The Beatles’ songs are those you hear all over the world now. Portraits of more than famous Liverpool Four are printed and spread across the board. The Beatles became the major cultural phenomenon and, probably, that is why it is hard to believe that their last album was created more than 50 years ago: the last track was recorded on August 1, 1969. We still hear the beats of “Come Together” and “Here Comes The Sun” and other “Abbey Road” songs today but what is the story behind the album?
Last year, as “Abbey Road” celebrated its 50th anniversary, The Beatles possessed another Guinness record: the band broke their own Guinness World Records title for “the longest time for an album to return to No.1 in the UK”, after a period of 49 years and 252 days. This title was previously held by The Beatles with the “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
Abbey Road zebra crossing became well-known after Liverpool Four's walk shot by Iain Macmillan. The picture pretended to show musicians in the same style if it weren’t for Harrison’s “informal” jeanswear, Lennon’s pure white suit, Ringo’s well-cut black suit and Paul leisurely walking barefoot with a cigarette in his hand and with the right leg forward unlike the others. It was one out of six pictures taken by Macmillan, which became one of the most replicable album covers.
Despite the fact that “Let it be” came out later, in 1970, it had been recorded in 1969, which means that “Abbey Road” was The Beatles’ last album. Arising fr om group members’ personal activities, problems began to occur, which resulted in the end of their group cooperation. George Harrison said: "Once we finished ‘Abbey Road’, the game was up, and I think we all accepted that."
“Abbey Road” received a mix of reviews from critics, which is not surprising, taking into consideration growing centrifugal force. “Abbey Road’ contains talent comparable with any other Beatles album, but nevertheless is a slight matter. Perhaps to their own relief, the Beatles have lost the desire to touch us. You will enjoy ‘Abbey Road’. But it won't move you,” wrote Geoffrey Cannon, The Guardian.
“A slight matter” did make its impression as it stayed in British album chart at #1 for a total of seventeen weeks and was #1 in the US charts, but not all critics thought it was a bomb. Nik Cohn, a British writer, in The NYT column noted that apart from several tracks “Abbey Road” is “all pretty average stuff”, the album “isn't tremendous”.
Dr Marcus Collins, Senior Lecturer in Cultural History at Loughborough University and Elected member of Council, Royal Historical Society, shares his view on the subject in conversation with Pervoe online: "I think that there was an ambition on the part of the producer, George Martin and, to some extent, Paul McCartney to create a kind of pop-symphony. They were interested in creating a kind of classical music version of pop. That explains the second side wh ere you’ve got the tracks merging into one another and moving away from the short song form."
The 47-minute “Abbey Road” contains 17 tracks, which create wide musical spectrum: playful style of “Maxwell's Silver Hammer” does not sound like “Oh! Darling”, uplifting “Octopus's Garden” differs from smooth and relaxed “Because”, light rock in 2-minute “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” provides a contrast to the blues in 8-minute “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, etc.
“Abbey Road” has some paradoxes among which “Here Comes the Sun” (the track is probably what Nik Cohn called “the sense of ease”). This track by George Harrison, according to Billboard, became “one of their most uplifting songs”. However, "Don't Bother Me" (1963), Harrison's first song for the band, was gloomy.
“The amazing thing with ‘Abbey Road’ was that it’s got made at all because of difficulties within the band. People had been leaving the band and reluctantly rejoining it and so on. It’s their final recorded album but it is not one of their greatest," he notes. “Three members of the band wanted to make things more democratic. The idea was that all members of the band are equal, all members should have equal voice. The general idea was they should be getting away from the notion that Lennon and McCartney were the songwriters and singers. Some people in the band spoke of having four tracks each on the album. George Harrison had come into a run of creativity and was producing some of the finest songs being produced by any of The Beatles by 1969. This was the time when John Lennon’s creativity was less strong and he was less able to write songs at speed. Even Ringo Starr was trying to write songs without great success for ‘Abbey Road’. That’s why you have different voices. The tension within the band becomes much more pronounced in ‘Abbey Road’.”
Producer George Martin recalled that he had agreed to produce the album because of assurance that he would make it the way they “used to”. However, it was not really the-same-way production. According to the expert, Martin did a great job in making the album sound harmonious despite tensions between musicians. “It’s quite disparate and divided in its intentions: you’ve got different voices picking up on different themes. It’s amazing that George Martin was able to make it seem more coherent and cohesive than it actually is,” says Dr Marcus Collins, the author of “The Beatles and Sixties Britain”.
“You’ve got throw-away songs on ‘Abbey Road’: it has some brilliant tracks and the occasional piece of mediocrity,” he continues. “It is influential in the sense that it covers different kinds of music – there are individual tracks on it that have been adopted by different kinds of musicians. So its eclecticism is a strength in that regard. In terms of what I was talking about – their attempt to create a kind of pop symphony – that, of course, had been done before. The Beach Boys were moving towards those sorts of ideas before The Beatles and, in particular, you had progressive rock bands in the late 60s and early 70s, which were taking more explicit moves towards incorporating classical motifs into popular music, not all of which were successful. So, in that sense, I don’t think The Beatles were as innovative as they sometimes were in their previous albums.” The expert says that in terms of long-term record sales and in terms of long-term influence, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was more important.
For The Beatles’ fans, this album was probably the toughest as having finished the work the group split up. They blamed different people for the band’s split, but, in fact, it was natural. "The strange thing was not that The Beatles split up,” Dr Collins explains, “because this wasn’t a kind of cultural form which expected any band to last as long as they did. In that sense, they were pioneering things in much the same way as they were pioneering in other ways. Pop artists would record a couple of singles and go to musical theatres or make a film and become family entertainers. The Beatles’ fame for 7 years was remarkable and, of course, they’d been around for several years before that.”
In 1969, none of Four reached the age of 30 but they basked in the glory of their success: they were around 25 in 1964 when they made $25 million in earnings, which translates to almost $188 million today.
“That’s not to say all members behaved brilliantly but it’s important to understand how young they were at this point. Being young and famous often leads to people acting in irresponsible ways. The Beatles were young men with a lot of money, with amazing talent and sometimes with the egos to go with it,” concludes Dr Collins.