track tape machine for the first time, Martin and the band recorded the songs at three different recording studios, Trident, Olympic and of course, Abbey Road. It's also the only Beatles' album to be recording utilizing the eight track and the first to be mixed entirely on a solid state soundboard. The album was produced by George Martin, engineered by Geoff Emerick with assistance from Alan Parsons; with the tape operator being Tony Banks. Additionally, a moog synthesizer was prominently featured, not only for background effect, but sometimes playing a central role in the song. Let's explore some of the cuts from this creative and iconic album:

Come Together

The album opens with the prophetic John Lennon composition and the chorus was inspired by a song that Lennon had originally written for Timothy Leary's campaign for governor of California. "Come Together, Join The Party" was Leary's campaign slogan (a reference to the drug culture he supported) and was the original title of the song, however Leary never had much of a campaign, but the slogan gave Lennon the idea for this song.

In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said: "The thing was created in the studio. It's gobbledygook. 'Come Together' was an expression that Tim Leary had come up with for (perhaps for the governorship of California against Reagan), and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and I tried, but I couldn't come up with one. But I came up with this, 'Come Together,' which would've been no good to him - you couldn't have a campaign song like that, right?"

After Timothy Leary decided against using this song for his political campaign Lennon added these nonsense lyrics and brought it to the Abbey Road sessions. Paul McCartney recalled in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs: "I said, 'Let's slow it down with a swampy bass-and-drums vibe.' I came up with a bass line, and it all flowed from there." It was also the last time all 4 Beatles cut a song together.

It has been speculated that the verses, described by Lennon as intentionally obscure, refer cryptically to each of the Beatles (e.g. "he's one holy roller" allegedly refers to the spiritually inclined George Harrison, "he wear no shoeshine," may be in reference to Paul not wearing shoes on the cover); however, it has also been suggested that the song has only a single "pariah-like protagonist" and Lennon was "painting another sardonic self-portrait."

The song was later the subject of a lawsuit brought against Lennon by Morris Levy because the opening line in "Come Together" "Here come old flat-top" was admittedly lifted from a line in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me". Interestingly, there have been all sorts of meanings that people have concocted from the lyrics including: The whispered lyric that sounds like "shoot" is actually Lennon saying "shoot me" followed by a handclap. The bass line drowns out the "me."

When rumors were spreading that Paul McCartney was dead, some fans thought the line "One and one and one is three" meant that only George, John and Ringo were left. The line "Got to be good lookin' cuz he's so hard to see" was supposed to be Paul's spirit.


"Come Together" was also paired with the George Harrison cut "Something", which peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts. It's also the only song written by George Harrison released as a single by The Beatles. Harrison wrote this during a break while they were working on The White Album; however it was not recorded in time for the album, so Harrison gave the song to Joe Cocker, but Cocker didn't release it until after The Beatles did. "Something" was Lennon's favorite song on the album, and McCartney considered it the best song Harrison had written. Frank Sinatra once commented that "Something" was his favorite Lennon/McCartney song (not knowing it was a Harrison composition) and "the greatest love song ever written."

Harrison came up with the title after listening to a James Taylor song called "Something In The Way She Moves." Taylor was signed to Apple Records (The Beatles label) at the time. The inspiration for the song has long been debated, was it written for Harrison's wife, Pattie, (Harrison claimed he did not have anyone in mind when he wrote it) or was the original intent meant as a song of devotion to Lord Krishna?

In her 2007 book Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, Pattie Boyd wrote: "George wrote a song called Something. He told me in a matter-of-fact way that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than 150 cover versions. George's favorite version was the one by James Brown. Mine was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in our kitchen. But, in fact, by then our relationship was in trouble. Since a trip to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India in 1968, George had become obsessive about meditation."

"Something" and "Come Together" spent one week at #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart when the compilers of the chart changed its ranking method and stopped giving separate rankings for the two sides of a single. At least 150 cover versions exist. The only Beatles song that has been covered more is "Yesterday." As a tribute to George Harrison, Paul McCartney played a version of this on his 2002 tour using a ukulele George had given him.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Certainly one of the more interesting Beatles' songs, this was written by Paul McCartney (although it is credited to Lennon/McCartney, Lennon hated the cut). Although some have suggested that the song may be about the Charles Manson murders, this was impossible, because the Tate-La Bianca murders occurred on August 8-9, 1969, after the song was recorded. McCartney would often make up characters for his songs, while Lennon would base his on real people and events.

The cut is a vaudevillian-style song is about a medical student named Maxwell Edison, who uses his silver hammer to murder his girlfriend Joan, then his teacher, and finally the judge during his murder trial. Despite the grim subject matter, the song is bouncy and upbeat. McCartney said in 1994 that it merely epitomizes the downfalls of life:

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is my analogy for when something goes wrong out of the blue, as it so often does, as I was beginning to find out at that time in my life. I wanted something symbolic of that, so to me it was some fictitious character called Maxwell with a silver hammer. I don't know why it was silver, it just sounded better than Maxwell's hammer. It was needed for scanning. We still use that expression now when something unexpected happens."

