Classic Music Review: Abbey Road by The Beatles

Originally published October 2012, revised June 2016. 

George Martin named Abbey Road his favorite Beatles album.

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

In fairness to Sir George I do believe that Abbey Road was his greatest achievement as a producer, for the man worked wonders with seriously substandard material submitted by Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. He also had to work around irreparably damaged group dynamics, piecing together work that was often recorded by band members in separate studios to make it sound like The Beatles were having the time of their lives. In the so-called suite on Side 2, George Martin patched together a series of incomplete musical ideas with no lyrical connection whatsoever into something that resembles a coherent musical work.

But once you get past the production, you realize that there really is no there there.

Abbey Road has a terribly sterile, cold feel to it, but in this case the fault lies not with the producer but with the performers. Lennon is absolutely full of himself and of Yoko and comes across as a man with a highly inflated belief in his status as an artiste. McCartney is equally self-absorbed and out of touch, and his work on Abbey Road is consistently substandard. Even Ringo’s contributions flop, and his drum solo on the “suite” is one of his saddest moments as a Beatle.

George Harrison was the only bloke who showed up for work. “Something” is a love song for the ages (though I do cringe his use of the archaic word “woo”), featuring George’s most accomplished lead vocal and some of his sweetest guitar work on record. “Here Comes the Sun” is his most purely joyful contribution to the catalog, a beautifully simple work free of spiritual proselytizing and classic Harrison bite. The only other memorable performances on Abbey Road are Paul’s exceptional bass part on “Something,” the long, heavy fade on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and the harmonies on “Because” (especially when sung a capella on Anthology 3).

Even with his two solid contributions, George could never carry the load by himself. While I’m sure he took some satisfaction in finally out-composing and outperforming the guys who always looked at him as the little kid, we’re only talking about two tracks in a package of seventeen.

That leaves a lot of room for crap.

Lennon’s contributions range from gibberish to more gibberish. “Come Together” is a cascade of nonsense lyrics (partially ripped off from Chuck Berry) building to his Christ-fantasy statement, “Come together, right now, over me.” The aforementioned “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” becomes palatable only when he stops singing and mumbling. The lyrics to “Sun King” sound like they were written by a very happy drunk or a very young child. “Mean Mr. Mustard” is a shadow of Lennon’s early wit, as is its truncated twin, “Polythene Pam.”

McCartney had been in serious decline since Sgt. Pepper, slipping in a few good singles here and there to mask the extent of his creative atrophy. He sinks to the bottom with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” one of the most pointless and stupid songs in history, a jolly song about a murderer who bashes brains. Lovely! “Oh, Darlin’” couldn’t even survive the horrid Get Back sessions, and at this point McCartney was so far removed from the kid who used to channel Little Richard, he should have . . . let it be. “You Never Give Me Your Money” opens with promise but quickly dissolves into a series of scattered fragments that leads to a “suite” of scattered fragments. As for McCartney’s other contributions, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is an inside joke even the insiders didn’t get, and even the 17th century poem he “borrowed” for “Golden Slumbers” is a back catalogue poem.

And while no one likes to pick on poor Ringo, the truth is the man couldn’t write a song to save his life, and “Octopus’ Garden” defines the word “hokey.” When I saw Cirque de Soleil’s Love in Vegas and “Octopus’ Garden” started blasting through the surround sound near the end of the performance, I walked out.

I know the Baby Boomers are in complete denial about this, but The Beatles peaked as album artists with Sgt. Pepper. After that, they put out a few great songs, but their album work was inconsistent at best. The White Album, the Get Back/Let It Be fiasco and Abbey Road are all indications of a band that stayed together way past their prime. I listen to those works with the same sadness people must have felt while watching Willie Mays embarrass himself by hanging on for one year too long.

From Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles had always tried to improve on what they had done before—to make the next album better than the last. Once the group dynamics began to shatter during the making of The White Album and the once-friendly competition between John and Paul turned ugly, the quality of their material declined precipitously. They had lost their drive and were running on fumes. They were able to get away with it because they were The Beatles, with legions of fans ready to pronounce anything they released as yet another triumph in a never-ending success story.

The album may say “Beatles,” but the Beatles were long gone by the time Abbey Road hit the shelves. The guys who had always tried to outdo themselves had become undone.

