Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rank 'em: Abbey Road, The Beatles

No. 1.

OK, I mean... the list is only seven items including this one. Of course this is going to rank No. 1. Let's just update the list, then I'll get into specifics:

1. Abbey Road, The Beatles
2. Sandinista, The Clash
4. Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
5. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club
6. Son of Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
7. 311, 311

This was the last album the Beatles recorded together. Although Let It Be was completed mere weeks before they hit the studio in 1969 for what would become Abbey Road, the band released this album in October 1969 and Let It Be in May 1970.

If anyone's seen the movie of Let It Be, it's a sad peek at the disintegration of the greatest rock band ever (and what is almost certain to remain the greatest rock band of all time).

This album is the first Beatles album I purchased. Of course it has great sentimental value but it's truly an amazing work of art across the board. The Beatles had nothing to prove by 1969. They were so far beyond what any group would ever experience. Every breath was pioneering.

Some people like to argue how great the Beach Boys were. Good band, but they never grew. The Beatles could have cashed check after check after check signing variations of "She Loves You" but they kept pushing themselves and the form. It's kind of astonishing to think that if they'd never existed before today and started releasing their music, they'd be every bit as critically acclaimed and commercially viable as they were 50 years ago. The music is timeless -- very few bands release anything as good today, and none better.

The album opens with Come Together, a Lennon piece with a funky vibe and obscure lyrics that seemed to be a continuation of the heavy themes first tackled on the White album. The Beatles' incredible versatility is on display here. The darkness hinted at in the album opener would be revisited in a couple of other songs, but interestingly, there's more light than dark on this album. But it was a dark time. 1968 had seen political assassinations, the widening of the war in Vietnam, the election of Nixon, and 1969 brought more. Yes, you had Woodstock. You also had Altamont. And Charlie Manson, the band's worst fan.

A great, intriguing song.

Something was a revelation that showcased the burgeoning songwriting skills of George Harrison. Two of his greatest compositions would have hallowed places on this album. George had contributed a few excellent songs through the years -- Taxman, If I Needed Someone, While My Guitar Gently Weeps leap to mind -- but anyone would remain dwarfed in the enormous shadow that was Lennon-McCartney.

But Something hinted at the creative strength Harrison had developed and would soon reveal with All Things Must Pass.

George was never a fantastic songwriter. But he was good and Something was the best thing he'd ever done... until it was eclipsed five songs later on Abbey Road.

Paul's first song on the album, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, was by some accounts a pain in the ass. Perfectionist Paul apparently could not be satisfied with the cut, and the already tense situation among the bandmates was not eased by recording this one. The final piece has some great George Martin touches... the final verse has an incredible organ countermelody embedded; sublime. I am drawn to it every time.

This is without a doubt the best song about a serial killer ever written. So dark... but Lennon called it "granny music." When I had a few days as a substitute music teacher, I should have played this for the kiddies.

Paul has then and since caught a ton of shit for being Paul. If anyone tells you Paul McCartney is a lightweight or can't rock, play them Oh Darling. Then tell them to shut the fuck up.

Story goes that Paul smoked up and worked to rag out his voice to record the vocals for Oh Darling. He rips it, hard. The tune is catchy enough, but it's Paul's vocals that make this song. The music itself is kind of simple. Granny music my ass. Paul is an elite talent and wrote a ton of superb songs, many that rock really hard (Helter Skelter, Why Don't We Do It In The Road). Macca kicks major ass with this one.

Ringo even got a winner on this album. Octopus' Garden is credited to Ringo, and to this day remains one of the most delightful, fun songs ever written. Kids love this song. Even old kids. Starr's persona as the happy-go-lucky guy was confirmed with Garden. No one doesn't like this song.

My favorite track on Abbey Road closed side one of the "album" -- I Want You (She's So Heavy). This is a Lennon "love song" to Yoko and it's also so heavy, and very very dark. The repeated phrasing and playing drones on and on, carrying the listener away on a scary late-night ride. You can't stop. You don't know where you're going. You don't know if it's going to be OK. But on you go. The pace picks up. The focus narrows. The sound grows louder and louder and louder. Still you go.

