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 at 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 lead 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-catalog 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.