I somehow seem to have acquired two copies of this album over the years, which suggests how much I value The Beatles’ artistic swansong. I think I snapped up my second copy in Cash Converters in the days just before vinyl had its second coming. It was going for a song and I rather fancied the idea of an Apple album made in France by Pathé Marconi.
My sister and brother-in-law have two copies of Sergeant Pepper hidden away in a trunk full of Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart albums that never see the light of day. Being an acquisitive collector, I am of course jealous, but it was actually Abbey Road and not its more lauded iconic predecessor that re-kindled my love affair with the Fab Four.
Earlier in my life, after a period of my childhood when my siblings and I would divide up our meals into four portions, one for each Beatle (and the best bits for our particular faves), over-exposure and perhaps an innate rebelliousness led me to jump the yellow submarine for a few years’ close allegiance to the Rolling Stones. That lasted up to and including Let It Bleed, whereupon I became far too caught up in the progressive-music underground bandwagon.
Emerging, though, from a darkened bedroom where I would listen to the questionable glories of Yes, King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, spread-eagled on my bed between the two tinny speakers of my first very own stereo system, I bought my first copy of Abbey Road to see what all the fuss was about. My decision was no doubt assisted by that simple but evocative cover of the now shaggy-headed foursome striding across that famous North London zebra crossing.
It’s all part of the album’s mystique: from all those absurd rumours about Paul’s barefoot death to the various homages that have appeared over the years (and what initial indignation I felt when I first saw Booker T. & the MGs’ McLemore Avenue, before remembering that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery). And how appropriate it is that their last sojourn in the Abbey Road studios was to produce this their final masterpiece, so they could bow out with a creative bang rather than the desultory whimper that was Let It Be. Giving it this simple title was a nice way to acknowledge the importance of George Martin and his recording domain over the course of their career.
There’s also something appropriate in the way that George’s contributions finally equalled and even perhaps trumped those of Lennon and McCartney after all those begrudging allocations of a little space on each album for his song-writing efforts. Right at the last, George asserts that he was quite competent after all, thank you very much – only for Frank Sinatra (was it?) to go and spoil it all by saying something stoopid like ‘Something’ was his favourite Lennon and McCartney number.
While George graduates summa cum laude, it’s Ringo’s turn to provide some padding, although ‘Octupus’s Garden’ is certainly rather charming and every bit as worthwhile as, say, Paul’s ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, which pales into insignificance beside the first two tracks on Side 1: John’s ‘Come Together’ with its memorable cryptic lyrics, followed by ‘Something’. ‘Oh Darlin’ is notable for Paul’s superb singing and the side ends with the long and winding and ultimately somewhat tedious ‘I Want You’.
In truth, it’s not their finest half hour, but the second side makes up for it with knobs on and transforms Abbey Road into a truly great album. When I first heard it, I was a little mystified. I’d never heard anything quite like the suite of song snippets that follows George’s lovely ‘Here Comes The Sun’. They all segued into each other, ‘Sun King’ seemed a curiously close echo of George’s song, themes fade out only to reappear a little later and to drop the arm on an individual track demanded guesswork and a lot of luck.
Once I got used to it, though, it would become my single-most played and beloved side of a Beatles’ album. It’s audacious, creative, dramatic and chock full of such tuneful delights as ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’, ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘Carry That Weight’. My wife and I would sing ‘Golden Slumbers’ to our daughter at bed time and she grew up to love this album as much as we do. Or more accurately, she grew up – as many of her generation have done – to love The Beatles as much as we do.
It has been with me for longer than I care to think, followed me on all my travels – from Northern Ireland to England and then on to France – and I shall give that second copy to my daughter when finally she’s ready to flee the parental home. It’s a testimony to an album’s creative endurance when it can be handed down from one generation to the next without any kind of condescension.