This song is about as far from the silly love songs of 1962 that one can go... a complete 180 from the lightness and sunshine that the band hit with just a few years prior. In a lot of ways this song echoes the transfer from hope and optimism of their early songs and JFK-era positivity to the mood in 1969 of the end of the hippie dream, the dark side of drugs, war and violence... It's probably the Beatles' most underappreciated masterpiece.

As the song unrolls over almost eight minutes, the listener wants to grab hold of something for the coming impact. So of course, the song ends with a sharp cut and you're left to figure it all out all by yourself. And then the album side was up.

It was incredibly harrowing and jarring. The album was released just weeks after the Manson murders. I had just enough inkling of the times to know that there was a mood of things getting black and bad, and no one who thought they had the answer of peace and love felt so sure any more. The song slams against the wall, it's over, and further, you have to get up and turn the album over. I Want You (She's So Heavy) is perfect on many levels. John always did want people to think.

Flipping the album, George was back and the atmosphere lightened completely. Here Comes The Sun was the hand held out to pick you up from the wreckage of I Want You (She's So Heavy). For all the incredible, sweet charmers that Lennon and McCartney had produced, George played this card and stunned the world.

This is such a happy, hopeful song. As I write this now, and through many listens in my life, I often tear up at the simple beauty of this song. In My Life does it to me every time, too.

George didn't write many songs as good as this in his post-Beatles work.

Sometimes I wonder what we all lost when those cancer sticks took George, or that asshole took John. Whatever it was, it was significant.

Throughout Abbey Road, the Beatles seemed to put aside their issues with one another and a world that just wouldn't let them be just long enough to show everyone how magical their collective gifts were.

The harmonies on Because, set against the backdrop of Martin's harpsichord, are breathtaking. In a way, that blend of voices from John, Paul and George were one of the band's greatest achievements.

The beauty continues with the next 16 minutes of song snippets that were incredibly fused by the band and the genius Martin. You Never Give Me Your Money's sensitive piano opening, augmented by soulful guitar accompaniment and Paul's lovely lyrics... so pretty. And then the song shifts gears, getting jazzy and upbeat, before closing with some tasty drumming by Ringo, an epic guitar signature by George, and then as the song fades with the countdown verse ("1,2,3,4,5,6,7, All good children go to heaven"), some kickass soloing from John.

The song blends into a John piece, Sun King. It's kind of a playful workout, but things come fast and furious from here on in... King is followed by Mean Mr. Mustard, another typically quirky Lennon piece, as is Polythene Pam. John was into the Yoko thing and pretty fed up with the Beatles trip, but the old soul had plenty left in the tank when he wanted to kick out the jams. This was John's band, after all.

The entire sequence lets everyone show off a bit, and then they hand the thing off. It works. After a nice jam to end Pam, Paul takes the baton with She Came In Through The Bathroom Window. Guitars carry the song, and Ringo drives the bus.

Ringo is so underrated. The Beatles probably still would have been huge with Pete Best. But Ringo was the even-handed backbeat that kept it all together. In a few minutes, he'd get his due.

Golden Slumbers is next, after a somewhat conventional "end" in the run with Window.

Did Paul know it was over? I think what makes us fans ache at the end of this band was the things they seemed to tell us as Abbey Road wound down. The lyrics for Slumbers ("Sleep pretty darling do not cry / and I will sing a lullaby") and the next song, Carry That Weight, seem to be saying goodbye.

But they weren't going to end it on a downer.

The End is a kickass jam, begun by Ringo's amazing drum solo. Then Paul, George and John play solos. Epic solos.

I mean... these guys could do anything.

And of course, they wrap the song with some of the most quoted lyrics of all time, delivered in that astonishing three-part harmony: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.

As we catch our breath, they send one last kiss: A cute little snippet called Her Majesty

And then it was over. By the time Let It Be hit a few months later, the band was done, and everyone knew it, although no one wanted to believe it.

I rank my songs on iTunes. I gave Her Majesty four stars out of four; everything else gets five. This album is one of the greatest pieces of art ever gifted to humanity.

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