Paul tried hard to have this be a single. But the other Beatles refused, so he backed down. By that time the Beatles were only holding on by a thread as it was, and the last thing he wanted was a squabble over what song was going to be released as a single. According to Lennon, the band spent more money on that song than any other on Abbey Road, and he derided the song at the time as a prime example of McCartney's "granny-style" writing. McCartney's handwritten lyrics for this song were sold at auction for $192,000.

Oh! Darling

The basic track was recorded on 20 April 1969, but there were many overdub sessions, including multiple attempts at the lead vocal by McCartney, who would come into the studio early every day for a week to sing the cut, as he explains:

"When we were recording 'Oh! Darling' I came into the studios early every day for a week to sing it by myself because at first my voice was too clear. I wanted it to sound as though I'd been performing it on stage all week."

George Harrison had described the song as "a typical 1950s - '60s-period song because of its chord structure," which appears to have drawn heavily on the New Orleans R&B sounds and the 'swamp rock' sound - so much so that some in Louisiana originally thought the song had been recorded by a local musician. In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said, "'Oh! Darling' was a great one of Paul's that he didn't sing too well. I always thought I could have done it better - it was more my style than his. He wrote it, so what the hell, he's going to sing it."

Octopus's Garden

One of Ringo Starr's finest songs, this was his second (and last) composition released on a Beatles album. As the story goes, it came about when Ringo was on a boating trip with his family in Sardina in 1968. The boat's captain offered him an octopus lunch, but he turned it down. It was then that the captain began to tell him everything he knew about octopuses, and how they travel along the sea bed looking for shiny objects and stones with which to build gardens. With this information, Ringo came up with the idea for this song. With the help of George Harrison, Ringo wrote this during the Let It Be sessions. In fact, they are seen working on it in the movie Let It Be - George rewrote the chord sequence (although Harrison gave full songwriting credit to Starr) A somewhat silly song with a memorable verse and chord structure, the cut is loved for its playful energy or hated by Beatles fans for its child-like silliness. By the way, Ringo made the underwater sounds by blowing bubbles through a glass of water.

I Want You (She's So Heavy)

This was the last song mixed for the album and it is actually a combination of two different recordings, the first was just after the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in February of 1969 and featured Billy Preston on keyboards. This was combined with a second version that was created during the Abbey Road recording session and when edited together, the songs lasts almost eight minutes long (7:47 to be exact). John Lennon wrote this about Yoko. Lennon was experimenting in heavy rock, so the song has few lyrics and long stretches of repeated chords and reveals a pronounced progressive rock influence, with its unusual length and structure, repeating guitar riff, and "white noise" effects; the "I Want You" section has a straightforward blues structure. With the exception of "Revolution 9," this was The Beatles longest song. The guitars were overdubbed many times to get a layered sound.

The cut also features one of the earliest uses of a Moog synthesizer to create the white-noise or "wind" effect heard near the end of the track. George Harrison played the Moog Synthesizer on this track and it is one of the first uses of the instrument, which was custom-made for Harrison. During the final edit, as the guitar riff and white noise effect continues on and on, Lennon told engineer Emerick to "cut it right there" at the 7:44 mark, creating a sudden, jarring silence which concluded side one of Abbey Road. The final overdub session for "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" would be the last time all four Beatles worked in the studio together.

Here Comes The Sun

One of the most famous songs on Abbey Road is the George Harrison cut "Here Comes The Sun." In fact, 1969 was a very difficult year for Harrison: he had been arrested for marijuana possession, he had to have his tonsils removed and he had temporarily quit the band. The song was written while Harrison was away from all of these troubles.

Harrison stated in The Beatles Anthology: "Here Comes the Sun" was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that'. Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton's house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote "Here Comes The Sun."

Harrison sang lead vocals, played acoustic guitar and also used his newly acquired Moog synthesizer on the song. Paul McCartney sang backing vocals and played bass guitar. Ringo Starr played drums, with all three Beatles providing handclaps. Harrison, McCartney and Starr recorded the rhythm track in 13 takes on July, 7, 1969. Towards the end of the session Harrison spent an hour re-recording his acoustic guitar part. The following day he taped his lead vocals, and he and McCartney recorded their backing vocals twice to give a fuller sound. The music begins on the left channel and gradually moves to the right as Harrison's vocal begins. John Lennon did not contribute to the song as he was recovering from a recent car crash.

The album cover is so simplistic, yet so legendary, only the Beatles could have made a simple picture like this into an iconic and often imitated album cover.

"At some point, the album was going to be titled Everest after the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke," recalled Geoff Emerick.

However, taking a picture in the Himalayas proved to be too much, so the group just decided to call it Abbey Road and have the photo taken outside the studio on August 8, 1969. The cover photograph was taken by photographer Iain Macmillan who was given only ten minutes around 11:30 that morning to take the photo on a zebra crossing on Abbey Road. McCartney was bare-footed and out of step with the other three, fueling the speculation that he was indeed dead. The zebra crossing today remains a popular destination for Beatles fans from all over the world.

The Beatles released one more album (Let It Be) before calling it quits. However, Abbey Road remains one of their crowning achievements despite the personal differences between the members of the band. It remains and will forever be one of the most sought after and iconic recordings from the four lads from Liverpool filled with suave harmonies and insatiable, seductive pop rock.

Article by: Robert Benson

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