20 responses

  1. […] for this post, I was pleased to learn that, upon its release, Let It Bleed temporarily knocked Abbey Road out of the #1 spot on the U. K. charts. These little bursts of human sanity are tiny treasures I […]

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  2. […] really want to see what a negative review looks like, I’d encourage them to see my reviews of Abbey Road, Let It Be and The White Album. I’d take Arthur over any of […]

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  3. Strange. As much as I disagree with you (I absolutely LOVE Abbey Road), there’s nothing in your review that doesn’t make sense. This means you are a very, very good reviewer! With a nice bum, but that’s got nothing to do with it.

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  4. I echo Michiel B.’s thought on this review and this album with the exception that I’ve not seen your bum. Which means either he knows you very well or there are parts of your site I’ve not gotten to. For me Abbey Road was their last hurrah where they pulled everything together one last time, albeit separately.

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    1. Bums pics were once more prominent. You can find the remaining sample in a link hidden in the text of my review of Poorly Formed by the Swingin’ Utters.

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    2. My mother has written a post that will appear next week, and she had to mention how wrong I was about Abbey Road, so you have a very strong force on your side.

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  5. It may be a cliche (and simplistic) to bash Yoko, I think the truth of it is not unfounded. Reading Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Recording Sessions’ (and other books) there is a distinct line apparent between pre and post Yoko. I.e. Between 1962 and 1968, there is barely an argument reported at a Beatles session. She appeared on day one of ‘The White Album’ sessions and it was downhill from there. Again, simplistic, but at the least, it seems she exacerbated certain tensions. It certainly did not help that she introduced John to heroin around this time -and from therein, seemed to encourage his most narcissistic, messianic tendencies.

    But there is something definitely anomalous about the abrupt degeneration of relations between the Beatles that occurred around that time. In late ’67 they were planning on buying a series of Greek islands and living together communally; they were apparently quite serious and went as far as traveling out to inspect property. In early 1968, they were discussing plans for an Apple school for their families and the children of their employees. Lennon was the spearhead in both these ventures -and his subsequent ‘The Beatles were holding me back, I wanted out’ BS is all revisionism. That is to say, buying a communal island is not the action of a man or men who abhor each others company.

    Abbey Road’ would be a better album for me if I (impossibly) knew nothing about The Beatles’ story and nothing about the recording of the album. As it is, the more I’ve read about the time period in their chronology, and the acrimony of the recording itself, the more difficult it becomes to separate it from the album itself. While ‘The White Album’ at least has the pretext of being a band recording, this is where they finally give up the ghost and reduce each other to glorified session musicians. The sense of sadness which you mentioned, is for me also, inextricable.

    It is also inextricable from the image of Yoko in her King Sized bed, wheeled back and forth around Studio 2 while the band tried to record. Damnit John, bitch wasn’t even that fine.

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    1. Excellent points. I’m reading the first part of Lewinsohn’s trilogy (a deluge of often unnecessary detail that slows the narrative to a crawl), but my take on Lennon is that a.) he could never get rid of the chip on his shoulder and b.) because his childhood was rejection, he never felt comfortable unless he was in the act of rejection or feeling rejected. What better way to achieve that than to cling to a loser like Yoko, a universally despised figure? The frequent revisionism and deliberately outrageous statements fit the pattern . . . to say nothing of that fucking bed. I remember hearing one of my dad’s friends argue that John must have really loved Yoko because he could have had any woman in the world, and my dad just laughed at him and said something like “Quit trying to keep the hero alive. It was a publicity stunt by two maniacs.”

      It is very hard to review any Beatle album and try to forget the context. They were as much a cultural phenomenon as a music group. I think they did some great stuff and some awful stuff that only they could have gotten away with.

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  6. Also good points. John was certainly a man with a lot of problems. Yoko was a woman who knew how to manipulate those problems. There is a part in May Pang’s book where she literally tells May that because she went through primal therapy with John, she knows his deepest fears and how to use them against him. A goddamn monster. All the authors who aren’t in Yoko’s pocket paint a picture of a hellish marriage between two people who could barely stand each other. Double fantasy indeed. Incidentally, is your copy of the Lewinsohn book with the deluge of unnecessary detail the regular edition or the ‘deluxe’ edition that was marketed as having a deluge of unnecessary detail not found in the regular? I have yet to read it, but look forward to doing so eventually.

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    1. Whoa! I haven’t read May Pang’s book, but that sounds horrifying.

