Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Last week Thompson stumped us with a musical riddle that had sixties British rock and pop as its subject. The answer and explanation are below. Check out Thompson’s other riddles here.
The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Released 26 September 1969
Forty years ago, as college students returned to their classrooms from that summer’s music festivals, as other students dropped out of school to join the “counterculture,” and as still others headed for Vietnam, the Beatles released one of their best-loved albums. After an acrimonious winter of false starts, the Beatles asked George Martin to return and to help them record in the way they had during happier times. In the few short years since the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967), their manager Brian Epstein had died, they had formed their own record and production company (Apple), they had retreated to Rishikesh in India to meditate, and they had seen much of what had taken them so long to build begin to crumble from within. The more they became involved in the business of being the Beatles, the less they seemed to enjoy it.
The Beatles sensed their impending demise as a functioning ensemble and, over that alternately turbulent and ecstatic summer, they pursued two visions of what they wanted to do musically. No longer simply four teenagers exhilarated with playing rock ‘n’ roll in strip clubs, dance halls, and subterranean clubs, they knew that the music world had evolved around them. When they first topped the charts, their music challenged the status quo of pop: the world of teen idols promoted by Dick Clark and saucy black women produced by Phil Spector or Berry Gordy. By September 1969, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ginger Baker (with Rick Grech) had formed Blind Faith, released an album, and were already in the throes of dissolution while the Jimi Hendrix Experience had played their last gig. The summer had featured a number of important music festivals featuring live music by many of the best-known performers of the era; but the band that had jumpstarted it all in 1963 was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, John Lennon would appear with Eric Clapton as members of the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto on 13 September 1969, suggesting that the Beatles were no longer able to function as a musical ensemble.
Although the Beatles discussed other names for this album (including Everest, suggesting the pinnacle of their recordings, albeit also the name of a cigarette brand), they settled on the name of the street where they had recorded in the EMI Recording Studios. The first side resembles the kind of album they had made in the past: individual recordings with no internal linking. Side two, however, attempts to join a number of songs together in part through performance, but also by simply splicing together different recordings.
The last begun, but not the last;
The end was coming very fast.
Although Abbey Road would be the last album project that the Beatles would begin, it would not be the last album they released. The fiasco of trying to film themselves rehearsing and then playing in a concert—material that would later prove the basis for the film Let It Be—American producer Phil Spector would take the tension riven sessions of early 1969 and turn them into the album Let It Be, which they released in 1970. Not only did the Beatles sense the end quickly approaching, but the album Abbey Road also officially comes to completion with a song called “The End.”
Why did the chickens cross the road?
Maybe they had a heavy load.
Although they discussed the idea of a portrait of them posing in the Himalayas (apropos of the possible title Everest), they instead chose a much closer location: walking across Abbey Road, a few hundred feet from the front door of EMI’s Recording Studios. These facilities were where they had gotten their break, where they had made their historic recordings, and where fans had regularly congregated to greet them. While hardly chickens (I just could not resist the reference to the classic joke), the cover photo has inspired considerable interpretation, if not imitation. For those convinced that the Paul McCartney had died in a car crash and that the Beatles management had brought in a double, the image of John Lennon in white (the priest), Ringo Starr in a dark suit (the undertaker), a barefoot Paul McCartney in a suit (the corpse), and George Harrison in denim (the grave digger) proved too much to resist. Moreover, one of the closing numbers, “Carry that Weight,” itself became part of the PID (“Paul Is Dead”) rumor mill tied to the cover.
They come together and salute the Queen;
But something happens in between.
To open the album, John Lennon provided a song he had initially written for Timothy Leary’s bizarre campaign to become the Governor of the State of California. But like many other things in his life, Lennon had grown suspect of the benefits of LSD and the intentions and abilities of people like Leary. “Come Together” instead contributes some of Lennon’s darkest verbal gobbledygook since “Glass Onion” and grows from a snippet of a Chuck Berry tune.
At the very end of the album, indeed even after “The End,” they place a bit of McCartney whimsy that pokes affectionate fun at the Queen. They did not list “Her Majesty” in the contents of the album, but instead left it an uncomfortable distance from the sentimental ending (“The love you take is equal to the love you make”) of the closing medley. Just as the almost discarded edit had surprised them in the studio, they intended it to startle listeners the first time they waited for the tone arm to head into the end groove.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of this album is George Harrison’s “Something.” Positioned immediately after “Come Together” (and on the other side of that single), “Something” would be their biggest hit of the fall and ironically Frank Sinatra’s favorite Lennon-McCartney tune.