      And thankfully, I just have the “limited” 931-page version of Volume 1. It contains more detail than I ever wanted to know.

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  7. PS: Alt Rock Dad was on the money!

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  8. To over-rated I would definitely add Eric Clapton (listen to Peter Green, Eddie Hazel, Shuggie Otis, Mike Bloomfield, & Buddy Guy for comparison).

    Why “Clapton is God” was scribbled on London walls in the ’60’s escapes me. Sure he’s come up with a handful of great riffs, but in general I find him to be a pompous, overlong, and a rather mediocre vocalist …..

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    1. I have to agree. Clapton is a very precise, almost anal guitarist, and I’ve always found him lacking in “feel.” I could add quite a few guitarists to your list. I like his falsetto vocals with Cream but as a straight singer he’s really, really dull.

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  9. The two major exceptions to the Clapton criticisms above are his work on the 1966 Bluesbreakers album and the expressive playing with Duane Allman on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Later on he did an lp called From the Cradle, which coupled some of his best playing with cringingly forced singing.

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    1. Thank you: I’ve been meaning to do the Bluesbreakers and I’ll put them higher on my list. I think his best years were the years he was a serious blues student.

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  10. I m back to congratulate you, after reading other reviews. I do not agree with all what you say, but smart personal comments should always be praised and ears, first of all, because it is rare and people rarely knows about they are saying… and only repeated ad nauseum nauseaum nauseum nauseum nauseum the consensus and prejudices of ignorance and lack of knowledge and competent investigation and reflections. Your taste here is pollemic but intelligent and personal.

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  11. ‘Abbey Road’, for me, is a schizophrenic album. On the one hand, on side two, you have one of the greatest sides of an album a band has ever produced. But side one goes straight downhill after the opening one-two punch of John’s “Come Together” and George’s “Something”. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, in particular, gets my personal vote for the worst song the band ever recorded (I’m not counting “Revolution #9”, since it’s not really a song, just a sonic experiment).

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  12. A good honest review I have to reluctantly agree with. Kind of a reality check since yeah yeah yeah, we’ve read all the hype, know all the tales and myths behind it and it regularly gets rated highly but peer below the surface, actually LISTEN to the music and weigh it up and it falls very flat. I LOVE The Beatles, still listen to them a lot but when it comes to the crunch, I have to admit, this is not an album I listen to very much and when I do listen to it… well…

    There is no denying this album is lumpy, unbalanced and over-rated. I find it utterly impossible to listen to it in it’s entirety because some of those songs are so toecurlingly awful – I never ever want to hear “Maxwell” or “Octopus” again nor, dare I say it, “Something” which to me is pure aural sludge that induces insomnia more potent than the worst moments by The Moody Blues or the best of Eric Clapton solo! I do think “Here Comes The Sun” is possibly the best track here – it’s a very joyful song that is always a pleasure to listen to – an anomaly for George.

    George Martin emerges trumphant as he definitely turned in a very sophisticated sounding album and managed to convey a sense of band unity that was rarely ever present in the studio, creating an illusion of Beatles magic. There ARE moments where the genuine magic shines through – I think “Because” is lyrically dumb but those three part harmonies double or triple tracked are sublime. I also think the infamous medley was well constructed given the many fragments since I sense an underlying feeling that all involved knew this was gonna be The Beatles’ final fling… it is a bit pretentious and cheesy – Paul being all holy on “Golden Slumbers” then for the finale of “The End”, each member doing their solo turns before in sweeps the orchestra, Paul’s final line (which is effective and meaningful), the harmonies and into the void The Beatles enter… the overall feeling I get listening to that sequence is one of sadness, the final acknowledgement that “the dream” was well and truly over.

    John hated and slated the album decreeing it was a work of myth making, trying to maintain the fantasy that all was fine and dandy with The Beatles and by this point you can tell he had given up on Paul as a couple of years earlier, he would have had Paul scrap “Maxwell” in an instant – way too “granny shit” for it’s own good, but that’s the other sad thing about this album… it not only marks the end of The Beatles as a collective but gives plenty of warning signs of what was to follow – tons of self absorbed rubbish from John, and frivolous junk from Paul… George shows promise here that he failed to fulfil and as for Ringo… his drum solo and songwriting sets the tone perfectly for his solo career tossing off ineffective and irrelevant rubbish… though in his defence “It Don’t Come Easy” was a wonderful record but talk about a plunge downhill after that!

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